It’s been three weeks since two masked gunmen stormed into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 11 people (plus five more in later related incidents). In that time there’s been seemingly ceaseless activity: marching, tweeting, opining, contemplating, drawing. There has also been self-censorship — quite a bit of it. And it’s disconcerting.
The most egregious case may be that of the Associated Press. Somehow, in the wake of a controversy over a series of cartoons about the Muslim prophet, the AP was tricked into removing from its database an image of Andres Serrano’s artwork “Piss Christ” (1987). The worst part is that the argument for removal was made using the AP’s own logic. Of its decision not to publish images of the Hebdo cartoons, the AP said, “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” Picking up on this, a writer for the Washington Examiner pointed out that the organization still maintained an image on file of “the ‘work of art’ from three decades ago that consisted of a photograph of a crucifix in a vat of the photographer’s urine,” aka Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The AP promptly took down the Serrano image.
With a title like “Piss Christ,” it’s hard to argue that Serrano’s piece isn’t “deliberately provocative” in some way, and it has been the target of a fair amount of rage. But it’s one thing to choose not to run images out of safety concerns for your staff, another to remove a previously published image from a database, as if to wipe the slate and pretend it never existed. The AP’s entire policy seems flawed — how can we effectively report on “provocative images” without sometimes showing them? — but to enforce it uniformly and unthinkingly seems lazy at best, cowardly at worst.
Runner-up for the worst case of self-censorship is the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), which has also removed an image from its database. Theirs is a 1990 poster by an Iranian artist that renders Mohammed as a glowing young man in the mountains. The poster itself remains in the V&A’s collection, but the entire listing for it in the museum’s online database is gone. The rationale provided by the institution? “As the museum is a high-profile public building already on a severe security alert, our security team made the decision that it was best to remove the image from our online database (it remains within the collection).”
This is absurd. The V&A has not claimed to receive any threats over the poster — hell, the museum didn’t even seem to know it owned the thing until a “US expert” pointed it out. Nor was the poster made to offend or satirize. As the Guardian explains:
Similar images have been shown in exhibitions across Europe and America without prompting outrage, much less protests or a violent response. Made by Muslim artists for fellow Muslims, they come from a long but often overlooked tradition.
British museums and libraries hold dozens of these images, mostly miniatures in manuscripts several centuries old, but they have been kept largely out of public view. Fear of displaying them is apparently driven by controversy about satirical or offensive portraits of Muhammad by non-Muslims, despite the huge difference in form and purpose.
What’s more, images of Mohammed, although rare, are not unheard of in Islam. As Hrag Vartanian explained in a post about 2010’s Everybody Draw Mohammed Day on our site:
Depictions of Mohammed have been created even in Muslim societies — though granted they are rare — and have been acceptable as long as they were not used in a religious context. They appear in science texts, and other non-religious documents, so a secular newspaper should be fair game for a representation of Mohammed, right? If you agree, you’re probably being far too rational about this.
Removing from a database the image as well as the entire digital record of an obscure (and beautiful) poster featuring Mohammed’s face is not a safety precaution; it’s hysteria.
The last case of self-censorship is the thorniest. A French-Algerian artist named Zoulikha Bouabdellah was compelled to withdraw her own artwork from an exhibition in the Paris suburb of Clichy after a local Islamic group warned the town council that “uncontrollable, irresponsible incidents” might occur if the piece were shown. Bouabdellah’s work, “Silence” (2007–08), features a series of prayer rugs with a hole cut in the center of each and a pair of high-heeled shoes placed in each hole. It’s considered disrespectful to step on a prayer rug with shoes, but Bouabdellah gets around that with the holes. Nonetheless, violence was threatened, and according to artnet News, who spoke to the artist, “Clichy officials showed no support for the exhibition.” Bouabdellah explained: “Since we were not supported by the mayor, the guarantor of the French Republic’s principles, I didn’t want to take the responsibility, so we decide to remove the work.”
Bouabdellah’s decision is the most understandable of the ones discussed here; it came in response to a targeted threat and an intractable set of conditions. As another artist in the show, Orlan, pointed out on Facebook, it’s not Bouabdellah who’s to blame but city officials who refused to fight for or support her in any way, moving instead to censorship as an easy fix for a problem that hadn’t yet fully materialized. That’s the thread in all of these situations: rather than attempting to defend or stand up for the integrity of art and the people who create it, censorship has become the default setting. No one wants another Charlie Hebdo, but if the only way to escape it is to live in a world devoid of any challenging images, think of what a lifeless world that would be.