The worst form of censorship is self censorship. When an artist is confronted with backlash, and redacts, covers, or takes their own work from public view, it is more problematic than if any government entity had ordered the removal. Such was the case with anonymous, London based SKU, who heard the complaints against two works in their Rainbow Scenes exhibit at Saatchi gallery, and opted, along with the gallery, to cover the artworks with a sheet.

The works in question were two paintings featuring Arab script over nudes on a background that has elements of the American flag. The piece was ” … intended to represent the conflict between the US and Islamic extremists.” It did this so effectively that Muslim visitors to the gallery found the work objectionable and asked that it be taken down. The words on the painting were taken from the Islamic declaration of faith.

According to The Times, “Usama Hasan, head of Islamic studies at the think tank Quilliam, said the paintings were not only offensive but blasphemous and sacrilegious. ‘They are really dangerous,’ he said. ‘It’s The Satanic Verses all over again.”

Quibbles over what is offensive and what is permissible are de rigeur in the art world. Works such as Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, a portrait of the Madonna adorned with elephant dung, and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine, sparked outrage from American politicians and religious folks. But in both of these cases, the artists, the exhibitors, and the funders stood by the work. While Saatchi resisted calls to remove the work, SKU decided to capitulate to viewer pressure and have the paintings covered.

Writing in 1898, in his book What is Art? Leo Tolstoy decried self censorship. Prior to publication of the book, he was asked to make some changes, and while those did not seem significant, subsequently more changes were requested. “I agreed to this also,” he writes, “and to some further alterations. It seemed not work while to upset the whole affair for the sake of one sentence, and when one alteration has been agreed to it seemed not worth while to protest against a second and a third, so that little by little, expressions crept into the book which altered the sense and attributed things to me that I could not have wished to say.”

If SKU had wanted to present the paintings as covered, if that was the point the artist was intending to make, they would have done it in the first place. If Americans had complained about the use of the flag imagery, or if women had complained about the objectification present in showing nude women, would SKU have been as willing to cover up? Probably not. And also, these are not groups that typically complain when their imagery is used in artistic contexts.

Why is it so different when Muslim religious sensibilities are offended? Why does the west cow tow to these religious perspectives, though they don’t lay down for Christian beliefs? Is one set of beliefs so much more persuasive than the other? No. Both sets of beliefs are arcane. Religions are collections of ancient traditions, based on stories and faith, designed to give believers an understanding of how to behave morally. In this, and for those who subscribe to these beliefs, they are useful, helpful, and worthwhile. When religious beliefs become the basis for objecting to free expression, surely artists should not capitulate.

When artists take it upon themselves to curb their own expression, whether under pressure from government bureaucrats, as Tolstoy, or from religiously offended art viewers, as SKU, they are doing more than covering over their work, they are stifling their own thought process. It is the internalization of the ideals of censorship, coming to believe that there are things which should not be said on the basis of how they will be reacted to, that is the most destructive to the practice of free expression.

In the realm of art, there is nothing that should stand between an artist and their creative impulse except for their own aesthetic considerations. Religious views are best when they are determinative of an individual’s practices, behaviours, and community cultural traditions, not when they are foisted onto others. For an artist to take another’s religious views as a reason to obscure their own work, while it may seem considerate, is an akin to pandering.