Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Siding with the Philistines

Exhibit B and Index on Censorship's Julia Farrington

A promotional still for Brett Bailey's installation, Exhibit B.
On the 24 September, the UK saw the closure of yet another controversial artwork in response to the mobilisation of protests. The installation Exhibit B, conceived and directed by the South African artist and provocateur Brett Bailey, takes as its starting point the 19th century phenomenon of 'human zoos', and is described by Bailey as follows:
What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.
Since 2012, Exhibit B has played in some 19 cities before arriving in London and received considerable acclaim. Lynn Gardner in the Guardian called it "both unbearable and essential", Allan Radcliffe in the Times called it "remarkable . . . powerful and upsetting", and Neil Cooper, reviewing the installation for the Edinburgh Festival (and perhaps putting his finger on the masochistic pleasure in which Bailey invites his Western audiences to marinate), revealed that "the guilt [Exhibit B] provokes is devastating".

Others, like Laura Barnett at the Telegraph were less sure. Acknowledging its merits, she nevertheless found Exhibit B to be "a highly problematic" and possibly exploitative piece of work. She did not, however, call for its closure. Nor, to my knowledge, did any other serious-minded writer, whatever their view of its worth. And, whether it succeeded or not, Bailey's work was generally agreed to have been at least intended as an indictment of Western colonialism.

But self-styled anti-racist activists were in no mood to be so tolerant or broad-minded, and they did not hesitate to accuse both artist and production of outright racism. In Berlin, Bailey's work was greeted with furious protests and, upon learning that Exhibit B would be performed at The Barbican in London, a Birmingham activist named Sara Myers started an online petition, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Bailey's "racist" work. "If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery" Myers instructed, "this is not the way to do it." This sentiment was rewarded with nearly 23,000 signatures.

Protests outside the venue followed, blockading the road, and on 24 September, the Barbican announced, with regret, that it was cancelling all shows:
Due to the extreme nature of the protest outside the Vaults, regrettably we have cancelled this evening's performance of Exhibit B as we could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff. We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.
For those committed to the defence of free inquiry and artistic expression, this is not a complicated matter. And it would be only slightly more complicated if the work in question were indisputably racist. The right of artists to express themselves as they see fit must be inviolate, as must the right of audiences to make up their own minds about the merits of what they produce. It bears repeating that an axiom of free speech advocacy is the willingness to defend the expression of opinions with which one vehemently disagrees.

But in a dismal op-ed for the anti-censorship advocacy organisation Index on Censorship, its associate arts producer, Julia Farrington, found herself unable to do any such thing. Her article, it should be noted, appeared on the Index website on 22 September - that is, after the petition and protests had been launched but before Exhibit B's cancellation. By 25 September, Index had found it necessary to issue an unsigned clarification of their official position, stating:
Those who read [Julia Farrington's] article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention . . . People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.
This must be news to Farrington, whose defence of Bailey's right to conceive and present his work is tepid in the extreme. Instead, her article takes the side - with minimal equivocation - of those noisily declaring themselves offended by it.

Although Sara Myers's petition explicitly demands the Barbican cancel its performances of Bailey's work - and although Farrington does mention this fact - she persistently misdescribes Myers's transparently censorious campaign against venue and artist as "a boycott". And it is the protestors to whom she awards credit, without irony, for "ensuring dialogue is happening".

Like them, she had not seen the work for herself at the time of writing. Nevertheless, "what interests me here," she explains, "is the mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response." Contrary to appearances, it is the Barbican which is unmasked as the real villain. They did, she concedes, commission a public debate on the matter, but their hand was forced by the protests which, she argues, were themselves a product of the venue's insensitivity and incompetence. Farrington justifies this conclusion by declaring her belief that:
The role of the arts institution . . . is to manage the space between the artist and the audience.
And with that she burdens the venue with responsibility for the row. Actually, the role of an arts institution - be it a cinema, theatre, or gallery - is neutral: to provide space for the exhibition of work and to promote said work as it sees fit. Those who elect to exhibit challenging material should be supported in their efforts, not presented with further obstacles.

To insist that venues and institutions "manage the space between the artist and the audience" as a precondition to exhibiting potentially controversial content will only help further deter the emergence of provocative art. ("We are thinking of exhibiting Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò at your local. Please read the attached synopsis and let us know your thoughts.")

Not only would such a process be time-consuming, cumbersome, and - I would imagine - expensive, but it would also present a number of practical problems. Who, for instance, decides what level of potential offence and provocation demands prior consultation with outraged community activists? And who decides which of the activists' subsequent demands are reasonable? And, most importantly, what exactly does this alleged obligation to "manage the space between the artist and the audience" actually require of the venue? 

To Farrington, I imagine the phrase seems collaborative and cuddly. But in this context "manage the space between the artist and audience" sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for "listen to community concerns and make the requested changes accordingly."

It is instructive to listen to Sara Myers debating one of the actresses in the work on Newsnight. Amid Myers's various complaints about offence and bad taste, and her demands for an apology and "holistic reparations", she averred that she would "not necessarily" seek to interfere with an artist's vision. All she wanted, she announced, was to be consulted. 

But then would she feel satisfied if, once her views had been heard and taken into account, the work in question remained unchanged? Interestingly, by way of an answer to this yes/no question from presenter Kirsty Wark, Myers turned her attention to the moral deficiencies she perceived in the production:
There's no whiteness in that exhibition. All there is is black people standing in various cages with chains...
A reductive piece of critical analysis, to be sure. To Wark's hypothetical that scenes involving the degradation of blacks required a "white representation," she nodded: "Yes, it needed to be balanced." I don't know what I dislike more; the presumption of the words in that sentence or the pedagogical tone in which they were uttered.

Myers never did get around to giving Wark a straightforward answer, but it was evident to me that she was not about to be appeased by any amount of consultation so long as the show went ahead unaltered. Had it done so, I imagine she would have denounced the consultation efforts as a cosmetic sham designed to shut her up and pressed for further direct action.

But Farrington was not satisfied that the protestors' concerns had been adequately dealt with either. She described the two hours alotted to the public debate commissioned by the Barbican as "woefully inadequate", and welcomed the activists' call for further "engagement and dialogue":
As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.
Myers's petition is unambiguous in its demand for the censorship of Exhibit B. And the jubilation with which she and her supporters welcomed the news of the performance's closure, two days after Farrington's article appeared, speaks to their true motivations. These are not people interested in opening dialogue but in policing it and closing it down. 

How on earth did a free speech advocate find herself so far on the wrong side of an elementary free speech debate? The nature of the performance, its subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the skin colour of the protesters, appear to have presented Farrington with a conflict. She is a free speech advocate. But she is also clearly sympathetic to the view that structural racism and institutionalised white privilege are the 'root cause' of everything. Certainly, as far as UK arts and culture goes, she accepts its alleged 'institutionalised racism', a priori. As she puts it:
Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.
Index on Censorship does not speak for the victims of 'structural racism'. There are other organisations which devote their time and resources to that. In her capacity as a writer for Index, Farrington ought to have shelved her reservations about such matters, and concentrated on the most immediate threat to free speech: the intimidation of artists and venue by a censorious campaign.

But she prefers to resolve her ideological dilemma with a rhetorical sleight of hand. She concludes her article:
I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship . . . But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.
So it turns out that Farrington has been anti-censorship all along. Not the common-or-garden type right in front of her eyes, of course, but something more profound and subtle; the censorship of minority voices by stealth. 

In support of her accusation, Farrington relies on two rather dubious expert witnesses. She quotes Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who demands that public funding be withdrawn from those who don't fall into line by employing the right people or producing the right kind of content. The basis for this draconian recommendation is a highly implausible (and unsubstantiated) claim that "since 1980s it is progress zero". Part of what is needed, we may infer, is the involvement of more people like Sara Myers who will arbitrate on what kind of material is and is not acceptable to their respective communities.

Then we meet Jenny Williams, described as an "independent arts consultant". Williams appears to think what's needed is a thoroughgoing policy of Multiculturalism in the arts and a stricter balkanisation of funding allocated to minority communities:
The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.
The outrage of this apparently monstrous pie-dividing injustice, by the way, appears to rest on an assumption that black and minority ethnic audiences won't look at or listen to anything not made by their own ethnic or racial group. But by enlightened roads such as these will we journey to a land where all art and culture is politically acceptable and socially responsible. 

As Farrington must surely be aware, the fanatical pursuit of this conformist dystopia is not restricted to the arts. A recent article in Spiked by Frank Furedi entitled "Academic Freedom Is a Big Deal" looks at troubling examples of this kind of doctrinaire thinking on campus:
Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination.
Academic freedom and artistic freedom - both of which, in different ways, are dedicated to the pursuit of truth - are extraordinarily precious components of open societies. And both are in danger of being compromised, not just by moral puritans of the right, but also by moral puritans of the left - those for whom the enforcement of their own idea of 'social justice' and the immediate redress of grievance trump all scholarly and aesthetic concerns.

It is fantastically unwise for an organisation like Index on Censorship to indulge such people. Anti-censorship advocates, whatever their views about related issues, owe it to themselves to defend art and scholarship from the manoeuvres of activists like Sara Myers, and to do so without equivocation. Farrington's article subordinates that responsibility to ideological views concerning the nature of racism, social justice activism, and identity politics, which are wildly beyond her brief. In a confused attempt to position herself as the friend of the weak, Julia Farrington has misidentified both villain and victim and sided with censorious philistinism. The people power embodied by Myers and her fellow malcontents, of which Farrington writes with such admiration, was a sinister and coercive force from the start.

I take no pleasure in criticising Index on Censorship. They do valuable work and are, by some accounts, a rather embattled organisation at present. But in their handling of this controversy, they abdicated their responsibility to defend those in whose interests they speak. When their associate arts producer marvelled at the 22,500 signatures the petition to close Bailey's work had by then accrued, she should have stopped to consider this: it is precisely at times like these that artists and performers engaged in challenging work most need the support of people like her.

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