Friday, February 15, 2008

Artistic freedoms under attack in Britain

Britain is not exactly a 'police state' as some on the left of politics would like to suggest - indeed, I would argue that such propositions say far more about the people who espouse it than it does about the state of freedom in contemporary Britain. However, when it comes to evaluating the extent of artistic freedom in Britain today, the charge of 'police state' is not entirely that wide of the mark.

Witness the treatment of Samina Malik at the hands of the British state - a second-rate Muslim poet (ok, I wouldn't like to massage Samina's ego), third-rate Muslim poet, who's only crime was to write terribly bad poems. Salmina, a 23 year old Londoner, aka the 'Lyrical Terrorist', wept openly when the jury at the Old Bailey found her guilty of 'possessing records likely to be used for terrorism', or in other words - her poems and a Mujahideen handbook.

It's true that Malik was a bit of an idiot with some far fetched nihilistic fantasies, but since when has it become a crime to be a wannabe nihilistic weirdy-beardy pin-up poster girl, with hateful thoughts and some seriously dodgy poems? To all intents and purposes, Malik was found guilty of harbouring some sick ideas, and some really bad poems. To lock someone up and waste the time of the Old Bailey just because we don't like someones poems is a far more dangerous trend than anything that Samina Malik could have thought of.

The attacks on artistic freedom in Britain goes much deeper than the case of Samina Malik and her 'dangerous' poems - over in petty authoritarian Brighton, the the powers that be are planning on banning any art exhibition, or revoking the licence of any music venue that exhibits or performs any work of art or piece of music that might provoke 'racist, homophobic or sectarian violence'. Failure to comply with the councils policy could lead to the closure of any art or music venue. Such draconian decrees are reminicent of the worst days of East Germany under Stalinist type dictators, it's the thin edge of a very ugly anti-freedom wedge.

In the name of protecting minorities, Brighton's licensing policy has become the cutting edge of the assault on artistic freedom. Brighton councils intentions may be good, but the consequences and long-term implications in interfering with the arts and artists are much more frightening. The council are effectively saying to artists that there are certain things you cannot express in your art, and if you want to exhibit or perform in Brighton you will need the councils nod of moral approval, or else.

I'm very much in agreement with the political journalist Brendan O’Neill, who rightfully argues that 'Brighton is doing so much more than simply messing about with its licensing laws: it is using its power to define what is socially responsible art, and to circumscribe the artistic imagination itself'. Indeed, some of the perverse consequences of the councils licensing laws are spreading further than Brighton's galleries, bars and clubs - now libraries, music shops and radio stations are coming under anti-freedom attacks.

The biggest lie we are constantly being told here is that there is apparently a very thin line between what artists say or think, and what other people might do as a consequence of being exposed to such thoughts or ideas. On the contrary, that line is very thick, and Brighton council, and the high courts of the Old Bailey have no right policing the publics taste of what is or what is not appropriate or acceptable art, music or poetry. I'll leave the last words to an artist and poet who really understood what freedom and art are all about, Victor Hugo, who argued that 'freedom in art, freedom in society this is the double goal towards which all consistent and logical minds must strive'.

Picture: Green Party Councillor Simon Williams displaying the music he wants outlawed in Brighton.

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