Index on Censorship’s mad response to Exhibit B

Guess who it has criticised? Not the censorious protesters, but the Barbican.

James Abbott

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Index on Censorship has published an article on Exhibit B that makes no sense.

Exhibit B is a performance art installation hosted by the Barbican in London that was meant to appear this week. The artwork features black actors in chains and cages, inspired by the ‘human zoos’ of the nineteenth century, and it is aimed at teasing out the ‘historical roots of today’s prejudices’. The sorts of people who get off on taking offence thought that they might be offended by Exhibit B, checked, were offended, and so complained until, as Manick Govinda reports on spiked today, the artwork was cancelled.

According to Index on Censorship, the real issue here – the proper, hardcore censorship that is taking place – is not the confused mobs successfully shutting down an artistic performance; rather, it is the alleged lack of ethnic-minority input into the Barbican’s decision-making, art-evaluating processes.

Index says the big issue in the Exhibit B controversy is ‘the mindset of the institution’ (the Barbican) and the fact that it doesn’t seem to have considered ‘the possibility of a hostile response’. So should arts institutions try to pre-empt controversy and then… what? Tone down the artwork in question to try to water down such potential controversy? Index criticises the Barbican for ‘giving a major international platform to Exhibit B without significant contemporary context, engagement or dialogue’.

This is shocking: Index has responded to the mob-demanded withdrawal of a work of art by criticising the arts institution that was hosting it. What next: criticising Salman Rusdhie for upsetting Iran? Ridiculing Pussy Riot for not considering the ‘possibility of a hostile response’ to their protest in a church? For a campaign group that is meant to be against censorship to imply that it is incumbent upon arts producers to think about hostile responses and engage in ‘dialogue’ with self-styled community representatives before doing anything risky is to call for the neutering of daring art in the name of offsetting any potential feelings of offence. It is another way of demanding censorship, in fact – self-censorship in this case.

Index on Censorship should think seriously about changing its name: perhaps change ‘on’ to ‘for’.

James Abbott is a writer and researcher based in London.

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