On Censorship and Liberty



Capture magazine is tackling the perennial and thorny issue of censorship in its May issue. As part of her gathering of views, the journalist Armani Nimerawi interviewed Alasdair Foster by email. It is a complex subject and even his relatively brief coverage was too lengthy to include in full in the article. So here, to set the wider historical and ethical background to what was published, is the full version of that interview.

For more information on Capture magazine you can follow them on FaceBook.

Alasdair Foster: Perhaps I could begin by putting forward a perspective on the fight over freedom and censorship.

In an equitable society, I don’t believe we can be totally free. I don’t wish to be killed as an expression of the total liberty of another. John Stuart Mill suggested that individual liberty ends at the point just before your fist hits my nose. In other words, in a fair society our freedoms are constrained by the need to defend the freedoms of others.

So, constraint at some level is necessary. And I certainly do not believe that art or artists should have any more or less freedom than anyone else.

I remember setting up an interview for an Australian newspaper about an event in China. The writer was keen to find an acute journalistic angle when he interviewed the Chinese artistic director. So he asked the gentleman point-blank if the event was censored. “Of course” was the answer. That took the wind out of his sails. He had expected some kind of defensive manoeuvre. As a result the journalist felt he could not find a ‘hook’ for the article and it was abandoned. But the fact is that all public activities are constrained and controlled. We see the censorship in other cultures but remain oblivious to much in our own society. Every time a curator makes a decision to include or not include a work or an artist they make a choice about what is seen. Every newspaper that decides to show one picture but not another; tell one story but not another, for whatever editorial or ideological reasons, it is involved in something very close to censorship.

To polarise the argument into ‘for’ or ‘against’ censorship is to constrain it to two forms of fundamentalism. In a free society the balance of interest of each individual means that there is no room for either. And whenever we allow the public debate to sink to that level we do harm to the freedoms of us all.

Armani Nimerawi: In your previous role as director of the ACP were there any instances where there were complaints about any work exhibited or you had to make the decision to censor work?

The most telling episode occurred a number of years ago. We had a show to celebrate 25 years of ACP and 25 people had been invited to select 25 images; one for each of the years in the quarter century. One work was by the artist Luke Roberts from Queensland. It shows a transsexual extra-terrestrial ‘pope’ and a naked male archangel with an erection. During the show a nun arrived with a group of school girls. The person on reception leapt to action and suggested that the girls might like to wait in the foyer while their teacher previewed the exhibition. The nun duly inspected the work and, in front of the image of the pope and angel, the receptionist nervously asked for an opinion. “Don’t under estimate my girls” was the reply. The visit went ahead and the work was discussed with seriousness and in some depth.

Too often those who cry “censor” do so, not for themselves, but because they believe others are less capable of judgement than they are. When D H Lawrence’s novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was prosecuted in the UK it was not at the point at which the book was first published, but when a cheap Penguin paperback was launched that put it within the pockets of the working class. Famously the prosecutor asked if this was the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read?” and, finding himself woefully out of step with post-war British mores, lost the case.

Some years later, Mary Whitehouse, a tireless opponent of any form of sexual narrative or representation in the arts and entertainment, herself watched many many hours of pornography while gathering evidence for her cause. She did not, one assumes, become corrupted, but she was certain that everyone else would.

Art has, for centuries, acted as a catalyst for social change. Often the most controversial pieces are also those pieces that inspired revolutions, political change, social upheaval etc. What are your thoughts on the dangers of censoring art? Are we worse off as a society for it?

I am not sure that social change has been effected by simply flouting censorship. It has been changed by showing us things that are uncomfortable – uncomfortable enough for us to want to change them. Lewis Hine’s photographs of young factory workers in the first decade of the 20th century helped to change the laws about child labour in the US. Nick Ut’s image of the child Kim Phuc running naked from a napalm attack marked a turning point in public opinion on the Vietnam War.

What is important is to treat each case on its merits and not try to justify one thing by another; whether that is to argue that the antisocial effect of an image on one deviant mind is reason enough to censor it or that the public benefit of one disturbing image is a defence for all images come what may.

We need to hold the public conversation about what, as a community, we want and do not want in a civilised and level-headed way, and not by hurling abuse, false logic and unsubstantiated prejudice back and forth.

How important is it, do you believe, for photographic institutions such as galleries to stand behind photographers and support them when there are calls for their work to be censored?

Galleries should defend the rights of artists as they should defend the rights of all of us. I do not believe that artists should have any more or less rights than any other member of society. But I do believe that the work of artists and galleries, and our wider culture, offer an arena in which we can hold this big, shared conversation.

In the developed world, many like to point to freedom of expression as evidence of how civilised we are – it is, apparently, what separates us from “savages”. Yet, there have been many instances in Australia when photographers’ work has been censored and deemed inappropriate or obscene (such as Bill Henson, Concetta Petrillo, Del Kathryn Barton and Jan Saudek). Do you believe freedom of expression actually exists or is it permitted only as long as what is being said adheres to the status quo?

What makes a free society distinct is the fairness with which is treats all of its members. So-called ‘primitive’ societies were very often extremely fair and balanced because they are focused on a small group of people who all know each other personally and understand how they fit together as a community. Excessive censorship is not, I think, a concomitant of ‘savagery’ but of intolerance and double standards that arise in larger social groups where we cannot know all the members personally and so fall back on stereotypes. The ‘status quo’ is often an expression of a balance not of fairness but of power; a balance set between a small number of powerful or influential voices and a large number of weaker or quiet ones. Freedom of expression should, as I have been proposing, be equal and for all and be limited only when it violates the freedoms of others.

When art is censored, it is often followed by the justification that the public would be offended by what they see. Do you believe this to be the case or do you believe that such attitudes underestimate the intelligence of audiences and their ability to interpret art in their own way?

In a free society it is everyone’s right to be offended if they wish. Offence comes short of Mill’s fist-hitting-nose. If we cannot say unpalatable things to each other, who will tell truth? Just because lies and slander will also be told it is no reason to jettison all; rather, we have laws that address lies and slander specifically. However, if those lies promote action and that action threatens the liberty of others then that is not, I believe, reasonable in a fair society. So the incitement of racial hatred or the promotion of sex with children is not to be condoned.

But that incitement must be proven. Just to assert that an image causes an action is not enough.

If we take the thorny issue of images of children and their supposed tendency to deprave, one would have to ask why the images of Bill Henson come under fire and not TV programs like Toddlers & Tiaras. Psychological research suggests that those with a pathological tendency to be sexually attracted to children can find gratification in a department store catalogue for kid’s swimwear. Indeed the more ‘normalised’ the presentation the more it appears to justify the misalignment.

Following on from that, do you believe that giving offence is a serious enough reason not to exhibit something? If there is a warning that some might find offence, people are given the choice to view or walk away and no law has been broken is it fair to stop others from viewing an artistic work?

I think everyone has the right to choose not to look at what might offend them. If they are warned and the images do not involve breaking a law then, if someone chooses to view an image having first been cautioned, they have made that choice consciously and their taking offence cannot be a reason to limit the choice of others in society with different views to their own.

Often the use of nude children as subjects in photographs causes moral outrage within the community and it becomes a debate about consent and paedophilia. Subsequently the perceived taint of what some consider being pornographic photographs is then unjustly extended to artists who are vilified as child pornographers. Where do you think this panic comes from?

In the 19th century people were on easy terms with death and considered images of children as the picture of innocence, but they were anxious about adult sex. Today we are pretty relaxed about adult sex but uncomfortable with our mortality and paranoid about child sexual abuse (but not, oddly, as concerned about other forms of child abuse – violence or starvation for example).

Demons are lazy short cuts to a sense of piety. Whether it is aging unconventional single women demonised as witches or people of other races or creeds demonised as un-Australian.

One person interviewed for this article stated that it was a shame that all relationships between adults and children seem to now be viewed through the lens of paedophilia and that this mentality is actually causing society to view children only in a sexualised way. What are your thoughts on this statement?

I would agree that this hysteria about images of children has created an environment in which paedophilia is the first thing on everyone’s mind. That cannot be a healthy way in which to bring up children and introduce them to society. Ironically, those fundamentalists who are the first to cry ‘paedophile’ whenever an image of a child is shown, do more to promote the idea of children as sexual objects than anyone else. Without that hysteria we might see that the natural and majority relationship between caring adults and growing children is something quite other; something to be celebrated as one of the wonders of being human. Not to be tainted because there are a few aberrant individuals about.

By analogy, we know that people die on our roads every year and if all motor vehicles had been banned they would now be alive. But we make a choice as a society that the balance of benefit to the majority outweighs that cost and we work hard to minimise the risks. Similarly we should consider carefully if the (I believe fallacious) argument that if all images of children were banned there would be an end to paedophilia in a handful of individuals is really worth the majority losing their freedom to make and enjoy images of childhood.

Often when an exhibition is censored one has to simply log on to the internet to find the censored image. What effect do you think the internet and social media will have on censorship in the future? Do you think it is making it obsolete?

The notion of the freedom of the internet is a delicate evolving thing. There are many who want to control the internet for profit. Others who want to constrain it to a fundamentalist ideology. Others still who simply want to take the power of a powerful medium to themselves. If this is not to happen then a balance must be struck in how the internet operates in our world so that liberty and fairness find equilibrium. No-one has the right not to be offended (or, as I like to think of it, everyone has the freedom to be offended). They can choose not to look (or read, or listen). Unless an action or an image materially injures them or demonstrably puts others at unreasonable risk, I do not believe that they have a valid argument to demand it be censored.


Images (from the top):
Frontispiece of John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ in the ‘People’s Edition’ published in 1878 (just 19 years after the first edition).
1960: two women avidly read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ following the acquittal at the Old Bailey on 2 November of Penguin Books, previously prosecuted for its circulation under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959. The second edition, published in 1961, was “dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D. H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.” It is now a standard secondary school text.
Lewis Hine A little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, Georgia 1909 “The overseer admitted she was regularly employed.”
‘Mia’ from ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’, produced by the American educational cable channel TLC (The Learning Channel) and broadcast in Australia on the Lifestyle Channel.
Woodcut of Elizabeth Sawyer, an impoverished woman from the village of Edmonton, outside London, England. In 1621 she was convicted of witchcraft and subsequently hanged at Newgate Prison. Her case attracted widespread attention, and in the same year, a play entitled ‘The Witch of Edmonton’ was presented at the Cockpit Theatre.  In their play, the writers John Ford, Thomas Dekker and William Rowley portrayed Elizabeth as a victim of vicious abuse by the authorities.
In the menu image for this article John Stuart Mill (1806-73, left) and Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001) face off across the central graphic from the original 1960 Penguin paperback edition of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, a controversial novel which was first published in hardback in 1928.


You can read the full article by Armani Nimerawi in Capture magazine.
You may also be interested Helen Grace’s 2004 interview with Alasdair Foster for ArtLink magazine, in which they discussed ‘Staring in the Dark’, an exhibition about artists who engage pornography.
Also related to this theme is the article written for The Bakery Art Centre in Perth: ‘Normality if not a Virtue’


One Response to “On Censorship and Liberty”
  1. Frances Morris says:

    A refreshing article full of common sense, which is still sadly lacking in so many aspects of censorship today… A welcome diversion from the ubiquitous “nanny state” attitude to censorship found even in current democracies: we should indeed all have the right to make up our own minds on what offends us or not, rather than merely waiting to be told what to think.

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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