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Arts organisations are censoring artists who support Palestinian liberation

OPINION: The myth of apoliticism in art proves many arts and culture organisations are failing the moral litmus test of Palestine.


Art by Rosa Sin-Fai-Lam. @udaya.bristol UDAYA is an events collective that works to promote global majority creatives in Bristol, shared with artists' permission.

Palestinians and their histories, as well as supporters of Palestinian liberation, have been continually and intentionally omitted from cultural spaces, according to a letter signed by more than 1,300 artists. This has become even more evident since October 2023, with museums, galleries and other cultural institutions censoring Palestinians and Palestine supporters by actively cancelling events regarding Palestinian liberation that criticise the Israeli government. This has been paired with internal pressure on workers to self-censor. Censorship has also flourished in the media, with the targeted murder of Palestinian journalists, and in academic spaces through the attempted suppression of student activists protesting against Israeli ties to universities through pro-Palestine encampments.

Censorship is an imperative and necessary component of the genocide in Palestine as it functions to uphold Israeli apartheid, white supremacy, and attempts to legitimise settler violence. A stark contrast to these responses to Palestine are responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 when galleries and cultural institutions engaged in a global campaign of cultural sanctions and boycotts of Russian art.

These same institutions have not done the same for Israeli arts and culture.

By maintaining silence on Israel’s genocide, the arts have made themselves complicit through their tacit alignment with oppressors and perpetrators of colonial violence.

Institutional censorship

This is taken even further with government interference. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Trade Union Equity revealed that “ACE [Arts Council England] warning that ‘political statements’ could break funding agreements was formulated in relation to the Israel-Gaza conflict.” The request showed that ACE and the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DMCS) had a meeting titled “Reputational risk relating to Israel-Gaza conflict.’

This is unsurprising, but it does validate and corroborate the blatant nature of Palestinian censorship in the arts.

It is also no coincidence that a government department would conceivably advise against criticising Israel, with the British government having sold over £570 million worth of arms to Israel since 2008, with no plans to restrict arms sales.

Equity’s Race Equality Committee criticised the double standard of ACE releasing a statement in solidarity with Ukraine in 2022, contrasting the cultural sector putting pressure on the Putin regime to withdraw from Ukraine with their silence on Palestine. The ACE 2019 Code of Conduct for National and Council Members Section 3.16 states, “On matters directly related to the work of Arts Council England, you should not make political statements or engage in any other political activity.” Yet, ACE itself published guidance to support museums in cultural divestments and sanctions from Russia.

Art is inherently politicised, and decisions made by art funders are influenced by our government, so feigned neutrality is unconvincing.

Double standards

The Museums Association (MA) published a statement about what museums can do in solidarity with Ukraine on the week of the Russian invasion in February 2022. However, the MA only posted a statement about Palestine one month after Israel started one of the most destructive bombardments in history and enacted collective punishment against the Palestinian people. This only came after pressure from Museum Detox, an organisation of people of colour in the heritage sector, who wrote an open letter to the MA “seeking justice for and expressing solidarity with the people of Palestine.”

The MA’s statement about Palestine was sanitised and does not mention what museums can do in solidarity with Palestine. This further propagates the dehumanisation of Palestinians, where both solidarity and compassion are seemingly conditional, and reinforces the myth of museum neutrality and apoliticism.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has been ongoing since 2004. They state, “Israel overtly uses culture as a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people,” and demonstrate the links between the arms industries, their funding of the cultural sector and the subsequent dehumanisation of Palestinians. The intentional conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism also allows institutions to suppress Palestinian voices. This not only manifests in outward censorship, but also self-censorship and pressure to not speak out due to fear of impacts on employment.


In 2021, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester hosted an exhibition by Forensic Architecture called ‘Cloud Studies’ and censored a label which had pro-Palestine, anti-Israeli policy messaging after complaints of “inflammatory language” from the group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI). This was reinstated due to protests, alongside counter statements, and resulted in the removal of the Whitworth Director.

In June 2023, there were reports that the Barbican in London had told a Palestinian artist to “avoid talking about freedom for Palestinians.” The Barbican also has ties to the Israeli embassy, and in 2024 decided not to host a lecture by Panjak Mishra on the genocide in Palestine. Artists Lorenzo Legarda Leviste and Fahad Mayet removed their artwork from a Barbican exhibition, stating that the cancellation was a clear example of censorship, and continued that:

It is incumbent on all of us to stand up to institutional violence, and demand transparency and accountability in its wake […] We will never accept censorship, repression and racism within its walls.

There have been ongoing open letters and calls to cultural institutions, as well as calls for accountability. More than 1,300 artists signed an open letter accusing cultural institutions of “repressing, silencing and stigmatising Palestinian voices and perspectives.” There was a call to boycott the Arnolfini in Bristol, after they were accused of engaging in anti-Palestinian censorship in November 2023. More than 1,400 artists said they would not work with the venue again due to this censorship; the Arnolfini has now issued an apology and the boycott has been called off.

The London Lisson’s Gallery cancelled its Ai Weiwei exhibition after he publicly criticised the Israeli government, and an event called ‘Voices of Resilience: A Celebration of Gazan Writing’ at Manchester theatre and arts venue HOME was cancelled due to “safety fears.” Although collective action and pressure led to the event being reinstated, this does not atone the organisation's actions or their claim of being a ‘politically neutral space’ while simultaneously claiming they ‘exist to have impact artistically, economically, and socially.’ This neutrality is a farce, and claiming apolitics is a flimsy excuse designed to disguise political motivations as one of the appeals to ‘humanity’ – evidently an entirely conditional humanity.

The intentional conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism also allows institutions to suppress Palestinian voices.

Political art and abolition

The intentional censorship and omission of Palestinian art, artists and supporters is part of the institutional racism and imperial legacies of the cultural sector.

Cultural institutions have a role in knowledge production due to violent colonial interventions in how knowledge is formed and used. These institutions have an obligation to work against the harms they have historically propagated. Museum neutrality is a myth, and art can be utilised against the structures in which Palestinian existence is refuted and dehumanised. For this to happen, we need to cultivate a culture of care, and abolition can help us do that. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “Abolition is not absence, it is presence.”

Border abolition is a useful framework when we think about working against Western, colonial systems. Angela Davis says, “The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.” Imagination is key here. Traditional notions of museums can be subject to abolition through repatriation, rethinking funding bodies, and allowing museums to do more than house old artefacts. As Hannah Baker wrote, “There is an opportunity in the abolition of museums to create something caring and joyful.”

Radical imagination and creativity can and should play a role in art, protests, journalism, and political organisation, as they radically push boundaries of imagination to refigure the status quo via decolonisation and abolition.

As abolitionist artist Jackie Sumell said, “If art wasn’t the right tool [for social impact], it wouldn’t be so underfunded, so undervalued, so ignored and misunderstood.”

Art is active and it’s used to communicate. This thinking has been utilised for our project Give Over and our call for artists to engage with media narratives on borders. Artists are aware of their power and the active nature of their work, evident in many withdrawing their work from institutions that have engaged in active censorship.

Power is afraid of art and poets,” wrote Ai Weiwei when articulating that censorship in the West is more concealed, and can be worse than censorship in China. His advice for artists to counter censorship is to “speak your thoughts loudly, without considering the consequences.”

Artists have a responsibility to be vocal, particularly in the context of Palestine, where an entire group of people, and their arts and heritage are being intentionally destroyed.

Racist silencing

‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ (EDI) and ‘decolonisation’ have been repeatedly talked about in the cultural sector, particularly since 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, when cultural organisations published many statements, promises of restitution, increased diversity, and plans to ‘decolonise’ without really understanding what decolonisation is. Artist Gavin Jantjes said, “British arts institutions deployed ‘kneejerk’ and ‘stopgap’ responses in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement as they attempted to avoid criticism for the lack of diversity in their collections.”

The work of EDI and decolonisation feels particularly hollow when workers and artists are censored, and organisations are too scared to talk about Palestine and Israel’s settler colonialism. Deeming the topic an ‘issue’ that is too complex to discuss is an intentional narrative that is perpetuated to prevent people from learning and understanding the genocide of the Palestine people and the ties between Israel and the European-American imperial hegemony. This, alongside accusing campaigns such as the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement of anti-Semitism, are methods of repression.

We must not let art and heritage become weaponised by state actors. Palestinian artists’ voices are integral in maintaining identity and Palestinian culture, in which “art is an instrument to reaffirm political existence.”

All of the organisations mentioned have acted in this way due to fears of controversy, fears of funding changes, and to maintain the myth of neutrality. With the Arts Council stating that “political or activist” work could break funding agreements, organisations are fearful, but they must be brave in order to have any meaning.

This is particularly challenging for Black, Asian and other Global Majority people who are compelled to speak out but may feel the need to self-censor in the workplace, as they are more likely to face social or legal repercussions due to institutional racism. A Runnymede poll found that more “Black and Ethnic minority people supported strong calls for a ceasefire in Gaza” and had “more compassion for Palestinian people.” Racism and white supremacy mean Palestinian solidarity is increasingly policed, and supporters are silenced, but we must remain outspoken. As Toni Morrison said, “Efforts to censor, starve, regulate and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place.”

Art is inherently political, and when socially conscious ‘decolonial’ work becomes embedded into an organisation's brand, they should work to that ethos rather than capitalising on ‘radical’ language without following through with action. Anti-racist statements feel empty considering the colonial legacies of the cultural sector, funding from oil companies, and their unwillingness to stand against genocide and apartheid. The policing of language and sanitising of terminology is instrumental in this genocide – and the cultural sector is complicit.

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