The Universal Declaration of Art?

Art makes a great gift between countries. The paintings hanging on the walls of the United Nations are a often a tribute to a countries’ finest cultural traditions.

Art is no stranger to travel. Paintings and sculptures cross international boundaries frequently. Travelling art such as the recent exhibition of the “Greats” from the National Galleries of Scotland at the Art Gallery of NSW are the outcome of years of negotiations and planning. They are more than a gesture of goodwill from another nation. They can be even an expression of powerful old empire ties.

Sir Henry Raeburn Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddington Lock c1795; Sandro Botticelli, The Vigin adoring the sleeping Christ child (“The Wemyss Madonna) c1485. Scottish National Gallery © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Artists often go abroad in search of inspiration and patronage. The centres of fine learning often shift – New York, Paris, Naples. Many of the “Greats” studies, lived and worked in many different cities around the world and took their inspiration from the local people and norms.

When we look at artistic endeavour, we see an image of a historical norms and values. The subject matter and even the way in which the art is made is frozen in time. We look at art and become curious at the scenes of life it depicts – of a rustic village, a public gathering or the portrait of an officer.

Who and what we choose to display on our walls, on our buildings and in our squares – paintings, sculpture, architecture – says a lot about nation-building mythologies. This can create tension because social and political movements can displace the dominant mythologies and lead people to question why that piece of art or that sculpture is occupying public space.

The Economist reported that students from the University of Cape Town in South Africa have led a campaign against apartheid art on campus. This involved storming the campus of the University of Cape Town to remove a statute of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist who held racist views. At a later date, students also stormed the campus and took artworks off the wall and burned them.

The Economist states that the protests are “symptomatic” of a resurgence of racial antagonism in South Africa, aggravated by a slowing economy and high unemployment. Many black South Africans are worse off than whites and less educated because of apartheid’s legacy and the government’s failed policies in this respect.

There have also been ongoing protests against increased student fees against Jacob Zuma’s government.

South African Police fire tear gas at student protests in 21 October 2015

Students have turned to art as a subject of protest. Could it ever be a breach of someone’s international human rights to hang a particular piece of art on a wall?

Art is a potent reminder of the many breaches of international human rights law in South Africa. However, it would be contrary to Article 19 on the Right to Freedom of Expression if it became a violation of international human rights law to display racist artworks on the wall. In societies which hold freedom of expression to be a basic tenet of society, the idea of banning art because it expresses loathsome ideas is an anathema. This is convincing.

Without wanting to make any blanket rules, societies should only consider passing legislation that prohibits certain forms of art in the most extreme circumstances. This could be when a link between a piece of art and war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. As you may have guessed, this is fairly academic in Australia but in countries such as Germany with its Holocaust, the debate has been a lot more charged.

When laws are not passed by Parliament, social movements and opinion in society has sometimes stepped into the gap – as seen through calls to topple statutes of fascist rulers in town squares in countries such as post-Franco Spain and other fascist states.

Even if the Economist reports that students sometimes targeted the wrong paintings, art should never be immune from critique and, where necessary, social protest. Art inspires us but it is also can be a catalyst for social change. It should not be left out of the debate.

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