Thursday 25 September 2014

Exhibit B

Look at this headline:
Withdrawal of anti-slavery exhibition hailed as victory by campaigners
I assumed for a second (wouldn't you?) that the protestors were pro-slavery. Not the case, of course.
The newspaper report concerned the decision by management at London's Barbican Arts Centre to close down, before it even opened, an acclaimed art installation by the South African director Brett Bailey.

Read about Exhibit B here.
It's an important work, by a noteworthy practitioner, was widely reviewed, hugely admired and seen by thousands of visitors at the Edinburgh Festival earlier this year. A friend urged me to see it and I planned to do so this weekend - but that's not going to happen.
Sara Myers, a Birmingham-based activist, organised an online protest against the exhibition on the grounds that it is 'racist'. The petition attracted around 23,000 signatures and led to a noisy protest poutside the Barbican on what would have been the opening night. She makes her case here.

It's unfortunate she chooses to specify the ethnicity of Brett Bailey, as if that made any difference. It's likewise unfortunate that she gives no weight to the black actors in the piece, who have all defended their role in the production with eloquence and dignity. I share her distatse at Exhibit 8 but wonder if she has the same feelings about Twelve Years a Slave, the director Steve MxQueen's powerful film in which terrible things were inflicted on black actors for the entertainment (let's not be afraid to use that word) of cinema audiences. That McQuuen is himself black may cut him some slack from Myers' perspective, but perhaps that's an unfair assumption. These are deep waters and (as we say nowadays) I'm conflicted. I am wary of any kind of censorship but have always found the dictum (wrongly attributed to Voltaire) that 'I disagree with what you say but shall fight to the death for your right to say it' a complete non-starter, an absolutely untenable definition of free speech.

Here's the director Brett Bailey. See what he has to say and decide for yourself.

I'm reminded of David Hockney who, in a letter to the Guardian newspaper (4 June 2008) quoted in the forthcoming volume of the artist's biography by Christopher Simon Sykes, wrote:

    I am out of step with the mean spirit of our age. I told a friend I had been to a home in Lincolnshire where  
    in three rooms there must have been pictures of a few hundred naked children and a lot of naked adults as
    well. He looked shocked until I told him they were painted by Antonio Verrio between 1688 and 1698, at
    Burghley House in Stamford.

It all depends on how you look at things.

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