Meaning, Context and Interpretation

Two questions continue to crop up when looking at Beuys, namely: how and where do we find meaning? This week our tour opened with a discussion on Beuys’ wartime experiences and the possibility of extreme events shaping life. I spent some time with Adrian who had come from Margate to see the show; what he knew about Beuys was sketchy and he talked about the difficulty separating fact from fiction. Some things seemed far-fetched yet turned out to be true, for example, he had heard that Beuys had at one time been an acrobat in a circus, but surely this was just another story spun to add mystery to a charismatic artist? We looked at connections between Monument to the Stag, Coyote II and the significance of traditional animal myths and their spiritual power in Beuys’ work. The potential for healing took us to the artistic legacy of 7000 Oaks and Adrian drew a parallel to his own experience of urban regeneration, talking of the Turner Contemporary being an integral part of the Margate Renewal Partnership plans. As a fellow artist, I was interested in how Adrian saw himself getting involved in the gallery’s current community projects.
Sue, her friend and their two sons were whispering about the strange use of materials when I joined them. Looking at Fat Corner (Process) we talked about energy and warmth, making a connection to social sculpture and environmental change. But the work looked so simple, the materials everyday, it seemed to the boys as if anyone could do it. Maybe that was the point, if everyone could be an artist, using found materials might be part of that message?

In the spirit of Beuys, Rohan Jayasekera, Associate Editor for Index on Censorship, held Speakers Corner standing in the gallery where people were free come and go. There was strong language from the start, which Rohan neatly identified by raising a hat in the air shortly before it’s arrival, giving spectators the chance to leave, or to stay and gauge whether the offense was worth the knowledge imparted.
It was fascinating to hear him speak about the reasons why we censor others and ourselves. Here are just a few of the many aspects of censorship and freedom of expression that he talked about.
Setting rules and “bad language”: Individually, we all set our own rules about what language we are prepared to use and tolerate and our reasons are various. Rohan addressed the importance of considering context when deciding what is or is not offensive and to guard against the temptation to be politically correct. As one example, he cited the renaming of Guy Gibson’s dog in the classic WWII film The Dam Busters, and the continuing debate around its racial offense. Some words, once overwhelmingly abhorrent are now considered by some to have lost the power to harm, having been ‘reclaimed’ by the intended victims.
Censoring extremists and Freedom of Expression: Should those who speak to offend as well as those who offend while speaking have the same freedom of speech? What about extremists such as David Irving and Geert Wilders? Someone asked about the row concerning Rohan’s decision to appear with David Irving at the Oxford Union, declining to comply with the “no platform rule” refusing fascists the right to a shared public forum. As Rohan supports the general principle of freedom of speech, he believes that principle should be extended to extremists also. The Oxford Constabulary decided to cancel the event, citing concerns regarding public order – censorship or real concern?
Rohan turned our attention to the restriction the individuals right to Freedom of Speech, particularly when expressing political dissent near Parliament and the restrictions imposed by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. But what about fundamental freedoms found within Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights?
Interpretation of the rules and fear of prosecution: Rohan argues that Human Rights Act 1998 is open to selective interpretation. Obviously, the Act can be and is used to good effect, but there are times when it can be seriously misused to control information to serve personal or commercial interests. The case of Mosley v News Group Newspapers Limited came up, in which Max Mosley challenged an invasion of his private life.
Freedom of the Press: Journalists around the world face serious danger for simply doing their job. Rohan spoke specifically of the jail sentence recently meted out to J.S Tissainayagam, found guilty on terrorism charges after criticising the army’s treatment of Tamil civilians. The Government interpreted his reports as false, accusing Tissainayagam of stoking ethnic discord, sentencing him to twenty years hard labour.
These are just some of the many aspects of Rohan’s presentation. We ended with a discussion exploring how complex the issues surrounding censorship are and how important it is to defend the right to freedom of speech. Context and interpretation of rules and law seem to be the central issues. The advice Rohan gave us on parting was: consider the context, consider the rules, but watch the law.
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Just as I was leaving the gallery I bumped into Jean, whom I recognised from an earlier talk. She told me how she loved the Beuys season and had visited on several occasions. Jean wasn’t sure we need to understand everything we see, ‘getting it’ can often be illusive and transitory; the most important thing for her is to keep coming back and allowing the work to take effect. We discussed how the show taps into what matters generally in life; the importance of connection, to other people and the consequences of our actions, be they personal, local or global.

Thanks once more to Rohan, and all those who were involved in the gallery tour. Apologies for omissions. You are very welcome add any comments if you weren’t at the discussion but are interested in the themes.

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