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Artistic expression and creativity are an integral part of human activity. Ideas and information conveyed in the form of art help to develop vibrant cultures, instill values and challenge dominant narratives we live within. As powerful agents of change in societies, both as social aggregators and counterweights to the existing power structures, artistic expression and creativity need to be protected. Every citizen should have the right to create and enjoy the arts free of censorship, political interference or restrictions of political, religious, cultural, moral or economic nature.
Artists introducing contesting meanings in their artworks to shake political and religious ideologies or the public moral can face censorship, incarceration, harassment, and, in the worst cases, death. @Freemuse98 reports that only in 2020, 322 artists around the world (mostly in authoritarian countries) were subjected to arbitrary detention, politically motivated imprisonments and convictions for criticising the government, tackling topics such as racism, LGBTI, religion or women’s rights or even for “indecency”.
Also, by depriving the audience of the artistic production – usually in the name of the public interest – individuals are prevented from making their own judgments. As threats to artistic freedom are on the rise, so is the idea that artistic work can be defined and interpreted, and therefore limited. Censoring or labelling certain artworks as “controversial” because aimed at defying the public moral, subverting politics or sparking debates around sensitive issues means to limit the possibility of intelligence. On the contrary, public and private institutions or groups should drive the audience away from obscurantism and encourage a critical approach that equates freedom to create with the freedom to exhibit and express.
In this series, we feature the stories of artists who challenged oppressive power centres to claim their right to artistic freedom, as well as striking examples of censorship of modern and contemporary art in recent history.

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During the post-WWII period in the US cultural life was deeply affected by the geopolitical context of the Cold War, McCarthyism and the anti-communist propaganda. This translated into the creation of a widespread censorship mechanism which impacted cultural production and in particular the film and entertainment industry: famous is the 1947 case of the “Hollywood Ten”, ten writers blacklisted from the industry for their alleged involvement with the Communist Party. But many, including television performers and comedians, were under the FBI’s close watch and had – or faced the risk of having – their career ended or compromised: Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Lena Horne, Dashiell Hammett – just to name a few – were not spared from the Red Scare.

The argument of “protection of community morality” was not only used to justify anti-communist censorship practice.
Everytime Lenny Bruce went on stage he challenged the morals and the commonly-accepted range of freedom of expression of the time by provoking laughs. His stand-up comedy was influenced by jazz in its improvisational, stream-of-consciousness, free-flowing nature and did not have any taboos nor spared any subjects. Everything, any uncomfortable talk, was on the table of his satirical act – from politics to religion, to sex, to race.

Such “excessive freedom” and his refusal to conform to comic standards of the entertainment industry led to him being blacklisted from many popular television shows and then to face charges of obscenity and “corruption of morals”. His trial led to a virtual impossibility for him to be employed, but resonated massively becoming a sensational media talk thanks to the many artists that intervened in defense of Bruce’s freedom of speech.

Some famous Lenny Bruce quotes are:

“Sex and obscenity are not synonymous.”

”Freedom of speech is a two way street, man. You have the right to say whatever you want and the Boss has a right to tell the police to arrest you.”

“Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.”

In this series, we talked about the need for cultural institutions to educate and free the audience from moralistic or biased judgments. “Sensation”, a controversial art exhibition which sparked protests, tabloid headlines and public outrage, is a striking example of how public institutions can shape the idea of what can be considered art and artistically acceptable.

First exhibited in the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1997, Sensation gathered artworks from 44 artists belonging to a new generation of British contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili. Now considered as a defining moment in contemporary art history, Sensation shook public opinion when it arrived at the Brooklyn Museum in NYC in 1999.

Feminism, identity politics, racism, class, and pop culture subjects were among the themes represented in the artists’ works. But 2 weeks before the show, its “irreverence” was put in the spotlight. The Daily News wrote a piece with the headline “B’Klyn Gallery of Horror. Gruesome Museum Show Stirs Controversy” disqualifying the exhibition as “R-rated’ and brimful with ‘animals sliced in half, and graphic paintings and sculptures of corpses and sexually mutilated bodies”. Rudolph Giuliani, then Mayor of NY, commented on Christ Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’, a painting depicting a black Madonna adorned with pornography images and elephant dung, saying that “the city shouldn’t have to pay for sick stuff.”

In an attempt to withdraw public funding to the Museum over the controversial exhibition, Giuliani, backed by Catholic groups, initiated a legal battle against the cultural institution. In response, thousands of protesters took to the street w/ the Museum ironically erecting a mock health warning: “the contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic,”. The court ruled in favour of the Museum recalling the 1st amendment and condemning the Mayor’s attempt to coerce free speech. Eventually, the parties decided to settle out of court, protecting the Museum from retaliation. 20 years later, Sensation reminds us that artistic freedom cannot be negotiated.