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Art and Suppression: The Art Censoring Index to Stand for Freedom of Expression

This week, the Art Censoring Index was unveiled to track and document censoring occurrences that have occurred since October 7. The National Coalition Against Censorship, a nonprofit organisation with over 50 member organisations and its headquarters in New York, is in charge of this project. The coalition’s website states that its goal is to defend artists’ freedom of expression in all artistic and cultural productions. This follows the ongoing systematic censorship in the U.S. targeting artists who express sympathy for the Gazan population and oppose the genocidal policies of Netanyahu and Biden.

G is for Genocide, Danielle SeeWalker. Courtesy:wsws.org

The Context

Following the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli military’s ensuing aerial bombing and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the art world has grown more and more divided. As of the time of writing, over 35,000 Palestinians had died in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

A palestinian flag with birds around. Nabulus, West Bank. Courtesy:Ash Hayes/Unsplash/ifex.org

Claims of censorship at art institutions and college campuses around the world multiplied in the months that followed. The Art Censorship Index, according to its introduction, focuses on instances in which institutions “explicitly canceled, withdrew, or abandoned a program or work after plans to present it had been announced, and where the reason for the withdrawal was linked to the perceived political content of the work, the personal politics of the artist, or the national or cultural associations involved in the content of the work.”

What will the Art Censoring Index Provide?

The NCAC index offers details on several incidents when organisations have suppressed the free expression of artists by acting on behalf of pro-Israeli groups. Numerous incidents have been covered by the WSWS, such as the exclusion of Palestinian artist Jumana Manna from a panel at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; the cancellation of Palestinian artist Samia Halaby’s career retrospective at Indiana University; the cancellation of Israelism, a film critical of Zionist policies, at Hunter College in New York and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; and the “postponement” of Vietnamese-American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s scheduled appearance at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

Artist Samia Halaby with her artworks. Courtesy:culturalnarratives.art

The index includes numerous major occurrences, including the cancellation of appearances by Nathan Thrall, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, at venues such as the Writers Bloc in Los Angeles and the University of Arkansas. Furthermore, the Burning Man event in Nevada, noted for its emphasis on “community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” pulled a pro-Palestinian artwork from its website. The intended 8-by-14-foot fiberglass installation, shaped like a watermelon and symbolizing resistance to Israeli oppression, was titled “From the River to the Sea.” Pro-Zionists objected to the slogan, claiming it constituted “language that advocates for the annihilation of Israel.”

This tendency is far from unique to the cultural industry. Human Rights Watch, for example, warned of “systemic online censorship” when Meta removed over a thousand posts by Palestinians and their supporters, including those citing human rights violations, between October and November 2023.

Elizabeth Larison, The Director of NCAC’s Art and Culture Advocacy Program said in a statement about the program that, “by documenting these instances of art censorship, we hope to inspire greater accountability and dialogue within the artistic community and beyond.”

Users can click through the map to pull up specific incidents, such as the cancellation of Samia Halaby’s exhibition in Indiana. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

What the Index Does Not Record?

It excludes examples in which artists drastically altered their work after it had been curated, as well as cases in which “the existing curatorial frameworks precluded an artwork from being selected in the first place.” Furthermore, the map does not include employee firings, events in which galleries cut off the representation of artists or the expulsion of student groups from campuses.

“Art Censorship Index” lacks “examples in which artists have elected to withdraw their work from public presentation in an act of protest, or instances in which artists have self-censored their work or their views for fear of backlash.”

Finally, the recently created Art Censoring Index is deemed to be an important instrument for tracking and addressing escalating cases of art restriction, particularly in the context of heightened political tension. By systematically recording incidents where creative works are repressed because of their perceived political content or associations, the index emphasises the critical need to protect the right to free expression in the arts. It also proves to the art museums, institutions, curators, and gallerists that tabs are being kept on all art-related activity and no un-called-for curbs and censorship will be tolerated. The website is open for all and any accounts of censorship can be submitted. 





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