PROTESTERS objecting to Exhibit B show are holding freedom of expression hostage to censorship. No-one has a right not to be offended, writes Tiffany Jenkins.
In a plural society, one which inevitably contains different and clashing beliefs and opinions, it is essential to uphold the right of the artist to offend. This is not to say that it should be their purpose – artists who set out deliberately to offend often produce work that is banal and obvious – but that they can. The angry and arrogant protests that took place this week against the performance of Exhibit B and the pulling of the show from its run at the Barbican centre in London as a consequence, has led me to think that too many of us are abandoning this important principle. Worryingly, artists are being asked to tiptoe around the possibility of causing offence and to avoid it wherever and whenever they can.
Exhibit B is a recreation of a human zoo from the 19th century in which black people were put on display. The idea came from artist Brett Bailey’s research into material still held in European museums, which reflects how black people were objectified under colonisation. The work aims to explore racism, “othering” and the colonial history of Europe in Africa. Exhibit B also suggests similar if not the same processes are at play in the present in the immigration system and the way asylum seekers are treated.
When Exhibit B was shown at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, it received a number of five-star reviews, including one from this paper. Personally, I found it shocking and unpleasant, as it was intended to be. The neoclassical Playfair Library Hall, with its grand, white corniced ceilings, provided the perfect backdrop to contrast with the horror on show. Walking in, you immediately came face to face with a black man and woman, both topless, exhibited as if they were artefacts.
Exhibit B was due to open in London on Tuesday night, but after 200 hundred protesters broke through the barriers and blocked the audience access to The Vaults venue, the Barbican centre said it was forced to pull the entire run due to safety fears. Sara Myers, who led the “Boycott the Human Zoo” campaign, celebrated the result of her actions. On Newsnight she said: “Our ancestors would be proud. Their memory will not be used for art.”
The withdrawal of Exhibit B is a sad victory for a small, self-selected group of people who think they have the right to never be troubled by any art work. This now widely held premise seems to have started with the Salman Rushdie affair, in the late 1980s, when The Satanic Verses was published, causing a heated and violent reaction from those who found it offensive, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran who issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie.
Outraged political protests about art have since proliferated. Ten years ago, the Birmingham Rep pulled the production of Gupreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti when a group of Sikhs protested. In 2006, community activists tried to stop production of a film based on Monica Ali’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Brick Lane. This January, evangelical Christian politicians in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party campaigned to shut down the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s production of The Bible: The Complete Word of God, because it mocked the Bible. A number of performances were cancelled. And in the summer, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, protests about the funding of a theatre company by the Israeli state led to the withdrawal from the programme of The City, a hip-hop opera.
Simon Woolley, co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote, who hasn’t seen Exhibit B, but was involved in the protests against it, said on Radio 4 that whilst he accepted the intentions of the piece may have been anti-racist, “we don’t accept being offended”. The petition against the show ‘Withdraw the Racist Exhibition’, states that signatories were “deeply offended” by it.
The battle cry of offence is putting art at risk. But no-one has the right not to be offended. People have the right to say and to stage what they wish, short of inciting violence. And people have the right not to watch or to listen. This is not because it’s good fun to go around being offensive to everyone and anyone, but because a free society is one in which no idea is so beyond the pale that it cannot be explored or questioned. Ideas we don’t like should be met with argument, not censorship. The intention of many artists will not be to cause offence; it may be to stimulate feelings of peace, love and happiness, but the work of many will challenge nonetheless, because artists often reflect on, play with and tease out tensions in contemporary society and the nature of life. And if you want to change anything, it will mean challenging the status quo.
Those protesting Exhibit B claim that the black community have a greater right to speak about the show and about racism than white people do. But the idea that if you are white you have no right to speak about it, that only “they” – black people – can speak about it, is infused with dubious racial thinking. No-one should have a greater authority to speak about an artwork due to their colour. There is no such thing as a black community that speaks with one voice. The actors in Exhibit B are black – to suggest that they don’t know what they are doing and that their voice doesn’t count, which is what the protesters suggest, is insulting.
We should be deeply concerned by the closure of Exhibit B. And we should be concerned about one particular reaction to the protests. Some commentators, including a writer for Index on Censorship – a free speech campaign group – suggest that the Barbican should have consulted more with relevant communities; that what happened is in some way the fault of an arts organisation. But consulting with the so-called relevant community would only have invited further complaints and would have reinforced the idea that some have a greater right than others to dictate to us what we can and cannot see.
If artistic freedom means anything it has to mean the freedom to cause offence.