Artistic Freedom

 It has been said more than once that the way a minority is treated indicates the quality of the majority - and in a world of multiple, and sometimes contrasting, individual and 'minority' identities, aided and sometimes undermined by, activism online, it might be soon the other way also - how minorities speak to majorities can be an issue. Of course, what is the 'majority' now, or the 'norm' with so many splintered interests, is uncertain, in an age of uncertainty.

The Royal Academy has recently removed for sale works in their shop by an artist who, it was reported to them, holds potentially repugnant ideas and opinions. The reporting of these views is completely reasonable, and is it also reasonable to be saddened and concerned by such views, which threaten that community's sense of identity and meaning.

What is less reasonable is the idea that the RA would then remove the artist from their shop - in common parlance, 'cancelling' them.

What a community does to express outrage against anyone who attacks them, is, within the law, up to them, up to and including boycotts.

The question is - do larger organisations, meant to represent many contested and contrasting communities and values - have the same obligations, or even rights, to support one view against others? The UK courts recently found that it was legitimate to question widely-held gender ideas, up to a point.

Did the RA find the artist's work inherently repellent or offensive? Did the art works themselves embody hateful messages? If so, they acted within their remit, one supposes.

Or did they simply discover the artist held ideas that threaten a consensus forming?

I am concerned for art, and artists, when an organisation meant to support them, decides to police the inner workings of the artistic mind or soul.

A famous RA member, Augustus Johns, performed horrendous acts of sexual abuse and incest - yet his art is available for sale as postcards etc, at galleries worldwide, including the RA. Jacob Epstein a major artist, was also a paedophile (as was the author of Alice in Wonderland, as was Benjamin Britten). I am not defending these behaviours - but observing that once arts organisations start culling all artists who have ever behaved, or thought, or desired, in ways counter to acceptable wider opinion, then we are a step closer to a state-sanctioned idea of art, made famous in the Soviet Union.

I don't wish to be romantic or callous, but Picasso was a personal jerk; but his art is essential to modernity. Warhol was not without issues, or Freud. Many artists tend to be individualistic, eccentric, self-focused, and even strange - one of their jobs is to be iconoclastic, and to threaten the status quo, whether that be left-leaning or right-leaning.

This blog has always sought to separate as much as possible, the art works, or texts, from the personal behaviour of the artists themselves, if only because, whose standards would ultimately form the baseline anyway - and because norms shift every few decades or every few months. Seen one way, TS Eliot is a snobbish racist prig who defended empire  - but to keep his books out of shops would impoverish our ability to engage with the whole of the vision - flaws and all.

It saddens me that women are at war among their various communities as they seek to determine who can and should be allowed within those communities. Self-definition seems to be a right whose time has come. However, the genuine anguish of more conservative women could also be arguably tolerated more, or listened to. The times are punitive and tense, and conflictual. That's ironically 'natural' in the sense that humans have always been in conflict over identity and territory.

But artists should be allowed to make and sell their work, as much as possible, freely, in museums and galleries celebrating art, because art creates not just beauty, but also expresses freedom, and conflict, and doubt, and subverts the culture it struggles within. Supressing the works of those who hate us comes at a cost too high - one loses the chance to see art of surprise, shock, and appalling difference. Like Guernica was.


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