Everybody's been talking about the fact that contemporary art has gone global. However, while the dissemination of works has never seemed so easy, a surge of censorship can be detected through both liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. No longer limited to aesthetic or moral criteria, the principles invoked are now overtly political, and often brandished by pressure groups whose impact has been multiplied by social networks.
Many artists and curators won't resign to fatalism and the silencing of art as a whistleblower. It is against the unrelenting, ruthless muzzling of artists that we are awarding the Refusés International Prize. We do this in the hope of creating a much needed awareness of this expanding phenomenon.
Each year an international jury of contemporary art professionals elects one censored work for each of 8 regions of the world, and a 9th one representative of censorship on digital networks, then votes for the winner of the Prize among these 9 works.
The name Refusés International echoes the 1863 Salon des Refusés. This symbol of the freedom to exhibit was a direct response by painters who were refused entry in the French Academy of Fine Arts' yearly "Salon". At the time, such exclusion was a condemnation of invisibility.
Two centuries later, where do we stand in today's freedom of exhibiting works of art? The observation is unfortunately clear: despite its worldwide success, contemporary art is no-netheless still subject to censorship. Worse, this censorship, with the rise of populist and dic-tatorial regimes or the excesses of cancel culture, is anything but losing ground, while a new wave of hatred seems to be affecting the entire planet.
Arnaud Cohen, Franco-Portuguese visual artist and performer whose work has been presented at numerous biennials for the past ten years (Venice, Bienalsur, Dak'art, Something Else Cairo, Kampala, Contextile, FITE) but whose works are nonetheless regularly censored, has decided to surround himself with friends, eminent curators and art critics, to draw up a map of censorship in the 4 corners of the globe each year. However, from one region to another, this censorship is exercised in significantly different ways: here it emanates from the State, there from pressure from identity or religious lobbies. Elsewhere, institutions find themselves constrained in their programming by powerful entre-preneurial patrons whose preoccupations are in protecting their brands from any controversy. They sometimes consider artists as mere cultural facilitators.
Choosing not to be exhaustive, the members of Refusés International have therefore decided to present 9 works each year, from 9 different regions of the world (among them the new digital networks continent), representative of the different forms of current censorship. One of these 9 works, following a vote by the participants scheduled for the end of the year, will be designated as the 2023 Refusés International Grand Prize for contemporary art censorship worldwide. This work and the chosen 8 others, are now presented on this web site, and will also soon be exhibited in the physical space of Babel Mallorca, the Balearic curatorial residence just created by Arnaud Cohen (www.babelmallorca.org).
These 9 works presented this year were censored between September 2020 and September 2022, exceptionally over a two year period instead of one, due to the pandemic context and the numerous exhibition cancellations that accompanied it.
Introduction to the different contexts depending on the area, Arnaud Cohen's point of view
In many countries it is increasingly complicated to demonstrate censorship. When the level of censorship increases, it often induces greater self-censorship (Japan). But, and this is unfor-tunately what happens the most frequently in many places, censorship is often im-posed at an early stage, before the works are even chosen, through political control of the exhibition spaces. The recruitment of people loyal to the governing party to management positions in art institutions (Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, China, etc.) insures that only the works of artists supporting the power in place are presented there. Spaces for artistic expression then end up being limited to the streets and social networks before sometimes completely dying out. Other countries’ censorship, though slightly less, is still supported by the practice of very strong self-censorship: artists and curators do not dare to test the new limits of the regime, so much so that demonstrable cases are here also almost untraceable (Arab Abraham accords countries) and all the less detectable as there exists a strong culture of silence.
The most obvious cases (a work deprogrammed or removed from the wall of a museum) are therefore essentially found in liberal democracies (USA, Western Europe, Israel), or in territories that have just recently fallen into dictatorship. In the latter register, the most striking examples in recent years have been found in Hong Kong. In the case of liberal democracies, censorship and selfcensorship are now most often the product of community, identity or religious lobbying on elected officials, heads of art institutions or on the artists themselves.
Virtually devoid of public institutions, Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly the least legible region of the world in terms of censorship. In a paradoxically flourishing market, artists must, to ensure their economic survival, come to terms with powerful regional patrons while seeking to satisfy an often paternalistic Western demand. Not to mention political and religious violence. Self-censorship is therefore most often the rule.
Refusés International, the art exhibition
Cohen's immaterial projects such as ArtSpeaksForItself, Babel Mallorca and now Refusés International are no less artworks in their own right, carrying the same assemblage and reuse aesthetics as the sculptures or installations he also creates. The Refusés International Prize is therefore available as an artwork to be exhibited, with its aesthetics, visuals and texts situating these visuals in their regional, sociological, cultural and geopolitical environment.