X Close

The Royal Academy’s woman problem Jess De Wahls's reputation has been trashed by the institution because she refused to conform

Jess de Wahls: banned from the RA shop. Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Jess de Wahls: banned from the RA shop. Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty


June 22, 2021   5 mins

It took 250 years for the Royal Academy of Arts to embrace women as something close to equal members. It took eight complaints for the RA to trash a female artist’s reputation and pull her work from its shop last week. The problem was not with the work itself, unless you’re the kind of person who is virulently offended by roses, dahlias and butterfly peas. The problem was with the woman.

Jess De Wahls is an embroiderer, and the RA used to stock a range of her iron-on patches in floral designs, all ready to turn your favourite jeans into a work of art. For De Wahls, this was not a particularly big deal. The RA’s order was small, and as someone who sees herself outside the mainstream art world (“I don’t give a fuck about art institutions — I’m a trained hairdresser,” she says), winning the Academy’s approval held limited cachet.

For the RA, though, it seemed to be a success: it had just reordered her patches when the trouble started. And the trouble started because of a small number of people for whom it was unconscionable that De Wahls should have anything at all. De Wahls, they claimed, was a transphobe, and simply by having her work in its shop, the RA was condoning hatred of trans people. The RA contacted De Wahls, informed her it had received complaints then apparently panicked, and pulled the stock.

 

And what had De Wahls actually done to make herself untouchable? In 2019, she published a long, considered essay laying out her thoughts on gender identity. “My hope is that this will help you, the reader, the viewer, to understand my conclusions about this subject,” she wrote. “And I will tell you them candidly so no mistake can be made in misunderstanding or misrepresenting me.” As anyone who has ever ventured an opinion on gender could tell you, this was always a vain hope given the torrents of bad faith that run through this subject.

So it didn’t matter how precise De Wahls was when she wrote: “I have no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex (or in whatever way they please for that matter).” It didn’t matter that she described her own close and supportive relationship with her father, who lives a gloriously gender-nonconforming life in heels and lipstick. It didn’t matter that De Wahls, who was a child in pre-unification East Germany, drew parallels between the chilling propriety of gender-identity dogma and the constant self-censorship demanded by life under the stasi.

What mattered was that she had said no, and no amount of thoughtfulness or articulacy can make female refusal inoffensive. “I can not accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to when they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such,” De Wahls stated, and in doing so she asserted both an internal and an external boundary: a boundary that said she would not automatically treat male people as though they were female, and a boundary that said she would not think of male people as though they were female.

Perhaps not all the horror this elicited was genuine. Some, surely, came from fellow artists who were glad of a way to hobble a competitor in a fierce market. But the taboo she broke was so profound, the RA found it inarguable once it was brought to its attention. “The RA is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and does not knowingly support artists who act in conflict with these values,” it said in a statement. Although you can still buy a book about child-rape enthusiast Gauguin and prolific mistress-abuser Picasso.

Or maybe “equality, diversity and inclusion” simply aren’t on offer for a Tahitian teenager who ends up at the wrong end of an artist’s syphilitic penis. There’s an argument which used to be made (and thankfully isn’t so much anymore) than an artist’s special role in society sets him (always a him, in this argument) beyond the norms of bourgeois decency: if it cost Picasso “the blood of those who loved him” (in the words of his granddaughter Marina) to produce that tasteful cubist nude so you can hang a print of it in your living room, then so be it.

That, clearly, is an abhorrent position. More convincing is the argument that art itself should be permitted to shock. It’s a tradition that the RA has made itself home to. Back in 1997, it offered the Sensation exhibition. This was where you could see Marcus Harvey’s “Myra” — a portrait of the murderer Hindley, compiled from children’s handprints. It also included one of Marc Quinn’s “Self” sculptures, which recreated the artist’s own head using ten pints of frozen blood, and the Chapman brothers supplied child mannequins with phalluses attached to the face or anuses for mouths.

All of this is much more disturbing than De Wahls’ beautifully detailed flowers. There was genuine outrage, not just a few huffy messages: protesters vandalised the Hindley portrait. But the RA stood by it. When challenged about the distress caused to the families of Hindley’s victims, the then-chief of exhibitions said the portrait “raises interesting questions
 about the exploitation of children in our society”.  A quarter of a century later, it seems the RA would now be more likely to take the side of those throwing eggs at Harvey’s work than to defend artististic expression.

But then, De Wahls is a woman, and historically the RA has always found decency a useful weapon for excluding women: it deemed women too delicate to take part in life drawing classes except as models, and so denied them a complete artistic education, which in turn justified keeping them out of any significant role in running the Academy. (As artist-activists the Guerilla Girls demanded in 1989: do women have to be naked to get into a gallery?) Not until 2011 did any woman achieve the rank of Professor in the RA, and it took another five years before Sonia Boyce became the first black female Academician.

In the past it was offensive for a woman to see a human body; now it’s offensive for her to name it. Decorum has always had a handy way of falling more heavily on women. The genius of gender identity doctrine has been to reinvent etiquette as politics. To assert the inarguable fact that humans are born with a sex and have that sex for life — regardless of how they dress, act or feel about themselves — is the most scandalous thing De Wahls could have done in 2021.

No one is really offended because they believe her statement to be untrue. Everybody knows, functionally, that sex is real and significant: even the most assertive of gender identity ideologues finds that genitals do not exist on an unknowable spectrum when they’re actually in bed, and they can all somehow figure out which kind of person should be called a bigot and denied an income. They are offended because a woman is not supposed to say the things De Wahls did. A woman today is not even supposed to acknowledge that she’s a woman, unless it’s to prostrate herself with guilt for her supposed “cis privilege”.

Some privilege, to have your reputation trashed and your work deemed toxic on the strength of eight complaints. De Wahls — who could surely bring a compelling libel case here — has so far only said that she wants an apology from the RA. And while the RA has refused to defend or even discuss its decision making, public opinion seems to have swung behind De Wahls, who says she has been inundated with supportive messages and direct orders through her website.

But for every woman able to stare down her bullies with the resilience of De Wahls, there are dozens for whom the ostracism and the financial penalties are too much to bear. Gender identity doctrine is a kind of sexism that, by making sex unnamable, places itself cleverly beyond criticism. It’s the same old misogyny, refined and perfected, conveniently emerging just as feminism succeeded in making direct sex discrimination untenable. The Royal Academicians of the past, with their frantic contortions to resist the “female invasion”, would surely have nothing but admiration for this new way to keep women down.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

sarahditum

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

34 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Powell
Richard Powell
3 years ago

A strong and necessary piece. As a long-term Friend of the RA I have been following this affair closely. One can have some sympathy for organisations embarrassed by the actions of misguided staff. So I have held off cancelling my subscription, in the hope the RA would have the grace and good sense to admit a dreadful mistake had been made. But rather than face its critics the RA has gone to ground, refusing requests for elucidation from the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, BBC, Mail and Sun.
Let’s be clear. Both legally and ethically it’s as wrong to exclude someone for their legitimate beliefs as it would be to exclude them for being black, gay or disabled. The RA needs to recognise that, and act accordingly.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Powell

Long term friend eh? Up the ‘RA!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Cheer up Mike, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNSwjEHXg1k the TV series (all portions of the episodes are there on youtube if you look,) ‘Coming Soon’ by Annie Griffin, the story of a ‘Devised Theater Group’ (highest level ‘fine arts’, they work without a script) and ‘The Arts Council’ in a great send up on the entire fine-arts/funding/Patronage situation. (all the women in my family have bagged Fine Arts Degrees at some point)

The thing to remember is the higher the art the more disdain they have for the society they come from, even to the point of despising it for the top persons, so at the level of the RA they must be very anti-Traditional indeed, and be for anything which ‘rubs the right’s nose in it’ (as Blair put it).

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago

We are increasingly being dictated to by the intolerant lunatic fringe. We sadly get confirmation of this daily.

Last edited 3 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

They are no longer a fringe, but hold power in public, educational, commercial and artistic organisations as elite university educated professionals. It will be difficult to change this, but public boycott would be a start or protests outside the institutions.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Didn’t work last time such people got rolling….Imagine “please Mr klansman/stasi/daesh etc, stop persecuting people or we’ll boycott, disinvest and protest”.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
3 years ago

‘Because she is a woman’, is it? Are you saying, Ms Ditum, that a man could have said the same things that Jess De Wahls did without getting into any kind of trouble? Regrettably I do not think that is correct.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Of course you are right. In a way, writing this article as if the problem is unique to women actually makes the problem worse because we are fighting the nonsense as separate smaller groups instead of ganging together as one allied army. If this is perceived to be only a problem for women, then we are running into another problem – that of extreme feminism.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Yes agreed.
As I suggested rather flippantly below, this is a bigger problem that one just affecting women. In fact it’s worse from the author, as to just dismiss this as a variant of old fashioned sexism is to miss the point spectacularly.
It’s not that Ms De Wahls’ case is not bad, but it happened because of a mindset thats endemic’, not because the same old sexist bigots now wear skirts.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I don’t think she’s saying that a man wouldn’t have got a bad reaction if he’s written that essay. But the implications of male to female transition are more damaging for women than female to male is for men. If natal males are accepted into women sports, it makes a nonsense of those sports, since men are simply born bigger and stronger on average. If natal males are allowed into spaces designed for the protection and privacy of women – be it refuges, prisons or toilets – again women are put at risk. And if language is altered to deny that only a woman’s body is designed to bear, give birth to and suckle a child, then that denies realities that women feel define them. It feels like we women are undermined, exposed and even erased. Hence our particular anger. Interestingly, no one I’ve met could ever define what a woman actually is, if you take her body out of the equation.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

Useful detail specifying real differences, thankyou, except I’d prefer your

realities that women feel define them

to be expressed as

realities that most women feel define at least a part of their identity

And I don’t think anyone could define what a man was either, if you took his body out of the equation!

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I think another, complementary perspective is possible.
Your approach is spatial, based in the now, and from that point of view your call for solidarity through various different groups joining forces makes sense.
But speaking from the point of view of a 300-year old woman, I would have to say, wearily, if it’s not one thing then it’s another, but always they seem to get us in the end. The author points to this time-oriented angle, which is a legitimate female view of the problem.
I cannot see that these two perspectives need be mutually exclusive.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I thought the same initially, but she is making a valid point about how long it took them to recognised women in the first place.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Yes agreed – but this is a separate thing, and not the cause of the current issue

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

A man saying the same things would of course also have been subjected to abuse, but I don’t think it would have been quite so vile.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Depends if the man has a free pass – ie wealthy, woke, white and witless, or a member of ISIS/Daesh, the Black Panthers or the IRA. If you are a member of one of these protected minorities apparently you can say and do vile things to LGBT people without fear of repercussions.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

What next. An article on how testicular cancer is misogynistic invention of the patriarchy created to oppress wimmin?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I agree. This is not about anti-feminism, it is about lunatic wokedom.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

For the female Alf Garnett everything is anti-feminism

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
3 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

When a man goes through the same thing then, yes, it will be because people go through this. But unfortunately very few men are “cancelled” anywhere apart from one or two who have chosen to stand with women who are thrown under the bus every day.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago

I would certainly support Jess De Wahls, but you paint an image of the RA that is too autocratic and misogynistic. I was a student there in the 1980’s. Like many academic institutions it has proceeded from enlighten, benign indifference, bumbling along, to a corporate institution of glamour and money. Contemporary politics now impacts the bottom line, so effort must be made to aswage any fears that they may not be proceeding in the correct line of travel, which would be feared as harmful to reputation and sales.
That is the front of house RA, less kindly patrician liberal, more corporate HR.
As for the schools, it has changed since 1776,even then they had a female academician, Angelica Kaufman. Women exhibited since its beginning and have been admitted to the life room since the late 1800s.When I was a student, the student body was approximately say 60-70% female. Tutors say 30% female. You are correct in saying that the first professor(Keeper) didn’t come until 2011.But female representation was fairly high, class representation was not, out of a yearly intake of 15, three of us were from state schools.
The RA is a pretty good mirror of change, if always slightly behind the beat. The. Myra Hindley painting was scandalous and pretty tasteless and like so much art of the time pretty fatuous. The distinguished portrait painter John Ward RA, resigned, too kind and gentle a man to tolerate such a thing. The fact that artists can be pretty reprehensible, should surprise nobody, they register high on disagreablness and risk taking. We are all flawed, art is our redemption, bringing beauty into the world is worth doing, although unpopular at the present . So I support Jess De Wahls, not exclusively because she is a woman, but because she is a victim of an insurgent orthodoxy,that will end badly if not confronted.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Whilst its nice to see the woke choke themselves in the narrow world of “high” culture ie arts, unis, screen media and other ephemera, these very dangerous people are continuing to run almost unchecked in the police, schools, NHS and broader civil service.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

This high culture fence was amongst the first to fall. Espousing corporate, progressive values seemed to occur at the same time that the RA dismantled our Alumni organisation, removed visiting privileges for students and ex students, and embarked on a costly architectural programme and monetized everything.
Having worked on the Summer Exhibition, I can tell you it’s a fraud. I still get sent the magazine, God knows who pays for it, I certainly wouldn’t.
I’ve had my successes there, but it is spiralling into ridiculousness now.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

Like a virus i guess, the first to fall ill is the first to develop antibodies. I can’t see wokism’s appetite for destruction getting traction with the commonsense public. Here lies the danger – their chief weapons are violence, theft, and autistic screeching. As they will never win elected power under the rule of law they will do everything they can to destroy our society. We used to have laws for people like that right up until 1997 and dedicated arms of the state (MI5/6 and some cops) whose job it was to keep us safe from them. Now these have been either stood down or infiltrated i expect it will get worse before it gets better.

Last edited 3 years ago by mike otter
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

De Wahls case sounds worryingly familiar today – for her daring to speak something that wasn’t in the play script. I hope the RA see sense.
However once again the author here is just seeing what she wants to see. She would read about Anne Frank and conclude that the biggest problem in Europe c.1936-1945 was sexism.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Alyona Song
Alyona Song
3 years ago

To me, the issue lies in the way that the so called “progressives” have twisted and distorted what being “committed to equality, diversity and inclusion” actually means. As a result, any individual, male of female, can become a victim of “righteous” ire by simply expressing own views.

Michael James
Michael James
3 years ago

Why are artists’ reputations hostage to the choices of elite outfits like the Royal Academy? Surely some small private galleries would exhibit worthwhile art without bothering about the private opinions of the artists?

Last edited 3 years ago by Michael James
Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

If the RA were able to read the mind of its visitors and banned those whose views it did not like it would not have any visitors. I’m pleased that I gave up my membership some years ago.

Alan Westwood
Alan Westwood
3 years ago

It is important to push back against the transgender ideology. This article has made a good contribution to reaffirming the importance of biological sex.

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
3 years ago

If the author had not attributed this RA reaction to sexism she would not have had the headline or the story, but after reading the story it seems contrived to make surrender to mobbing by only 8 people look like sexism rather than asexual cowardice.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

I am mystified. Could someone please explain to me what harm the artist’s flower embroideries could do to trans people?

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
3 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Because celebrating femaleness and female genitalia is seen as transphobic. It is that lunatic. Even more lunatic is the ‘defence’ of her ‘crime’. There was no crime.

Julia H
Julia H
3 years ago

If I might take a dissenting view, I think Jess De Wahl’s reputation, far from being trashed, has been enhanced immeasurably by her dignified conduct in the face of this wholly unjustified attack. A role model for us all.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
3 years ago

There is an implication here that the source of the misogyny is biological men – presumably because it was they who excluded women from the RA in the past. But the gender justice warriors in this case are just as likely to be biological women, and possibly feminists – just not TERFS.