Cancel Culture: one artist's experience
2010: after two years of planning and 30 days before opening, I received an email from the exhibitions organiser at Bradford Metropolitan Council’s Museum’s and Galleries, to say one of my pots would be withdrawn from the proposed show, ‘Shattered,’ because of the ‘clear vagina imagery.’ I noticed they'd used an image of that pot for their publicity and pointed that out. I also lobbied locally among people of influence I knew. A diligent local journalist noticed an unusual silence about forthcoming show so investigated. He found me and my blog posts and wrote an article in the Keighley News. The local vicar complained it was censorship. The battle raged. I won a partial victory. The pot was reinstated, but only one side was made visible. Visitors complained that they couldn't see the work properly. I sought compensation and got it - in kind – in the form of magazine quality photos of said show. For the record ‘Shattered’ comprised five pots, each 2 metres high. It was ‘Princess Hymen’ that was withdrawn. There is no vagina imagery as such. The image is woman opening her make up bag. It is a visual pun, certainly, but hardly likely to offend. During the installation of the show, I was told that one of the complaints was that I'd ‘criticised their culture,’ by denouncing FGM, criticising hymen reconstruction, and questioning the entire concept of the virgin body. It was thought the work might ‘offend the local Muslims.’ Curiously, however, no one had thought to consult any of the local Muslim populations. This was the second time a Museum had slandered both me, my work, and their own audiences, notably their Muslim audiences, and tried to dress up their own cultural and religious ignorance, their anxiety and possibly some racism, and present them as anti racism or at least some kind of community sensitivity. The first time was the same work which was to show at a venue in London. A similar anxiety was expressed. That time organiser understood and accepted that she couldn't know everything so, wisely, sought advice from someone who knew more. After a meeting, her fears allayed, the show went ahead. It was extended for a week by popular demand - notably from the local, very varied, Muslim populations.
2016: after the above fiascos, I had sworn I would never show in a public sector space again. Sadly, I broke my own promise when I was invited to show five jugs in an exhibition at People's History Museum, Manchester.
There was a complaint by 11am on the first morning. I had represented, on a jug, a protest by French Arab women in Paris. One of them has written ‘Fuck the Sharia’ in English on her stomach. I depicted her and her slogan. The complainer declared she was offended and sallied forth to Twitter to shout about it. Her call to outrage was largely ignored but I responded to all her frothing with some care, as is my habit. I do it for the silent readers, in case there are any. By lunchtime the same day, I received an email from the Museum director saying they'd withdrawn another jug with a picture of a weeping man on it. ‘We thought it might be the Prophet Mohammed and that someone might be offended.’ In this case, no one had complained. I explained that depicting the Prophet isn't blasphemy - venerating the depiction is the blasphemy – and that to take sides in what amounts to a sectarian disagreement is extraordinarily ill advised. I also observed that there is no prohibition of blasphemy in British law. The title of the show, by the way, was ‘Ideas Worth Fighting For.’
All three of the above occasions were examples of a common art world problem. It can be summed up like this: ‘There's a great bit hairy scary Muslim out there and I’m afraid he's going to OBJECT and possibly explode.’ It is fear of conflict, fear of disapproval, fear of peer group disapproval and ignorance of the issues. It is also, it must be said, straight forward racism. All of these are masqueraded as anti-racism.
2019 – Venue: Crossbones Cemetery, a 17th and 18th burial ground for the "outcast poor," including a great many sexually exploited and prostituted women and girls. It was an early experiment in full decriminalisation of the sex trade. The women were licensed by the church to be exploited without fear of arrest so that men could, relieve themselves of all that excess sperm in peace. The women and girls were still denied Christian burial so were buried there unmarked and unremembered. My event, in partnership with an exiting service based in Kings Cross was to be a memorial event, involving the smashing of a pot, to remember and names of all the women and girls murdered in prostitution since records have been kept. The host organisation, Bankside Open Spaces Trust, (BOST,) was keen and the event was agreed as was Arts Council funding. Then came the email: it was decided we couldn't proceed this event because, to paraphrase, ‘you sell your work in a Mayfair Gallery. You're too commercial.’ In fact, what had happened, was this: I had been invited to give a presentation of the proposed event for ten minutes to BOST and Friends of Crossbones. Half way through the presentation, three Phd students came in and proceeded to grill me for an hour. ‘It's too negative,’ they whined, ‘We're "sex positive.”’ (“Sex positive?” I thought that old chestnut went out in the 1990s.) They were among the volunteers from Friends of Crossbones and disapproved of the event on political grounds. They duly withdrew their volunteer labour leaving BOST no option but to pull out.
I had notched up another cancellation. This time I had the wrong political response the sex trade. Yet again, those doing the cancelling were evasive and not entirely truthful. The ‘commercial’ line was a smoke screen and BOST knew it but wouldn’t admit to the real issue. They were also possibly in breach of contract which may have accounted for the studied silence. Fundamentally though, people who cancel, ‘not platform’ or censor, always lie about the reasons because they know, damn well, they're doing something wrong.
Add to these, two more instances worth discussing. One, in 2018, was to take part in a show about Clause 28 to be held at Sussex University. I sent some examples of work they would be available and also stated that if any of my work was shown, I would ask them to sign a contract to agree to leave it on display no matter how many people complain. At this point, all contact ceased without explanation. This may simply be that none of the work I offered was consistent with the aim of the show but, after a while, one becomes a little paranoid – hence my insistence on a contract. In 2017, the Woman's Hour Craft Prize stated in the T&C's – paraphrasing again – ‘No blasphemy and nothing that might offend. We reserve the right to remove work from shows as needed.’ I had considered applying but, instead, wrote to the organisers to complain, received a ‘holding email’ and have heard nothing since. The prize was organised by The Crafts Council, the BBC, and the V&A. The Crafts Council is a QUANGO - now, I think a govt department - the V&A is also a QUANGO. These are not neutral spaces. They also, apparently, see fit to make up laws when they feel like it.
Then there is ‘TERFs Out Of Art.’ This is a Twitter account. It is a network of some four thousand artworldists, about half of whom are professionals, some from major art galleries, museums, universities, and studios. Their followers include some well known writers and curators - people who can make or break you. They listed me as ‘verboten,’ within 24 hours of the launch. On top of that I was listed by Oxford Brookes University LGBT society as a ‘forbidden’ artist shortly after I had given a talk on the right to free expression in 2018…
In the art world ‘cancelling’ someone is a way of constructing networks and communities. – gangs, if you like. In large part, cancelling someone, and showing you've cancelled them, is a way to advance your career and, potentially, secure an income or even make some real money. Politics, especially the politics around equality of opportunity and advancement, has become thoroughly corrupted. These days, unfortunately, the words "diversity" and "intersectional," have lost most of their meaning if, indeed, they were ever fully understood.
‘Cancel Culture,’ for artists rarely takes the same form as it does for journalists and academics. In my case it has been my work, rather than me, that has been ‘cancelled.’ The ‘Shattered’ fiasco involved Bradford Metropolitan Council and Haringey Council so it is clear that the impulse to control and censor most often comes from organisations close to government. They are powerful. If you ignore Cancel Culture, and delude yourself that it is just and a few students and that the main source of complaint is from ‘the Tories’ or ‘racists’ or whoever your favourite target is, you leave yourself open to the same treatment. As you have seen, most of my experiences of cancellation is motivated by ignorance, racism and misogyny, not by knowledge, anti-racism, or feminism.
I have provided a snap shot of what 'Cancel Culture' is in action. For the artist, it is both demoralising and damaging. If you cannot show your work in public spaces, your career will eventually die. It never happens to the big people - Grayson Perry, for example, has never been cancelled. It only happens to those of us regarded as disposable - which suggests it is done so the canceller/censor can parade their own credentials to their target audience rather than any serious desire to protect their audiences from whatever they perceive as harmful. I do not believe for a second that any of these people really believed I was doing or saying anything harmful. They were appeasing something or someone they understand to be powerful or influential. That someone of something may not even exist.