VALENCIA — Across Spain they stood in plazas and backyards; on cliffs and social media; in conference halls and kitchens. Some wore red blindfolds or held signs reading “No Callaremos” (“we won’t be silent”) at 7pm on Tuesday, July 18 at the activist group Organización por la Libertad Artística (OLA) protested rising art censorship in Spain with coordinated song, dance, and live readings of their manifesto. 

Prior to the July 23 national elections in Spain, anxiety and indignation were running high. Municipal elections in the autonomous regions earlier in May had dealt a shock to many who enjoyed the country’s rising status as a feminist haven and equal rights hotspot. Several municipalities veered hard to the right, as conservative parties ousted leftist governments and were quickly tearing down tenets of liberal Spanish society. The protest staged by the newly formed activist group, OLA, expressed the anger and fear rocking artists and creatives in Spain as rapidly increasing art censorship began to raise the ghosts of Spain’s fascist past. 

Over recent years, Spain has been associated with women’s rights and inclusivity; millions of Spanish people rally for the annual Women’s Day marches, and Madrid is host to one of the largest Pride celebrations in Europe. It was the third country in the world to legalize gay marriage, and the first country to implement a gender-based violence law that holds the victim’s gender as an influential factor in assault cases. Given that Spain only emerged from Francoist fascism less than a generation ago in 1975, the advances have been remarkable and valuable, particularly in contrast to rising anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in Europe and the United States.

It was devastating, therefore, when two weeks prior to the OLA protest a municipality in Cantabria, an autonomous region in the north of Spain, canceled a programmed screening of the Pixar movie Lightyear (2022), citing the depiction of two female characters kissing. Their decision to remove the movie added Spain to a list of 14 countries — including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — that objected to the film’s “lesbian kiss.” This event outraged many in the rest of Spain, coming in the midst of various other municipalities now run by the far-right announcing the permanent removal of LGBTQ+ flags from public buildings and the abolition of the treasured “gender-based violence” classification.

Promotional poster used by anti-censorship groups promoting the hashtag #stopcensura (image via No Callaremos)

These instances were followed in quick succession by the canceling of a handful of cultural events including an interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, which touches upon themes of gender transition, a Lope de Vega play for set pieces that resembled a phallus and a vulva, and a Pride concert which was stopped by police when singer Rocío Saiz performed topless

According to intellectual rights attorney and general coordinator of the Unión de Artistas Contemporáneos de España, Alberto Pulido, these recent events of censorship “only highlight the precarious situation of freedom of creation in our country.” 

“While most of the cases of censorship that we have seen affect the performing arts and theater sector, there is no doubt that the most precarious discipline of the entire cultural spectrum in Spain is the visual arts,” he told Hyperallergic.

Public reaction was swift and powerful, and groups of artists began to mobilize in an effort to document and protest what they anticipated was just the beginning of a worrisome national shift. The Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid hosted an event in which groups including OLA delivered their manifestos and read aloud poetry that had once been censored by the Francoist government. Under a banner declaring the defense of free expression, Spanish cultural workers evoked urgency, and knowingly warned of the real danger behind the attention-grabbing headlines: self-censorship. Those who lived and created under fascism recalled not just the overt oppression of artistic expression, but the silence and creative void left in its wake.

As shocking as some of these recent events may seem, artists in modern democratic Spain have long been vulnerable to censorship. Despite Spain’s celebrated progressive politics, the cultural sector has been eyed closely by human rights groups for years. The free expression advocacy group Freemuse, which publishes a State of Artistic Freedom report, flagged in 2020 Spain’s track record of imprisoning artists. These sentences were often imposed due to a controversial so-called ley mordaza (gag law), which effectively limits artistic freedom and remains in effect despite the socialist national government’s promises to change it. The gag law has been a point of contention for many in the cultural sector, but there is another factor limiting free expression in Spain: artists’ almost exclusive reliance on public funds and institutions. Crushing financial burdens and lack of protections for working artists have limited the number of opportunities available to make, show, and sell art, making artists dependent on public art opportunities that are easily influenced by partisan governments and personal interests.

Founding members of OLA reading their manifesto at an anti-censorship event on July 14, 2023 in the Círculo De Belles Artes in Madrid. A banner behind them reads, “Culture unites in the face of censorship and in defense of creative freedom.” (photo Emma Shapiro/Hyperallergic)

The result after many years of an art world subsisting on governmental whims is a strong tendency toward self-censorship by artists and institutions, and a system primed for ideological influence. According to Pulido, this is “the main problem affecting the visual and traditional arts in our country.” 

The feeling that artists are more or less left to fight alone is apparent, as the OLA manifesto points out, in “the tepid response of the institutions [that] leave us without protection.”

“Today they censor so that tomorrow we censor ourselves,” the manifesto reads. “A gag that for years has been left to grow is the germ of these cancellations.”

The national election saw the far-right narrowly beaten, but that is little comfort to the artists who are still facing censorious regional governments. “The outcome of the general elections does not change the momentum we’ve generated,” an OLA spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “There are many alarming situations, others that are added regularly, and, above all, a sector that was already precarious and neglected that needs attention.”

Emma Shapiro is an American artist and activist based in Spain. She is the creator of the international body equality project Exposure Therapy and is the Editor-at-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign....