Now you see it, now you don’t

IF YOU want to give a work of art loads of publicity, censor it. That is what the hosts of Madrid’s Contemporary Art Fair (ARCO) did with a tableau by Santiago Sierra called “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” featuring 24 pixelated mugshots, three of them of jailed Catalan separatist leaders. On February 21st the director of the exhibition centre where ARCO is held ordered a participating gallery to remove the work. With that, he triggered a national debate.

His decision coincided with two other acts of intolerance. The previous day the Supreme Court upheld a 42-month jail sentence against Josep Miquel Arenas, a rapper who calls himself Valtónyc, for insulting the monarchy and glorifying terrorism in YouTube posts. That followed an order by a lower-court judge to withdraw a book about the drug trade in Galicia, published in 2015. A former mayor in a small town, whom nobody had previously heard of, objected to his name appearing in the book.

These incidents confirm a worrying trend. Since 2015 Spain’s courts have convicted more than 50 people for “hate speech” or the glorification of terrorism. Spaniards are still emotionally scarred by the crimes of ETA, a Basque separatist group that murdered 829 people, and by two big jihadist attacks (the latest one in Barcelona in 2017). But ETA gave up violence in 2011 and is dissolving itself. That didn’t stop a court last year from convicting Cassandra Vera, a student, for tweets mocking the murder by ETA in 1973 of Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s prime minister, even though the dead man’s granddaughter called for clemency.

None of these legal decisions was taken by the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party; they mostly show the impact of a new penal code, and the zeal of independent and deeply conservative judges. But they are damaging the image of Spanish democracy at a delicate time.

Four Catalan separatist leaders have been in pre-trial detention for almost four months; two dozen more face charges. By holding a referendum and then declaring independence, the separatists deliberately violated the constitution and the law. Spanish politicians point out that the separatists face charges for their actions, not their beliefs, and thus, contrary to Mr Sierra’s contention, are not “political prisoners”. They might well have been prosecuted anywhere in Europe. But human-rights groups worry that charges of rebellion (carrying a possible 30-year jail sentence) and lengthy pre-trial detention are disproportionate.

As for Mr Sierra, a professional provocateur, he sold his tableau to a Catalan entrepreneur for its asking price of €80,000. It is to be displayed at a museum in Lleida, in the west of the region.