Rushdie’s critics lost the battle – they failed to prevent the publication of The Satanic Verses. But they won the war. Policy makers and arts administrators came broadly to accept the argument that it was morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures, and that every community possessed the right to be consulted over how it may be depicted.
So I wrote in ‘Arts for whose sake?’, the keynote essay in Beyond Belief – Theatre Freedom of Expression and Public Order, Index on Censorship’s report on the Behzti affair, published three years ago. Behzti was a play by Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which many within the Sikh community found offensive, especially in its depiction of rape and violence within a gurdwara. When the Birmingham Rep staged the play in 2004, protests by Sikh activists forced the theatre to close the production within two days.
Ten years on, the controversy over Exhibit B, a show about ‘human zoos’ that was to have been staged by London’s Barbican Centre but was closed down because of protests, both echoes the Behzti controversy and shows even more how the censors ‘lost the battle’ but have ‘won the war’. In particular, it shows how even those who see themselves as progressive and as defenders of free speech can often be less than fulsome in their defence of artistic freedom.
Exhibit B uses the 19th-century freakshow or human zoo as the starting point for an exploration of slavery, colonialism and present-day racism. Designed by South African Brett Bailey, the show features twelve ‘tableaux’ in which motionless performers are exhibited as artefacts. I have not seen the show. I have not been allowed to see the show, because the Barbican shut it down before I was able to attend. The show has, however, toured a number of European cities before coming to London. And this is how Tiffany Jenkins described the production at the Edinburgh Festival in August:
I saw Exhibit B at the Edinburgh International Festival, where the Playfair Library Hall, with its grand, white corniced ceilings and portraits of famous white men, provided the perfect stage. The first scene you encounter consists of a male and a topless female, exhibited as if they are artefacts – a shocking arrangement recreated from a natural-history museum exhibit from the twentieth century. Further along, a young woman sits before a mirror on an iron bed, chained by the neck, her bare back exposed to us. All of these scenes are accompanied by labels with statistics such as the age, height, sex and place of origin of the people. At the end of the hall are a group of disembodied heads – four performers from Namibia – singing the most beautiful songs. Indeed, with its careful attention to detail, the elaborate historical clothing and spot-lighting, and the actors, there is a great deal of beauty in Exhibit B – something which jars with the horror depicted.
Many critics have hailed the show; Lynn Gardner, in the Guardian, for instance, called it ‘both unbearable and essential’. Others have seen it as a continuation of historical bigotry. An online petition organised by Sara Myers described it as ‘a caging instrument of white supremacists’ and condemned the Barbican for participating in ‘an outrageous act of complicit racism’. It demanded that the Barbican ‘withdraw the racist Exhibition’. According to sociologist Kehinde Andrews, ‘The exhibition literally turns the black body into an object. Such objectification was at the heart of the human zoos, and recreating this re-exoticises and reproduces the original racism.’ Tiffany Jenkins gave a more nuanced critical view:
There are problems with it, but these are not, as the petitioners argue, to do with racism… The work is about our engagement. The black performers look us in the eye as we look up at them on the pedestals and, in one case, in a cage. That the actors look you in the eye is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, and most critics have described this interaction as a devastating experience – which it is.
But it’s this attempt to make the audiences feel uncomfortable, a feature of so many art works today, that makes me uneasy. Exhibit B… [seems] to be more about ‘me’ or ‘us’ than what [it] purports to be about. This makes for effective theatre… but it also reduces the work to being about how we feel, rather than addressing how things are. The finger-pointing prevents the production from engaging with history and present-day problems, which [it is] ostensibly performed to address.
Exhibit B is clearly controversial, provocative, unnerving and, for some, offensive and racist. There is a debate to be had about the show, about racism, and about the role of art and art institutions in exploring such issues. But this debate is distinct from the debate about free speech. Or, more to the point, one cannot have the one without the other. If we want to have a proper debate about racism, art and institutions we need also resolutely to defend freedom of expression. Many works of art from The Satanic Verses to Behzti to Jerry Springer: the Opera to MF Husain’s paintings have been denounced as offensive. The offence felt by some within black communities is no different to the offence felt by such Muslims or Sikhs or Christians or Hindus. And our response to people feeling offended should be no different. Brett Bailey has every right to explore the issues as he sees fit, the Barbican has every to stage that exploration, and critics have every right to protest about it. What the critics don’t have is the right to shut the show down because they feel offended by it.
Given all this, perhaps the most worrying response has been that of many of those in favour of free speech, many who have supported the right of the Barbican to stage the show, but at the same time blamed the institution for bringing the controversy onto itself. The Barbican, the critics suggest, should have anticipated the hostility, consulted the back community, and opened up a debate. The first response of Index on Censorship to the controversy was to suggest that ‘The more potent issue [than censorship] here is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme’. (It subsequencely published a statement making clear that it saw the closing down of the show as a case of ‘Censorship: pure and simple’.) Hugh Muir in the Guardian suggested that the Barbican had the ‘legal right’ to stage the show but had ‘failed to consider how black audiences would interpret it’.
It is true that art, especially art that seeks to explore complex historical and social issues, can only truly be effective if it engages with the audience. The character of such engagement is itself, however, a complex matter. The trouble with the claims that the Barbican was to blame for the controversy is that such arguments come uncomfortably close to those long used by would-be censors to justify their demands for bans. Salman Rushdie and Penguin were, for instance, charged with not having anticipated the response to The Satanic Verses and therefore responsible for the backlash. The demand that the ‘community’ had to be consulted was at the heart of the Behzti controversy. The irony was that, as I wrote in my essay about the controversy, it was the attempts by Birmingham Rep to consult with the local Sikh community that exacerbated the problem:
When the Birmingham Rep decided to consult the local Sikh community about the play, it imagined that it was simply gauging the views of community elders about a potentially controversial work. As Trina Jones, general manager of the Rep at the time of the controversy, put in a panel discussion about Behzti, ‘We were clear that there were elements of the play that may upset folk… The purpose of that dialogue was really to share our concerns, not really to enter into consultations about the play itself; our intention was never to offer the play up for any development or change.’ Sikh leaders, on the other hand, believed that they were being consulted about the play itself, and that their views would be taken into account in determining its content and tone. Out of that difference of expectations, one could argue, emerged the Behzti controversy.
The real problem, as I observed in that essay, lies in the very demand for an institution to consult a ‘community’ before staging a work of art. Far from opening up debate, such demands close conversations down, by allowing certain people and groups to act as gatekeepers to that which is acceptable.
‘The arts do not have the right to racially offend’ claimed Kehinde Andrews, one of the key figures behind the censorship campaign, in a debate in the Guardian with Stella Odunlami, one of the actors in Exhibit B. That, of course, was the argument made by critics of Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. The argument is no more acceptable when applied to Exhibit B than it was when applied to The Satanic Verses or Behzti. No one can stop anyone else from being offended. But the fact that someone is offended is not a justification for silencing the source of the putative offence.
Andrews has the argument back to front. It is not that ‘the arts do not have the right to offend’; it is rather that there is no right not to be offended. Indeed, as I have argued countless times, the right to offend is central to struggles of minority groups in their fight for justice:
Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority.
This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
In his Guardian debate, Andrews went on to insist that ‘black artists do not have the authority to define what is and is not acceptable’. The lack of self-awareness here is quite staggering. Yes, it is true that black artists do not have the authority to define ‘what is and is not acceptable’. But neither do black sociologists. In the controversy over Exhibit B, as in the controversies over The Satanic Verses, Behzti, the Danish cartoons, The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) , and countless others, certain individuals have taken upon themselves to define the boundaries of acceptability. That is what is unacceptable. As the writer and director Bonnie Greer has put it:
I’ve seen people like this before, self-appointed judges, roaming the internet in search of what displeases and offends them. One protester went so far as to issue an absurd analysis of the possible psychological damage Exhibit B could cause the actors involved. It was ignorant and insulting psychobabble. I don’t want to be stopped from seeing a work because, in their opinion, it’s ‘inappropriate’, ‘incorrect’ or ‘racist’ – words which are, at best, moveable feasts. I want to think for myself.
Should the Barbican have been pro-active in organising talks and debates to allow people to engage with the issues? Quite probably. But the point that many critics miss is that the staging of the show is itself the focus for debate. And responsibility for that debate lies not just with the Barbican but with all of us. To put the onus simply on the Barbican, to suggest that it was primarily responsible for engaging in debate about the exhibition, is to relieve the rest of us of the responsibility to engage. Campaigners against Exhibit B imagine that they are opening up the debate on the themes of the show in a way that the Barbican has failed to do so. Why then seek to close it down? Censorship is never a means of opening up dialogue, always a means of shutting down debate.
Is the Barbican too lacking in diversity, whether in its programming or in its boardroom? Quite possibly. But that is a separate debate from that about Exhibit B. To link the two is merely to find a spurious ‘progressive’ reason for censorship. And, again, there is a long history of doing this, a long history of using general claims about racism as justification for specific demands for censorship. ‘The parody of Muhammad and the Muslim tradition in The Satanic Verses‘, claimed Shabir Akhtar, a spokesperson for the Bradford Council of Mosques during the anti-Rushdie campaign, ‘has clear echoes of the worst brand of Orientalist sentiment for which the term “prejudice” is decidedly lenient.’ And so, he insisted, The Satanic Verses must be banned.
The real criticism that could be made of the Barbican is in having cancelled Exhibit B when there was probably no need to have done so. Yes, there was a vociferous protest outside the exhibition, but that protest was not violent, there were no arrests, and there appeared to be no real threat to the show. The Barbican simply took fright. It is not in staging Exhibit B but in shutting the show down that the Barbican truly failed in its duty to allow the debate to proceed.
The photos are from the Edinburgh Festival production of Exhibit B, courtesy of the BBC.