My Harrow colleague Claudia Clare (above) wrote in response to a Sussex University student request to borrow work for a show about Clause 28 an eloquent account of the issues surrounding censorship, no-platforming and illiberal intolerance. She has allowed me to reproduce this edited version.
“Thank you very much for your enquiry and I’m sorry you were unable to borrow the C28 Tea set. Taking into account the title of your proposed show, ‘What Clause 28 Did to Me,’ I may have other pots that could work in this context.
If you’ve had a look at my website and at my artist page on my gallery’s website, you’ll see that I do relatively little work that is directly related to being a lesbian. More of it is feminist, and politics of various sorts come into it.
The focus of the C28 Tea Set was to record lesbian protest specifically – although I have also included the big marches. I have noticed that much for the history sticks to the ‘united front’ narrative. It wasn’t like that though. I also notice that some of the protests recorded by my tea set have been written out the the accepted ‘united front’ version. C28 really went for lesbian mothers so there were a number of specifically lesbian and feminist protests to confront those issues.
On a slightly more ‘delicate’ matter, I have taken some time to look through the student union guidelines on ‘external speakers’ and various ‘safe space’ policies.
I appreciate that you may wonder why I raise these. The problem, in my experience, is that these policies do affect artists as well and are extended to the work we show. I am being cautious – I am wary, in fact – because I have had work withdrawn from exhibition that had previously been agreed, because someone decided they were offended or because someone was scared that someone might be offended. I do not want the same thing to happen with Sussex University.
My past experience involves the following Institutions: The People’s History Museum, Manchester, and the Bradford Museums and Galleries.
I myself refused to participate in The Woman’s Hour Craft Prize because the T&Cs expressly prohibited blasphemy – which is not prohibited in British law – and because they stated they may withdraw anything they considered offensive. I have made nothing in the past few years that can be guaranteed to offend no one. I wrote to the three institutions concerned – the V&A, the Crafts Council, and the BBC. They wrote back saying nothing much. I withdrew my application. That’s it.
I cannot begin to tell you how utterly dispiriting all this is and how tremendously damaging it is to artists. There is a received wisdom the ‘controversy’ is good. This is true if the public are ‘allowed’ to see the work and decide whether or not they are suitably scandalised or offended. If the the audience/public is prevented from seeing the work, however, they cannot decide. It is simply suppressed.
Clause 28 was nothing if not an exercise in gross and extreme censorship and ‘no-platforming’ by government, singling out lesbians and gay men and especially lesbian mothers. It is therefore worrying to find universities imitating this kind of conduct although perhaps one should not be surprised. If government does it, why not students? Similarly, if students copy governments and affirm their worst policies and instincts, then why would governments not continue down that road?
Returning now to your title, ‘What Clause 28 did for me,’ I would have to say it taught me a thing or two about censorship and the right to free expression. I was a slow learner, however. It was not until my own work, ‘Princess Hymen,’ part of ‘Shattered,’ (see website) was initially removed from exhibition and then partially obscured, that I really started to understand the disaster that censorship is.
I have a small vase, a ‘pilgrim vase’ just out of the kiln, which could be perfect for the show BUT you/your co-curators would have to see it, agree it and then agree not to remove it from exhibition no matter how much merry hell a small group of loud mouths may wish to raise.
It was photographed on Tuesday and I expect to receive the images by the weekend or early next week.
Alternatively I could just make you a jug with the words ‘This Jug has been removed from display’ which might just be easier all round. I’ve been meaning to make one for a while so this might be the perfect opportunity.
From my point of view, I would wish to use this as an opportunity to train student curators in the matter of censorship and free expression. I do hope that may be possible.
People whose work I respect and love have been ‘no-platformed’ by Sussex University and I am reluctant to show my work if they cannot show/share theirs.
I should also add that I strongly disapprove of the BDS and would wish to raise that as a censorship issue too.
I do appreciate these policies may have nothing whatever to do with you. Very often they are established by a small group of activists who have little or no connection to the wider student body.
Do let me have your thoughts on this, whenever you have time.”