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“Art is a fundamental human expression” Victoria Gugenheim’s talk for panel on Freedom of Expression

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Art is a fundamental human expression. Too many times when people think about freedom of speech, they do not see it in the bigger scope of the full, fundamental human right to express, a quality that is imperative for self actualisatio, and is also the action side of the freethink coin.

Art has been with us since we had the ability to hold rocks, dance and mix pigment, and is the precursor to the evolution of our cultural empathy; we have told stories with it, demonstrated wants, needs, and even erotic longings with it, whomever was made bashful with its creation.

Expressions are diverse, beautiful, and absolutely needed. From body painting, which is possibly up to 500,000 years old, and the 67,000-30,000 year old Cave paintings from Neanderthals, plus those of Homo sapiens at Lacaux, to contemporaneous pieces such as Serrano’s Piss Christ, to the satirical works of the publication, Charlie Hebdo. […]

Art should have the right to offend as tantamount to freedom of speech. And if it does offend you, question exactly WHY it is doing so. The second something is provoking an immediate reaction, is the time to stop and ask quality, rational questions to yourself and to those who are offended, as when we blindly shout for censorship from a reactionary place, everybody suffers; not just the protesters, not just the artists; culture suffers, freedom of expression suffers; the window of what is acceptable narrows and narrows, until we could be left with the tiniest non offensive sliver of what is deemed acceptable, with those who are above offence or questioning left in positions of authority; their power growing with every censorship of what is deemed an attack on them, be it the Taliban in Afghanistan, Putin in Russia, or anyone in the USA or UK in positions of growing subcultural or cultural power.

And that by extension, could be the death of not just freedom of expression, but freedom of thought, a those censorious when they have their wishes fulfilled, don’t stop at one form of censorship as history has so bleakly shown us. If a poem contains words that are offensive, is it then a crime then, to think them? If phraseology is considered problematic, is it then a judgement of a poor character to have them encroach upon your thinking? Far being a slippery slope argument, it is a tangible extension of what happens when something is deemed “blasphemous’ “offensive” or “phobic”, and when we are at a tipping point of the prevention of thought, we have reached dictatorial territory; a creeping culture of perpetual, tiptoeing fear. It is imperative in a climate of growing unease which seeks to oppress the artist, that the artist is visible, tangible, vocal, visceral and actualising.

When art, be it pixels, poetry, song, dance, or simply chalk on a pavement, become more controversial than the beating, raping and killing of fellow human beings because of its ability to generate offence, we need to all be worried, and we need to take action, and take up space, as this is a portent to a dictatorial future. This scope creep of assuming that these acts of self expression are the things to globally be seen as more “offensive” and “violent” than actual violence is Orwellian doublespeak, and has led to the excusing of continuous actual violence and murder attempts against artists, but especially, women and girls.

As Alan Moore once stated, it is not the job of the artist to give the audience what they want. It is the job of the artist to give the audience what they need. Art may be unsavoury, gaudy, camp, tasteless, liberatory, frightening, evocative, beautiful, brilliant, confrontatoinal, controversal, or even just trash, but above all, for our own sakes, whatever we think of it, it should be free.

Victoria Gugenheim

Photos: Pavel N. Storozhuk

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