TOPIC GUIDE: DM Israel: Artistic Expression

"Artistic expression should never be censored"

PUBLISHED: 11 Mar 2016

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng & Will Turner

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Last year the northern Israeli city of Nahariya banned several pop songs from being played at ‘Nahariya Village’, a series of concerts and other events. The: “List of Banned ‘Anti-Educational Songs’ for Playing” included ‘Blurred Lines’, a source of controversy outside of Israel too, due to “the culture of rape in the song”, and ‘Anaconda’, because “the song objectifies the buttocks of women and girls” [Ref: Ha’aretz]. Nahariya municipality defended the ban, stating that “we want to be responsible for the content featured in an educational setting, as we feel responsibility for what happens there”[Ref: Ha’aretz], mirroring similar reasons used in several UK universities’ ban of ‘Blurred Lines’ from their student unions [Ref: BBC News]. But some have been critical of the move to ban songs, with one commentator suggesting that “if you look to pop music for moral guidance, you’re an idiot” [Ref: Telegraph]. Censoring of art has often been justified on the basis of reflecting social and religious concerns, perhaps most famously in the case of ‘The Satanic Verses’, a novel by British author Salman Rushdie, which was deemed blasphemous to Islam, banned by various countries around the world, and resulted in a fatwa being issued against the author [Ref: Wikipedia]. More recently artists such as China’s Ai Wei Wei continue to have their work censored and banned by authorities for either being subversive or for upsetting cultural sensitivities, and his exhibition in Tel Aviv – originally planned for March 2015 - was cancelled, with Ai suggesting that censorship was at play [Ref: Ha’aretz]. However critics of censorship in any form, argue that allowing art that is “abhorrent, that shocks, disgusts and appals and causes offence” [Ref: Index on Censorship] is a central part of a thriving democracy, whose “power lies in recognizing that the other has the right to express opinions that are unpleasant and hurtful” [Ref: Index on Censorship]. 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:]. For Wilde, art should be judged according to its artistic merit, and nothing more. However, the Charlie Hebdo attack last year in Paris reignited the debate about artistic expression, censorship and offence. In contrast to the UK campaign group Index on Censorship, which ran a selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons online in order “to show that fear should not be allowed to stifle free expression” [Ref: Index on Censorship], the Associated Press declined to follow suit, stating that the: “AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation.” [Ref: Associated Press] The conflict between these opposing perspectives has recently found expression in domestic Israeli politics. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev has made clear that “if it is necessary to censor, I will censor,” and that she “will not lend a hand to damaging the image of the state and Israel Defense Forces soldiers” [Ref: Jerusalem Post]. Critics of her approach point to a host of incidents, from freezing funding to the Arab al-Midan theatre and threatening to do the same to the Jerusalem Film Festival in protest over two films, to the Ministry of Culture withdrawing “its support from a video dance by the choreographer Arkadi Zaides, ‘Archive’, because he used visual materials and the logo of the human rights organization B’Tselem” [Ref: Ha’aretz]. These decisions are justified on the grounds that “there is a big difference between the freedom of expression – which has to be wide, irritating and provoking – and the state’s obligation to fund incitement, against Arabs or against the state” [Ref: Ynet]. In response, Salman Rushie himself 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 decision, for example, by a Swedish gallery to exhibit a painting made from the stolen ashes of holocaust victims, asks us to assess what we find acceptable in art, as well as questioning the extent to which artists have the right to be offensive [Ref: New Statesman].

Decency Vs taste: Blurred Lines?
In Israel, the video of a radical settler wedding where the Dawabsheh murders were celebrated [Ref: Russia Today] has prompted some to question whether traditional Jewish wedding songs are “anthems of hate and incitement”, and should be abandoned as a result [Ref: Ha’aretz]. Meanwhile, 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. Yossi Klein argues that Miri Regev’s appointment and proclamations in defence of censorship will kick-start this phenomenon, stating that “the discussion about the right to free artistic expression won’t be conducted between politicians and artists; each artist will engage in it privately. How far do I need to go to satisfy them, he’ll wonder. What else do I need to censor?” [Ref: Ha’aretz] This, critics of censorship fear, is problematic 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 continue to manifest themselves globally. Whilst artist Ai Wei Wei continues to be seen as subversive by the government in Beijing [Ref: BBC News], challenges to the cultural orthodoxy are also considered problematic in Northern Ireland [Ref: The Sunday Times]. And in December last year, Israel’s Education Ministry controversially removed Dorit Rabinyan’s ‘Borderlife’ from high school curricula in order to maintain, “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector”, and to uphold the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity” [Ref: Ha’aretz]. 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.

Taking the offensive: defending artistic expression

Index on Censorship 13 May 2013

How one book ignited a culture war

Andrew Anthony Guardian 11 January 2009


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


In defense of old racist art

David Marcus The Federalist 21 July 2014


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.

Religious Jewish wedding songs are anthems of hatred and incitement

Michael Melchior Ha'aretz 24 December 2015

Don’t let free speech die

Index on Censorship 8 January 2015

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

Blurred Lines: The most controversial song of the decade

Dorian Lynskey Guardian 13 November 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

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.

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