Self-censorship is the enemy of creativity

Artists who kowtow to groupthink are barely artists at all.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle

Topics Free Speech

As one who is foolish enough to engage with angry strangers on social media, I often find myself cast in the role of a comedian who continually insists that ‘you can’t say anything anymore’. Not only have I never made this claim, I have never met a single other comedian who has. True, there are a few who express their concerns when the state arrests or imprisons its citizens for making jokes, and there are some who have strong reservations about ‘cancel culture’ and the impulse to dredge up potentially offensive remarks from the past in order to initiate a public shaming. But on the whole, comedians are not complaining that they are being silenced.

The more immediate threat to artistic expression, comedic or otherwise, takes the form of self-censorship. This is not the same as refining our speech or choosing our battles. ‘Don’t we all self-censor for perfectly good reasons of tact, politeness, and taste?,’ asked the New Yorker’s Bob Mankoff of Flemming Rose, the editor who was responsible for the publication of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad in 2005. ‘Yes’, Rose replied, ‘but there is a difference to be made between tact, politeness, and taste, on the one hand, and self-censorship, on the other. The former is something you impose on yourself voluntarily, or in order to behave in accordance with an etiquette. The latter… implies that there is something that you would like to say, but you refrain from saying it because you fear what might happen to you if you do it.’

In its most extreme form this fear comes about from the threat of violent repercussions, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo. But for most artists the threat they face is that of limited career prospects in a culture which increasingly insists that art should convey the ‘morally correct’ message. Timothy Garton Ash sees this as the distinction between the ‘assassin’s veto’ and the ‘heckler’s veto’. An artist whose work is genuinely controversial invariably faces a barrage of voluble criticism online. Of course there is nothing new in this – every age has its puritans. But while the gatekeepers of television, radio and live promotion are so willing to capitulate to such demands of conformity from the irredeemably woke, there can be little doubt that our nation’s artistic health will continue to suffer.

Once artists begin tailoring their work in accordance with how they sense it will be received, their craft invariably deteriorates. The novelist Forrest Reid observed that the writer could choose one of two incompatible aims: ‘He may look upon his work as an art to be practised with sincerity, and in faithfulness to an ideal; or he may regard it as a commercial experiment.’ For those whose goal is to make money and acquire fame, adherence to what John Stuart Mill described as ‘the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’ is nothing to fear. For the true artist, it is a kind of death.

Self-censorship is an individual choice. In this sense, it is far less concerning than censorship by the state or by Silicon Valley tech giants who hold a monopoly on social-media platforms. But in terms of the arts, self-censorship can actually be more damaging, because at least when artists are censored by those in power they often find creative ways to circumvent the problem. Richard Crashaw (1613-1649), for instance, managed to evade state censorship of his explicitly homoerotic poetry by choosing the naked crucified body of Jesus Christ as his subject. Self-censorship, however, stunts the possibility of the artist’s creative development from its very wellspring.

Artists can never escape the practical demands of the business of living. There’s a reason why some of the most prolific have come from independently wealthy backgrounds. As Oscar Wilde pointed out in his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, individuality can only flourish in times of leisure. The Ancient Greeks were able to develop great philosophy, art and literature because they had slaves to take care of all the menial tasks which occupy most people’s existence. Poets and writers enjoyed a Renaissance in Britain in the 16th century because of aristocratic patronage. With arts funding today largely restricted to those who can prove that their work entails some practical benefit to society, the artist faces pressure to ensure that his work is commercially viable.

Of course, it is not in the nature of artists to admit that they are curtailing their own manner of expression in the face of external pressure, which means that the problem is likely to be more widespread than we imagine. The best artists are non-conformists, and the worst artists like to be seen as the best artists. We should do all we can to cultivate a climate in which creative risks are worth taking, and in which eccentricity and missteps will not be punished in the kangaroo courts of social media. An artist who kowtows to the ideological expectations of society can barely be said to be an artist at all. Like RS Thomas’s toiling farmer, he is merely ‘contributing grimly to the accepted pattern, the embryo music dead in his throat’.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


Niobe Hunter

19th December 2019 at 10:16 am

I can’t really agree that arts’funding’ ( which presumably includes the centralised control of televisual media by a coterie of particular opinions) is contingent on any perception of a public good. That would have to include , if not actual ( ie practical) benevolence, but also an attempt to deliver either positive moral or political precepts, or more properly, the balm of beauty which helps us to establish our souls.

The current generation of graphic artists in particular – by which I mean, those who would be included in the curriculum of an ‘ art school’ – do not seem to me to offer any ‘practical’ , intellectual or aesthetic inspiration to the beholder. It is all just shouting the same tired slogans, couched in not very attractive actual form. No solution, no resolution, no inspiration…..

And don’t tell me that that is because what these people produce is so refined that the majority of beholders cannot aspire to understand it and be moved by it. ‘The Temeraire’ was voted the most beloved picture in Britain not long ago, not some picture of a child with a tear in its eye, as the Left would have you believe.


18th December 2019 at 8:24 pm

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson could do with a good dose of self-censorship!

Garreth Byrne

10th December 2019 at 8:59 pm

PS: Ou se trouvent les Salons des Refuses et les hebdomedaires des rejections? In every era where artists and writers felt rejected by the current establishment, small groups of determined ones set up their own circles, publications and venues to strike a blow against conformity.

Garreth Byrne

10th December 2019 at 8:53 pm

Print and be damned. Paint and be damned. Sculpt and be damned. Whether there is state sponsorship or not, corporate sponsorship or not, the worst thing that can happen to an artist in a democratic society is to be ignored. It happens to a lot. A real persevering artist continues to create because he/she has to.

antoni orgill

10th December 2019 at 7:43 pm

Prince Andrew is made of old sausages. Fact!

Linda Payne

10th December 2019 at 1:43 pm

I have been writing most of my life and I know that these days if you want to be published, performed etc there is an unwritten rule of political correctness, of course you have to be good as well which I’m not

antoni orgill

10th December 2019 at 11:40 am

Let’s face it, there’s been a PC cultural inversion of the idea of revolution. It’s shored up the priviliged positions of those either in power or vying for it. It’s done this by disemminating non-ideological egalitarianism. We are all equal because we express that feeling. It’s simply beyond the pale now to criticise people’s art but somewhere a sense beyond narcissism prevails. You just have to dig it out any way you can …

Ven Oods

10th December 2019 at 3:15 pm

“It’s simply beyond the pale now to criticise people’s art…”
I wish I’d seen that before I had a go at those four Turner Prize wonks in the Graun’s comments section this morning. Now, I’m reduced to hiding under the bed…

jessica christon

10th December 2019 at 4:33 pm

I’m surprised a comment section was there at all!

Hugh Bryant

10th December 2019 at 11:12 am

The problem with state sponsorship of the arts, whether it’s via the Arts Council or the BBC, is that what you get is state-sponsored art.

Philip Humphrey

10th December 2019 at 7:31 am

The real danger with the “wokes” is that almost everything they say is bogus. A lot of it is based on so called “critical theory” that looks at the whole universe through the distorting lens of identity politics, arbitrarily assigning categories of human beings, some as ” victims” and others as ” aggressors”. It’s ironic that some periods of history such as the “dark ages”, the Victorian era or even the 1950s that the “wokes” claim were periods of terrible oppression and stagnation were in reality times of scientific, artistic and social progress. And in fact that the real danger of a new dark age comes not from populism, but from the “wokes” themselves as science, good art and true liberalism is replaced with an emotional, irrational and divisive conformity.

Ellen Whitaker

10th December 2019 at 12:22 am

Very depressing that an article like this has to be written. The times have taken a very scary turn. We don’t need Stalin. We have Facebook, Google, and Twitter mobs.

Michael Lynch

10th December 2019 at 12:14 am

The frightening thing is how self censorship today mimics exactly what happened to artists during the Stalinist era. However, and in their case, going against the trend meant ending up in the Gulag rather than a trivial trashing on Social Media. It just goes to show what a bunch of Lilly liveried cowards modern Westerners are. If anything, their reaction reinforces the power of the Twitter mob. Why can’t people learn to ignore this anonymous bunch of morons?

Thomas Rainsborough

10th December 2019 at 11:22 am

Sadly, the artists of the Soviet era who failed to conform were also amongst the best of the century. Akhmatova, Shostakovich and Mandelstam were unsurpassed anywhere. The same went for Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov.

Your point is correct however. The current generation of “artists” in the west are the most grovellingly conformist we have even seen. It is rather refleacted in the quality of their work.

antoni orgill

10th December 2019 at 11:44 am

do you have particular artists in mind? Cite them, please …

M Blando

10th December 2019 at 5:54 pm

“The current generation…” is precisely because anything worth seeing, anything that doesn’t fit-in, has been weeded out. The process has been in place for some time.

Filbert Flange

10th December 2019 at 5:56 pm

I am increasingly alarmed by the foolish willingness of many to again and again walk eyes wide open into the rotating knives of the degraded and unsustainably ignorant wokester left. I revel in being called names in response to sound argument — proof of triumph really — but find the speed with which many merely collapse, fold their tents and dutifully shuffle off stage left at the first utterance of some absurdly ridiculous epithet is quite disturbing.

Grow a pair, as my American friends are very fond of saying.

Michael Lynch

10th December 2019 at 9:00 pm

I’d slightly disagree with you there about Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn. Bulgakov’s ‘Heart of a Dog’ was written in a kind of double narrative; an ability to criticize and praise at the same time. His ‘The Master and Margarita’ also alluded to a kind of ‘washing of the hands’ for all artists during the Soviet era. However, Stalin liked him enough to keep him in work. I suspect Stalin appreciated the double meaning as it has been always fashionable in Russia, especially in the plays of the 19th C. As far as Solzhenitsyn, when I read the abridged version of ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ I got the impression that he had a hard time coming to terms with the reality of the Soviet system. Whilst he suffered immensely, and detailed the horror of the Gulag system, he always seemed to justify the kind of ‘War Communism’ behind it all. It was almost as if he was trying to make himself believe that the end would justify the means somehow. Also to probably lend some sort of rational explanation for his torment. That was my impression anyway.

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