Should unwoke art be burnt or hacked to bits?

Last year at a C of E gathering, in a ‘safe space’, meaning not so much avoiding the virus as everyone being kind and inclusive, we were asked for ideas on the future of our church, not ‘brain-storming’, a term no longer allowed in case if offends epileptics, or rather I should say, people with epilepsy. Myriad notions were scrawled in crayon across large sheets of paper; pulling down all formal buildings, turning the vicarage into a food bank, making liturgy more ‘accessible’ to children, more ‘safeguarding’ for them (there are eight in the whole parish) and scrapping Eric Gill’s stations of the cross, which adorn both sides of our small church.

They are the only Gill stations in an Anglican church. He finished them just three weeks before his death in 1940. His work is ubiquitous elsewhere in galleries and public buildings. He also invented typefaces including Gill Sans, used in the classic Logos of WH Smith, Penguin Books, the London and North Eastern Railway, and the BBC.

Gill was a gifted artist but in sexual matters totally warped. A dedicated Christian socialist, he espoused ideas of free-love popular in the 1920s and had sex with his sisters, his dog, and his two eldest daughters, who were home-schooled at his appropriate address, Crank, is Sussex. No one acted on that idea about removing his work from our church, perhaps because more people visit those slabs of incised slate than the pews on Sunday. His work seemed safe, but on January the 12th a man took a hammer to Gill’s most famous statue of Prospero and Ariel, famously fronting the BBC building in Regent Street. His friend stood nearby livestreaming and talking about paedophiles.

The carving, installed in 1933, is an integral part of the Art Deco building, listed Grade II*, meaning it’s particularly important and of more than special interest. Despite that, the attacker was allowed to hack away for two hours causing a great deal of damage before being arrested.

The police inaction is perhaps not surprising after a jury on January 5th, cleared white middle class activists of criminal damage during a Black Lives Matter protest for throwing a statue of 18th century philanthropist Edward Colston into Bristol harbour because of his involvement in slave trading. The court accepted that their actions, called by one, ‘An act of love,’ had a lawful excuse because they found the statue ‘offensive’. Now the hammers of the offended are out and their range of targets has increased.

The statue of Colston fell because certain groups hated the public image of a man involved in bad deeds. In the case of Gill, his image was not there, only his art work. According to Shayan Sardarizadeh, who investigates on line misinformation, Gill’s statue outside the BBC has become ‘An obsession for British QAnon,’ a wide-ranging conspiracy theory which claims there’s a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government and the media.

Paedophilia is our last sexual taboo, but this attack chiefly brought us back again to what is fast becoming the key debate of our time, recently elegantly posited by Carol Hay, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Massachusetts, who asked, ‘Is it OK to like work made by sexist assholes?’ Her answer is of course, or so I read it, a resounding ‘No’. The BBC responded weakly, saying, ‘It’s not right to damage art works.’ But Gill’s work is likely to disappear from their buildings, there is another one inside Broadcasting House, worse than the one outside, ‘The Sower,’ a large sculpture of a man spreading his seed. They dropped Gils Sans from their official font last year.

On Radio 4 they gave us Canadian Maeve Doyle who runs a London gallery, who asked, ‘Is the work you collect a reflection of your morals?’ Her answer was ‘yes’, if it’s paid for by public money, as if we are entering into the world of lurid private art collections, hidden away from innocent eyes. ‘It’s not a good place to have it at Broadcasting House,’ she added piously. ‘We’ve had Jimmy Savile and there seems to be too much of these things around at the BBC.’

She probably doesn’t know that in 2012 they opened a ‘John Peel’ wing in one of its buildings in memory of the popular DJ, strangely ignoring his marriage to a fifteen-year- old girl. Rachel Campbell-Johnson art critic of The Times, managed to be a bit more precise, pointing out that if an artist’s morals have to count, there’ll be little work left for us to look at, or of course read. But, perhaps hedging her bets in the debate, she added that curators could perhaps, ‘Disrupt our myths,’ in other words, allow us to see the works of bad white men, the only group so far accused, (Freda Kahlo’s support for Hitler goes unnoticed) whilst at the same time telling us what we should be thinking about them. They’ve already been hard at work on this for several years, issuing trigger warnings about Gauguin and his child brides in Tahiti, calling him a racist, colonialist, and for Picasso who was a misogynist.

The current argument for condemning the artist or writer is confusing for someone educated in the 1970s under Marxist post-structuralism, which ordered that the personality of the originator of art was totally irrelevant to the work shown. Biography of any kind was out. Philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about, ‘The Death of the Author’, insisting that conflating the work and the artist was, ‘cultural tyranny’, an attempt to control the reading or viewing by a single voice, that of the artist, who was steeped in his own culture.

He claimed that this author/artist significance was a modern invention derived from capitalist ideology as part of a wider system of ownership, property and privilege. It was also derived from the ‘Enlightenment’, a term now discredited as it suggests that there were ‘special’ developments in Europe rather than elsewhere, with its stress on individuality rather than the collective, and on expertise and uniqueness also connected to privilege.

Leonardo and Van Gogh are capitalist inventions, used to sell art as a product to rich buyers. According to Barthes art is a composite of many cultures, only existing in its own time, a compilation of forces and influences and its interest lies not in its origin but its destination, which can no longer be personal. The reader/viewer has nothing to do with the origin of the work and totally controls how it is seen.

Thanks to that ideology we now have a system where the reader/viewer is held to be in supreme power, but instead of looking at multiple contexts they float in a sea of moral condemnation entirely focussed on the origin of the work and the artist, who is held morally responsible for all kinds of ills in his own time and our own. Part of this is to do with the destruction of the Renaissance/Enlightenment/Romantic view of the artist as uniquely talented, but it also flounders about in personal grievance or, as it is often known, identity politics.

There are so many dead white men to have a go at: Caravaggio, a murderer and pimp, Cellini, who sodomised men and women, stabbed his brother’s murderer to death with a long-twisted dagger that he drove downward through the man’s shoulder, killed a rival goldsmith and shot an innkeeper dead. Dali who admired Franco and Hitler and pushed a friend off a bridge. Freud who discarded women like old brushes, and then there’s the writers; Dickens was cruel to his wife, William Golding an attempted rapist, Roald Dahl, worst of all, a racist. Then there are all the wicked actors, rock-stars and film directors such as Woody Allen who was accused of molesting a child and married his partner’s adopted daughter. Allen has repeatedly denied the allegation of sexual abuse.

It seems likely though that in future, with the art world, publishing and education doing everything to avoid the encouragement of individual genius and taking no risks with subject matter, there will be very little great art or literature produced. Most right-thinking people will surely applaud that progress. 

Subscribe to Digital magazine

Subscribe to Print Magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


8 Comments on Should unwoke art be burnt or hacked to bits?

  1. Great article, Ms. Kelly (as per usual) but upon what are you basing your contention that Kahlo supported Hitler?

  2. Smashing the Eric Gill statues at the BBC is good for the simple reason that it puts the BBC in an impossible position. They have been merrily promoting cultural vandalism and now they are being held too their own standards and don’t know what to do.

  3. Good stuff, Miss Morgana!

    Today, Amazon delivered to me the Selected Poems of Roy Campbell. That’s Roy Campbell the Christian convert, who fought for Franco (and for human decency) in Spain, and who hospitalised Jacob Epstein by beating him up after an artistic disagreement. Roy Campbell is unlikely to be declared a saint by Pope Francis the Marxist, but I advise SR readers to snap up the remaining copies of his Selected Poems before Amazon runs out, because I have no doubt that he’s going to be officially cancelled soon.

    • Roy Campbell is regarded as a homophobic alcoholic fascist thug. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, W.B. Yeats, Philip Larkin – and now Shakespeare….

      Amazon have banned quite a number of books on grounds of “racism” and “antisemitism”. The bigger worry in the UK is the “consilidating” impact on schools and “yoony” of the “equality, diversity, inclusion” ideology, i.e. “equity,conformity, cancellation”, and woke censorship of or disinformation in major internet channels. Public libraries have been purged, and it costs a fortune now to order books on loan if still available. The situation is quite comparable to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, in some cultural respects worse.

  4. The supposed contradiction between “there is no artist” and “bad artists should be cancelled” is easily resolved. Both are just expressions of envy by today’s talentless hacks towards their artistic superiors. First they deny Leonardo had talent, then they demand he not be shown at all. After all, the talentless hack’s “groundbreaking conceptual art” will never get the respect it deserves (in the hack’s eyes) so long as people are aware of Rembrandt or Van Gogh.

  5. As any arts graduate knows, we are ALL “TRAPPED IN DISCOURSE”; Whether we are an artist, composer, writer or binman. Isn’t this blindingly obvious? Pervert or victim; what’s the difference?

  6. The last time I entered Westminster Cathedral was when Cardinal Heenan accorded Cardinal Mindszenty a Traditional Latin Latin High Mass, but I remember the remarkable Gill Stations of the Cross in this unusually Byzantine-Mosaic design of a place of worship; in those days the RC Church was still flourising in devotion and apologetics (and anti-communism). The new quasi-Protestant liturgy has altered the Baldacchino to the disadvantage of the internal architecture. “There is tragedy in the spectacle” (Ayn Rand).
    How many writers, artists, musicians and scientists must be thrown into the Woke Memory Hole for – “racism”, “sexism”, “antisemitism”, “elitism”, etc.? 90 per cent?