This article first appeared in The Critic.
Nobody wants to be accused of fiddling while Rome burns, and the fiddler the least of all. The war between Hamas and Israel has rightly motivated countless people to take a principled stand. The West’s artists, the professional fiddlers who are also by habit intensely political have been no exception. But some of these fiddlers turned out to be arsonists. A peace letter sparked a spiral of events from which the community may never morally recover.
On 19th October, the US art magazine ArtForum published an open letter supporting Palestine and decrying the violence affecting civilians in Gaza. The text signed by some 8000 artists, curators, writers, and cultural figures like the anti-opioid activist Nan Goldin, gender theorist Judith Butler, and Turner Prize winner Lawrence Abu Hamdan spoke of an “unfolding genocide” and accused Israel of “clear violation of international humanitarian law”.
This wasn’t unexpected: Palestine has long been a popular art world cause. Campaigns in the style of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions make for regular controversies. In 2021, for example, 25 artists ‘deauthored’ their works in London’s Zabludowicz Collection citing its ties to the Israeli Military. For visual artists who are often well-versed in theories of decolonisation, Palestine is the symbol of a righteous struggle.
What was surprising is that it took so long. Indeed, the letter condemned “institutional silence” and demanded that museums and galleries urgently voice their support for Palestinian liberation to restore the signatories’ faith that they are “not just safe but humane spaces.”
All this was out of the playbook that developed over Brexit, Trump, and BLM in which cultural institutions reflexively adopted univocal, self-assured positions on moral and political questions under the slightest peer pressure. But to the artistic community’s horror, institutions weren’t following the script this time and were thus missing their mark ‘on the right side of history’.
As though to make its moral case more persuasively, the open letter made no mention at all of the Hamas terror attacks of 7th October (although the text was later revised to argue that its “rejection of violence against all civilians” was inclusive of the 1400 massacred Israelis). This may have been an admissible rhetorical strategy under different circumstances. But read cold, this latter betrayed a cynical and instrumental understanding that many of the art world’s institutions, particularly those in the US, rely on support aligned with Israel. Worse, it showed plenty of the world’s luminaries as incapable of understanding that the feelings that so deeply polarised the Western world’s and thus their own wider community’s attitudes to the war are sincerely held and that both sides’ grievances are genuine.
Many of the hitherto “silent” institutions’ Israel-supporting patrons and art collectors thus read the letter as an affront. Within a day, ArtForum published an outraged response signed by three (Jewish) art dealers. Another open letter appeared, highlighting the first’s omission and calling for unity. That text collected nearly 6000 names, including by artists Marina Abramović, Richard Prince, and Urs Fisher. By 26th October, ArtForum’s management disavowed the original open letter and fired its editor David Velasco.
Sadly, there’s more. The Intercept’s investigation suggested that Velasco’s firing was the result of a “campaign” orchestrated by the influential collector and Bed, Bath & Beyond heir Martin Eisenberg. The New York Times reported the existence of a WhatsApp group in which New York collectors were plotting to silently deaccession artworks by the original letter’s signatories and thus ruin their careers. Other titles suggested that artists supporting Palestine “have experienced retaliatory actions and intimidation”, including from the galleries which represent them. Some were said to have had work cancelled, but no specific incidents and names have been made public.
Tit-for-tat can thus turn into a death cult. In one of the many letters, rumours, and rolling updates to these news stories, Nan Goldin called for a general boycott of ArtForum. Between the lines, the idea that all right-thinking Jews, like Goldin, must denounce Israel after all re-emerged. Velasco’s colleagues resigned one by one. Since 27th October, dozens of the magazine’s contributors declared a full strike that will effectively make ArtForum’s future operation impossible.
All these events would be morbidly amusing to a casual observer of the culture wars otherwise unconcerned with the art world. It is unclear how much they have to do with the very real suffering of Palestinian and Israeli civilians. But they reveal a catastrophic level of rot affecting the public sphere and an industry whose gangrenous goings-on threaten the social order.
Such an assessment may seem hysterical but the art world and the UK and US visual art scenes in particular pioneered what we now casually call ‘cancel culture’. After the shocks of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the intellectual scenes convened around museums and galleries vowed to never entertain any ideas that fall outside of their ever-narrowing progressive consensus. Poison pen letters, whisper campaigns, outright boycotts and protests, and brazen harassment carried out in the name of social justice became the daily grind for a growing army of art world activists. Arts institutions, either unthinkingly or under duress, joined in with the mob.
Such actions can have the historical veneer of virtue. In 1970, an Art Strike sit-in in New York democratically demanded that the Metropolitan Museum publicly oppose the US occupation of South East Asia. In 2017, the J20 Art Strike failed in its call for the shutdown of museums on Donald Trump’s inauguration day. Yet, on 20thOctober, publicly funded UK institutions like London’s ICA closed in solidarity with the Palestinian people. But however morally justifiable some of these moves may be, they have become indistinguishable from the wave of cancellations often organised anonymously but with the institutions’ complicity for cover.
It will be the job of a future sociologist to catalogue the motives of the myriad ceremonial sackings like the Guggenheim’s curator Nancy Spector forced out after an accusation of racism that an investigation deemed baseless and the career-ending smears-by-association like those directed at London project space LD50’s founder Lucia Diego whom the journal Art Monthly likened to a neo-Nazi because it objected to the art that she showed. But the net effect of such events has been that the culture of fear, intimidation, and self-censorship has been the art world’s norm for years.
Yet, somehow when last week the artist and writer Hannah Black, curiously the only source named in The Intercept’s reporting, described the atmosphere in the wake of the open letter as “McCarthyite”, she forgot that she herself in 2018 bemoaned the art world’s limited “collective powers to cancel” others. A year later, Black threatened to cancel an event on… cancel culture, while Natasha Lennard, co-author of The Intercept’s exposé, in 2020 petitioned a Frankfurt gallery to cancel a fellow event speaker.
In light of all this, the bully’s unwavering claim to moral righteousness is staggering. The unquestioned truth of the art world activists is that all Republicans are white supremacists, Brexiteers are scum, and that punching a TERF is god’s work. No matter how many challenges these echo-chamber convictions have faced from election results, the law, or sheer empirical reality, disagreeing with this mob’s progressive tenets is the fastest way to exile. Even in the case of war – an event that by definition involves at least two opposing ideas – the majority of the art world considers only one. By eliminating dissent, be it pro-Israeli, conservative, or gender critical, this core of the arts community convinces itself that it is synonymous with the moral absolute.
The consequences of this notion reach far beyond the gallery walls. By figuratively calling for blood, the arts’ cancel culture has not insignificantly contributed to the reconfiguration of the symbolic order that underpins public life. There is a limit to the number of ideas that can be brutally attacked before the destruction machine turns to material reality. When everyone has been denounced as a fascist for sport, there is nothing left for hate but to breed physical violence. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben likened this process to the work of the anthropological machine that strips life of its political and cultural distinction, leaving the human bare and exposed to abuse. The art world’s escalating rhetoric thus laid the ground on which the violent images of the war in Israel and Gaza spark real conflict in the streets of London.
And just as Agamben predicted, power would have its way under these conditions. For the art world, the tables have turned and the advantage for the moment lies with the wealthy art collectors and patrons. But however sincere their feelings and fears – and today’s instances of antisemitism unseen for decades are chilling – this new round of blackmail is no different to that practised by the artist mob since 2016. Its violent aim is to enforce full ideological compliance and it must thus be condemned alongside the progressives’ cancellation crusades. Sadly, there can be no respite from this process because once the anthropological machine got the taste for cancellation, it will forever demand new bodies. Even now, someone must be forensically comparing the signatory lists of the various open letters, tracking discrepancies into ammunition for the next round of cancellations.
All the while, the arts claim that they are the champions of diversity. Museums appoint themselves as the public square. Even the second, ostensibly reconciliatory open letter waxed on about art’s “transformative power to heal, inspire, and bridge divides” as art was held hostage in the service of discord. Imagining that the processes that govern the conduct of intuitions are benevolent and democratic, we went along with this only to find that no moral guidance and no healing are forthcoming when they are most needed. The vital ethical and political debates that, if given due weight, should be mind-shattering and gut-wrenching have been all but absent from these arenas. It now turns out that the very people who in the place of questions brought us neatly designed banners were themselves cutting moral corners and that their supposedly unifying projects only breed division.
Here lies a mitigating, though complicating factor: many of our real differences are simply irreconcilable. No amount of debate and no number of art exhibitions, for an extreme example, can secure unity between members of Palestinian and Israeli diasporas whose relatives were murdered. The list of such fundamental divisions is long and is synonymous with multicultural liberalism. For this reason, many democracies maintain two-party parliamentary systems. Goading one side to drop its claims in favour of the other, as the arts who univocally espouse left politics do, is anti-democratic. Art institutions have no business adjudicating or suppressing many of these disagreements and pretend otherwise at their peril.
Yet, the art world must also accommodate the very same diversity of sometimes irreconcilable ideas because individual artists, unlike institutions, must be free to follow their consciences. The institutions must be radically tolerant and intellectually generous but art itself should succeed or fail in bringing together its audiences according to its qualities. Censorship of all forms is profoundly antithetical to this purpose. But reconciling these imperatives will be no mean feat in an industry that has whipped itself into a state of moral frenzy. If it falters again, will it be worth saving?