Sunday 9 May 2021

Cancel Culture: the reality for one artist

Cancel Culture: Introduction

From time to time, someone on social media asks if 'Cancel Culture' is real. This is my account of what I have experienced, on and off, since 2010 - it is not definitive, or necessarily representative, but it is authentic. It is one artist's experience of a mix of censorship, threat of the same, or 'de-platforming,' (being disinvited after an invitation has been accepted, confirmed and, in some cases signed off as part of a contract,) over a period of eleven years. I also discuss the impact and reasons why it happens.

2010: Shattered, Keighley Castle

Summary: the road to Hell is paved with ignorance and good intentions

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the exhibitions organiser at Bradford Metropolitan Council’s Museum’s and Galleries, to say one of my pots would be withdrawn from the proposed show, ‘Shattered,’ because of the ‘clear vagina imagery.’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 the 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 the 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 It was ‘Princess Hymen’ that was withdrawn.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. 

Princess Hymen is, first and foremost, a feminist work. It is about the concept of virginity, the obsession with the virgin body that only ever applies to girls and women, and the devastating impact this has on girls and women of all ages. The immediate assumption was that feminism would ‘offend the local Muslims.’ No one had thought to consult any of the local Muslim populations though, so on what basis was this decision made? And by whom? 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 grotesque cultural relativism and cultural and religious ignorance, 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 Muslim women. 

2016: Five Jugs

Summary: racism masquerading as anti-racism, coupled with incompetence.

After the above fiascos, I had sworn I would never show in a public sector space again. 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 had written ‘Fuck the Sharia’ in English on her stomach. I depicted her and her slogan. The complainer declared she was offended shouted about it on Twitter. Her call to outrage was largely ignored but I responded with some care, as is my habit. I do it for the silent readers. 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 big 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, and acute anxiety about their own audiences brought about by simply not knowing who they are. It is also, it must be said, straight forward racism.  All of these are masqueraded as anti-racism. 

2019: And the Door Opened - event planned for Crossbones Cemetery, Southwark

Summary: I am accused by sex workers rights activists of whoring myself to oligarchs 

Venue: Crossbones Cemetery, a 17th and 18th century 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 abuse them with impunity. The women and girls were still denied Christian burial so were buried there unmarked and unremembered. My event, in partnership with women@thewell, an exiting service based in Kings Cross, was to be a memorial event, involving the smashing of a pot, to remember and name 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. 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. Yet again, feminism was silenced. This time I had the wrong political response the sex trade and, 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, ‘no platform,’ or censor, always lie about the reasons because they know, damn well, they're doing something wrong.

The impact: 

i) Constantly watching over your shoulder to see where the next hit will come from. 

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 was asked what I had learnt from Clause 28. I replied that a central part of the legislation was an attack on free speech and expression and suggested showing 'Ballad of Sister Bergdorf,' a new piece just completed. I 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. (Edit: Jan 4th 2022: the curator and director of this show was Dr Francesco Ventrella, the lecturer supporting and advising the students who repeatedly threatened Professor Kathleen Stock.) 

ii) The chill factor

The other instance worthy of note was 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, their CEOs are government appointees. They also, apparently, see fit to make up laws when they feel like it. The result for artists is either to self censor, or stay out of it. I, along with a number of others, chose the latter.

iii) Harassment

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…

What does it all mean? Why does it happen? Who benefits and from what?

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. 

Who does the cancelling?

‘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.’ 2019, the Crossbones Cemetery debacle is the exception - though for other artists, that is now becoming the rule. 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 have been motivated by ignorance, racism, and misogyny, not by knowledge, anti-racism, or feminism.

The Consequences

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. The losses are significant for me though. Bit by bit the cancelled artist falls away from the artworld radar and becomes invisible. Both I and my work is perceived as troublesome and, contrary to a widely believed myth, the artworld seeks safety way ahead of creative risk. 

Edit 4th Jan 2022: I have now left the gallery that represented me from 2017-2021. There are many reasons but among is that I don't want to bring trouble to their door. This isn't altruism on my part, it is self interest. The situation for artists has heated up considerably over the past year and more and more female artists are coming forward having been hounded out of studios, dropped from exhibitions, excluded from selling sites such at Etsy, and deplatformed by universities. In spite of the heightened rhetoric, the majority of artworldists are still shockingly ignorant of the issues and are therefore wholly unequipped to fight the battles when they come. For this reason, I judge it is better to be independent for the time being. 

Suvivors and Fighters, 2021