Jess de Wahls (Photo credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

No place for women in art

If there’s one thing that unites elite British artists today, it’s that they’re all performatively woke or shamefully silent

It’s tempting to imagine artists as renegades lobbing truth-bombs at a bourgeois establishment from the margins of acceptability. The reality is more prosaic. Far from the free-thinking stereotype, today elite artists are ideological zombies. Whether in a studio or online, most submit to censorship; mindful of both the woke sensibilities of their Silicon Valley overlords and those of the institutions on which their livelihoods depend. This loss of space between producer and product comes at a cost; judgement of an artists’ character can outweigh the perceived worth of their work.

People prevented from exhibiting and selling their art include wrong thinkers like Jess de Wahls, who accepted an apology from the Royal Academy (RA) last week; this followed the removal of her work from the RA shop and a denouncement of her views as “transphobic”.

Jess de Wahls continues to be monstered by the inside arts trade press and institutions

Jess de Wahls has been dogged by accusations of “transphobia” since the publication of a blog post in 2019 in which she expressed her opinion that it is not possible to change sex. In their apology the RA reflected: “We had no right to judge her views on our social media. This betrayed our most important core value — the protection of free speech.” It would be comforting to imagine that the RA had suddenly recognised the importance of liberty, though it seems more likely the apology was squeezed out by the spectre of a court case.

The mainstream media rallied to support de Wahls, incredulous that a British institution had sought remove an artist’s work from public view. Her opinion, that people are either male or female, is one shared by the majority of people. But de Wahls continues to be monstered by the inside arts trade press and institutions.

An editorial in Artlyst opined: “Why give this artist a platform for her outmoded opinions that clearly offend the Trans community?… Artlyst is not so sure this apology from the RA should have been forthcoming. Jess de Wahls should have a good think about her past social media rants and the hurt caused by her opinions.”

Students from Royal Academy Schools whined on social media that they were “angered and disheartened that the Royal Academy has chosen to give legitimacy to transphobia”.

Arguably most concerning was the response of Turner Prize winning artist Tai Shani who complained on Twitter that the RA had caved to a “bunch of reactionary bigots”. This might be easier to dismiss were it not for the fact she holds a position as a tutor at the Royal College of Art (RCA). (The RCA were asked for this article to clarify whether the rights of students and staff who hold gender critical beliefs, such as those disapproved of by Tai Shani, would be upheld within the institution — there was no response.)

The concern about the suppression of free expression within institutions is not just academic. Nicole Jones is a third-year fine art student with feminist views which would have her branded a “reactionary bigot” by some. Jones tells me:

Art school has been nothing like I imagined it would be, I keep my head down and avoid talking to peers in order to be able to continue to make work without interruption. I’m one of few artists open about my gender critical views, and I wonder how much work isn’t being made, how many conversations we’re not having, out of the same fear. Universities ought to be the place where ideas can be explored openly, but “safe space” students have created a culture of fear on campus that has resulted in pre-emptive self-censorship, and the potential loss of great work.

Looking at the online behaviour of successful artists it’s tempting to imagine there’s some sort of handbook: if you’re white, berate other whities for being too white; if you’re female, have a bitch about women being bitchy; if you’re straight, wear a pronoun badge and call yourself pansexual.

Half a century has passed since Roland Barthes wrote his essay arguing that art could be freed from the artist. Little could he have imagined that in 2021 their reanimated corpses would be doing the dance macabre to online audiences on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.

Destructive campaigns like those of The White Pube and TERFs Out of Art are successful

Monetised, performative wokeness is perfectly demonstrated by the inane ramblings of The White Pube, the collaborative identity of Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad. The pair have weaponised their identities and built a career from the bones of wrong-thinking women. Writing in 2019 for Dazed in a piece entitled “How to know when to boycott an artist”, they complained: “Fuckery in the art world really comes when the bad person is an artist embedded within a project.” They went on to use their platform to launch a coordinated online attack on “bad person” Nina Edge. The White Pube had objected to tweets from Edge’s account which they deemed “transphobic”.

A similar group, “TERFs Out of Art”, took aim at conceptual artist Rachel Ara. Following an online campaign, Ara was disinvited from giving a talk to students at Oxford Brookes university. Other cancelled artists include Claudia Clare, Nina Payley, Laura Dodsworth, Stephanie Douet and Stacey Gutherie.

Destructive campaigns like those of The White Pube and TERFs Out of Art are successful; they allow often self-consciously white, male-led organisations to outsource the messy business of “diversity”. By undertaking the dirty work of purity policing, these groups absolve institutions from taking responsibility themselves. The apology issued to de Wahls might be the first sign that this lazy approach will not wash with the wider public.

Those at the top of the tree are allowed more room for free thought, particularly if the artist is considered to be a “genius” and is in possession of a penis. One word from the likes of wealthy and established artists Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst or Anish Kapoor could have transformed the fate of those lower down the food chain. Where are they? If there’s one thing that unites elite artists in Britain today, it’s that they’re all either performatively woke or shamefully silent.

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