Cancelled: an artist performs in 'Exhibit B' by Brett Bailey (Photo credit should read FRANCK PENNANT/AFP via Getty Images)

October 28, 2020   5 mins

Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B was a provocative art work. Based on the colonial phenomenon of the human zoo, which saw African tribespeople imprisoned and exhibited as fairground attractions, Bailey’s 2014 theatre installation, produced by the Barbican, comprised a dozen or so “living portraits” performed by black actors. According to Bailey, “the intention of Exhibit B was never hatred, fear, or prejudice. It is about love, respect and outrage”.

The journalist Sara Myers disagreed and accused Bailey of racism. She initiated a petition calling for cancellation, which attracted over 22,000 signatures, and co-ordinated a protest outside the venue. The Barbican did what it could to keep the production open, but the protesters were determined to physically prevent people from gaining entry to the work. The police advised closure on safety grounds, effectively abandoning their duty to uphold the free speech of those involved with Exhibit B, leaving the Barbican feeling it had no alternative but to cancel.

A few days later, Bailey wrote: “Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? My work has been shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?”

Fast-forward six years.

Tate Modern, along with three American galleries, recently announced the postponement by four years of a long-planned exhibition of Philip Guston’s paintings because of concerns over a series of images depicting hooded Klansmen. Rather than open in spring 2021, the galleries have chosen to delay “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted”.

But there have been no protests — not even a petition. The postponement is entirely pre-emptive and driven by Tate Modern and its three US partner galleries in Washington DC, Boston and Houston.

The policing of artistic free expression has traditionally been carried out by external actors; self-styled morality campaigners, politicians and religious organisations. But today it is just as likely to be arts professionals themselves who self-censor, and, what is worse, attempt to censor or silence each other.

Jenny Lindsay is a Scottish poet. She performs her own work and produces regular events showcasing the work of fellow poet-performers. In June 2019 she tweeted her objection to the view that violence against “terfs” (women who don’t believe that trans women are literally women) is justifiable. For this, Lindsay was denounced on social media as “transphobic” and there began a campaign of vilification and attempted censorship that continues today. The Dark Horse, a respected Scottish poetry magazine, has just published an essay by Lindsay, “Anatomy of a Hounding”, which details how other writers and arts professionals were active in the campaign against her.

The Scottish Poetry Library, concerned at continuing attempts to censor poets including Lindsay, issued a statement which affirmed its commitment to diversity and equality: “What we do not support, and will no longer ignore, is bullying and calls for no-platforming of writers in events programmes and in publishing.”

In response, Scottish Pen — an organisation founded to champion writers’ free expression — issued a mealy-mouthed statement that scolded Scottish Poetry Library for failing to “address equality issues”. What Scottish Pen did not do is defend Jenny Lindsay’s freedom of expression, despite claiming to “challenge all efforts to silence writers”. Not all writers, apparently.

The blocs of power challenging today’s artists and arts organisations are not just the government or organised religion (with which artists have sometimes rather enjoyed clashing) but social justice movements — with which many in the arts affiliate themselves. From this internal conflict has arisen a widespread collapse of confidence in the validity of universal free expression.

This collapse was in evidence when London’s Royal Court Theatre cancelled its own 2018 production of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue, and Bob Too at the height of the #MeToo moment, and in the wake of the news that Max Stafford-Clark, founder of Out of Joint, the company staging the play, and also a former artistic director of the Royal Court, was accused of making lewd comments to several members of his staff. The Royal Court and Out of Joint issued a statement saying that “the staging of this work…feels highly conflictual”.

“Conflictual” feelings are a product of tolerance; accepting something we find disagreeable comes at psychological cost. We feel the dissonance. The Royal Court’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, quickly accepted that the discomfort she felt at the thought of continuing with the production was the price of the artistic free-expression rights of everyone involved with Rita, Sue, and Bob Too. She reversed her decision to censor the show.

But toleration finds little place in the lexicon of today’s activist movements, which tend to see it as tacitly reproducing oppression. As a result, submission to social justice orthodoxies is increasingly the price of artistic free expression. Jenny Lindsay is refusing to submit — whereas Tate Modern is doing so in advance, in the hopes of appeasing future objectors. 

The prospects for Philip Guston in four years time don’t look promising, given that the director of Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art — one of Tate Modern’s collaborators in the exhibition — has already condemned the artist by stating that his work “appropriates black trauma’”. This amounts to a curatorial determination that Guston’s exercising of his artistic free expression was morally illegitimate in the first place.  

When pressure is brought to bear on artistic free expression, arts organisations and artistic leaders have a vital role to play as a bulwark against those who seek to tighten restrictions. But this responsibility exists in tension with the conviction of many arts professionals that their rightful role is as progressive social actors, at the forefront of current activist movements. The tendency towards intolerance and literalism within these movements coexists uneasily with the principle of universal artistic free expression, and, increasingly, artists, writers and cultural leaders are dealing with the resulting dissonance by seeking to restrict free expression.

The line between legitimate curation decisions and actual censorship is often fuzzy; Manchester Art Gallery arguably put itself on the wrong side by responding to #MeToo with the removal of a popular Victorian painting depicting adolescent girls. Nervousness about commercial risk often mixes with the politics; Hachette was just as surely thinking of its balance sheet when cancelling Woody Allen’s memoir as the board of Tate Modern was when postponing Guston.

McCarthyite punishments are on the rise; Mslexia, a magazine of women’s writing, disapproved of views expressed by the novelists Amanda Craig and Lionel Shriver, removing them from judging panels in response. The theatre producers London Artists Projects removed Julie Bindel from its self-proclaimed celebration of free speech, Truth to Power Cafe, following protest from other performers — prompting Index on Censorship to withdraw support for the production.

Jenny Lindsay has everything to lose, but rather than perform contrition in the hope of an easier ride, she stands her ground and gives hope to other, perhaps less courageous, writers. In contrast, four major international art galleries collectively quake in anticipation of possible future challenges to their work — and, in so doing, they insult their audiences and dishonour the artist they should be championing.

Most damagingly, their actions teach all artists a bitter truth about much of today’s arts world; if you deal with controversial ideas, expect to be abandoned if the going gets rough.

Jonny Best is a musician, researcher and arts producer