Who has the right to censor art?
Instead of direct censorship we have rules that allow people in power to stop whatever does not please them
By Lene Berg. Comment, Issue 197, December 2008
Published online: 05 January 2009
In the light of what happened to my project at Cooper Union [last month, the museum removed a giant banner with a reproduction of a Picasso drawing of Joseph Stalin, after protests from the Ukrainian church opposite], it is a bit ironic that the show was announced under the headline, “Art and politics as usual”. Another event in this series was a talk by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who said, among other things, that it is of great importance that artists remain independent of curators, institutions, dealers and critics, and I think everyone present that night agreed almost automatically. But what does it mean to be independent? And what are the conditions for artistic independence, or freedom? These are themes I have worked with in both of the projects that were supposed to be shown at Cooper Union, to which the façade-banners were to be an introduction, and to draw attention and discussion.
We are all dependent on others in order to enjoy any kind of freedom; to act independently is not an individual choice only. I would not have been able to hang the banners on the façade of Cooper Union without an invitation, or without collaboration as well as funding. Yet, neither the fact that I was invited to do this, nor the principle of freedom of expression was enough to protect the banners from being removed without warning or discussion. It seems like the only thing that could have kept them there would have been a very powerful person putting his or her prestige behind them—and this didn’t happen.
When you do projects in a public space you are asking for trouble, both as an artist and as an institution, and one has to be prepared for attacks. No one had foreseen the Ukrainian reaction, or the already existing conflict between Cooper Union and the Ukrainian community. But any kind of public art has the ability to offend someone, even if it is not so intended. Any image or presentation that is ambiguous is likely to be read as offensive by someone. Therefore, when you make art in a public space the question is not how to avoid offending people, but how to deal with these reactions. Cooper Union decided that the best way was to take down the banner, and to try to silence the reactions with a statement that was so well balanced that it worked more as a cover-up than a starting-point for a discussion.
The intended provocation of the banners lies not primarily in the fact that I show an enlarged portrait of Stalin, but in the combination of one of the most famous artists from the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, and one of the most infamous dictators of the same period, Joseph Stalin. Normally these two short and powerful men would not figure in the same story, or in the same presentation of history. But here they are together, linked by a charcoal drawing. What happened to the banners at Cooper Union in 2008 echoes in an almost comic way what happened to the drawing in 1953 when Louis Aragon, who had commissioned it, was forced by his own French communist party to disown it because it was deemed disrespectful to the tyrant.
If the Civil Liberties Union is right in assuming that the banners were removed because of their content, this case is probably a good example of how censorship works in a liberal democracy. Instead of direct censorship, we have rules and regulations that allow people in power to stop whatever does not please them, without making their reasons public. Picasso’s Stalin has a historical context, but it clearly also touches contemporary issues and tensions in ways I did not foresee. I did not seek for the show to be closed or the banners to be removed; but now that this is a fact, the value of the show lies in the debate this event can generate.
The writer is an artist based in Sweden
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