Even in Times of War, Art Must Not be Canceled
PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) Statement on Canceling Art Exhibitions Amid Israel-Hamas War
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(NEW YORK) – Amid a global wave of cancellations and other challenges in the art world stemming from artists expressing their views on the Israel-Hamas conflict, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) urges art institutions not to police speech nor deprive audiences of artists’ work, even amid intense conflict and allegations of offense.
Since the start of the war on October 7, and amid rising antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry around the world, artists are facing intensified scrutiny for expressing their opinions, including on social media. In response, galleries and art institutions in multiple countries have canceled exhibitions or severed ties with artists, sometimes on the basis of identity and, in other instances, based on expression that is considered controversial.
“Especially in times of crisis, cultural institutions can serve as forums for nuanced and difficult dialogue. Artists and art institutions have a role to play in uplifting our shared humanity, encouraging unfettered creative expression, and helping to surface and confront thorny facets of society and belief. Art is a powerful tool to facilitate communication and bridge differences, beckoning viewers, artists, and institutions to examine and embrace complexity. Even when artists express opinions that are considered contentious, we must protect the spaces in which their art can be freely displayed and discussed,” said Julie Trébault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection.
Several high-profile incidents of artistic cancellation have occurred in Germany, where, for historical reasons, the government strictly monitors antisemitic sentiment and conduct. A planned spring 2024 exhibition of the work of South African artist Candice Breitz was canceled by the Saarland Museum “to make it clear that, against this background, it (the museum) is not ready to offer a podium to artists who do not clearly position themselves against the terror of Hamas.” Breitzhas, who is Jewish, has been critical of the Israeli government for what she described on social media as its “inhumane and grotesque bombardment of Gaza.” She has also expressed “deep empathy for the brutally violated and murdered civilians of Israel.”
On November 22, Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi photographer, was dismissed from his role as co-curator of the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, an exhibition of contemporary photography that takes place in three German cities and features the work of some 50 photographers. The decision came in reaction to Facebook posts that organizers said “can be read as antisemitic.” Following discussions between Biennale organizers with Alam and his fellow curators, meant to sensitize them to Germany’s special historical responsibility for the state of Israel and its right to exist, the two remaining curators decided to step down in solidarity with Alam. Without a curatorial committee, the event, which, according to its website, “promotes a lively exchange about photography,” was canceled. It was initially scheduled for March 2024.
On November 16, Documenta 16, one of the world’s foremost art exhibitions, experienced a mass resignation of its curatorial search committee. Problems started when two of its members, Israeli artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger and Indian poet Ranjit Hoskoté, resigned for different reasons related to the Israel-Hamas war. The problem for Ettinger was the Documenta administrator’s refusal to “slow down” the edition artistic director search process, which Ettinger had requested as a means for her to handle the “dark times” she was experiencing working from her home in Israel, including the emotional and logistical challenges of participating in meetings via Zoom “under rockets.” While Documenta’s refusal to accommodate Ettinger may have reflected a disregard for a curator enduring armed conflict, it does not appear to have been in response to her viewpoints. Hoskoté resigned at the same time in response to the Documenta “publicly denouncing” him for signing a statement that likened Zionism to Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). The “Statement Against Consulate General of Israel, Mumbai Event on Hindutva and Zionism,” issued by the Indian chapter of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, was characterized by German Culture Minister Claudia Roth as “anti-Semitic and full of anti-Israel conspiracy theories.” The statement defines Zionism as a “racist ideology calling for a settler-colonial, apartheid state where non-Jews have unequal rights, and in practice, has been premised on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians for the last seven decades,” mirrored by the “supremacist ideology” of Hindutva, which calls for a nation of Hindus through similar means. (A resolution passed by the German parliament in 2019 deemed the BDS movement antisemitic.) The remaining members of the curatorial search committee stepped down following the two resignations, citing “grave concern for the future of Documenta.”
On November 14, the Lisson Gallery in London canceled an exhibition of new works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, which was originally scheduled to open the next day. This decision came after Ai Weiwei posted a statement about the Israel-Hamas conflict on X. It has since been deleted. It referred to the trope that Jews hold significant financial, cultural, and media influence in the United States. Following the controversy, Ai Weiwei clarified that he did not intend to express “moral judgment, accusations, or evaluation.” Ai Weiwei’s exhibitions in New York, Paris, and Berlin were soon also canceled.
A growing number of art cancellations are directly tied to artists’ identity and the political expression of their art, highlighting a concerning trend in stifling creative voices. For example, the British auction house Christie’s removed two paintings by Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki from its website. The artworks were “Al Moulatham,” portraying a man with a keffiyeh-like scarf, and “Anonymous,” part of a broader series on Arab world protests, depicting an individual with a gas mask and a bandana bearing the Arabic word for revolutionaries. Christie’s explained that the decision to remove the artworks was made “based on complaints” without specifying their nature or who made them.
On October 11, a theater performance of And Here I Am was canceled in the Paris suburb of Choisy-le-Roi and rescheduled for December. The decision by Tonono Panetta, Choisy’s mayor, was reportedly made out of “respect for all victims.” Blending fact and fiction, tragedy and comedy, award-winning Iraqi writer Hassan Abdulrazzak and British director Zoe Lafferty take the audience of And Here I Am on the true journey of Ahmed Tobasi, the current Freedom Theatre’s artistic director, whose encounter with theater and the stage in the West Bank changed his life.
PEN America and Artists at Risk Connection stand for artists’ right to freedom of expression and have long encouraged institutions to ensure openness to the widest variety of expression, even that which may be considered deeply objectionable. In 2020, four art museums postponed artist Philip Guston’s artwork for including images of hooded Ku Klux Klan members, which the museums feared would be “misinterpreted.” PEN America stated that the museums’ “statements instead reinforce the perception that elitist institutions underestimate the general public’s capacity to engage with art.”
In the United States, Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts chose to move forward with a planned exhibition featuring the works of Palestinian visual artist and filmmaker Jumana Manna despite facing pressure to cancel the event in response to Manna’s social media posts. One of the posts, from October 7, depicted a photo of Hamas attackers in Israel alongside a message hailing “the creativity of resistance.” Manna later stated that the posts were made before she knew of the killings. The Center reportedly called off a planned event featuring Manna but was right to proceed with the exhibition.
Trébault said: “Commentary or endorsements that are controversial, or even those that may be interpreted as reflecting a message of bigotry – whether on the basis of race, religion, nationality or other factors – should not in themselves be grounds to cancel planned exhibitions or artistic events. While such comments can be an impetus for dialogue or even protest, the art world must not apply political litmus tests to govern whose works may be seen and heard. Art institutions are responsible for honoring and amplifying the fundamental power of art, artists, and artistic freedom of expression. They should consistently aim to facilitate public discourse rather than resort to shutting down artistic expression for fear of controversy. Artists at Risk Connection calls for all art institutions to uphold the right to free expression and to reject the urge to silence artists for voicing controversial or even deeply offensive opinions, even when those cross into expression that may be perceived as discriminatory by targeted groups.”
PEN America with the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) recognizes that artists and creators are being canceled on the basis of their Israeli identity and their views and will issue commentary on that issue in the coming weeks.