FXI worried by Film Board’s art criticism

In classifying Brett Murray’s artwork the Film and Publications Board is in grave danger of making fools of themselves – as their predecessor under apartheid did when they banned works like Black Beauty and insisted on covering up Michaelangelo’s David, the Freedom of Expression Institute said. The FPB have classified this work 16N, which means it is illegal to allow anyone under 16 to see it on the grounds of nudity.

The FXI statement: The purpose of this Board – as defined by law – is to control child pornography, hate speech and other egregious material and to give guidance to parents about what their children might be exposed to. It is not intended to turn the board into art critics, and certainly not to act to protect the dignity of the president. That is entirely outside of their brief – and this judgement sets a dangerous precedent for the intrusion into the world of art, galleries, creativity and free expression. To be consistent, will they now act against other nudity in art galleries?

To restrict material on the basis of nudity, the FPB has to believe it either involves sexual conduct or “undue display of genitals” and that it is without artistic merit. This picture clearly does not show sexual conduct and it is difficult to know what in an artwork might be considered “undue display”. Further, the FPB would have had to take the view that the work was without artistic merit. It is our view that the FPB is on very shaky ground here.

What adds to the ludicrousness of this is that the artwork itself has been defaced and no longer exists in a form which shows nudity, so the ruling can not be aimed at the original. The FPB does not – by its own belated admission this week – have jurisdiction over newspapers or their websites – so it can’t be aimed at stopping those displays. How they will implement their decision on other websites is a mystery to anyone who understands the Internet and the fact that this image has now spread virally and uncontrollably.

One has to wonder then why they have done this – and it is hard not to conclude that their determination to do so is a bid to please the president and the ruling party. That would be most unfortunate, for it would mean that art is being censored to protect and please political authorities.

The FXI is deeply concerned about the precedent that has been set by this decision and the FPB’s enthusiasm for going beyond its purpose and mandate in classifying this artwork. We will support any attempt to challenge this decision.

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