Illustration by Tennessee Williams
On the 10th December, 1945 the United Nations granted a generation of people ‘the highest aspiration of the common people…Freedom of speech and belief’, under the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights. British citizens, born into a democratic, liberal country take full advantage of these rights.
In late September, London SW1, a satirical work of art by the female artist, Mimsy, was banned from the ironically named Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall Galleries. The police stated that the image contained ‘inflammatory content’ and threatened a fine of £36,000 to the gallery if they chose to continue displaying the work.
The censored work, Isis Threaten Sylvania is a series of seven satirical light box scenes featuring the children’s toys Sylvania Families. Within the boxes are groups of unassuming mice, bunnies, hedgehogs and squirrels who are performing everyday activities; attending school, visiting the beach and attending gay pride. However, the creatures are disrupted by the heavily weaponed ‘ISIS’ animals.
In one still, ISIS on the Sylvanian Evening News a group of innocent looking bunnies watch a panda bear being executed by an Islamic State terrorist on the television whilst having their tea. The surreal juxtaposition created between the violent nature of the crime on television and the laid back family home is more of a Satirical statement on the West than a critique of ISIS. The lack of involvement and expressionless faces of the toys conjures up ideas of the West turning a blind eye to the atrocities in the Islamic State.
In terms of the art world, what Mimsy is attempting to achieve is nothing new. Sociopolitical art typically receives criticism for opposing set values and then later receiving praise for pushing boundaries in a manner so common that it borderlines on routine. Therefore, the banning of ‘MICE-IS’ is simply a contemporary example of the ongoing struggle between oppression and freedom or, in some cases, the ongoing struggle between safety and freedom.
But is this an over reaction? Fluffy toy animals dressed in aprons are hardly a threat to our society. Both the press and the public were very keen to undermine the police’s decision. The Guardian described the suppression as ‘absurd and sinister’, and went on to state,’To let fear of bigots and maniacs rule our art galleries is a betrayal of the civilization we claim to uphold’. Users on social media outlets were also quick to question the situation, ‘@IBrasso: Westminster police are a bit dim’, was typical of the response on twitter. jihadwatch.org similarly mocked the police’s decision asking if, ‘Sharia blasphemy laws [were] worth submitting to, for the sake of a few more moments of peace?’ and quite chillingly concluded that, ‘the UK is finished as a free society’. But as we know, visual culture is hugely influential and can indeed be ‘inflammatory’. We need only look back to January this year where eleven people were massacred due to being associated with the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
I personally sympathize with the metropolitan police who were obviously too concerned with protecting the visitors of the gallery from potentially violent reactions to the work than freedom of speech. It’s a question of action versus ideals, attainable protection versus immeasurable social development. Which should triumph?
Clearly, there HAS to be limits to freedom and tolerance. In the words of Shami Chakrabarti, ‘Absolute liberty for the lion is tyranny for the lamb.’ In this sense, the police have a right, as well as an obligation to protect. However, it is questionable how applicable this is to the artwork. In advocating the removal of Mimsy's work, we are accepting the concept that she takes the role of the lion and Isis the lamb. It is common understanding that freedom of expression should only be withdrawn in order to prevent harm to others. The light boxes and their innocent toy contents would certainly have never been directly responsible for any harm. It is not the art we are afraid of but the retaliation. 'If an artist can’t show art on the grounds that it might provoke terror, the terrorists have plainly won’ -Jonathon Jones.
Although balance of expression and protection are crucial in the concept of Liberalism, brushing political issues under the bed will achieve nothing but create a large elephant in the room. In a similar way that shopkeepers put up xenophobic signs during the 1950s and 1960s the Mall gallery is putting up their own sign ‘No Isis jokes’.
So no, I do not think that Mimsy’s MICE-IS should have been banned. It conveys the British police as cowards. Yet in doing so, it raised Mimsy’s work from the status of political art confined to the Islamic State conflict to an art acting as a martyr for wider ongoing issues around freedom of speech. Although Mimsy’s art was banned from the Passion for Freedom exhibition in return it achieved greater recognition and reactions. After all, isn’t the point of political art to provoke?