No surrender to the censors

The director of a Belfast photography gallery on a recent spat over ‘blasphemous’ art.

Belfast City Council arts subcommittee recently passed a vote of censure against the Vacuum, a local arts and cultural review, following a complaint that it contained material which was offensive to Christians.

According to Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councillor Hugh Smyth, articles published in the magazine, including a ‘discussion of exorcism’, a ‘description of devil proverbs’ and an article entitled ‘I peed in church’, were blasphemous and promoted devil worship. Although these allegations proved unsustainable, the censure motion was passed by a coalition of nationalist, Unionist and Alliance councillors on the basis that the publishers, council-funded arts group Factotum, had distributed material that is ‘offensive, in bad taste and contains foul language’.

Sinn Fein, current holders of the arts committee chair, voted against the motion, arguing that ‘the council has no right to interfere with the end products of arts organisations we fund’. Nonetheless, the committee subsequently decided to hold back part of a £5000 annual award, requiring Factotum to first make an apology to the people of Belfast. The committee also signalled that it reserves the right to restrict access to future funding opportunities ‘if the arts or heritage activity causes gratuitous offence to individuals, groups or communities or contains material that is sexually explicit or racist’.

Factotum responded by inviting individuals and institutions to join it in a day of mass public contrition, where apology could be made for all offence ever given. Belfast’s Sorry Day, celebrated on 15 December 2004, included feet-washing, open confession and bottom-spanking in the city’s Cornmarket. The council has yet to respond, but reactions among Belfast’s Christmas shoppers - ranging from disinterest to amused bewilderment - appear to indicate that even in this most God-fearing of cities, insulting Christians is a far less risky business than offending Sikhs in godless Birmingham (see Curtains for free speech, by Dolan Cummings).

With a long tradition of ‘kick the Pope’-style bigotry, Northern Ireland introduced legislation banning incitement to religious hatred back in 1970. In spite of countless provocations, including a city councillor who modestly proposed that Catholic children in Belfast would be better housed in incinerators than schools, fewer than a handful of successful prosecutions have ever been brought.

With public policy orientated towards building and sustaining ‘good relations’, it is not surprising that the Belfast City Council has given support to arts organisations that reflected these priorities. In June 2002, DUP councillor Nelson McCausland, then chair of the arts subcommittee, listed ‘the promotion of cultural diversity’ and ‘further exploration of positive images of Belfast’ as two key benefits of localised cultural activity. In guidelines published in 2004, the council promised to ‘extend and enrich participation in the arts’ by supporting organisations with ‘a track record of demonstrating respect, tolerance and/or undertaking activities which are neither threatening or offensive’.

In the subsidised sector, where the space between artistic freedom and public policy has always been contested, artists generally accept the requirement to demonstrate the external benefits of their work, over and above the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’. Increasingly, artists’ pragmatic approach to policy guidelines has grown into an enthusiasm for partnership with policymakers. In Belfast, artists have lobbied long and hard to promote their status as political movers and shakers, bringers of peace, prosperity and progress.

The dispute between Factotum and Belfast City Council is less about blasphemy, pornography or artists kicking against conformity, and more about what happens when these political and cultural partnerships break down. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the dispute is the sheer inoffensiveness of the contested material, particularly in a cultural context of mainstream TV shows where ‘ordinary couples’ have sex on camera, or even compared to the average content of teenage lifestyle magazines and tabloid newspapers.

The problem lies with cultural policies that reflect an entirely instrumental view of the arts. Where there is an expectation that arts and cultural activity will always produce specified social benefits, and where artists, arts institutions and policymakers talk the same language, being even slightly ‘off message’ can be enough to get you into hot water.

You failed to deliver a ‘positive image of the city’? You published material that an individual or community found offensive? These are narrow boundaries and unfortunately the ground is further narrowing, as definitions of what is offensive are stretched to include hurt feelings, being upset, or just feeling uncomfortable.

How do policymakers suppose that they can encourage greater participation in public life by restricting thought and speech within the boundaries of inoffensiveness? And how do we propose to cultivate a spirit of solidarity and tolerance across Belfast’s lines of difference, by restricting the expression of one community on the basis that another community might claim hurt feelings?

Whatever the quality (or otherwise) of Factotum’s disputed artwork, the case shows that artists need to renegotiate relationships with policymakers, standing up for their own interests and recognising the creative value of dissent. Complaints about political interference carry little weight if artists and arts organisations are not prepared to affirm the intrinsic value of their work, one of its principal virtues being a capacity to make people feel uncomfortable.

Pauline Hadaway is director of Belfast Exposed Gallery of Photography. Belfast Exposed focuses on the development and exhibition of contemporary photography, portraying social and political ideas from local perspectives.

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