Last June, Chicago-based artist Amie Sell found her work yanked off the walls of the gallery where her installation Home Sweet Home hung as part of the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival. It critiqued the property management firm M. Fishman & Co., which happened to run the building and demanded it be taken down.
This act of censorship was just one of 237 confirmed violations against artistic freedom around the world in 2014, according to a new report by FreeMuse that casts a dour shadow over the state of free expression. That’s a 19% rise from 2013, when the activist organization only registered 199 such incidences.
Last year’s violations include the successful halt by Hindu nationalists of controversial theater performances in India, the stopping of a “Bible comedy” considered blasphemous by a town council in Northern Ireland, and the arrest and detainment of gay novelist Payam Feili for 44 days by Iran’s Kurdish minority.
Altogether, three artists were killed, nine artists were imprisoned, 33 were kept imprisoned from previous years, two were abducted, 13 experienced physical attacks, 13 more were threatened or persecuted, 30 were legally prosecuted, 41 were detained, and 90 were censored. The figures don’t include attacks against journalists or cartoonists, which the organization considers as media workers.
How exactly do the countries stack up? With 38 violations, China fared the worst. FreeMuse noted that the government not only detains and imprisons artists, but it also makes use of travel bans (as does Iran) to help silence them — though obviously, that hasn’t stopped artists like Ai Weiwei from putting on international exhibitions and even directing a film over Skype.
Russia followed with 22 violations, while Turkey had 16 and Iran 15. “In Iran religion and politics merged when artists were censored, imprisoned and even executed by the state,” the authors wrote. In January, for example, the poet Hashem Shaabani was hung by authorities after being convicted of “enmity against God.”
The report noted that countries including Eritrea, Cuba, and Morocco frequently detain, prosecute and imprison their artists for political reasons. And in the United States, galleries and museums are “increasingly reporting listening and reacting to ‘concerns’ from market forces and sponsors when it comes to presenting art that potentially might offend minorities, religious groups, or other interest groups,” as the New York Metropolitan Opera did when it cancelled The Death of Klinghoffer due to perceived concerns of fanning global anti-Semitism.
The authors are the first to admit their report has some serious issues. Obviously, there’s no established registry for violations of artistic freedom, which means its statistics are anecdotal and don’t reflect the true number of artists targeted for their work. It’s likely much, much greater. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance, female artists aren’t allowed to perform publicly and are often institutionally discriminated against.
“Many artistic freedom violations are never made publicly known — whether they include the thousands of artists — not least musicians — who experience daily threats from fundamentalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or are victimised by the internal conflicts of Syria or Ukraine,” the authors write.
It’s also hard to measure the full impact of such violations. FreeMuse registered the suicide bombing in December 2014 of a Kabul school’s drama performance as a single attack, though the actors, organizers, and attendees were all targets. Additionally, one of the injured was the director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, and because of his injuries, many activities at the institute were terminated.
“When artists are attacked, threatened or persecuted — whether by jihadists or governments ± whole societies are affected,” explained FreeMuse Executie Director Ole Reitov. “Attacks on artistic freedom are crippling the vitality in many societies today with long term consequences.”
But though imperfect, the report is still a sobering reminder that in the United States and around the world, the fight for freedom of expression is long from over.