This is the mural that Banksy painted in Clacton this week. The mural that local council officials painted over for being ‘offensive’.
Clacton, a small seaside town near London, is host next week to a by-election, triggered by the defection of the local Conservative MP, Douglass Carswell, to UKIP, the populist anti-immigration, anti-EU party, whose growing success is causing panic in mainstream ranks. Carswell will almost certainly win the by-election in his new political colours, which would make him the first elected UKIP MP.
Banksy’s response was to paint a mural outside a gents’ toilet in the town satirising the anti-immigration argument. The local council received complaints that the mural was ‘offensive’. Officials went to have a look at it, decided that it was ‘potentially racist’ and had it painted over. Only later did they realize they had destroyed a Banksy.
It is easy to laugh at bungling bureaucrats who seemingly cannot distinguish between racism and satire; or to be outraged by petty officials who think it their right to destroy what they deem to be ‘unacceptable’ art. But however laughable or outrageous the actions of the council officials may have been, there was nothing unusual about them. The idea that art must be wary of giving offence, that people have a right not to be offended, has become almost received wisdom.
After all, only last week London’s Barbican Centre closed down Exhibit B, a show about racism and colonialism by South African artist Brett Bailey, after critics condemned it as ‘racist’ and ‘offensive’. ‘The arts do not have the right to racially offend’ claimed sociologist Kehinde Andrews, one of the key figures behind the censorship campaign. That might have been a council official in Clacton speaking.
Of course, it is quite probable that many of the protestors outside the Barbican show would have appreciated Banksy’s satire on UKIP and would denounce the council’s actions. But why is the shutting down of Exhibit B any different to the painting over of Banksy’s mural? Who decides that one is acceptable and another not? The answer, of course, are the self-appointed judges who take it upon themselves to patrol our culture and decide for us what is and is not acceptable.
One person’s offence is all too often another person’s art. Once we allow offence to become the criterion for acceptability, then much art, and almost all satire, will go the way of Banksy’s pigeons.
Photos by Banksy.