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How artists lost their courage Keeping silent is the price of a successful career

What does Grayson Perry really think?(Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

What does Grayson Perry really think?(Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)


August 3, 2021   4 mins

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 clichĂ©â€ 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.


Jess De Wahls is an embroidery artist based in London. Buy her work here.

JessDeWahls

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Fantastic article.
Yes, in my case it [cancellation] 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.
No kidding! I’d never heard of Jess de Wahls before this Royal Academy of Art incident but I sure have now. I read articles about what happened. I watched the Unherd event in which de Wahls participated. I checked out her website and on-line store (her work is currently all sold out–this has been a fantastic marketing event for her!). I learned that she is a highly talented visual artist.
I’d like to think this is the end of the story for Jess de Wahls but I fear her battle with the forces of censorship will continue. She has my utmost respect.
Let this be one example to us all of how to take a stand against ‘progressive’ ideology and its practices. Sadly, we can’t all be as uncompromising in our position as de Wahls, but we can do something even if it’s just financially supporting people and organizations who publicly push back against wokeism.
I hope this is the first of many Unherd articles describing people and institutions taking a stand for freedom of speech.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Bravo. But let’s draw one or two lessons from what she says. First, people are easily cowed. In the Britain of today, a misplaced word can end one’s career and in consequence, people fall silent. So let’s junk the idiotic complaints – especially from pompous left wingers – about the conduct of wartime populations. We go in fear for our livelihoods; they went in fear of their lives.
Second, neo-communists are running much of the cultural and administrative show in the modern west and, true to form, they are chasing that ugly old rainbow which is supposed to spring “transformation” from coercion.
Third, “outsider” status is an important protection, which implies that in the short to medium term we must build alternative, new institutions free from the communist taint which is corrupting established ones.

Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
2 years ago

Great article. I’ve long wearied of the way so many of today’s artists love to claim that art has always been about breaking new ground, pushing the boundaries, doing radical things like planting a giant ice-cream cone on Trafalgar Square that will supposedly make us think or alert us to some dreadful injustice that is happening to somebody somewhere. I never really bought this artist-as-revolutionary narrative, so was glad to hear from the author that actually, artists are just as much craven conformists as anybody else – at least those who went to art school and had an academic training. Good for the self-taught ex-hairdresser who has now exposed the lie behind all that pathetic bravado!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

We’ve now had about 100 years of “modern art” and unlike all art movements previously, it demonstrably has not moved art forward; it’s sent it backwards. A post-Impressionist added something to the art canon and offered a genuinely new way to see the world, but the junk peddled as art nowadays is simply random garbage that’s art not because it encapsulates any talent, insight or even skill in its creation; it’s just tut that’s declared to be art by establishment diktat.

Christopher Thompson
Christopher Thompson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

As Robert Hughes said, “Art does not improve, it accumulates”.

Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
2 years ago

Yes, “artists are just as much craven conformists as anybody else”. Where is that marvellous self-publicist Grayson Perry?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

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.

Let’s call it what it is: LGBQT fascism. Not happy with being merely ‘tolerated’, this ‘community’ is at the forefront of cancel culture and restricitive speech codes. The term ‘gay’ is a misnomer and disguises how miserable and curmudgeonly most members of this community truly are. At what point did it become mandatory to continually placate these people?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

This isn’t the first instance we’ve seen of the art world closing ranks against and ostracising dissidents.
The Stuckist movement has had the persistent bad manners to call out the talentlessness of current trendy artists, to note the revolving door between museums, private art galleries, and artist management, and to critique the increasing role of the state – in the form of Tate Modern and others – in acting as an arbiter and determinant of what is and isn’t “good art”.
comment image
Charles Thomson, Sir Nicholas Serota Makes An Acquisitions Decision, acrylic on canvas, 2000
The state doesn’t buy much art, but whenever Nicholas Serota exhibits Tracey Emin’s soiled knickers as art, it gives an imprimatur of merit to abject crud that makes her very rich indeed.
The Stuckists have also pointed out, rather archly, that Turner could not possibly today win the Turner Prize. We’ve had 100 years of modern post-figurative art, so what’s the message? What are its key themes, observations, insights and concerns? How has it moved art forward? If, 100 years after Shakespeare, nobody could say what was great about Shakespeare, what would that tell us? In a way it’s a test of how successful the indoctrination has been if you genuinely think that something by Anish Kapoor is art. It is like Winston Smith actually succeeding in seeing five fingers when only four are being held up.
The art establishment simply closes ranks with practised ease against anyone who doesn’t toe the line. The best-selling painter in the world is Jack Vettriano but the art world sneers at and ignores him. Robert Heindel was a painter of dancers as obsessive as Degas, but he was ignored too.comment image
Robert Heindel, The Passion of Land, pastel on canvas, 1987
What both had in common was that they democratised art. You could create it and like it without having to be one of the art nomenklatura, and that’s what they can’t stand.
The point I suppose is that the art world already has the hive mind, the opposition to originality, the contempt for authenticity and the hatred for the dissident in place. As such, it would and does reflexively round on anyone who steps out of line, especially but not solely if they produce high-quality art.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Really good comment.
This exact attitude is what put me off studying art at school – as it permeated all levels. Art was so obsessed with vaguely defined “ideas” and “expression” that it had no time for quality or skill.
One of the reasons Leonardo’s portraits are so exquisite – is because he spent years studying anatomy through observation and dissections. His portraits’ hands are anatomically perfect, because he knew precisely where and how each ligament, muscle and bone was placed underneath the skin.
An artist like him today would go nowhere. The standard art establishment response is that “it’s been done before” or that photography has replaced the “need” for realism. As if such a high level of skill isn’t enough to be praised in itself. It doesn’t mean you have to do the same again, but build on what is already there.
Few other disciplines, creative or functional, have had such an utter complete rejection of their foundations. Though it’s just a perfect example of the post-modern mind at work.

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Agreed. The importance of actually being able to draw and paint is that if the artist can’t then you have no idea whether what’s on the canvas is what they were trying to convey. Whatever’s there may be the result of ineptitude rather than intent. It’s like a writer who can’t spell or punctuate.
The Stuckist critique of conceptual art is exactly that it’s all stale and has been done over and over again before. The art establishment seems to think this critique cannot possibly apply to its own taste.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Great comment. Love the stuckists.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I quite like the annual exhibitions at the RSA. Usually a free drink or two at the opening and always something worthy of your attention.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

Thank you for this eloquent article and thank you for taking a stand. Many years ago I worked in the theatre, where there was (and still is) rampant bullying, sexual predation and lots more. Nobody dared challenge. Theatre is dominated by idealogues where the message is everything and, sadly, what is on display is often poor. Who will be the playwright/actor/director daring to take on wokeism? I don’t think any theatre or TV/film studio would have the courage to commission such bravery. The writer invokes a very valid comparison with totalitarian societies: they work most efficiently when the population does the donkey work for them. So people keep their heads down and mouths shut. Thank you Jess de Wahls.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Excellent article. The art world in the UK is highly organised, and in lock step, to a greater degree than most other countries. Artists are afraid of exile, but Jess de Wahls, proves that fear maybe unfounded, which would really blow the house down!
Obscurity can be liberating,so many great artists were barely known in their lifetime. But its a hard road to walk unaided.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

Chingase art & artists, lets dance!

Maighread G
Maighread G
2 years ago

‘Perhaps loss of courage is the trade-off one makes for a successful career within the arts establishment.’ That’s a great observation. And the same might be true of the literary establishment. Great article. Bravo.

Mary McFarlane
Mary McFarlane
2 years ago
Reply to  Maighread G

Yes ‘loss of courage’ was the phrase that stood out, and depressed me very much at the same time.

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

Totalitarianism has so far required dictatorships to implement it. We are now in the midst of an experiment to see whether a totalitarian movement can take over democracies from within.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

Yes. It’s being done by creating arbitrary minority rights and making these sacrosanct decrees that can be wielded against the people.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

Isn’t that precisely what the NSDAP did?

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

I think there is a difference. The Nazis initially stood outside the system and captured it using a combination of violence and elections. The present Left long ago gave up on elections and decided to infiltrate the system by stealth. It has so far been successful. If it is reversed by democratic means, it might try violent revolutionary methods such as the Bolsheviks successfully used in Russia in 1917 despite minimal popular support.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

….small groups may have been the energisers, but none of the 20th century totalitarian regimes would have risen to power without buy in from a substantial portion of the masses. Mr Hitler was after all elected to the Reischstag.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

I notice very few “comedians” have spoken up for Andrew Lawrence in his recent cancellation.
ï»ż

Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

You have to be very right-on and woke to be a comedian today. Who dares to stand on stage and lampoon the current obsession with ID politics, for example? Very few honourable exceptions.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

I have wondered, what is Grayson Perry , a cross dresser? A trans-something? And why does he dress like that? I listened to an interview some time ago where he tried to explain it, but didn’t understand it.
Now I know he doesn’t talk about transgender issues… Interesting.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Ok going to sound turbo curmudgeonly but…
I find when artists do that it’s to make themselves appear more interesting than they actually are. It’s part of the act and distracts from the art.
See also bands who spend a lot of effort cultivating and curating themselves in the image of what they think a band should look like rather than focussing on the music.
Sure art is subjective, and Perry’s work seems to have some craft (even if not remotely to my taste), but the dressing wacky always seems to me to be an unnecessary schtick to say “look at me!”
Having seen Perry in interviews etc I think it’s just an act like a costume. I may be wrong but I don’t think he’s actually trans or anything. It’s a persona.

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I saw Grayson Perry speak at a local museum a while ago and I asked the question about what we can do to preserve the teaching of craft in schools; he replied that he didn’t want to get involved in those kinds of debates. At that point he sunk in my estimation; seemingly happy to languish in a creative cul-de-sac. The greatest impact of a risk averse approach to creativity is on our children, who have to work so hard to maintain their reputations and avoid being ‘cancelled’.

Julia H
Julia H
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

I heard GP’s Reith lectures and found him fascinating and funny. I also think his art and craft is hugely accomplished (unlike Emin’s dross). Craft doesn’t have to be taught in schools. Like any subject it can be pursued as an interest in adulthood if the desire is there.

Last edited 2 years ago by Julia H
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I think he’s just exercising his freedom not to speak.

Satyam Nagwekar
Satyam Nagwekar
2 years ago

Lovely piece. Jess sure is a talented writer.

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
2 years ago

Jesse I have been sharing your article with my colleagues at work to explain my position on the matter better than I ever have. For that, thank you.

Deplatforming people who “speak truth to power” has been happening for decades in a commercial context: what do you think a corporate whistleblower is?

In my own experience, I have been told by a director of a major “crypto” protocol promoter that any platform that allows me to call them and the other “crypto” naked emperors out will be demonetised by them and their cohorts.

These are the ones who, in effect claim that distributed ledger technology is a means to put leprechauns on the back of unicorns to be transported from wishing well to money tree. Their ongoing dominance of the discourse is at best harmful and damaging to the industry and to the world.

This particular promoter spends millions of dollars/pounds/euro dominating the crypto media and events. Their cancellation of me and those like me is broadly accepted and ignored.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ri Bradach
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Great article and respect to the author for refusing to be meek but standing up and saying “oh no you don’t!”
A great book to read about once great artists sacrificing their originality or dumbing down to fit with the crowd and the establishment is Thomas Bernhard’s “Cutting Timber” (“HolzfĂ€llen”).
It’s a hard book to read due to Bernhard’s all-pervasive grumpiness and prose style but it’s really worth sticking with.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

Such a inspiring and well written article.
Particularly loved this sentence: ‘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?’

Tim Knight
Tim Knight
2 years ago

I love your patches Jess. I have one on my hat, but I have to confess it was my daughter that pointed out the gynaecological aspect of it. You are brave and right.

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

All kinds of courage! Thank you we can learn about your confrontations with so many bad people in authority who continue to be encouraged whilst good people do nothing. Good person Jess! Not lost either that your GDR experiences and relationships have helped make you so brave. Or that Unherd can find your voice.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

Perhaps what we need to do is de-monetise the arts then artists might be a lot less afraid to speak out

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

I suggest that arts training should be based on training a few people to very high standards in art, music, ballet and theatre and subsidising one or two organisations which specialises in performing national playwrights, composers and the best from around the world. Art has become a form of employment for very many mediocre people whose existence supports far too many marxist/left wing administrators. Precise, accurate and very heavy pruning is needed.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I come from a family with artists, and have been to many an ‘Art Opening’ and poetry reading, and hung a good deal with artists and their camp followers, and there is a type very much. Always fun to be around, always stimulating, But….

Liberalness pours from them, not a right winger in the room (but me), but left wing of the most far kind are plentiful. A postmodern dismissing of conventional mores, culture, society – looking down on normal working people conventional values…

They were the soil the bad seed was sown on, and so “you harvest what you sow, for good or bad. Genesis 2:4-5”.

“”For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.””

I am loving the arch Liberals, the avant-garde, as it were, as the arts always claim to be, now can see where their works have led, to biting their own a** – to totalitarian oppression. By discrediting the normal, they have allowed the abnormal to prosper. F-them. Let this be a wake up call to normal people, The Left depends on ‘Useful Idiots’ to help wreck functioning society – but then, like evil always does, turns on its own tools once it gets real power.

read of the frog and scorpion…..

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

No mention of Grayson’s Art Club where, in the solemn atmosphere of Lockdown, he gathered together cheerful “art” from both humble and celebrity people. At home in his studio with his psychologist wife, he communicated through online video and captured an almost haunting mood of the times. No mention of dressing up or any radical ideology. The only sense of “modern” attitudes was that it was aired on Channel 4.
Also Sky Artists Portrait Artist and Landscape Artist of the Year actually cover more serious technical fine art with no hint of either Corbyn or Hitler in sight. Merely people noticing the evidence of their eyes.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

There was a great programme about Leonora Carrington on BBC 4 last night. Wish people made art like that still. A real rebel too. And also someone who had to fight against restrictive attitudes regarding gender to fulfill her ambitions. No way she would win the Turner prize either. No installations.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

Let’s face it
..keeping silent is à the highway to a successful career 
.whatever the career

Angela Merkel is the textbook example.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Art has not needed courage; artists need patrons who buy their work.The greatest artist of all time Michelangelo was called ” The Divine One “. Michelangelo was a devout Christian and considered his work as act of worship .His patrons were the Popes, Cardinals and Rulers.Constable had a reverence for the British landscape; where is the rebellion?
The idea that art is rebellious only comes about with Lenin requiring posters for propganda and in Western Europe, state funding post WW2.
The massive increases in state funding and taxation post WW2 created a class of arts administrators who comprised marxist public school types and art teachers. However, technical standards declined. Post WW1 many artists had to attend the same anatomy classes as doctors and pass the same exams. The great Florentine artists of The Renaissance dissected and drew corpses.This largely stopped post WW1 and technical skills have largely declined every ten years. The number artists who can draw people and have the same grasp of perspective approaching Raphael are minimal. Life drawing is barely taught.
A major mistake was from post WW1 artists went from being trained via the apprenticeship method to training in art schools. This greatly increased numbers but lowered quality.
The art world largely comprises a combination of Marxist propaganda and taking money off the Nouveau Riche by public school types. The reason why the Art world is so fearful is that it is the best example of The Emperors New Clothes making money today.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Artists? What about the entertainers? Don’t you just wish Charlie Chaplin was striding the world’s stage today? Poking his cane and fun at all and sundry? And the conundrum of trying to put sound to the moving image still unsolvable? All you could do then, as back then, is 
 laugh.
The entertainers might just save the day yet!

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

There used to be regiment called The Artists Rifles, disbanded in 1945; cannot imagine it being reformed today.
Artists Rifles – Wikipedia

Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
2 years ago

Just watched (again) the video embedded here. I’m fairly confident that UnHerd has begun a conversation which has not yet been contemplated anywhere else in the English-speaking world—certainly not here in America, the very source of the poisonous stream threatening not only to doom art but arguably Western civilization. The toxin of wokeism has so pervaded the cultural groundwater here that I had already begun planning an exploratory trip to the UK even before the event at Sekforde, for the sake of my future as an artist. I am now quite set on having a front-row seat to this continuing conversation. (Now all I have to do is figure out quarantine without spending my entire lodging budget—no quarantining in hostels of course!)

I was nearly moved to tears several times listening to Mr. Marshall tell his story. His grief over the loss of his artistic camaraderie was palpable (sensible too was his trauma from the vitriol and gaslighting he suffered). There is much to be said here—and much one would like to say to such brutalizers—but in the end there seems nothing for it but for artists of conscience to follow Ms. de Wahls’ example of engaging controversy with courage and civility, while at the same time producing artistic work of unquestionable quality. Indeed it seems that those on the “wrong side” of wokeism are going to be required to observe civility religiously, as there is so much woundedness in our world, amongst the public at large and among artists in particular (since it is from his wounds that the work of the artist so often flows). And the wounded must be handled with care, even as we insist that they not wound others—all while respecting each person’s irreducibly unique journey and interiority. Such will be the calling of artists of conscience for perhaps an entire generation—on top of their all-consuming occupation of producing, to liberally paraphrase Mr. Marshall, art that is worth a damn. It’s going to require unwavering heroism—and unwavering support.

Which is why the momentum of this new movement must be maintained. I would very much like to see more of these events which support artists by giving them a chance to speak and to be heard (and even to be lauded—both for their art and for their courage). I am also hoping to see even more regular cultural coverage/criticism in UnHerd, focusing on the arts and on the effects of wokeism on same. Ultimately there might need to be an (underground?) artist’s cooperative arising from all this. A centerpoint of collaboration with no woke gatekeepers who imagine truth can be divorced from beauty keeping watch to ensure that reality never shows up in art.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
2 years ago

I think the presenters at the Sekforde panel might affirm that the “artist as rebel” came into being when the gatekeepers of the artistic world (e.g., those who get artists financed, writers published, etc.) began deeming some kinds of art (and some kinds of artists) as unacceptable in civilized society (e.g., because their work or speech implies that biological sex is significant, or because they are seen as allies of those who hold such a position). Arguably artists have always had the role of challenging conventions (of society, of art itself), but whereas those in the artistic world had previously been open to having their orthodoxies challenged, that tolerance seems to be vanishing. Artists and friends of artists used to cry “Censorship!”, but now artists and their allies are censoring their fellows.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago

‘Arguably artists have always had the role of challenging conventions ‘

For hundreds of years they were propagandists for the Catholic Church or flatterers to the ruling class of aristocrats

Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

This reminds me of how shocked everyone was when the colors that Michelangelo actually used to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling were revealed by its restoration. I’m no art historian but I think I recall that M.’s contemporaries were also shocked (scandalized even) by his innovations. I didn’t mean to suggest artists were never beholden to their patrons, but I think they often found a way to “rebel” even in their servitude