Is Censorship a Part of the Past?

By Magdalena Polak

Being a European living in the 21st century, the term “censorship” is something I imagine myself to only know theoretically. Never has something that I had written been banned under the label of“indecency”, nor have I ever been afraid to express my political views. Yet, censorship is present, in every aspect of our lives. Political correctness, the social demand to act “responsively”, are they not all, in a way, expressions of censorship?

Looking at the Western art world, it astonishes me how many people associate with Western art the ultimate freedom of expression. I am still surprised every single time I hear my fellow peers say “oh, but anything goes in the art world nowadays, nothing gets censored or shocks the public anymore”. True, we may no longer have the Spanish inquisition at our heels, but censorship due to social or political pressure is as much present in the 21st than it was in the 16th century.

Let me give you an example of historical as well as contemporary value: Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, painted in 1866. We all know it, the infamous close-up portrait of a vulva. Gaining mythical status almost immediately, the painting was not openly displayed until 1995. Moreover, it seems that this particular work of art still has enough power to scandalise. Social media network Facebook not only removes photographs of this painting, it furthermore suspends Facebook accounts that post it. Labelling it under pornography, painter Matthew Weinstein found his account deleted in 2011 after he posted a picture of this work. While we could attribute this action to the ridicule, censorship in the 21st century is increasingly becoming a less humorous subject.  

Only a month ago, the auction house Artcurial withdrew French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s artwork due to pressure from the Israeli Embassy. The artwork reimagines the front cover of the French magazine “Libération” from 12 november 2004, the day after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was buried. The reimagined cover depicts a Palestinian political prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, held in Israeli custody since 2002, in the foreground of the original cover. On the far left of the artwork, Pignon-Ernest wrote in French: “In 1980, when I made a drawing of Mandela, people told me he was a terrorist.”

In an email to Artcurial, the Israeli embassy called the work a “terroristic project”, because it implies said prisoner is a man of peace. 

A spokesman for Artcurial commented the annulation of the auction, stating: ”Following the Paris terrorist attacks (in November 2015), it is difficult to manage security issues and freedom of speech.”

Especially since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, curators and art institutions seem to be “particularly nervous about religion”, so Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of the Index of Censorship. Religious offences can very quickly become matters of national security, Ginsberg states.

Writing this, I ask my peers: “Really nothing gets censored anymore?” and “Are you sure nothing shocks the public anymore?” Not even likening an iconic figure like Nelson Mandela to a prisoner convicted by Israel under the charges of murder and terrorism?

Censorship is present in the 21st century, and is an issue we should all be aware of. Two extreme cases were mentioned above, but it also exists in smaller, less extreme versions. After all, is not a curator, deciding which paintings will be displayed where in an exhibition, not equally censuring an artist’s work? More subtle, but undoubtedly a case of censorship.