does it offend you, yeah?

First up some brief housekeeping announcements:

Footstepszine barely even represents her own views never mind those of any organisation…..i’ve struggled with the contradiction between wanting to discuss things I encounter through work and having a private medium to write and discuss in (i’ve posted about it more extensively here) and guess what…. i can’t resolve it.

If you think i’m being paranoid: i probably am, a bit, but i do think of what happened with @baskers and sometimes I do worry. I don’t want to get sidetracked thinking about privacy too much now, but  I would say please always think before you credit me with Footsteps by name……

Also if the fire alarm does sound, we’re not expecting a drill so you will need to leave the building.

Where was I? I was talking about equality wasn’t I? I believe we are still living in a vastly unequal society; and where other people will point you in the direction of statistics; i say take a quick look at the dominance of a group of rich white men who are currently running the shop in this country.  I believe people are still discriminated against directly and indirectly on the grounds of race, religion, class, gender,  sexuality, disability etc etc and that this is not ok.  Some people do not like you talking about this.

I’ve spent my life being the one who fights with her extended family when they come out with the classic ‘I’m not racist, but….<insert racist bullshit here>’, the one who gets all po-faced and lectures you on why it’s not funny to use ‘gay’ as an insult or points out that certain people’s stories are missing from out cultural institutions and repositories, and why it really, really matters.  Juliet Jacques once described herself as the personification of ‘political correctness gone mad’: sometimes I know how she feels. 

But I’m having trouble with offense. And offense and how it fits with art.  Because if it is now an offence  under the Equality Act ‘to create an intimidating, offensive or hostile environment’ (because of certain protected characteristics), and if this ‘environment’ can be read in the context of a gallery of public exhibition space (and I have seen this happen)  this potentially leaves public art in a very difficult place. 

So you get stories of galleries being asked to take down work featuring women kissing because it is offensive to a person’s religion, only others who are gay being offended at it’s removal.  Here two different protected characteristics are in conflict with each other. Then you get art like this being removed because it’s use of the phrase ‘Get down white boy’ was deemed too provocative and offensive even in the context of an retrospective exhibition of propaganda images.

 I have no idea of how this would actually play out in a court situation: no one wants to be the test case, and the easiest solution is to remove the offending material before anything gets out of hand. 

Art can be offensive. And what’s more sometimes it damn well should be.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about pissing people off for the sake of it; if I was around in the 70’s I wouldn’t have been one of those punks who wore swastikas.  And I know dismissing offensive experience can be the easiest thing in the world to do from a position of privilege.   I remember when the EDL came to Bradford there was some well to do bloke on Radio Four, going on about how the Asian community shouldn’t pay any attention to them when they came to town and started smashing things up and screaming abuse, which you know, is kinda fine for some well to do guy in Kent to say.

But art should shake things up.  And maybe one way it does that is by showing things about the world which people don’t want to look at, don’t want to talk about, feelings that they don’t want to feel and thoughts they don’t want to think. Things that offend them, things that aren’t part of their world view.

Because sometimes the truth is ugly.  Look at the shaky footage of Belsen, or the stories that came out with Fritzl, or narratives of rape and torture and abuse that came out of the British slave trade which helped to build some of our cities, look at the news day in day out and tell me that the truth isn’t ugly.  That the world isn’t f’ing offensive…..And maybe you do want art that isn’t offensive, that doesn’t engage with the world in any real way, maybe you just want something nice to hang up your luxury apartment wall and make you feel sophisitcated….But I’d say that isn’t art…. it’s interior design…..

Maybe there is a large contradiction: that I’m blunting stabbing at but not really getting to; between smoothing over issues and of shaking them up.  Because with people taking offense and the implications this now apparently has it may seem easier not to talk about race, or disability or gender at all.  But the issues that underlie this taking of offense don’t vanish because you take the provocative material away. Not talking about tension doesn’t make it disappear, it just festers away ignored until it one day explodes….

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About Rachel

zinester/diy-til-i-die/love hate relationship with arts admin/girlpunkfeminist/geek
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2 Responses to does it offend you, yeah?

  1. Dave J says:

    Very well said, but I’m powerfully struck by the amount of fear surrounding this post. The fact that you’ve felt the need to put in those careful disclaimers at the beginning, and the fact that (unusually for Footsteps in the Dark) there were no replies several days later illustrates the nervousness that so many of us feel when treading on this dangerous terrain, myself definitely included: Along with a number of my friends, I was greatly troubled by an article on page 24 of the current edition of the Bradford Student newspaper that denounces ‘secular democracy’ and explicitly proposes an international Islamic theocratic dictatorship as a solution to the present upheavals in the Middle East. It took me until the deadline day for the next issue to summon up the courage to respond, because I fear that challenging even such outrageous sentiments is likely to bring accusations of Islamophobia, if not outright racism. But sometimes the awkward silence around such subjects has to be broken by the reasonable, because otherwise the unreasonable will rush to have their say.

    Which brings us neatly to the BNP. I peered through the censoring paper to look at the piece of their literature that was in the Fight the Power exhibition before someone decided that ‘we’ didn’t want it there, and if I’m not much mistaken it is one of the party’s election leaflets. I recognised it because I’d received a copy during the General Election last year, as thousands if not millions of other voters must have done, possibly at public expense if it was an official Election Communication in their constituency. It’s something that’s been so widely seen, and yet it’s supposedly too shocking for students to look at, because they might be traumatised by finding out that some people have nasty views. How absurd is that?

    I’d like to know how many people actually complained about the Fight the Power exhibition. I can’t help suspecting that the decision to censor the show was prompted mostly by the University authorities fearing legal action, either under the Equality Act that you mention (which would have made a very interesting trial) or in the form of a possible lawsuit from a student claiming to have suffered emotional distress because of the University exposing them to upsetting images. But, as you rightly say, reality is so often ugly. The phrase ‘Get down white boy’ reminds of me of some things I’ve heard being shouted by gangs of lads in Great Horton Road, and anyone who was in Bradford last August already knows all about the EDL, whose literature was also deemed to be too upsetting for students to see. I absolutely agree that art should sometimes seek to shake things up, and I’m grateful for exhibitions like this one that succeed in provoking discussion around sensitive topics.

    Finally, if any British art gallery actually does remove a picture of women kissing in deference to someone’s religious sensibilities, please name the guilty gallery. I’d want to sign petitions, write letters, possibly picket the place, and generally fight the power of religious intolerance in any way available!

  2. wow! thanks for such a thoughtful response (: lots of interesting things going on here –
    particularly the idea that the BNP/EDL aren’t an illegal party but they might be producing illegal images – potentially – don’t really know how that works. Racism is repugnant, but it does exist, being unable to talk about it, or discuss why people might be attracted to parties like the BNP in the first place is really unhelpful and counter productive in my view. It basically affords them some kind of mythic outlaw pariah status, which they don’t deserve.

    I should probably clarify that the Get Down Whiteboy image was deemed problematic under the Public Order Act, rather than the equality and diversity act…..but there is a general climate of fear of offense (which added to fear of being made obsolete in the current public spending service cuts, is adding to a heck of a lot of fear) which makes ‘over reactions’ such as this (IF this is how you chose to see it, I’m not saying you should, or that I do, you’ll understand that I have to be careful), much more possible.

    Also the image of the women kissing was covered temporarily for a visitor, rather than being permanently removed; as a compromise, but this is completely anecdotal and told to me in confidence (people are worried about publicity and that goes either way) so I think if I went any further on who it concerns I’d be hung, drawn and quartered….. but it’s too good an example for me to miss out here. illustrates the complexities of the issue of ‘offense and ‘decency’

    these are interesting times we live in….

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