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Noted as one of Artnet's books of 2022, Censored Art Today by Gareth Harris, Chief Contributing Editor of the Art Newspaper and contributor to the Financial Times, analyses the different contexts in which artists, museums, and curators face restrictions today. The work is part of the Hot Topics series, edited by Institute faculty Jeffrey Boloten and Juliet Hacking and in collaboration with art world publishers, Lund Humphries. Read a complimentary excerpt of Censored Art Today, below.

Political Censorship in China, Cuba and the Middle East 

For decades, artists living under the Communist regimes of China and Cuba, along with those based in the countries of the Middle East, have adapted their lives and practices to the diktats of the respective governing regimes. In 2022, these areas of the world are becoming more autocratic rather than democratic, eschewing respect for human rights. Against the backdrop of a new world hierarchy in which ‘China hopes to position itself as the main challenger to an international order led by the United States’, expressions of dissent by artists and institutions put them at risk, leading to increased persecution and a rise in censorship in China and Cuba. Artists’ roles are seen as particularly sensitive and problematic within the confines of these increasingly restricted societies. I have chosen to focus on these geographical areas because, to put it simply, they have seen changes in leadership over the past decade – Xi Jinping in China, Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba – resulting in fresh waves of repression. This chapter looks at the subjugation of artists and museums in China, Hong Kong and Cuba along with the developing situation in the Persian Gulf, where the cultural sector is prospering but the quest to bolster soft power is likely to clash with inherently Western values as artists challenge deep-seated societal and religious ideas. The situation in some Middle Eastern states is even more in flux, as some states – such as Saudi Arabia under the de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – are considered by certain art world commentators to be on an ‘artwashing’ quest, using art to smooth over thorny issues such as human rights abuses. 

China’s grip on its cultural sector appears to be tightening both overseas and at home. When the M+ museum of 20th- and 21st-century culture opened on the southern tip of Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula in late 2021, the words of Henry Tang, the head of the West Kowloon Cultural District, sparked unease amongst visitors keen to see a blockbuster art institution 14 years in the making. ‘The opening of M+ does not mean that artistic expression is above the law. It is not’, Tang told a reporter from the Hong Kong Free Press news website, who pointed out at a press briefing that M+ is already ‘tarnished’ by censorship as artist Ai Weiwei cannot ‘be displayed’ in the museum. The journalist was drawing on press reports that a photograph of the Chinese artist and activist giving the middle finger in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (Study of Perspective, Tiananmen, 1997), from the collection of Uli Sigg, will not be displayed in the new museum (on 24 March 2021, M+ released a statement saying it had no plans to show the piece in their displays of the Sigg Collection). But less inflammatory works by the artist are on display. M+ responded: ‘Around 1,500 works drawn from the M+ Collections are presented in the opening displays, which were planned three years ago. The two works by Ai Weiwei currently on display at M+ – Whitewash (1995–2000) and Chang’an Boulevard (2004) – are the only works by the artist that the curatorial team intended to include in the inaugural hang. Given the large number of works in the M+ collection, only part of it can be exhibited at any one time, a spokeswoman insists.  

Tang ramped up the inflammatory rhetoric, however, adding that all exhibits must ‘comply’ with the new national security law, implemented mid-2020 by the Chinese government, which criminalises any act of subversion, secession or terrorism, with key provisions designed to curtail protest and freedom of speech such as holding some trials behind closed doors. Artists and curators in the semi-autonomous region subsequently felt more threatened than ever; it is unclear how this will play out long-term, but the art world is bracing itself for stricter crackdowns. ‘I have no doubt that MoMA New York probably have artworks in their archives that would not be displayed today because it would not be politically acceptable in today’s environment ... the same with Centre Pompidou or Tate Modern ... for example whether it is racially incorrect or whether it is an oppression of some sort of a coloured race’, Tang said. A journalist in attendance, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that the analogy with a Western museum was ‘very surprising’, but not a huge shock because ‘right now everything in Hong Kong has to deal with the political uncertainties and the will from the authorities to look very patriotic’.

How Hong Kong’s red lines will impact on artists 

How this plays out will affect whether M+ will be seen as a bastion of freedom or simply a tool of the government. The writer Ilaria Maria Sala says that it is a world-class institution, whose presence in Hong Kong changes much more than just the local artistic landscape but which must nevertheless toe the rather unclear red lines that may yet undermine it. She underlines that some works push at the boundaries set by the state – such as New Beijing (2001) by Wang Xingwei, which shows wounded penguins transported on a cart, a biting satirical reference to the 1989 Tiananmen student protests. ‘Their very inclusion is a strong curatorial statement, but the bare-minimum captions mean that viewers will need prior knowledge to recognise these potent political references for themselves’, Sala adds.  

The problems faced by M+ are indicative of how the new national security law might threaten artists and creative practitioners in Hong Kong. This seems a long way from when the city was promised Western-style freedoms after the United Kingdom handed over rule to China in 1997, initially fostering an ecosystem of artists who became accustomed to working and refining their practices without the threat of being detained or curtailed for expressing their ideas. The Hong Kong-based artist Elizabeth Briel says that all institutions in Hong Kong now face pressure to stay behind these new and shifting red lines. ‘There was a great deal of hope regionally that M+ could be an exceptional institution, at least until 2047, but due to the dramatic changes codified in the national security law, this is not possible, at least not to the extent that had been hoped.’ The cornerstone of the new law, and a worry for arts organisations and individuals, is that Beijing will also have power over how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body; in other words, the mainland government’s rulings will bypass Hong Kong’s legislature.

The museum ethics scholar and consultant Janet Marstine states a number of basic truths in the publication Curating Under Pressure: even though artists and curators in Hong Kong have traditionally had greater freedom of artistic expression than their mainland colleagues, conditions have deteriorated as Chinese and Hong Kong authorities attempt to suppress pro-democracy protests with increasing vigour. An extradition bill that would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China was introduced in April 2019 and then withdrawn the following October, but it set in motion a chain of events that has gradually undermined the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ governance policy. The bill, though thwarted, unsettled artists and curators, who pulled back from criticising China for fear of retribution. Writing in 2019, Marstine made the crucial point that ‘in Hong Kong, though the pressures to self-censor have traditionally come from the city’s commercial sector, they are increasingly motivated by fears of offending political and business interests in mainland China’. She also described how censorship worked through the years 2010 to 2019 in Hong Kong, reiterating that it ‘operates through covert means’. The scarcity of funding sources played a large part, with an overdependence on the Hong Kong government arts granting agency – the Arts Development Council – writes the academic Oscar Ho in Curating Under Pressure. In other words, speak out and you may lose your subsidy. 

The safety net has collapsed further in Hong Kong. The cartoonist Justin Wong says that the main reason he closed his Facebook account, where he posted political works, was that the national security law is unclear and he no longer knows where the so-called ‘red line’ is. ‘It poses a great threat to me as I don’t trust that the judicial system in Hong Kong can protect us anymore. You may call it self-censorship but it’s the safety measure I have to take to protect myself and my family.’ Illustrator Lau Kwong Shing described how he ‘reduced’, or cut back on, works relating to pro-democracy before leaving the city to settle in Taiwan. The human rights organisation Freemuse says that the anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2020 is often used to prevent Hong Kong artists from presenting their work. Other voices are expressing concerns. ‘Artistic censorship in Hong Kong is still light and episodic by mainland standards, but it is becoming more frequent’, explained the Shanghai-based writer Lisa Movius in 2019, adding at the time of writing that the ‘exacerbation since then plus the unpredictability now renders Hong Kong possibly more precarious than the mainland, even as controls there have tightened as well’. 

Others are more hopeful, suggesting that the tighter rules could elicit greater creativity and give rise to more sophisticated, coded works of art in years to come. Marstine also highlights how ‘practitioners in China and Hong Kong have developed a diverse toolkit of strategies and tactics to resist censorship and self-censorship’, including using coded language – such as ingenious euphemisms, memes and homophones – to evade detection. A most brutal takedown came at the end of 2021, though, with the dismantling of a statue mourning those killed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Pillar of Shame by the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt was erected in 1997 at the University of Hong Kong campus. But its removal and destruction were startling in their violence and audacity, with reports stating that workmen were seen taking away the top half of the 26-foot-high copper piece in darkness, winching it up on a crane. The University said that the decision to remove the statue – a mass of torn and distended corpses and faces – was ‘based on external legal advice’, also citing safety reasons. The removal reflected how political dissent in Hong Kong, or public-­facing acts of defiance in the form of artistic expression, will no longer be tolerated by the Beijing government. The dismantling is the most worrying censorship example yet, says Alex Tate of the non-profit organisation Lady Liberty HK, who describes the move as the Chinese Communist Party’s first step in ‘rewriting history’. Art institutions in Hong Kong are going to be placed under close supervision, Tate adds. 

The authoritarian hand of China extends overseas also. In 2021, the Chinese embassy demanded the cancellation of an exhibition in Italy by the Chinese dissident artist Badiucao at the publicly funded Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia. China said that the exhibition was full of ‘lies against the Chinese people’ and asked Brescia’s mayor, Emilio del Bono, to pull the show. He responded in an open letter that ‘dissent is a right ... Freedom of thought and expression, as Picasso says, in a democracy cannot be questioned.’ Badiucao’s works, including his political cartoons, criticise the Chinese Communist Party but the artist’s focus is on human rights issues, says Stefano Karadjov, the director of the Brescia Museums Foundation which runs the Santa Giulia Museum. The museum programme – which in 2020 featured a show of works by the Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan – is activist in tone as well as aesthetic. For Karadjov, the fallout underscored how there is an ‘urgency to discuss themes of democracy and freedom’ in museums today which, he argues, must take a more proactive stance on human rights. Dissident artists could be pushed aside, he opines. ‘We must also look at the framework of our time and use art as a means to understand it.’  

Cuba’s decrees pile up 

In Cuba, censorship has escalated because the political infrastructure of the country is collapsing incrementally, a thesis supported by artist Hamlet Lavastida’s testimony that ‘Castro was the law but now he’s gone, the people in power do not have legitimacy’. In a country where the judiciary is not separate from any branch of government, artists are subject to harassment that appears unrestrained (the Cuban embassy in London did not respond to queries about restrictions). The Cuban government has arguably become more totalitarian with Miguel Díaz-Canel at the helm in the positions of both First Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the State, a position he filled in April 2018. The new leader – not a Castro for the first time in 40 years – has employed the pretext of government legislation to clamp down on creative expression under a Communist regime, where Decree 349 requires artists to register for a government-issued licence. Under Decree 349 – published in July 2018 and implemented the following December – all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture. Amnesty International noted that the decree is likely to have a generally restrictive effect on artists in Cuba, preventing them from carrying out legitimate work for fear of reprisals. The human rights organisation notes that ‘the decree contains vague and overly broad restrictions on artistic expression’, paving the way for ‘its arbitrary application to further crackdown on dissent and critical voices ... ’. The Cuban government says it has not fully implemented Decree 349, but dissident artists have been persecuted in many ways since the law went into effect via hostile interrogations, fines, detentions and performance cancellations, says the Cuban American artist and writer Coco Fusco. But another less publicised law has had an equally calamitous impact on the freedom of artists. Decree 370 curbs communications on social media, further censoring the dissemination of information on the island of Cuba, a law that has been further tightened in late 2021 by the introduction of Decree 35, which introduced stricter controls on the use of social media.  

A recent Cuban cultural revolution led by artists and creatives, which has escalated since the death of Fidel Castro in 2016, has prompted the severest of clampdowns, but several developments and figures stand out in this ongoing censorship chronicle. The activist collective 27N was founded in November 2020 during a demonstration outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana; while artists such as Hamlet Lavastida and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara were at the forefront of protests that erupted across Cuba in July 2021 when people marched against hyperinflation and growing social inequality. Both men have experienced the impact of the government’s clampdown. Lavastida, a member of 27N, was arrested in June 2021 upon returning from an artist’s residency in Germany. In custody, he learned that an idea shared in a private chat – stamping Cuban currency with the logos of two activist groups – had prompted the authorities to charge him with ‘instigating to commit a crime’. He spent three months at Villa Marista, the state security headquarters, and was sent into exile in Poland in September 2021. He has said that he was interrogated about the motivation behind his art, his interest in politics and activism, and why he maintains relationships with individuals based in the United States, such as Coco Fusco. Meanwhile, in May 2021, Otero Alcántara, founder of the San Isidro activist movement, was detained and hospitalised against his will by the Cuban security service eight days into a hunger strike after calling for free speech and artistic freedom on the island. Since 2018, he has been detained more than 50 times and at the time of writing remains in prison. 

Lavastida has given the background for his own situation and how the government’s reactionary measures have escalated, providing a coda to decades of suppression since Castro took power in 1959. Artists have always been fearful of retribution under the rule of the Communist Party, he says, but 2018 was a turning point after the authorities announced the rollout of a national 3G network allowing Cubans to access the internet from anywhere. Lavastida sees the move as momentous, bringing an ‘analog government in conflict with a digital society’. Crucially, ‘many voices that were silenced for decades could now speak freely to people abroad and internally’. Coco Fusco astutely puts recent events in context, explaining how the raft of decrees enforced post 2018 ‘criminalise the activity of most people online who have any political consciousness whatsoever’. She stresses that artists were among the first Cubans in the 1990s to be allowed to sell their work directly in hard currency, permitting travel and more access to foreigners. 

This recent access to the worldwide web has nonetheless enabled artists to circumvent government control, giving them a degree of freedom, albeit still in the shadow of the government which has failed to maintain hegemony over the circulation of information. ‘They are losing that battle. The artists and the intellectuals are succeeding in getting around them’, Fusco adds. This has resulted in an ironic subversion of autonomy as the government is desperate to accrue revenue from the hard currency that comes from internet usage, which has exploded since 2018, Fusco says. ‘They want to get the money, but they want to control the political content.’ Yet those artists who incorporate political activism into their practices have been more at risk than ever in the wake of the recent decrees. Lavastida has been in the eye of the storm for a decade, developing work that deconstructs images and iconographies of the Cuban revolution. At the Untitled Art fair held in Miami in late 2021, he finally realised his idea of stamping currency with messages of support for freedom of expression in Cuba, joining the performance via Zoom as Fusco and another Cuban artist, Marco A. Castillo, marked visitors’ bills.  

Fiction and reality in the Middle East 

But as some countries are ramping up censorship, other nations are trying to paint a different, more illusory picture. Switching to the Middle East, the issue of who is censoring art and why becomes even more convoluted and layered. Scholar Serena Iervolino examines the consequences of curating and displaying ‘alien’ contemporary art in a conservative and autocratic state such as Qatar, the small oil-rich state that has souped up its soft power credentials dramatically over the past two decades. Iervolino’s analysis focuses on the intense debate generated on social media platforms following the unveiling of three highly contentious works: Printemps (‘Spring’, 2013)  and Coup de tête (‘Headbutt’, 2011–12), both by the Paris-based Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, and The Miraculous Journey (2005–13) by British artist Damien Hirst, a series of 14 bronze sculptures showing a foetus in various stages of development. Printemps formed part of Abdessemed’s solo exhibition L’âge d’ôr, which opened at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar, in 2013. The video projection shows a line of chickens hung on a wall, which convulse as their bodies are engulfed by flames; Coup de tête – a sculpture that portrays the French footballer Zinedine Zidane headbutting Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the 2006 Fifa World Cup – was removed from the Doha Corniche just weeks after being installed and has not been publicly displayed since. Hirst’s sculptures, located at Doha’s Sidra Medical and Research Hospital, were initially covered up after an outcry on social media but eventually went back on view in 2018. All three works were unveiled in Doha in October 2013 only to be met with outrage by conservative members of Qatari society, says Iervolino, who tracked responses on two Arabic hashtags that largely condemned Coup de tête for encouraging idolatry. Crucially, these works would have been overseen by the chairperson of Qatar Museums, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the sister of the current Emir. Iervolino argues that a chasm subsequently opened up between the top-down elitist cultural policy makers, symbolised by Qatar Museums, and ‘ordinary’ Qataris. 

The reaction of the populace also counts in Saudi Arabia. A Middle Eastern curator, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that Saudi Arabia is progressing fast in relation to its neighbours and there is both religious conservatism (what’s ‘allowed’) and social conservatism – what people collectively feel ‘comfortable’ with – at play. This rapid develop­ment was clear on a recent visit to the ancient heritage site of AlUla in the northwest of the country, an example of the rapid gear change in the country’s ambitions to morph into a major cultural player in the region. In these Gulf societies, there is a dichotomy between the image governments so desperately want to project to external audiences, often via powerful public relations exercises, and the reality of navigating a system where numerous internal barriers prevail. Saudi Arabia, long closed off to the world, violates its citizens’ human rights with dozens of people executed by the state every year. But since 2018, arts project after arts project has been lined up for a state-driven aggressive soft power campaign. The ancient landscape of AlUla in the northwest will be developed under a $15 billion masterplan project, while numerous other cultural behemoths such as the Diriyah Biennale (December 2021–March 2022) form part of a drive to promote the cultural credentials of Saudi Arabia, helping to diversify the economy and deliver a more ‘open’ image of the country in line with the government’s Vision 2030 plan.  

This soft power crusade, not completely coincidentally, gathered momentum following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The horrific killing sparked fears that artists and intellectuals in the notoriously conservative state would face a backlash and be forced to retreat in the face of growing opposition to the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As writer and founder of The Art Newspaper Anna Somers Cocks wrote at the time of Khashoggi’s murder: 

There is great fear now within Saudi Arabia, with even stricter self-censorship than before. Saudi artists and thinkers will have to be yet more careful in their creativity, which has always had to be veiled and encoded but nonetheless managed to express their longing for the freedom to speak about their lives and for the young of the country (around 51% of the population is under the age of 25).

The situation post-Khashoggi is paradoxically the opposite. The multifarious platforms that have sprung up, from biennials to heritage initiatives, have given Saudi artists much more exposure, drawing international figures to the Kingdom too, keen to discover the rich seam of excellent women artists working there. The cited Middle Eastern curator, who believes Saudi Arabia is evolving rapidly in relation to neighbouring states, tells me that Saudi Arabian artists are not free but ‘I do think they are freer’.   

In any case, there are some subjects that can be considered taboo or forbidden in many contexts, he admits, while underlining how it is not about whether you can say or show what you want, which could be divisive, but whether you can have a considered conversation about the subject that can be inclusive. Young artists are energised and believe in the work they are doing, though he remains unconvinced by the top-down approach led by government. ‘It’s an effective way of kick-starting a scene but a lasting eco-system needs organic growth, grassroots initiatives, and the third sector. Everything can’t develop at warp speed.’ But the most telling and damning perspective comes here: ‘A very nuanced approach has to be taken when talking about censorship in Saudi to not inadvertently put anyone in the spotlight, which could threaten their livelihood.’  

The curator of the 2021 Diriyah Biennale, Philip Tinari, makes a fascinating observation, explaining how Saudi Arabia’s emergence on the global art scene can be compared to China’s reinvention in the early 1980s after economic, social and legal reforms ushered in a new era of openness. As the West warily eyed up this new superpower, China was prone to being misunderstood, he says. This analogy, according to journalist Melissa Gronlund, ‘allows [Tinari] to gesture towards the complicated layering of state censorship, self-censorship and misreadings that characterise art-making in the Saudi climate’. In the West, museums are struggling to define their roles in the post-pandemic period, as evinced in Chapter 4 here, with most institutions aiming to make themselves accountable to a younger generation. But countries with no democratic apparatus, such as China and Cuba, are oppressing artists and institutions to try to consolidate political power, unashamedly censoring artistic production. Middle Eastern states are taking a different tack by using art and artists to ‘artwash’ their national brands and gloss over human rights issues. Recent visitors to Qatar and Saudi Arabia say nonetheless that the slew of cultural programmes reflect a more international outlook. Crucially, institutions such as Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha have delivered an outward-looking programme with shows dedicated to important artists such as Kader Attia, while serious cultural governmental strategies will naturally bring about many public benefits, including increased employment. 

It is no coincidence that censorship is on the rise in Hong Kong and Cuba just as their inhabitants have been incrementally seeing their worlds open up both physically and virtually. Non-democratic countries are also quashing freedoms in other ways, for example by deploying museums for political ends, ‘weaponising’ institutions that are increasingly pressurised to be proxy platforms for state-sanctioned policies and purposes (the developments at Brescia’s Museo di Santa Giulia demonstrate how China is determined to control its soft power narrative beyond its borders). But China is also doubling down in Hong Kong through explicit acts of censorship – the removal of The Pillar of Shame – and more implicit actions such as the anti-terrorism legislation that poses a serious threat to creatives in the region. China is more determined than ever to take control of its cultural institutions and players. Cuba is unashamedly and systematically targeting Cuban artists; as I write, several remain in detention and face bogus criminal charges. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is yet to receive a trial after he was arrested on his way to a Havana demonstration in July 2021, blatantly illustrating the extent of the government’s authoritarianism. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are playing to an international crowd, using culture as a conduit for economic growth though censorship remains an implicit, ongoing obstacle. Whether this is purely propaganda or whether it will turn into something more purposeful for artists working on the ground remains to be seen. Established autocratic regimes are clearly drilling down and abrogating artists. Meanwhile, the question of how ‘illiberal democracies’ are turning on arts professionals also needs to be evaluated.