What, Exactly, Is Censorship?

Honoré Daumier, “Gargantua” (1832), for which Daumier was imprisoned

Last week, the controversial production “Exhibit B” was canceled by the City of London’s Barbican Centre, which issued a statement decrying the “profoundly troubling” protests that “silence artists and performers.” A few days later, the production’s creator, Brett Bailey, put on his purple-tinted glasses and beret to appear in the Guardian‘s editorial section, where he bemoaned his fate:

I stand for a global society that is rich in a plurality of voices. I stand against any action that calls for the censoring of creative work or the silencing of divergent views … Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? My work has been shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?

But what is censorship? To effectively “deny” someone else the ability to speak, a tangible power relationship must exist between censor and censored. According to the ACLU, the act of censorship implies the use of coercive pressure to prevent the expression of an opinion (be it in “words, images, or ideas”). Strangely, in this case, the entity responsible for the exhibition’s “censorship,” the Barbican, is blaming those who were utterly powerless to effect it — the 200 street protesters and 23,000 petition signatories who objected to the work on racial grounds. And the production is slated to be shown in Moscow and Paris next, so its existence has hardly been foreclosed.

The privilege to speak has always been understood as the cornerstone of politics, its pre-requisite from Aristotle on down. The distribution of this ability has never been egalitarian: both the talent and means of expression are not allocated equally. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu expressed this point rather elegantly in a 1977 interview appearing in Le Monde (and collected in Political Interventions):

Just as there is a world of art, so there is a world of politics, with its own specific logic and history, i.e. relatively autonomous; and by the same token with its own problems, its own language and its specific interests. This is what I call a field, in other words a kind of space of play. To enter into the game, you have to know the rules, dispose of a certain language and a certain culture. Above all, you have to feel that you have a right to play. This sense of a right to speak, however, is in fact very unevenly distributed.

Whether or not Bailey’s work is “racist,” the right of people to call for its cancellation is undeniably protected by the same liberal democratic principles being cited to condemn the separate decision to actually cancel it, which is in turn bound up in broader, and more complex, power dynamics. What was especially strange about this incident, and the storm of “anti-censorship” blowhardism in Britain’s opinion pages it predictably elicited, was that the decision to cancel fell squarely in the Barbican’s hands. Shouldn’t they be the ones chastised by the champions of liberalism for not having the spine to back a controversial work? Or would that pivot the conversation from the screeching black-and-white of censorship denunciations to a more difficult conversation about the duty of care public arts organizations owe to their constituencies (and, conversely, their artists)?

The Enlightenment ideal of unfettered free expression is rightly a cornerstone of a just society, but only because it protects people from arbitrary exercises of coercive power. It’s just a check — a negative right against interference and oppression, not a positive guarantee of an even terrain for discourse. By asserting a fictional “global society that is rich in a plurality of voices,” Bailey seems to misunderstand the claims that his detractors are making about the artistically inalienable legacy of colonial and racial oppression that undergirds present conditions. This is not to excuse any threats made by individuals against Brett Bailey, but rather to say that calling for the disengagement of his work from a venue, as the protesters did, is clearly not the horrific abrogation of liberal democratic principles many are saying it is.

A refusal made by the dispossessed, grounded in historical conditions of egregious injustice, is fundamentally different from the domineering censorship by the powerful of the weak. The original claim against “Exhibit B” was a powerless claim, right down to its inability to directly effect any change beyond a petition and street protest, and whose underlying principle of autonomy has more than a little to do with the justification for free speech in the first place.

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