What Price Freedom of Expression?

It would be stretching things to call me a rebel, or subversive, or even a dissident, but I have recently had my words censored!

Well, OK, maybe not ‘my’ words exactly, but the words of a student in two pages of a book I co-authored together with S. Poppy and J. Paterson, The Visual Arts Course Companion (Oxford University Press, 2017).

What happened?

Large sections of two pages were obscured by what looks like brown paper, because the Chinese authorities clearly took exception to what was written/depicted (see the ‘censored’ illustrations).

They were alarmed because on one page there was (student visual arts journal) reference to the work of Ai WeiWei (page 5) and on the other there was (again student journal) reference to the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Visual Arts

So, censorship, then. What’s it all about?

Is it even completely possible in this Internet immersed digital age?

And more to the point of this blog, what, if anything, does it have to do with visual arts?

It might be argued that art has always been political, and that in any case complete freedom of expression would not be a good thing, with particular reference to personal, political and spiritual values, particularly in relation to race, gender or religious beliefs, or excessive or gratuitous violence.

The Chinese official/censor represented the political sensitivities of the Chinese government. For one thing, he/she took exception to the student’s mention of Ai WeiWei.*

We (authors) should probably have expected this. Ai WeiWei is a well-known contemporary artist and political activist, and has been openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights.

Ai WEiWei is great example of an artist using art as a vehicle for protest.

Freedom of expression in the DP visual arts programme?

Broadly speaking I think that the DP visual arts programme allows and encourages student freedom of expression. This is integral to the course.

But there is certainly also an expectation and understanding that some things would NOT occur as part of the programme.

This might be seen as a reasonable and sensible restriction on ‘freedom of expression’ because its easy to cause offence and we are after all dealing the students.

Teachers are required to provide guidance on how to approach and engage with certain topics in a responsible manner. It’s relatively easy to shock and provoke: easier in conservative societies, but even liberal ones will have their limits. See the ‘Engaging with sensitive topics’ section of the IB’s Visual Arts guide (page 9):

Studying visual arts gives students the opportunity to engage with exciting, stimulating and personally relevant topics and issues. However, it should be noted that often such topics and issues can also be sensitive and personally challenging for some students. Teachers should be aware of this and provide guidance on how to approach and engage with such topics in a responsible manner. Consideration should also be given to the personal, political and spiritual values of others, particularly in relation to race, gender or religious beliefs.

As part of the collective consideration of the school, visual arts students must be supported in maintaining an ethical perspective during their course. Schools must be vigilant in ensuring that work undertaken by the student does not damage the environment, include excessive or gratuitous violence or reference to explicit sexual activity.

Art is seen by many as the perfect vehicle with a particular role to play, protesting, ‘raising awareness’ etc.

I’m all for free speech and freedom of expression, so for us – i.e. those engaged in the DP visual arts course – it’s perhaps more of a self-censoring process.

Where appropriate, encourage thoughtful and critical observation of issues, but be aware of the sensitivities of your audience and the culture and context in which the art is seen.

The IB say:

Consideration should be given to the personal, political and spiritual values of others, particularly in relation to race, gender or religious beliefs. As part of the collective consideration of the school, visual arts students must be supported in maintaining an ethical perspective during their course. Schools must be vigilant in ensuring that work undertaken by the student does not damage the environment, include excessive or gratuitous violence or reference to explicit sexual activity.

Source: the IB’s Visual Arts guide (page 9)

 

*Ai WeiWei Links

http://www.aiweiwei.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/ai-weiwei

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/ai-weiwei

As a political activist, he has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights. He has investigated government corruption and cover-ups, in particular the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-dreg schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.[5] In 2011, following his arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport on 3 April, he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed; officials alluded to their allegations of “economic crimes”.Since being allowed to leave China in 2015, he has been living in Berlin, Germany, with his family, working on installations, and traveling extensively.

Source: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei 

 

 

2 Comments
  • Hazel Gil
    November 7, 2018

    Unbelievable, my jaw dropped to the floor…
    A very good lesson to learn and to teach for us here in America.

    • Andrew Vaughan
      November 7, 2018

      Hi Hazel,
      Many thanks for reading and commenting, and yes, I was initially surprised too, but then on reflection and as I wrote, “We (authors) should probably have expected this.”
      The Chinese authorities obviously don’t want books that appear to support Ai WeiWei or question the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China…not quite ‘the Land of the Free’!
      Best wishes!

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