Censorship in the arts is becoming an increasing concern – in a recent ‘Freedom of Expression’ report in the UK, 70% of the participating artists explained that they would hold back from criticizing a funder, for fear that future opportunities would be jeopardized.
In a climate of increasing financial precarity, many artists feel that their work needs to cater to the preferences of funding bodies. Consequently, self-censorship or ‘soft censorship’ is impacting creative practices and, in turn, cultural discourse. In short, our culture – our ideas, our taste, our conversations, our debates – is becoming increasingly molded by currents of wealth.
The emergence of Coronavirus is likely to intensify the state of uncertainty and precarity in the arts, further impacting the culture we live within. In the months and years after a major crisis, there is often a tendency to favour simple and speedy ‘top down’ solutions to emergent issues, disregarding the complex implications of political decisions, sidelining the arts and leaving the long-term social impact.
The consequences, and suppressed stories, of this kind of top-down, hierarchical approach do not go by unnoticed. Artists have continued to remind audiences of these not-so-distant histories. But, amidst the creeping ‘culture of censorship’, these art practices are often shut down.In 2017, artist Yoshio Shirakawa’s installation about the ‘Memorial for the Korean forced labourer, Gunma Prefecture’ was withdrawn from the exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Gunma. The artwork was based on a monument to Korean men and women forced into labour under the National Mobilization Law.
Fast forward two more years, to the 2019 Aichi arts festival. The artwork ‘Statue of a Girl of Peace’ by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung – a statue representing the Korean women who were forced into sex slavery during WWII- led to the withdrawal of a ¥78 million grant by the Cultural Affairs Agency. The exhibition was shut down and then briefly re-opened at the end of the festival with restrictions in place for the exhibits.
These examples of ‘hard censorship’, combined with increasing culture of ‘soft’ self-censorship, indicate a worrying erosion of freedom of expression. And this is a global issue – censorship of both kinds is dramatically impacting artists and audiences alike.
Living in lock down during a global pandemic is an anxious time for everyone, but is important not to ignore the issue of censorship at this crucial time – art can play a powerful role in the way in which we understand, and are able to respond to the lived experiences of crises.
My work about a Memorial for Korean Forced Labourer Gunma Prefecture was made in 2015 and exhibited initially at Omotesando Gallery in Tokyo. It was exhibited again in 2016 at Tottori Prefecture Museum. In 2017, same work was due to be exhibited in the show called “Arts of Gunma”, starting on 22nd April. The work was installed on 21st of April the day before the opening. However, late that night on the eve of the opening of the show, I received communication from the Gunma Museum telling me that the work was to be withdrawn under the decision of Museum director. Early morning of 22nd April I had to take down the installation. The catalogue produced later for this show did not mention my work. However Japanese media has noticed this incident and highlighted issues of censorship.
In 2014, a dispute and legal proceedings about the decision made by the Gunma Prefecture Council to remove the Memorial for Korean Forced Labourer was highlighted in news media, and I made the work as a response to the issue. The reasons given from the Museum for the withdrawal of my work in 2017 was that the Gunma Prefecture Council itself was in the midst of legal case and therefore they told me that they could not exhibit this work. However this position was not publicly declared and even to this day, it was treated as if it was a director’s discretion to which artist complied to withdraw.
I am currently working towards solo exhibition due in July 2021 at Maruki Museum in Saitama, and I am working with a theme of War, particularly about the WWII played out in Pacific rim region. I am focusing on the Historical revisionist ideology. As I am concerned about huge pressure to change and re-write the history of WWII since 1980’s as Historical revisionists has been gaining power in political structure.
In Japan, censorship issue has been a continued problem since 1920’s. The main target for the censorship is about sex and politics. Although after the defeat of WWII in 1946, Japan has ceased to be a militant nation and the censorship has been loosened somewhat for a while. However since 1980’s it has become tighter and within the Art University as well as Art industries, It is considered to be better to avoid topics on Sex and Politics, and the general consensus in Japanese Art education has been that Art should be for Art sake and artist should avoid political issues. In that sense the self censorship is already well engrained into the education system. Obviously, there are a few artists who are resisting this trend, however.
In Japan there are not many spaces where you can exchange opinions about the freedom of expression. Even in the media, there is only limited tendencies to proactively engage with the artists political expression.
In Japan, the decision making power rests on the Museum director or Local Council responsible for the Museum. In the case of Gunma Museum, Even though curators were happy to accept my work, the Museum director had a power to negate the agreement. There are some occasions, curators succeed in arguing the case, however public showing can be very difficult. Also at the private institutions, the curators struggle to curate works touches upon socio-political issues.
Do you have any advice for young or emerging artists?
I do not have any particular good strategies to counter the restriction on freedom of expression and censorship. Basically, I believe that artists need to keep on working, with our own understanding of need and also our own desire to create. Perhaps we can also consider subversive ways to express ideas using different means by developing subtle language and adding double layers of meaning so that audience can read opposing message from the one which might appear as one straight message.