Artists Need Freedom of Artistic Expression

Posted by Linda Friedman Schmidt on February 24, 2016
Linda Friedman Schmidt’s "Daddy’s Dummy" is an autobiographical, thought-provoking artwork exploring transformation, manipulation, and control

Copyright © 2008 Linda Friedman Schmidt, Daddy’s Dummy, discarded clothing, 45″ x 28″

In 2013 the United Nations issued a report on the right to artistic expression and creation because artists all over the world were facing restrictions on their freedom of artistic expression. Many artists then and now still feel trapped between political, religious, cultural, economic, and familial interests. We must remember that according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, 1948, everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes the freedom to impart information and ideas through any media. Children also have the right to freedom of expression thanks to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 13, 1989.

Why Freedom of Expression is Important to Me

The silence was thick in my childhood home. My parents never spoke about their past history, the war. Their suffering was unspeakable, their stories hidden. I knew I was an artist, but they wanted me to excel at academics, skip grades in school, and conform to my father’s scholarly ideals. I felt controlled, manipulated, objectified. My own voice was silenced. I could not express my true self. I had to hold everything inside, keep my feelings hidden. I had no freedom. Used as a vehicle for my parents’ aspirations, I was never at ease. As a child I had no choice because I could not survive by myself and needed parental approval. Now I will not allow any restriction of my hard won freedom which includes the freedom of artistic expression.

Freedom of Artistic Expression is Necessary for Health

Artists must express what haunts them the most for their own sanity and health. I have learned that unexpressed traumatic emotional experiences become organic diseases later in life, illnesses for which doctors have no answers. In an essay based on her book “Childhood Disrupted” Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains how shame, secrecy, and social taboos against exploring certain areas of life experience lead to sickness. Marcel Proust said “We are healed of a suffering only by expressing it to the full.”

Challenges to Freedom of Artistic Expression

In a free and democratic society all artists should be unrestrained in the making of their art. They should be free to decide what they will create and how they will create it. Artists know they have the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity, but when there is desperation for money or neediness to exhibit their work they may self-censor or be tempted to enter exploitative situations with unreasonable limits and requirements. The need for cash and the desire for exposure often get in the way of good judgment. That is why there are so many competitions, group shows, and galleries with rules that take advantage of artists and interfere with their freedom of artistic expression. The purpose of making art is not making money, nor is it exhibiting the work. It is expressing who you are.

Galleries and Group Exhibits Can Challenge Artistic Freedom

Instead of being paid to exhibit their work, many artists pay fees to exhibit in venues that require them to curtail their freedom of artistic expression. Gallery owners and exhibition organizers can set any rules they like. It is up to the artist to choose wisely. Freedom of artistic expression is threatened when gallerists and group exhibition sponsors exclude what they consider to be controversial subject matter. This is enormously subjective. When broad categories of importance to artists are not allowed it is a red flag indicating that artistic expression is being controlled and silenced.

One current show excludes anything political, anything with religious symbols, anything sexually suggestive, anything with nudity, anything racist, anything sexist. Though this may be motivated by a fear of negative public reaction, this censorship is harmful to artists. This type of exhibit effectively excludes much content that really matters. The freedom, spontaneity, and creativity are gone with rules like this yet artists desperate for an exhibition will enter. Artistic freedom of expression should not be controlled, constrained, nor suppressed.

Another show requires that all submissions be created on a specific brand of 7/8″ pre-stretched cotton canvas to be ordered by the artist from a specific art store. Why should an exhibit that is neither brand nor store-sponsored stipulate this? Not only does this prerequisite add to the cost of entering, it limits the possibilities for creation and limits the freedom of artistic expression. Size limitation may be necessary for small venues, but why should the brand of canvas behind the art, covered, and hidden by the art matter, and why must the art have any backing at all? Demanding a specific brand be purchased from a specific vendor is the epitome of manipulation and control and smacks of unethical motives.

Challenges May Come From Within the Arts Community

When exhibition coordinators, curators, artist organizations, and arts publications operate with too many rules it stifles innovation and limits the freedom of artistic expression. The exhibition coordinator of an arts organization’s members show ruled that nothing was allowed to extend from the edge of the canvas, not even by one centimeter. Fearing that some might not heed this rule, she ordered that all images submitted include some background showing all around the canvas edge; this became the requirement despite the fact that images with background showing are considered unprofessional in the art world and generally unacceptable.

Another example of rules taken to the extreme is an arts publication with a yearly competition requiring artists to submit not only images and details of the front side of each artwork entered, but also an image of one corner of the back of each artwork. In other words, no matter how much artistic merit a submitted artwork may have, a canvas not perfectly stretched in the back, or an artwork finished in a non-traditional manner would automatically be disqualified. For a publication that only features the front sides of images, why does neatness and conformity on the back side trump creativity and artistic talent? Is proficiency of technique all that matters in art? What about content, ideas?

Family Can Challenge Freedom of Artistic Expression

I am the eldest of three children, an honest artist telling autobiographical stories that relate to current social, cultural and political issues. I bring to the forefront the hidden stories, the alternative views, the excluded perspectives. I disrupt the norm, push the envelope, speak out, break down the wall of silence, and make a difference. This is difficult for my siblings who would like to decide whose stories should be told, and whose suffering recognized. They would prefer to erase my stories, my pain, and my achievements. They would prefer to render me invisible and blot out my artwork. It is a shame that we cannot understand each other better. I was silenced for too long, will not be silenced now; I continue to tell all on the surface of my artwork, break the silence about uncomfortable topics, raise my voice to advocate for human rights through emotional artwork that touches others, inspires others, and promotes freedom of artistic expression.


Self-censorship happens when there is fear of offending others, fear of disapproval, fear of reprisals, and pressure from others. In today’s world artists fear challenging society’s sensibilities. In many countries state-sponsored, highly visible censorship prevails with artists fearing harm and persecution. Those who feel threatened by the emotional power of art should not be allowed to repress human creativity. Artists have the right to create work that pushes boundaries and promotes discussion of controversial topics. We need the freedom to offend without fear.

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One Response

  1. kei Kobayashi
    March 19, 2016

    I agree your opinion 100% linda, and respect you very much.
    I would like to write about you ,I took permission from Japanesse goverment to associate Japan Rug Hooking association,Aug.14th 2014, and had three big exhibition in Tokyo.
    Now I am 82 years old. I am sure I’m not controled by anybody but conflict there.
    I will write you again.
    Kei Kobayashi
    3-18-9 Nishi Nippori,Arakawa-ku, Tokyo Japan 116-0013


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