Freedom of Expression? Censorship in the arts

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.


'My work about a Memorial for Korean Forced Labourer Gunma Prefecture was made in 2015 and exhibited initially at Omotesando Gallery in Tokyo.'
Image©Shirakawa Yoshio

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s installation about the ‘Memorial for the Korean forced labourer, Gunma Prefecture’ was withdrawn from the exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Gunma.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.


In the following interview, Yoshio Shirakawa discusses his experience as a censored artist:


In 2017 your artwork ‘Memorial for the Korean forced labourer, Gunma Prefecture’ was removed from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Gunma.  What happened?


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. 


What are you working on at the moment?

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 the UK, ‘soft’ censorship (self-censorship) is impacting cultural production.  To what extent is this an issue for artists working in Japan?

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.


‘Freedom of expression’ can also allow for the expression of hate – how can we sustain discursive space when there is a possibility that it might be co-opted by those inciting extremist viewpoints?

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.


What is the curator’s role in these difficult cases? What sort of role should they be able to perform in an ideal world?
この様な困難な問題に対してキュレーターの役目はなんでしょうか? 理想的にはどの様な役目を負うことができるのでしょうか?

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.


Article: Jessica Holtaway
Image©Shirakawa Yoshio

If you are an artist and  have concerns about censorship, the following platforms can offer advice and support:  National Coalition Against Censorship (USA), The Arts Censorship Support Service (UK). 

Art Action UK is pleased to announce the 2020 AAUK residency award winner: 
Yoshio Shirakawa

This year we have received our largest number of proposals and they have been of a very high standard. From this group we are delighted to announce that we have selected the artist Yoshio Shirakawa.
Shirakawa has been based in Gunma, a regional city north of Tokyo, after returning from his study in art and philosophy in France and Germany in 1970’s. His practice has been  focused around marginalised communities, and his activities are regarded as a precursor to today’s multiculturalist and participatory practices in Japan. Shirakawa has conducted research and authored numerous texts on contemporary art history, constantly developing criticism and revaluation of the dominant historical views and discourses, while engaged in his sculptural practice.
In 2019, Shirakawa found himself at the epicentre of Aichi-Triennale Censorship controversy. During his residency in the UK, Shirakawa will be sharing his first hand experience of the current socio-political climate of Japan, asking how the potent conjuncture of the Post Fukushima and Pre- Olympic context is impacting arts and culture.
Please watch this space for the events taking place in April 2020!