Reflection on artistic freedom by Olu Alake: Building a Better Dialogue between Artistic Freedom & Cultural Rights

IFACCA - International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies,
19 August 2022, International

While there seems to be an emerging consensus of what artistic freedom is, there remain several areas of contestation mainly around the question of how absolute that right to artistic freedom should be? This contestation comes into stark relief when there is the encounter of artistic freedom with cultural rights, especially when cultural rights are deployed as a defence mechanism against cultural exclusion and marginalisation.

This was at the heart of a recent furore where the casting of a Black man in a leading role of London’s Frozen The Musical resulted in some audience objections. While supporting the artistic freedom of the actor, some members of the Sami community, descendants of nomadic peoples who had inhabited northern Scandinavia for thousands of years, made the pertinent point that the show should have originally cast a member of that community in the role, especially considering the recognised endangered status of their culture and under-representation in mainstream arts.

Thus, the show’s exercise of artistic freedom brushed up against the assertion of the cultural rights of a cultural community, especially in the context of representation with authenticity and due respect. This demonstrates that the right to artistic freedom also requires a responsibility to recognise cultural rights, respect diversity and honour subjects with authenticity and dignity. Such considerations require communication, understanding, humility, sensitivity and discipline without compromising the artistic integrity of the work. Some may argue that this is itself a form of censorship, akin to the contemporary phenomenon of cancel culture.  Alternatively, it can be recognised that the responsible discharge of artistic freedom includes a need to manage impulses the same way we manage the discharge of other rights - i.e. there are always limits to what we can do, say or show in society.

Discussions of cultural rights within the artistic freedom discourse can sometimes be particularly tricky, as the act of creativity is an expression of culture subject to different interpretations, claims of ownership and malleable boundaries policed by differing motivations. When developing tools for protecting the right to artistic freedom, it is vitally important to also consider how to exercise responsibilities of access, participation, and social cohesion. While this is particularly important for minoritised communities, the benefits of so doing will resonate for all of us.