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The Curator as Censor (On Censorship and Curating)

By Paco Barragán

The suppression of speech or other written information goes back a long way. Just remember how Socrates in 399 B.C. was put to death via the forced ingestion of hemlock because he challenged the Greek state’s attempt to censor his philosophical ideas.

From time to time we are confronted with the control or suppression of certain exhibitions, but usually censorship is directed at a particular work of art within the context of an exhibition that is considered morally, religiously, ethnically or politically offensive or obscene. Some recent examples include at the 2012 ARCO art fair in Madrid by Spanish artist Eugenio Merino, whose sculpture Always Franco featured former dictator Francisco Franco hibernating in a Coca Cola refrigerator, which led to attacks on him by the Franco Foundation; in December 2012, a work by Kara Walker that showed a slave performing oral sex was covered after employees of the Newark Library said they did not like the image; and finally, the last-minute cancellation of the Hermann Nitsch show at Museo Jumex in Mexico City in March because the foundation, according to former director Patrick Charpenel, was concerned about the “political and social times Mexico is going through.”

Now the question we can ask ourselves is whether in the art world censorship is used as a recurring and deliberate instrument.

At first glance I would even argue that there is too little censorship, as hundreds of art exhibitions are opening worldwide and we hardly hear of the problematic effects of “filtering.” And this is really astonishing. Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that, unlike cinema, advertising and pop music, the art world is just too small and too unimportant to construct models of actions that affect society profoundly.

Is there hardly any censorship in the art world? What has the curator to do with all this?

Eugenio Merino, Always Franco, 2012, sculpture and fridge, 78.7” x 23.6” x 23.6.” Courtesy of Unix Gallery, New York.

Eugenio Merino, Always Franco, 2012, sculpture and fridge, 78.7” x 23.6” x 23.6.” Courtesy of Unix Gallery, New York.


The curator “manufactures the consent,” as Walter Lippman would have put it, between the artist and his artwork, the museum and the spectator. All filtering is intercepted at its source, id est, the artist and the curator discuss and negotiate what’s possible and what’s not according to the agenda of the art institution, its program, the patrons–be it public, private or corporate–and the audience. In sum, any dissent that might disturb the reputation of the institution will be eliminated by the curator ante-exhibit.

Thus the curator exercises indirect, or soft censorship, which forms a barrier between the artist and the public that rarely or never reaches the public sphere. After all, an exhibition only becomes a hard fact when it gets displayed to the audience. Before that it only exists as a mere possibility. Both the artist and curator engage in a dialogue of censorship of their own artistic works and curatorial projects in an act of self-censorship in which the conflicting rights of the artist and institution are being balanced to determine what can and cannot be censored.

And this is the reason why we never hear much about censorship, as the curator who does his job “properly” prevents art works that are considered objectionable from ever reaching public exposure.

Censorship really becomes controversial when it’s carried out inter-exhibit: that is, once the exhibition has opened or is about to open. This is what we could frame as direct or hard censorship: it means that one of the mediators–be it the curator or (artistic) director–in the exhibition chain is not willing to support the project any longer because of (the fear of) objections by patrons or the audience.

The Hermann Nitsch show at Jumex Museum is not the only clear example of this, but so is what happened in Spain at Barcelona’s MACBA. On March 18, director Bartomeu Mari censored a work by Austrian artist Ines Doujak, Not Dressed for Conquering, part of the larger group show “The Beast and the Sovereign,” ridiculing the King of Spain because it was deemed to be pornographic. It led to the cancellation of the exhibition a day before its opening. Then, national and international pressure convinced the director to reconsider his decision and open the show four days later, including with the sculpture by Doujak.

Bartomeu Mari claimed he never got to see the full list of works of the exhibition. If he had gone through the list he could have negotiated with the curators to identify the works to be exhibited according to the public interests of MACBA. And, if the curatorial team denied the withdrawing of any of the works from the exhibition, then either he or the curators could have decided not to carry out the project. As curators, we deal with this kind of censorship on a daily basis, so it is nothing new.

Hence, the kind of curatorial censorship that rules the art world is always “ante” and never “inter.” And even if it’s romantically hard to accept, artists and curators are subject to different levels of self-censorship, and each one has to decide where to draw the line of what’s acceptable and what’s not in this ‘liquid’ negotiation.

As of today, there are no laws against self-censorship.

Paco Barragán is the visual arts curator of Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile. He recently curated “Intimate Strangers: Politics as Celebrity, Celebrity as Politics” and “Alfredo Jaar: May 1, 2011″ (Matucana 100, 2015), “Guided Tour: Artist, Museum, Spectator” (MUSAC, Leon, Spain, 2015), and “Erwin Olaf: The Empire of Illusion” (MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2015). He is author of The Art to Come (Subastas, 2002) and The Art Fair Age (CHARTA, 2008).

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