Freedom of speech? Not these days, if you’re an artist in Britain


Show caption ‘The temporary removal of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs as part of Sonia Boyce’s residency at the Manchester Art Gallery took place during a performance art piece.’ Photograph: Manchester Art Gallery Opinion Freedom of speech? Not these days, if you’re an artist in Britain Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett Following two chilling actions against artworks, the right is revealing a disturbing autocratic tendency @rhiannonlucyc Tue 20 Jul 2021 08.00 BST Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

One of the many things that studying history taught me, and which I have never forgotten, is how to recognise the typical characteristics of fascism. It’s become a sort of mental list to which I turn from time to time when considering our current political situation. “Powerful and continuing nationalism” (tick); “disregard for human rights” (what was that about offshore asylum camps?); “rampant cronyism and corruption” (you bet).

Then, of course, there’s “disrespect for intellectuals and the arts” – something that had been festering long before the Brexit vote but became even more explicit then, with ministers’ contempt for “experts”.

It seems people have had enough of artists too, if two recent incidents are anything to go by. First, we had a police raid on Antepavilion, an east London arts complex. Footage emerged of black- and navy-clad helmeted police (some of the helmets had union flags on them, a nice touch) forcing entry to the building. The venue’s best known exhibit is a rooftop bamboo and cable structure called All Along the Watchtower. The structure resembles those that were used during Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests last year when the environmental campaigners blockaded the printing presses of Murdoch papers (XR were planning further protests at the time, which likely explains the motives behind the raid).

However, the artist Damien Meade says this sculpture was part of an architectural competition and was not affiliated to XR. Moreover, it took six weeks to install, so could not play any role in a protest at short notice. Five people were arrested and then released without charge.

The second incident involved a group of Conservative councillors in Southend-on-Sea, who succeeded in removing the installation How to Make a Bomb: An English Garden by the artist Gabriella Hirst.

The work, situated in Shoeburyness in Essex, centres on a nearly extinct species of rose that was created and registered under the name Rosa floribunda Atom Bomb in 1953. It took the form of a rose garden with benches adorned with plaques detailing Britain’s nuclear history, and containing statements such as: “The garden is a reminder that the red rose of England is entangled with an Imperial past of ‘gardening the world’, which has continued into a dangerously over-armed present”.

The councillors objected to one such plaque, which highlighted the devastating impact of British nuclear tests on Indigenous lands in Australia in the 1950s and 60s. They asked for it to be removed or reworded, with one councillor calling it “a direct far left wing attack on our History, our People, and our Democratically Elected Government” (authoritarians just love an unnecessary capitalisation), and threatened to contact the media. As a result of the councillors’ campaign, the artwork has been taken down, with Metal, the organisation that co-commissioned the work (alongside artists’ charity the Old Waterworks), saying it did so to protect its staff.

Both of these incidents are chilling. For all their proclamations about protecting freedom of speech, in their interactions with artists the Conservatives are revealing a disturbing autocratic tendency. The same is true of the government’s attitude towards academics, as the latest higher education (freedom of speech) bill demonstrates. The Tories have been convincing large parts of the electorate that they are the true custodians of British history, and that the “woke brigade” will tear down every statue in the land if it has its way. It’s blatant hypocrisy.

In 2018 there was a furore over the temporary removal of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs – which depicts nude girls – as part of the artist Sonia Boyce’s residency at the Manchester Art Gallery. Amid the row, barely anyone seemed to care that the takedown took place during a performance art piece.

Instead, the action was framed in the media as censorship and taken entirely in bad faith, by rightwing and liberal commentators alike. The latter seemed to give scarcely any thought to the damage wrought by going along with an argument set by the cynical and the reactionary.

The original intent behind the act of removal, a conversation about what and who hangs in a gallery and why, was completely lost. By reframing Boyce’s attempts at discussion and contextualisation as censorship, the right was winning an early battle in the culture war. Yet who is really attacking artists and cultural institutions?

There’s a longstanding joke, as popularised by The Young Ones, that leftwing people go around calling other people fascists all the time. Perhaps there are times when we are overzealous, but sometimes it feels as though, while everyone was busy guarding the statue of Winston Churchill, a separate agenda was cranking into gear about other works of art. As Meade wrote in the aftermath of the police raid, historical statues are protected by laws that give offenders up to 10 years in prison, but if the artwork is deemed subversive, “the full muscle of the state comes knocking”.

Call me a doomsayer if you want, but I’ll keep ticking off that list.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist

{{topLeft}} {{bottomLeft}} {{topRight}} {{bottomRight}} {{/goalExceededMarkerPercentage}} {{#goalExceededMarkerPercentage}}{{/goalExceededMarkerPercentage}} {{heading}} {{#paragraphs}} {{#ticker}}{{/ticker}}{{#paragraphs}} {{.}} {{/paragraphs}} {{highlightedText}}

{{#cta}} {{text}} {{/cta}} Remind me in September Email address Please enter a valid email address Please enter your email address Set a reminder Sorry we couldn’t set a reminder for you this time. Please try again later. We will send you a maximum of two emails in September 2021. To find out what personal data we collect and how we use it, view our Privacy Policy We will be in touch to remind you to contribute. Look out for a message in your inbox in September 2021. If you have any questions about contributing, please contact us {{/paragraphs}}