Censorship and Capitulation at the Saachti Gallery

Oh dear. The Saachti Gallery has covered up some paintings after complaints that they are blasphemous.

The gallery, founded by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, rejected calls from some visitors to remove the paintings, arguing it was up to visitors to come to their own conclusions on the meaning of the art. However, in response to the complaints, SKU suggested as a compromise the works should remain on the gallery wall but be covered up with sheets.

“It seemed a respectful solution that enables a debate about freedom of expression versus the perceived right not to be offended,” he said in a statement to the Sunday Times.

I’ll tell you what’s offensive — capitulating to censorious complaints, and then trying to dampen the impact of your decision by saying that it ‘enables a debate about freedom of expression.’

We don’t need to censor art to ‘enable a debate.’ Instead, we need to show art that prompts a debate. The correct response to the complaints about the perceived offensiveness of the artwork is simply to make additions to the explanatory notes that accompany the artwork. Anything else is censorship.
What’s worse is how the decision seems to betray the very meaning and intent of the show. Here is the Saachti gallery blurb about the SKU exhibition:

The overriding theme of the exhibition is how we, as individuals, are subjected to wider cultural, economic, moral and political forces in society. Once section of the exhibition deals with the impact of these forces on us individually as we absorb such influences into our minds and our bodies. A second section deals with the projection and promotion of values in symbols and propaganda.

Well, it’s a ‘moral and political force’ that has caused the censorship of the painting. And the censorship has been demanded precisely because of the symbolism of the painting and the propaganda value in securing its removal from the show.
It’s astonishing to see the censorship happen, but also fascinating in its own way. This kind of short-circuit is how censorship works now. Note that the government is not directly involved in the censorship. No law has been invoked. Just complaints and a lamentably bad public relations response. It is privatised censorship.
And another thing: there is no widespread ‘perceived right not to be offended.’ Even those who call for censorship do not talk about offence in terms of ‘rights’ but in terms of morality. The debate has moved on, and the reasoning behind calls for censorship like this are usually now couched in terms of ‘harm’ and ‘hate speech.’ With some kinds of offensive speech, such as racism or holocaust denial, the ‘harm’ charge has bite and should be taken seriously by curators and others who publish political or artistic expression. But the same complaint cannot and does not apply to the juxtaposition of nudity and Quranic verses.
This controversy feels terribly old fashioned. Last year I posted, in a mocking tone, about a similar artistic spat, when a ‘blasphemous’ crucifixion of Ronald McDonald was removed from a gallery in Haifa. I confess that at the time I rather assumed that the censorship was down to a hyper-religiosity unique to Israel. I’m aghast and baffled that a gallerist known as a patron to radical and controversial artists should have agreed to capitulate so quickly to socially conservative attitudes.
Note how, in both cases, the artist themselves were complicit, by agreeing to the censorship.
The only explanation is fear. Perhaps the Saachti gallery are worried they might become a target for a terrorist attack? If that’s the case then the government and the police should step-up to guarantee the security of the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. I would be interested to know what discussions (if any) the Metropolitan Police have had with the gallery. The police should have offered unequivocal support. If there is a reason why they have not… then we, the anti-censorship, pro-art majority in this country need to signal our expectation that the looming threat of violence can not be allowed to have any influence on artistic expression in the United Kingdom.

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