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Sara Whyatt on artistic freedom and re/shaping cultural policies

Freedom of artistic expression is increasingly treated as not simply ‘a nice thing to have’ – but as a fundamental right. Sara Whyatt – a human rights consultant, member of International Arts Rights Advisors and a former director at PEN International – reported on the current state of artistic freedom in UNESCO’s recently published Re|Shaping Cultural Policies. She spoke with Cathal Sheerin about how she became involved in artistic expression, her work on the report, and what inspires her to continue to defend this right.

Sara Whyatt
Sara Whyatt

(c) Stephen Brayne

Artists are prosecuted under the same laws as journalists, attacked by the same state and non-state groups, and are similarly vulnerable to self-censorship.


Artistic freedom seems to cover a broad range of rights and issues. What’s your working definition?

Artistic freedom is the freedom to imagine, create and distribute diverse cultural expressions free of governmental censorship, without pressures from state and non-state actors. It includes the right of all citizens to have access to these works, and it is considered essential for the wellbeing of societies. It embodies a bundle of rights protected under international law, such as the right to create without censorship or intimidation; the right to have artistic work supported, distributed and remunerated; freedom of movement; freedom of association; protection of social and economic rights; and the right to participate in cultural life.


What were the main challenges you faced in putting the report together?

A key issue was very patchy reporting generally: states aren't required to report specifically on artistic freedom, so you have to review lots of other material from rights and cultural organisations. Thankfully, the amount of documentation and advocacy by organisations monitoring artistic freedom is growing: at a global level, for instance, you have PEN International, Freemuse and Index on Censorship doing this; at a regional and national level you have organisations such as Arterial (Africa), Siyah Bant (Turkey) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (USA). It's also good to see IFEX featuring artistic freedom in its work.


What are some of the most striking findings in your report?

We noted a sharp rise in reported attacks on artists over the last few years – from 90 in 2014 to 430 in 2016. It's unlikely, though, that there's been an actual increase of that magnitude; rather, it's more likely that the 2016 statistics reflect the growing capacity of arts freedom monitors to access and share this information.

Musicians feature strongly in those statistics, especially rap artists, who are often targeted for the political content of their lyrics or for aggressive, provocative language.

We found that social media platforms both support and suppress artistic freedom; they're obviously invaluable in getting the work out there, but trolling and digital surveillance are having a negative effect on artistic freedom. Also, many platforms provide censorship mechanisms – such as Instagram's guidelines on 'standards of behaviour' – that are open to interpretation and give disproportionate power to those who object to the content of artworks and then use the platform's reporting processes to get them removed.

In terms of legislation, we saw an increase in the number of states – Canada, Togo, Mali and Germany, to name a few – that include the economic, social and cultural rights of artists in national law. We also noted that 22 states now cite artistic freedom as a right in their legislation; among those 22, however, some still curtail this right through threats, censorship and arrest.

There was also a growth in the number of cities – 80 in 2017 – offering safe havens for artists.


Which states did you find were the worst in terms of infringing on artistic freedom of expression?

Artists are prosecuted under the same laws as journalists (such as blasphemy, insult and anti-terror laws), attacked by the same state and non-state groups, and are similarly vulnerable to self-censorship. So the worst offenders tend to be the ones that abuse free expression and human rights generally.

But it can be difficult to measure or confirm an infringement of artistic freedom when you move beyond the 'classic' type of persecution. A lot of indirect censorship is hard to detect: how can you prove that an artist didn't get funding because of their politics? In many countries, if you are a controversial artist, you are certainly less likely to have access to funds from the government or have your work exhibited in a gallery.

In other cases, it's hard to prove an artist's belief that politics rather than popularity underlie their inability to exhibit or sell in an art market. However, there have been some recent, spectacular cases where these hunches have proved to be well founded – where official blacklists of artists have been uncovered. The most striking of these was the revelation, in early 2017, of a government blacklist against almost 10,000 artists in the Republic of Korea.


Has artistic freedom always featured in your human rights career?

I come from a family of artists. I think I am the only person in the family not to be an artist for the last century; there've been musicians, designers and fine artists. It was when I was at PEN International that I began making a note, as a kind of side issue, of the reports that I kept coming across of artists being attacked – which didn't strictly fall under PEN's remit.

Around that time I was approached by UNESCO who said that they were interested in putting together a kind of 'IFEX', but for artists – we called it the Arts and Artistic Rights Network. They commissioned a small study on who was out there covering artistic freedom. They funded a meeting in London, and a handful of organisations – Index on Censorship, PEN International, Freemuse and others – agreed to set up a network. It didn't end up working out as we had hoped. However, I started to put together a kind of regular newsletter for our group with news relating to artistic freedom. It was at the time of the Iraq War, so we included people like the Dixie Chicks, who were banned from radio stations, and I made suggestions for cases we could make appeals on.

But it's only been in the last few years that artistic freedom has really become a 'sexy' issue. That's partly due to digital technology making political art more immediately accessible – such as the graffiti art during the Arab Spring and at the Gezi Park protests. It's also partly thanks to the people who were part of the original group still working together to expand the idea of artistic freedom as a distinct right, and others are coming on board.


Are there any particular moments of artistic expression that stand out for you?

I was witness to the Standing Man protest at the Gezi demonstrations: this guy - a dancer - just turned up in the middle of the square, put down his bag, stood straight and didn't move; after a while he attracted attention – people would ask him what he was doing, but he just stood staring at a big poster of Ataturk on a government building. Over 300 people joined him and it went viral. The police couldn't do anything. He stood there for eight hours, then picked up his bag and walked away. He got turned into a meme and inspired many other 'standing man' protests.

There was also the Japanese artist Rokude Nashiko, who took a cast of her vagina, turned it into a fibre glass boat and paddled around in it; she was charged with obscenity, but what she was doing was putting out a message that images of the female body are more suppressed than male ones. You might argue with her about that, but it clearly wasn't just a bit of frivolity. I was surprised how long it took for rights organisations to take the case seriously.


What has to be done to better protect artistic freedom?

We make a number of recommendations in the report, but it's primarily about awareness raising, understanding artistic rights, and engaging the artistic community; we need more collaboration between the artistic world and the human rights sector. And better communication: human rights advocates could help arts groups know what their rights are and monitor violations. But monitoring and advocacy has to come from within the arts sector, and that also requires funding.

Ed. Note: When originally published, this article incorrectly referred to the Arts and Artistic Rights Network as Artsfex. We regret the error.

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