The contemporary art world is currently in a state of PC overdrive and moralistic meltdown. The principal of ‘freedom of expression’ is at risk of being chased into hiding under accusations of ‘fascism’.
There is a pivot upon which two ideologically opposed art world positions balance: One is that art should be able to provide a window onto the world, however ugly or challenging some people might find the view. The other is the rhetoric of No Platform, which is becoming increasingly mainstream, and seeks to enforce the equation Hate Speech > Free Speech.
Trumps election and the triggering of Article 50 burst our liberal bubble, but I’m under no illusion that the world wasn’t a shit-tip before the recent shuffling of power. In an emotional response to this turmoil, we are now in a phase of flurried censorship, intended to prevent further right-wing political uprisings from emerging. The political spectrum will never be as simple as Left vs Right, but a colourful rainbow of opinions based on experience, belief and tradition. Hastily labeling any opposition ‘fascist’, ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ is not helpful, and surely violent censorship only adds fuel to this fire... no?
“Art is a unique witness. It is a repository for observation. It is a mirror of the unrest and the struggle of a troubled, sometimes desperate, society. It is important for the conversations it will inspire and the conversations that inspired its making. It is a subjective time capsule. It is effective and yet, often, its greater impact will be recognized in retrospect, when political activism and organized dissidence will have paved the way for change.” - Shahryar Nashat
There has been a recent spread of popular ‘creative’ uprising and rebellion, which encompasses a growing resistance to the current political climate: calls to ‘shut down’ LD50 gallery, a demand to destroy Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and the ongoing debate as to whether Nick Land should cease teaching on the New Centre philosophy course. These have become important historical moments, which will serve to define the contemporary art world, and change its state of play (with potentially irreparable damage), and I’m certain this is just the beginning...
LD50 Gallery (who have shown a rich selection of artists since 2015, inc Jake and Dinos Chapman, John Russell and Joey Holder) ran a series of talks on Neoreaction over Summer 2016, culminating in an exhibition about the alt-right titled ‘71822666’, after a 4-chan thread correctly predicting Trump would win. Six months after the talks (and two months after the show), the London art scene was suddenly up in arms, and LD50 were labelled an extreme-right gallery. Aside from inflammatory accusations, little was known about the intentions of the gallery, but this wasn’t a time for discussion – it was time to shut them down (by whatever means necessary), they were too dangerous to exist. Let the witch hunt begin! An activist group called ‘Shut Down LD50’ was formed, rallying together with Black Lives Matter and AntiFa to coordinate a protest. On the day of the protest in mid-Feb, protestors used a placard saying ‘Nazi Scum’ to push a Jewish man away from the gallery doors. The sign ripped from the hands of this lone individual, who had turned up to defend the gallery, read: “The Right to Openly Discuss Ideas Must be Defended”.
How could I disagree with this statement? Yet agreeing with it would, according to the protesters, de facto make me a fascist – this realisation keeps me awake at night.
The gallery was vandalised, its directors were forced into police protection, and ‘Shut Down LD50’ praised the righteousness of their actions, ridding Hackney of this Racist Nazi Fascist SCUM! Boycotting the gallery would have had the same effect as the violent removal of the gallery, for sure. The “witches” deserved a fair trial, but they weren’t allowed one.
A couple of weeks later a petition called for the destruction of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, ‘Open Casket’, on display at the Whitney Biennale. Artist Hannah Black claimed it exploited the suffering of black people (transmuting it into “profit and fun”), rather than expressing empathy and connection with sensitive subject matter. What I can’t easily forget is that Emmett Till’s mother requested an open casket, "let the world see what they did to my baby", yet the painting sparked protests forcing the world (once again) to take sides. The work was eventually removed from display due to “mechanical issues”.
In Black’s statement, the power of art as an agent of social or political comment comes up against the ethnic and cultural status of its maker, and the histories of elitism, capitalism and entertainment. Should an artwork be interpreted or discredited solely on the basis of the identity of the author? If so, is the visual representation of people, events and history now reduced to tokenistic gestures and totems of division? Am I even allowed to discuss this, as a white European woman?
Lauded by the likes of the late Mark Fisher and other exciting prominent thinkers, Nick Land has been an important touch-point for certain discourses in philosophy, especially in arts and cultural studies departments, over the past 20 years. Land’s more recent interest in Human Biodiversity, explored in depth in his ‘Dark Enlightenment’ essay, is understandably dangerous terrain, and has consequently been largely ignored by academics, who have instead more or less exclusively focused on his Accelerationist legacy from the 90’s. Hot from the success of shutting down LD50, the same activist group demanded academic institutions/organisations remove Land from any events, talks and philosophy courses. It was deemed necessary that everyone immediately ‘denounce’ Land, and publicly repent their sins for ever having considered his work worthy of exploration.
Surely reason and discourse is the mark of a civilization, and all forms of authority should justify themselves through rational argument. Resorting to brute force is a dark move for the future of the institution, which should be a model of civil discourse.
These are urgent questions that cannot easily be answered. News travels fast in the post Internet age, and the speed at which decisions are made has birthed a cult of anti-intellectualism, which seems to celebrate ignorance, assumption and action, over debate, knowledge and respect. Egalitarian creative cultures of resistance are growing and this is fantastic. Needed. But in this era of emergency, we must carefully consider their significance, and how we should contribute to the expansion of this resistance whilst allowing room for a plurality of voices, or even the possibility of dissent.
Unless the current activist zeal for censorship is combated now, ‘soft-totalitarianism’ is in danger of becoming the new norm in the contemporary art world. C’mon, some decorum please.