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THE FEAR OF ART / Vol. 83, No. 1 (Spring 2016)

Arien Mack, Editor

Freedom of expression remains under threat in both totalitarian and democratic states. Artists continue to be imprisoned and exiled, and art banned and destroyed. All of this gives evidence of the power of images to unsettle, to speak truth to power, to question our cherished cultural norms and what we hold sacred.

What is it about images that cause anxiety and fear in a world in which they have become the coin of the realm and cannot be avoided? Is it a response to our own ambivalence toward the alternative visions these images suggest? Is it the anxiety of the new? While this may be part of the story it is surely not all of it. What is it that we are afraid of ? What do we lose when images and their creators are censored? These are the subjects that were explored by the conference and are examined in this issue of Social Research.


Charlie Hebdo was well-known for defending the “Right to Blasphemy” but its cartoonists and writers never faced real death threats until they made fun of radical Islamists. The impact of the Jan. 7, 2015 massacre on cartooning has turned Freedom of Speech to Feardom of Speech for the cartoonists on the frontlines of a new age where the borders are marked by URLs not border patrol.​

The debate over the tragic attack on Charlie Hebdo quickly settled into a familiar script that posits Islam as being antithetical to Art, and Muslims therefore as enemies of liberal values such as free speech. The title of conference for which this short paper was written – "Fear of Art" – risks affirming this script. Positing a ‘fear of Art’ as the reason behind this attack consigns it to the realm of the irrational, devoid of politics and history. Instead, I argue that we look at Art as something that emerges from within Society, and thereby as necessarily embodying/reflecting the extant relations of power in society. The paper also underlines the importance of differentiating between art which (explicitly or implicitly) affirms the existing power relations within a society, and art which contests them. Only then can we hope to move our understanding of this incident beyond a simplistic and dangerous civilizational narrative.


This article introduces the work of David Freedberg, Emily Braun, and Olaf Peters. They have each studied actions against art, both historical and contemporary, uncovering fear, hate, and harm. Each has examined the ways in which groups and governments use and abuse art to advance their own politics, purposes, and persuasions. They have explored the methods, the meanings, and the material results of the condemnation of art. They have made outstanding contributions to the history of fear, repression and loss; they study the chasm between creative people and craven people.

“Degenerate art”—the slogan stands represents for National Socialist cultural barbarism and for the destruction of modernism in Germany between the wars. Hitler and his party-liners did not invent the phrase, but they adopted it, intensified it, and derived from it their destructive policies on art. “Degenerate art” is the extreme example of a state-run campaign against modern art. Article translated by Steven Lindberg.

Every act of censorship is also an act of iconoclasm. Together they constitute one of the oldest paradoxes of image making and of figuration. To make an image is both to want it and to fear it. The more it is desired, the more it seems contra naturam, and so is feared. It often has a vitality that is startlingly at odds with both its materiality and its concept. To parse individual episodes of censorship and iconoclasm is to uncover the roots of both the fear of images and the fear of art. But each of the many motives for censorship and iconoclasm testify, above all, to the impossibility of escaping it.


Art has the ability to change our minds—inspiring us to take on different perspectives and to reimagine our worlds. If we can agree that art’s ability to change the individual psyche is profound and undeniable, why have we activists, who are in the business of changing the collective mind, shied away from employing art directly? We favor instead the prosaic tools of letters, press releases, and petitions. Yet as Stephen Duncombe and Ricardo Dominguez's papers in this issue illustrate, like activists, artists with activist aims, are obliged to examine the efficacy of their work in inspiring the change they imagine.

At the core of the performative matrix of Electronic Disturbance Theater 1.0 and 2.0 has been the parrhesian gesture. While Foucault’s analysis focuses mainly on parrhesia as “fearless speech,” our work has and does explore fearless art. Our parrhesian gestures create an art that is not concerned directly with the “care of the oneself,” but instead focuses on the care of the social, of the public agora, or what is left of it under the signs of neo-liberalism(s) – almost total privatization of life and the spaces of life. While the parrhesiastes courage places them in danger and even potential death for speaking the truth to power, the parrhesian gesture of fearless art creates a space for power to speak the un-truth of its uncaring condition for all social-selves.

Starting with the questions: Does it Work? and How Can We Know? this article explores the effect and affect, or æffect, of activist art. Rejecting a singular definition of how activist art is supposed to work, and drawing from the actual practices of activist artists, a range of possible aims is offered and then organized around four primary goals. A methodology, which accounts for the indeterminacy of art and the reality of unintended consequences, is provided as a heuristic tool with which to think through the æfficacy of activist art and the development of a metrics appropriate to the practice.


The title of this section reflects current expectations of a use value for art, but is also resonant of a field of practice that has increasingly ventured outside the art market and art institutions. Artists work in government, hired for their distinct expertise; as politicians; artworks are now “relational” or socially engaged. To the two interlocutors in this session, however, “the potency of art” also speaks of a rush to foregone conclusions that they refuse to subscribe to at face value.Accordingly, their misgivings about the potency of art yield productive insights into their thinking.

"I have a tough time with art, both old and new, and I have a really tough time with the “potency” of art. When I saw that that was the session topic at the conference where these remarks were presented, I wanted to run away. Please, no! Power is the problem, not the solution. Humility is reality. I wanted my words to reflect at least a little of these reservations I have."

"There are many arguments today about why art matters: it is a form that authenticates what is most human about humanity; it celebrates and affirms the diversity of cultures and identities; it upholds values of individual freedoms; it is a good pedagogical tool for teaching social and political ideas; it is a sound economic investment; it gives pleasure. Among these competing claims, I want simply to add one more, and a fairly prosaic one at that: that the experience of art saves us from being conned."


The transcript of a videotaped interview with the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

"One of the questions we aim to address in the remarks that follow is, Where does China fit in to a discussion of “the fear of art” and how representative is Ai Weiwei of artists in China? Our issue, of course, is,to what extent have Chinese artists been subject to fear, and in what periods? The papers in this issue make reference to several unhappy periods in the Chinese Communist Party’s political history, so we have to take account of different times and different places but also different artists. As Weiwei makes clear in his conversation with Ethan Cohen, many artists just have to play the game."

"I have known Ai Weiwei since 1986. He is a brilliant humanitarian.What I learned from interviewing him was his complete commitment to freedom of expression and being true to himself. Truth is the essence of who he is, and art speaks the truth."

This article introduces the career and influence of Ai Weiwei. After participating in the genesis of the contemporary Chinese art scene, the time the artist spent in New York influenced the distinctly political character of his later work. This work directly inspired younger artists to create Beijing's East Village. In 2008, Ai Weiwei's work took a turn for broader political protest outside the art world with his withdrawal from the architectural team for the Beijing Olympics and his project to draw attention to the Sichuan earthquake. The question about Ai Weiwei then becomes whether what he does is a form of social activism or should it all be seen as an all-encompassing conceptual art practice? As well, Ai Weiwei's comments on self-censorship are especially relevant today.

In a memorable opening scene from the 2012 documentary film, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” the famed artist’s cat jumps from the floor onto a door handle to open a door. The “cat who can open the door” is a pretty good metaphor for Ai Weiwei himself—his art is very much like a magic doorway into contemporary China, and his political struggles have touched on many of the challenges of artists, writers and activists in China today.


Chaw Ei is a Burmese multi-media artist, painter and performer, whose work both in and outside of Burma (or Myanmar) has been widely recognized, presented, and covered by international press. Naila al-Atrash is a Syrian playwright, actor, and theatrer director who worked in Syria within the genre of critical theatre. We discussed the issue of the artist in exile and the associated guilt of being outside, something perceived by those left behind as a reward, a life in a place that is free of any problems. Chaw Ei spoke about the suspicion many held that she is using her political situation to enhance her celebrity status. Naila al-Atrash argued that working using with the language of theater, one actually has a better chance to communicate with people and to reach the audience. And though communication in a non-native language can often be an obstacle, working in the milieu of the universities—the least parochial institutions, as in the case of most artists in exile—makes the situation of the artists easier, and their art work more welcome and accessible to an open-minded audience.

Highly regarded as a visual, conceptual and performance artist, Thein has built a highly profiled international career as she candidly portrays the contradictions and conflictions of her socio-political environment. Her feminist approach to her art is both gracious and candid and has earned her accolades and recognition as one of the most important contemporary artists to emerge from Myanmar. These pieces described in this issue speak to the conflict of repression, suspicion, torture, imprisonment, and pleas for peace in Myanmar.

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat discusses the political nature of her work and her decision to live in exile: "I believe it is worth considering that by supporting and rallying around artists who put themselves at risk and are courageous in the face of tyranny, the Western public risks constructing cultures that are limited and based less on artistic merits than on creating heroes.... Is an artist’s act of moving away from political subjects, even if born into a politically volatile environment, in order to explore more existential issues, a form of self-censorship? An escape?


Art has the capacity to transform and to arouse intense emotions. It can be loved but also hated; it can challenge social attitudes but also be complicit with the structures of power. It can open up new ways of thinking, but also offend deeply held beliefs. Indeed, art can be dangerous. How do cultural institutions confront these contradictions? As mediators between art and the public, institutions are also inevitably filters: agents of censorship or self-censorship.

The phenomenon of self-censorship is even more widespread than the censorship itself. The most immediate reason for the self-censorship practiced by the authors is the simple fact that these authors are afraid of the unpleasant consequences of what they are writing, painting etc. This is true especially for authors living under authoritarian regimes. However, more interesting are the cases when people practice self-censorship because they are afraid to hurt the feelings of others. For example, the feelings of religious people. But what does it mean to hurt the feelings of believers? Do believers have some specific feelings – the feelings that are different from the feelings of non-believers? I would argue that, yes, the believers have certain feelings that can be hurt by art – but also that for art it is difficult and maybe even downright impossible not to hurt these feelings.

It is a value of art to push us out of our comfort zone- to challenge conventions and limits, including what subjects and materials are deemed ‘appropriate’ for art and to continually challenge what art’s form and purpose are in society. It can raise difficult questions about taboo subjects and break with the past to create the new. Media coverage of culture stokes fears: mass media like to focus on art in two primary ways : as scandalous controversy and as money (and the two can sometimes support each other). This sensationalist approach to culture reinforces the feeling that art is dangerous.Do we place limits on what can be seen and discussed? What is the line and how far is too far?


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