TOPIC GUIDE: Art Censorship

"Artistic expression should never be censored"

PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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The extent to which society should impose limits on the ability of artists to express themselves is a debate which polarises opinion. The recent decision by several UK universities to ban the pop song ‘Blurred Lines’ from their student unions [Ref: BBC News] has brought the issue into sharp relief, with supporters of the ban suggesting that the song is degrading to women, and has: “...deeply sinister undertones” of misogyny and sexual violence, which some may not wish to hear [Ref: Huffington Post]. Others though are critical of the move, with one commentator suggesting that: “...if you look to pop music for moral guidance, you’re and idiot” [Ref: Telegraph]. The censorship of art also reflects political and religious concerns. Famously, ‘The Satanic Verses’, a novel by author Salman Rushdie, was deemed blasphemous to Islam, and throughout 1989 the book was banned by various countries around the world, and the author himself is still subject to ongoing death threats [Ref: Wikipedia]. To the present day, various artists such as Ai Wei Wei continue to have their work censored and banned by authorities for either being subversive or for upsetting cultural or religious sensitivities [Ref: BBC News]. But critics of censorship argue that a fundamental aspect of free expression is allowing art that is: “...abhorrent, that shocks, disgusts and appals and causes offence” [Ref: Index on Censorship]. But how should we view this? Should artists have the right to shock and appal, or are there instances where their artistic license should be curtailed? Can some art be so offensive that banning or censoring is the right thing to do? Or should artistic expression always be allowed free reign, without any restriction?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Art for art’s sake?
As a retort to critics who wanted to see his work censored, nineteenth century writer Oscar Wilde stated that: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. A book is either well written, or badly written, that is all” [Ref: Lit.]. For Wilde, art should judged according to its artistic merit, and nothing more. However, the controversy surrounding the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1988 tested that sentiment as it was deemed offensive to Islam, resulting in protests around the world [Ref: New York Times]. Many felt the author was entitled to write the book, even though it caused offence [Ref: Vanity Fair], whilst others were less forgiving, questioning whether an artist really does have the right to offend on such a large scale. Children’s author Roald Dahl claimed at the time that: “Clearly he has profound knowledge of the Muslim religion and its people and he must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing…to my mind he is a dangerous opportunist” [Ref: Telegraph India]. In response to this view, one commentator suggests that: “...original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or…controversial” [Ref: New Yorker]. But how far should art go to be original? The controversy in 2010 about a series of Danish cartoons reignited that debate [Ref: BBC News]. And the decision by a Swedish gallery to exhibit a painting made from the stolen ashes of holocaust victims, again asks us to assess what type of art we find palatable, as well as questioning the extent to which artists have the right to be offensive [Ref: New Statesman].

Decency Vs taste: Blurred Lines?
Supporters of the ban on ‘Blurred Lines’ insist that the song is crass and sexist, and “...perpetuates rape culture, and therefore has no place on our university campuses” [Ref: Huffington Post], but critics say that it is sad that we feel the need to protect young men and women from a simple pop song [Ref: Telegraph]. However, this furore highlights the delicate balance that artists must tread in relation to taste and decency. In a similar vein, there are calls from campaigners for controversial books containing sex, violence, bad language and offensive terms to have ‘trigger warnings’ on the covers. For advocates of such measures, it is not about censorship but accepting that art does not have the right to offend everyone, as one commentator points out: “Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy” [Ref: New Statesman]. But trigger warnings could potentially stifle the creative output of writers if they are afraid that their work will come with a warning on the cover opponents argue, with writer Jay Caspian Kang observing that: “Any amount of guidance will lead to dull conformity” in literature [Ref: New Yorker]. Such concerns are heightened by the news that racial epithets are to be censored from the new editions of Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ because: “...abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority…repulse modern-day readers” [Ref: Guardian]. But do we lose something from novels when we seek to censor them retrospectively in such a way?  After all, argues one critic, art and literature are meant to push boundaries and make us think: “One thing a novel never is, is simple. That’s why we read them, because they are challenging and thoughtful” [Ref: spiked].

Art, Politics and Self Censorship
For some, the result of restricting artistic expression is that artists will begin to self censor, which will dilute the quality, and narrow the scope of the art produced [Ref: Independent]. This, it is argued, is unfortunate because: “Art can only mirror the culture which produced it. It shows us all of the positive aspects of humanity, but it is also the duty of art to examine the uncomfortable, dark stuff. Sometimes art will be troubling, but then so too will the society it is depicting” [Ref: Guardian]. Yet others suggest that self-censorship can be seen simply as the artist being responsible. Reflecting on the Danish Cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Sukhvinder Stubbs notes that far from being merely art: “Cartoons…can be a powerful means of catalysing and disseminating ideas, be they pertinently satirical or hideously warped. Cartoons were, for example, used extensively by the Nazis in their anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns” [Ref: Guardian]. If we view art from this perspective, it is not a thing in and of itself, to be judged by its own standards as Oscar Wilde suggests; but instead, has the power to influence; the power to be political. Art with a political message, such as Picasso’s Guernica painted in 1937 [Ref: Pablo], continue to evoke strong feelings [Ref: Slate], and today, political concerns about the power of art are shown by the way Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is seen as being subversive by the government in Beijing [Ref: BBC News]; challenges to the orthodoxy are seen as problematic in Ireland [Ref: The Times]; and in the last few weeks, Russia has banned the use of profanity in all art, a political move many feel is an attempt to distance Russian culture from: “The decadent West” [Ref: Guardian]. So how should we view censorship in the arts? Should artists, musicians, playwrights and novelists have the space to express themselves, even if their work is challenging and offensive to some? Should artists moderate their work in the name of: “...discretion, good sense, good taste and goodwill” [Ref: Guardian]? Or should we resist any attempt to dilute the content of an artist’s work?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


In defense of old racist art

David Marcus The Federalist 21 July 2014

Blurred Lines shows how zealously intolerant we’ve become

Brendan O'Neill Telegraph 13 September 2013

Censorship and the arts

Julia Farrington Independent 31 May 2013

On Censorship

Salman Rushdie New Yorker 12 May 2012


The Yellowface of Mikado

Sharon Pian Chan Seattle Times 13 July 2014

The whole Canon needs a trigger warning

Sarah Ditum New Statesman 21 May 2014

Why other universities should ban Blurred Lines

Daisy Lindlar Huffington Post 30 November 2013

Is this the most offensive art ever made?

Kamila Kocialkowska New Statesman 6 December 2012


A fundamental Fight

Paul Elie Vanity Fair 1 May 2014

Taking the offensive: defending artistic expression

Index on Censorship 13 May 2013


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Whats Really important about Trigger Warnings

Soraya Chemaly Huffington Post 20 July 2014

WTF! Russia bans swearing in the arts

Miryam Omili Guardian 1 July 2014

Trigger warnings: A gun to the head of literature

Dr Tiffany Jenkins spiked 22 May 2014

Trigger warnings and the novelists mind

Jay Caspian Kang New Yorker 21 May 2014

Trigger warnings: what we’re really talking about

Laurie Penny New Statesman 21 May 2014

Putins four dirty words

David Remnick New Yorker 5 May 2014

Is this art too risky or offensive to display?

Martha Rosenberg Huffington Post 28 April 2014

After 25 years

Telegraph India 20 April 2014

Blurred Lines: The most controversial song of the decade

Dorian Lynskey Guardian 13 November 2013

25 years later: why the Rushdie affair still matters

Todd Green Huffington Post 26 September 2013

Nothing, however vile deserves censorship

Nick Cohen Guardian 16 September 2012

Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘N’ word is unacceptable

David Messent Guardian 5 January 2011

National Portrait Gallery bows to censors

Blake Gopnik Washington Post 30 November 2010

How one book ignited a culture war

Andrew Anthony Guardian 11 January 2009

The freedom that hurts us

Sarah Joseph Guardian 3 February 2006

Its about discretion and good taste

Sukhvinder Stubbs Guardian 3 February 2006

Whats so controversial about Picasso’s Guernica?

David Cohen Slate 6 February 2003

Oscar Wilde famous quotes



Pablo Picasso.Org


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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