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Artillery Row

The dissident rebels of the art world

We must resist cancel culture and defend freedom of artistic expression

Nearly four decades ago, an important book was published called The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine by Rozkika Parker. This ground-breaking study redeemed the practice of embroidery as art throughout the centuries and how by the nineteenth century it had become relegated to a domestic activity undertaken by women.

Embroidery was prominent as an art medium in twentieth-century protest movements — for example in suffrage banners — and a few artists have brought the art of embroidery to the forefront again, particularly Grayson Perry with his Bayeux-esque tapestries narrating modern urban culture and life, and American artist Judy Chicago.

Yet, it is a medium that is still not taken wholly seriously in artistic circles. The exhibition named after Rozkika’s book, in 1988 in Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, featured many British women artists such as Fran Cottell, Sharon Kivland, Alison Marchant — yet these names, and many others, would be unheard of among the new generation of fourth-wave feminist artists.

The notion that self-identification is beyond question or debate is a dangerous one

There is still a stigma attached to it; the form is still seen as a female activity and an amateur craft to while away time when having a rest from domestic work undertaken mainly by women. While I applaud and enjoy Grayson Perry’s witty and brilliant tapestries, we must ask ourselves — why aren’t women embroidery artists more widely known and celebrated in the public sphere and the contemporary art world? Why have they been silenced?

I raise these questions because we are once again seeing more women artists who speak out about the lack of fairness for women, or the infringement of hard-fought women’s rights, getting roasted on social media for expressing an empirical truth regarding biological sex.

The latest to be thrown into the flames is self-trained artist Jess De Wahls, whose works were for sale and then abruptly removed from the Royal Academy’s shop after a handful of complaints were made about her reasoned opinion that a woman “is an adult human female. (Not an identity or feeling)” and for her critical views on the ideology of gender identity. The Royal Academy buckled to a vocal minority and put out a statement on its Instagram live feed:

The slur of “transphobia” has become a common insult against gender-critical voices, as has the derogatory acronym “TERF” (Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists) against people, mainly women, who espouse no hate against transgender people, but rather question the politics and cultural assertion of self-identification and how this adversely impacts on protected sex and racial characteristics. On the question of race for example, the acting union Equity’s Race Equality Committee consists of members “who self-define as Black, Asian or any other group facing barriers in the performing arts and entertainment industries”.

There is an uncritical willingness censor artistic expression that is deemed to be offensive

The notion that self-identification is beyond question or debate is a dangerous route, as it undermines genuine social and political struggles collectively fought for by under-represented groups for greater equity and fairness in society. Alarmingly it has led dissident innocent voices to be bullied, censored, cancelled and accused of perceived “phobia” against another group of self-defined people.

Fellow creatives and cultural institutions, such as the Royal Academy and other arts organisations (whom I mention in a blog when I was cancelled myself and accused of “transphobia”) who cower against a minority cabal of shrill witch-hunters set a dangerous precedent.

Purging diverse artists and writers such as Nina Edge, Rachel Ara, Stephanie Douet, Gareth Roberts,Jonathan Best, Nina Power and Jess De Wahls from cultural spaces is not so dissimilar from Maoist or Stalinist tactics, nor the moral conservatives such as the late Mary Whitehouse and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. What unifies these apparently disparate ideologies is the uncritical willingness to shut down debate and censor artistic expression or speech that is deemed to be offensive.

The removal of Jess de Wahl’s work from the Royal Academy shop coincidentally happened around the same time that shortlisted Booker and Orange Prize novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was also accused of being a “transphobe” and “TERF” on social media. The LGBT Foundation had tweeted that it was “deeply disappointed” to see Adichie’s “transphobic essay” about “non-binary” trans writers: “Misgendering trans and non-binary people is always transphobic and always unacceptable”.

Some artists have resorted to using pseudonyms to push out their dissident work

The online attack on Adichie was because of her eloquent, heartfelt blog that narrated the Judas-like betrayal by two writers who befriended her and used her name for their own opportunist climb to fame, while stabbing her in the back by accusing her of “transphobia”: “People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.”

How do we push back against this puritanical authoritarianism? Emerging talented artists who go against the grain of the new orthodoxy feel isolated and concerned about jeopardising their creative career. Cancel culture is a reality and some artists have resorted to going underground and using pseudonyms to push out their dissident work.

Further underground movements or counter-positional voices may yet emerge, but the cultural hegemony of the publicly funded arts institutions is powerful. Boycotting, cancelling memberships, and encouraging others to do so may have some impact as there is clearly a disconnect between public opinion and the self-identity obsessives who hold far too much sway over charitable institutions.

Defending the right to create art without fear of repercussion needs to be fought for

Defending free speech and free association, the right to articulate thoughts and create art without fear of repercussions, are principles that need to be fought for in a pluralistic and democratic society. The arts institutions who mirror the sanctimonious minority by censoring, cancelling or withdrawing work from their spaces must be taken to task and held accountable by the public and, if necessary, by law.

Manick Govinda is a freelance writer, artists mentor and arts consultant. Subscribe to his Authory account or follow him on Twitter.

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