Freedom of expression? Not these days if you are an artist in Britain | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
OOne of the many things that the study of history has taught me, and that I have never forgotten, is how to recognize the typical characteristics of fascism. It has become a sort of mental list that I turn to from time to time when considering our current political situation. “Strong and continuous nationalism” (check); “Failure to respect human rights” (what about offshore asylum camps?); “Rampant cronyism and corruption” (you bet).
Then, of course, there is the ‘disrespect for intellectuals and the arts’ – something that was brewing long before the Brexit vote but became even more explicit at that point, with ministers’ disregard for the experts “.
It seems people are fed up with artists too, based on two recent incidents. First, we had a police raid on Antepavilion, an arts complex in east London. Images emerged of black-helmeted and navy-helmeted police (some of the helmets carried union flags, a good idea) forcing entry into the building. The most well-known exhibit at the venue is a bamboo and cable structure on the roof called All Along the Watchtower. The structure resembles those that were used during Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests last year when environmental activists blocked the Murdoch Papers printing presses (XR was planning further protests at the time, which probably explains the reasons for the raid).
However, the artist Damien Meade says this sculpture was part of an architectural competition and was not affiliated with XR. In addition, the installation took six weeks and therefore could not play any role in a short-term protest. Five people were arrested and then released without charge.
The second incident involved a group of Conservative advisers from Southend-on-Sea, who were successful in removing the installation How to Make a Bomb: An English Garden by artist Gabriella Hirst.
The work, located in Shoeburyness in Essex, focuses on an almost extinct species of rose that was created and recorded as Rosa floribunda Atom Bomb in 1953. It took the form of a rose garden with benches adorned with plaques detailing Britain’s nuclear history, and containing statements such as: “The garden is a reminder that the red rose of England is intertwined with an imperial past of ‘gardening the world’, which is being pursued in a dangerously overarmed present ”.
Councilors objected to one of the plaques, which highlighted the devastating impact of British nuclear testing on Indigenous lands in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. They called for it to be deleted or reworded, an adviser l ‘calling “a direct attack by the far left on our history, our people and our democratically elected government” (the authoritarians love unnecessary capitalization), and threatened to contact the media. As a result of the advisers campaign, the artwork was pulled, with Metal, the organization that co-commissioned the artwork (alongside the Old Waterworks artists charity), claiming it l ‘had done to protect its staff.
These two incidents are frightening. Despite all their proclamations about protecting freedom of expression, in their interactions with artists, the curators reveal a disturbing autocratic tendency. The same applies to the attitude of the government towards academics, as shown by the latest bill on higher education (freedom of expression). The Conservatives convinced a large part of the electorate that they or they are the true custodians of British history, and that the “Awakened Brigade” will destroy all statues in the country if it suits them. This is blatant hypocrisy.
In 2018, the temporary removal of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs – which depicts nude girls – was all the rage as part of artist Sonia Boyce’s residency at the Manchester Art Gallery. In the middle of the row, hardly anyone seemed to care that the teardown took place during a performance art piece.
Instead, the action was portrayed in the media as censorship and taken entirely in bad faith, by right-wing and liberal commentators. He did not seem to care much about the damage caused by argumentation by cynics and reactionaries.
The original intention behind the act of removal, a conversation about what and who is hanging in a gallery and why, has been completely lost. By reframing Boyce’s attempts at discussion and contextualization as censorship, the right won a first battle in the culture war. But who is really attacking artists and cultural institutions?
There is a long-standing joke, popularized by The Young Ones, that people on the left are calling out other fascists all the time. Maybe there are times when we are overzealous, but sometimes it feels like, while everyone was busy guarding the statue of Winston Churchill, a separate agenda was set in motion on other works of art. As Meade wrote following the raid, historic statues are protected by laws that give offenders up to 10 years in prison, but if the artwork is found to be subversive, “everyone state muscle strikes “.
Call me a doom prophet if you like, but I’ll continue to check off this list.