How a Sensitivity Stasi is eroding artistic freedom

Citywide bans on the ‘wrong’ kind of music; poets put under house arrest; plays pulled lest they stir up violence… what’s going on in modern Britain?

Imagine a country where city officials could take it upon themselves to ban art exhibitions, pieces of music and other performances that might, in their view, provoke violence. Where a pub, club or gallery could be threatened with having its licence revoked, and effectively be forced to close down, if it played music or displayed art that has been blacklisted by officialdom. Imagine a country where a young woman could be put under house arrest for, amongst other things, writing poetry judged to be ‘dangerous’. Imagine a country where the strictures on what you can and cannot say are so stifling that arts institutions censor themselves, sometimes withdrawing potentially inflammatory plays or exhibitions in order to keep sweet with the powers-that-be.

Surely no one would put up with such a regime? Even in Eastern Europe in the dark days of Stalinism, individuals protested against dictators who sought to control art and curtail artistic freedom. Yet all of the things listed above are happening right now, here in Britain, and people are putting up with it.

Today it is reported that Brighton and Hove in southern England might soon become the first city in Britain to prohibit art that ‘incites racist, homophobic or sectarian violence’. Ostensibly, Brighton council’s target is ‘murder music’: Jamaican dancehall and rap songs that have anti-gay lyrics. If the council’s proposals are ratified next week, then any venue that plays ‘murder music’ will have its licence revoked.

Decreeing that a certain kind of art is inflammatory, and therefore must be censored, is the start of a very slippery slope. Indeed, the London Evening Standard reports that the music of mainstream artists such as 50 Cent and Eminem, which is considered by some to be homophobic, could also fall foul of Brighton’s new licensing regime and find itself banned. The Times (London) reports that Brave New Brighton plans to censor any kind of art that incites ‘hatred’ against minorities, including art exhibitions and plays. Maybe the council should start by outlawing performances of The Merchant of Venice, which some people consider to be anti-Semitic. Or by restricting access to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. Surely every copy of that long poem should be purged from Brighton’s bookshops and libraries lest it stir up feelings of hatred towards Jews in the hearts of its readers?

Dee Simson, chairman of Brighton council’s licensing committee, says: ‘I’m a firm believer in freedom of speech but I’m against the incitement of hatred against minorities.’ In truth, Brighton’s new licensing policy is a spectacular assault on artistic freedom. Yes, the short-term consequence might only be that Jamaican dancehall is banned – but the longer-term implications of Brighton’s meddling in the arts are chilling indeed. In interfering in the world of art, music and performance, Brighton officials, like little Stalinites, are sending out a clear message about what is ‘acceptable art’ and what is ‘unacceptable art’. In threatening venues with closure if they display art or play music that incites hatred against minorities, Brighton is sending a message to artists themselves: ‘There are certain areas of life you must not touch upon, and certain things you must not express.’ Any musician or artist who wants to play or be displayed in Brighton might in future have to purge his or her work of anything that could be interpreted as promoting hatred.

Indeed, in arguing that ‘hatred’ in art is a terrible thing, Brighton officials are even decreeing what kind of emotions artists can express in their work and induce in their viewers or listeners. Much of the greatest art evokes feelings of fear, anxiety and, yes, hatred. Think of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or even Alan Sillitoe’s popular short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in which the lead character says all the ‘coppers, governors, posh whores, army officers and members of parliament’ should be put against a wall and shot dead. That certainly evoked feelings of violent anger in my 14-year-old self when I first read it. Aren’t ‘posh whores’ (aristocrats) a minority these days? Should they be protected from expressions of hatred in art? If Brighton and Hove had its way, perhaps all art would first be submitted to a focus group wired up to brain sensors to ensure that it only evoked feelings of moist joy and happiness rather than anger or spite.

Brighton is doing so much more than simply messing about with its licensing laws: it is using its power to define what is socially responsible art, and to circumscribe the artistic imagination itself. The gay-friendly city on the coast, with its hippy-chick shops, cool cafes and cannabis dens, is frequently described as Britain’s most open and bohemian city. Yet one could now argue that artistic freedom no longer exists in Brighton. If the authorities control what music is played and what art is displayed in the city, through a system that amounts to licensing law blackmail, then Brighton is no longer a free city.

Also today, Samina Malik, or the ‘lyrical terrorist’ as she described herself, was given a nine-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to carry out 100 hours of community service. Malik has been under house arrest at her home in London for the past month. Her crime? She was found guilty of possessing material that might prove useful to a terrorist. That material included her own awful poetry. One of her poems praised Osama bin Laden and another said ‘Kafirs your time will come soon, and no one will save you from your doom’. Malik was found not guilty of the more serious crime of possessing material with the intention of committing an act of terrorism, and she was not even accused of inciting terrorism. She merely had in her possession pro-jihad poetry, some of it scrawled on the back of till receipts from the WH Smith’s store in Heathrow where she worked, and various jihadist documents downloaded from the web. These included The Al-Qaeda Manual, which I once also downloaded – for research purposes, I swear, your honour.

Malik is no TS Eliot, or even Pam Ayres. Her poems were childish and crude; she says she wrote them to be ‘cool’. Yet her arrest and conviction for downloading written material and for writing dodgy poems is an assault on freedom of thought. Malik has effectively been convicted of a thought crime; she has been punished by the law for what she thought and wrote rather than for anything she did. It took Malik herself, who is clearly not the brightest nail in the nail-bomb, to point out to her judge: ‘To partake in something and to write about something are two different things.’ When someone can be convicted for writing dodgy or dangerous poetry, then the realm of free imagination is itself curtailed: everyone’s ability to explore and discuss ideas that are controversial, extreme or just plain absurd is circumscribed.

In the serious art world, self-censorship is rife. At a time when the government has outlawed religious hatred, and when the authorities make wild exaggerations about the problem of ‘Islamophobia’, arts establishments are increasingly editing or withdrawing anything that might be judged irreligious or anti-Muslim. A report by the New Culture Forum listed recent instances of religious-conscious self-censorship in the art world: the identity of terrorists in an episode of the hospital drama Casualty was changed from Islamists to animal rights extremists after pressure from BBC chiefs; a play called Up On Roof, due to be performed by the Hull Truck Theatre Company, was rewritten after the Danish cartoon controversy – its Muslim character was changed to a Rastafarian; the Barbican in London cut out sections of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims; the Royal Court Theatre, also in London, cancelled a reading of an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata which was set in a Muslim heaven.

The decisive factor behind such self-censorship is not any hard evidence that mass Muslim outrage is brimming under the surface of British society, but rather caution and cowardice on the part of the art world. Only tiny handfuls of Muslims protested over the Danish cartoons and the Pope’s supposedly Islamophobic speech; probably even smaller numbers would bother to kick up a stink over a performance of Lysistrata at the Royal Court. Yet arts institutions are sensing that certain things are unsayable and unacceptable today. In our censorious climate, where the government outlaws expressions of ‘religious hatred’ and city councils ban art that ‘incites hatred’, artists and arts practitioners are starting to self-censor anything that might potentially be construed as disrespectful or hateful. In The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant film set in East Germany in 1984, a Stasi officer lives in the attic of a playwright’s apartment and spies on him and his liberal artistic friends. Such an intrusion is not necessary in contemporary Britain; instead, arts institutions have a ‘Stasi of the mind’, a censorious official in their brains telling them to err on the side of caution and ditch anything that might cause a fuss.

Artistic freedom is under assault in Britain. Thankfully, we don’t have a Stasi here; but we do have a kind of Sensitivity Stasi – local and government officials who see it as their job to protect fragile sections of the public from offensive, outrageous or hateful art. Authoritarian governments have always interfered in the work of artists. They have always been suspicious of that ‘Kingdom of Freedom’ where individuals have experimented and taken risks in their creation of works of art, free – well, almost – from the demands of the market and the strictures of contemporary morality. Such an arena is an anathema to nervous governments, who prefer to keep everything under their watchful eye and influence. Anybody who values freedom should defend the realm of art and thought from such state interference. As Leon Trotsky and Andre Breton argued in their manifesto for art published in the 1930s, in art there should be ‘no authority, no restriction, not the slightest trace of compulsion’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and co-founder of the Manifesto Club, which campaigned against the conviction of Samina Malik. Visit O’Neill’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked whether music could incite murder. Mick Hume looked at the case of Buju Banton and explained why fighting for free speech is important in today’s You Can’t Say That culture. On the day of the Oxford Union debate with Nick Griffin and David Irving, Frank Furedi said censorship is a really bad idea.  David Perks said even a biological determinst like James Watson should not be censored. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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