A few years ago, an exhibition meant to explore the role of religion in modern Russia was shut down by a group of Orthodox Christian protesters who were offended by it, without actually seeing any of the artworks. As it turned out, all of the exhibits were quite innocent and inoffensive, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was the right to discuss the role of religion in a modern society. Shut the f*ck up, was the response of fundamentalist crowds. They successfully used mob tactics, and physical violence to prevent visitors’ entering the gallery.
Protests in Russia against the opening of the ICONS exhibition
Western human rights groups and artistic communities, including many black artists, said it was unacceptable repression of artistic freedom by the tyranny of Putin. Putin had nothing to do with it directly, except fostering religious nationalism, of course.
In 2002, a terrorist plot to attack a church in Bologna, Italy was foiled by police. The church has a 15th-century fresco showing the Prophet burning in Hell. No Muslim fundamentalist could get offended by it, as to get offended they had to go inside, and that’s something blasphemous in itself. The offense was about the right of a Christian artist (five hundred years as dead) to express opinions about Islam.
International outcry was strong, though not as strong as when a Dutch film director was murdered two years later for expressing his views on the ways women were treated in Somalia in a short film. But, well, the guy was actually killed. Remember Salman Rushdie and the fatwah on him.
In both cases, Western human rights groups and artistic community, including many black artists, said it was unacceptable repression of artistic freedom by Muslim fundamentalists, inspired by Iranian ayatollahs, who, unlike Putin, were directly responsible.
A few days ago, a Barbican gallery was to stage an art exhibition by a South African artist. The show was to feature black actors chained and in cages to depict the horror of slavery.
A performer, captioned the Missing Link, revolves on a plinth in Exhibit B. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
It was canceled when a crowd of offended protesters blocked the entrance, which was the climax point of their campaign to banish the show.
What was offensive about the show?
The lady, who kicked off the campaign, started her petition with “A piece of work, ‘Exhibit B’, by the controversial white South African Brett Bailey is coming to the Barbican Centre in London this September…”
Wait a second, I am OK with “controversial”, for most art is controversial today, but what has being “white” to do with evaluation of an artwork? If I start criticizing an artist by stating he was “black”, most people would be repulsed so much they wouldn’t read any further. I mean, putting race as the argument of the first order (or any order, for that matter) is racism.
Now, what does the lady have to say next?
“I’m a Black African mother from Birmingham.”
What does sex and motherhood have to do with it all? I am a father of two. Does it mean I am always right against a father of one, in the wrong against a father of three, and immeasurably indebted to a mother of one or more? Or is it simply an expression of certainty that white people should be barred from talking about racism? Isn’t it racism?
The lady’s position is explained in her final press-release. I skip some of the populist mantras that are, actually, 95% of the text.
“The barricading of The Vaults occurred because the Black community refuses to have racism defined for them by wealthy, white liberals.”
Is it OK if racism is defined by poor white conservatives? Or maybe by nationalistic white trash?
I wish Lenin said a just society could not be defined by a German philosopher for Russians. We could skip the communist revolution then. Alas, ideas don’t depend on the race or nationality of their creators, and live their independent lives.
The above is, in fact, the only valid argument against the exhibition (all others being falsified assumptions and misrepresented quotes about the artist and black actors participating in the show).
This argument is, perhaps, best expressed by Lee Jasper, one of the campaign’s most prominent supporters, “Could you imagine a similar show today with Jewish people in gas ovens, lets say produced by a German? No, neither can I.”
This is a funny way of wrenching facts. Were that show to celebrate dying Congolese workers with Belgian soldiers cutting their hands off as punishment for low productivity, perhaps, I could agree with the sentiment. Comparing the deadly Holocaust to a humiliating Human Zoo? No. But even in this comparison there is a further sharpening of cards, because Germans did produce art about “Jewish people in gas ovens”. I could suggest talking to Heinrich Böll, a Nobel laureate in literature, but he died thirty years ago, so…reading some of his books might be a good starting point for further discussion.
I feel I’ve seen this tactics before: among fundamentalist Christians in Russia, among fundamentalist Muslims in the West, and now among anti-racist (and also anti-liberal – do you see a contraction here?) activists. They like getting offended by others having an opinion because those “others” are not of the same colour, financial position, or marital status.
The interesting thing is that deep down these campaigns have nothing to do with the art objects that are used to fuse the bomb. The central idea is getting noticed, going supernova on Facebook, in the press, on TV.
I am sure this is the case now. The Barbican Centre caved in, and canceled the show. The moment when London boroughs start surrendering to Sharia law is not in some distant future. White liberals are great at surrendering to activist groups. Here, I have to congratulate Scotland though: I am surprised it didn’t secede, and excited to find a country where common sense can still beat populism. You don’t see it often nowadays.
Orwell would be curious to see that it is not only war that can be seen as peace, but also anti-racism that can become racism and vice versa.
Disagree with me. Or agree with me. I’d love to hear your view. I welcome all opinions.