In 2013, Grayson Perry became the first crossdresser to give the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures. I loved them. Wearing his usual colourful attire, Perry explained why he titled his series “Playing to the gallery”, rather than “Sucking up to an academic elite”.
Art, he warned, is in its final throes, largely thanks to its obsession with cliches. He went on to describe a group of children who were asked what they thought artists did. One child responded: “They notice things.”
Much has changed in the art world, as well as the world at large, since those lectures were recorded. Perry’s crossdressing is no longer seen as unusual. It would not raise a single eyebrow amidst all the gender identities, “preferred pronouns” and codes of conduct that have rapidly taken hold of Britain’s institutions.
Guided by Stonewall and its Diversity Champion Scheme, companies and Government departments now require its employees to comply with new and increasingly wide-ranging speech rules. That Stonewall deliberately misrepresents the existing equality law does not matter. These employers are desperate to appear inclusive and diverse — whatever the cost.
I noticed things.
Just over a month ago, thanks to a blog post I had written in 2019, I was publicly “cancelled” and then swiftly “un-cancelled” by the Royal Academy of Arts in London in a spectacular fashion. I had criticised and questioned the dangers of gender identity ideology, its effect on women’s rights, single sex spaces and services, as well as its corrosive impact on language itself. Something was shifting in our society; even the act of noticing, discussing or creating work about gender had started to feel uncomfortable, creating tangible repercussions for those who did.
As a self-taught “outsider artist”, I have never aspired to be a member of the cultural establishment. That is partly because my chosen artform of embroidery had long been relegated to its little “women’s craft corner” and not taken seriously as fine art, and partly because I had not taken the traditional route into my art career. I came into it sideways via a 22-year-long hairdressing career, making it vastly more difficult to be taken seriously as an artist.
So perhaps I should have had no expectations towards the art establishment during the RA episode. And yet I found it remarkable that my peers remained silent. Artists, after all, require freedom of thought and expression to be able to create something that is vital, engaging and sometimes challenging to the viewer. So why would they choose to absent themselves from a discussion about those values?
With very few exceptions, the entirety of the UK arts scene stayed well clear of the spectacle. Rachel Ara, a fellow “cancelled” artist, withdrew her submission from the Summer Exhibition in solidarity with me, and one Royal Academician reached out in support. One.
Was everyone else too scared to speak out? Certainly Grayson Perry kept quiet — as he has done throughout a number of debates over transgenderism and censorship in recent years.
Is “being a cliché” no longer a problem? Is “sucking up to an academic elite” now more important than “noticing things” and conveying them through our work? Perhaps loss of courage is the trade-off one makes for a successful career within the arts establishment. I wouldn’t know, but I noticed things.
Having grown up in East Berlin — a breeding ground for its own type of severe authoritarianism — I am increasingly aware of the parallels between today and the censorious regime that shaped most of my grandparents’ lives and my parents’ formative years. There is a creeping anxiety towards expressing any thought that could be perceived as criticism or scepticism towards an orthodox narrative. You can be punished, socially ostracised and fired at a moment’s notice. In effect, nobody is free from the consequences of their speech.
What, then, is the meaning of free speech and expression?
As a society, we define freedom of speech as a principle that supports an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanction. The term freedom of expression is usually used synonymously but, in a legal sense, includes any activity of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.
The recent Forstater Judgment determined that gender critical views (or as I like to call them: “an understanding of the immutability of sex”) are now protected under the law. And the public outcry in response to my mistreatment by the RA gave a good indication that such views are far from unusual or in any way hateful, despite great efforts to portray them as such.
Germany has a troubling legacy in more ways than one. I have often spoken to my octogenarian grandmothers about life under the Nazis, and read an abundance of literature about the period. I personally caught the tail-end of the German Democratic Republic, which saw itself as a “people’s democracy” but was, in fact, a dictatorship.
Many people hailing from such places, who have witnessed the creeping ideological hold of authoritarianism first-hand, have contacted me to share their concerns about the present. Like me, they can see how censorship is starting to seep into every walk of life.
The question now is how to respond. I have often wondered if, had I been alive in 1930s Germany, I would have spoken truth to power. Would I have recognised the moment when the mood started to shift and things started to go awry? Or would I have been like a frog in tepid water that is slowly brought to the boil, not aware of the imminent danger until it’s too late?
It is impossible to say, but we all fancy ourselves the hero of our own story. But surely it says something about our current situation that a vocal but tiny minority of voices, amplified by social media, is able to force a major institution such as the Royal Academy of Art to forget its raison d’etre and publicly disavow an artist for her perceived thought crimes?
Yes, in my case it backfired. I refused to back down and, with the help of a number of journalists, dragged the incident into the public realm kicking and screaming.
But what about the two previous years, during which I had to leave my job at Soho Theatre after it was threatened for renting out their space to me? What of the work collaborations that were boycotted due to guilt by association, so much so that I stopped them altogether in an attempt to protect my former partners?
That is my story — but I am far from the only artist who has been forced to live it. For every news story in the national press, there are dozens of quiet cancellations and insidious demands for language to be changed.
Artists have long been the canaries in the coal mine, providing advance warning once they detect dangers that others haven’t quite seen yet. That is why they “notice things”. Because when they no longer do, the rest of society suffers.