It’s a fairly general trait of encroaching middle age that the world makes less sense and everything becomes more annoying, but I can’t be alone in thinking it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for common sense here in the UK, at least as far as the arts are concerned.
First there was Mantelgate Part 2. I’m calling it “Mantelgate”. I don’t think anyone else did. Mantelgate Part 1 came when Hilary Mantel, author of the amazing Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about Royal women that was misconstrued as an attack on the Duchess of Cambridge by a media desperate to chase the latest storm in a teacup, like Bill Paxton in a shit remake of Twister. Part 2 involved Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Set in 1983 it depicts an incident in which an unnamed narrator – presumably based on Mantel herself – meets an IRA assassin hell-bent on killing the then Prime Minister.
The story is a fairly whimsical one, and explores the anger Thatcher inspired (and after last year’s hagiography-fest, it’s worth remembering that many people hated her), but which also cocks a snoop at her more comfortably off, suburban critics. It is not a textbook for how one might go about assassinating the late Prime Minister, and yet Tory peer Lord Bell thinks Mantel should be investigated by the police for writing the (fictional) story.
No sooner had that minor brouhaha died down than the Barbican chose to cancel Brett Bailey’s show Exhibit B (pictured at the top), a kind of theatrical installation featuring live performers, about the ugly 19th and early-20th Century practice of so-called “human zoos”, in which black Africans were paraded in front of white spectators as if they were animals. Birmingham-based blogger Sara Myers (who hadn’t seen the work) spearheaded a protest against Exhibit B, claiming it was “racist”, and the Barbican halted the show before it had begun.
Now, in the latest sorry chapter of idiots winning the day, Clacton-On-Sea council have destroyed some graffiti by Banksy (pictured above), because it was deemed potentially offensive and – yet again – racist. That the painting is taking the piss out of the anti-immigration lobby apparently flew over the council’s heads, and it’s worth emphasizing here that they didn’t say it was destroyed because it was graffiti, but because it might cause offense.
While Lord Bell has – so far- proven unsuccessful in getting the police to pay a visit to Chez Mantel, and while both the Banksy work and Exhibit B strike me as a little trite (though, in the case of the latter, it’s hard to form a judgment if you haven’t actually seen it), the three cases all speak of a wider problem; one of idiotic literalism.
It’s one of the hallmarks of a complete clod that he or she can’t tell the difference between art and life. Salman Rushdie learned this the hard way when the Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t differentiate between a novel and a philosophical tract (not that the latter would have justified a death sentence). If Mantel can be grateful for one thing, it’s that the closest a British conservative (or Conservative) will get to issuing a deadly fatwah is writing an irate column for the Telegraph.
As for the Banksy story, well… it’s graffiti. He must know by now – and hopefully has always known – that the majority of his works are ephemeral, and I always find it galling when some local authority expresses regret at painting over one by saying, “Well, if we’d known it was a Banksy…” An insult to other (and often better) graffiti artists, if ever I heard one.
The Exhibit B case is more concerning, but it once again demonstrates how an uninformed mob can silence artistic expression.
The decision to cancel the show may have been the Barbican’s, but that decision was made under pressure and the fear of violent protest, disruption and worse, and all because Myers & Co can’t tell the difference between a work about racism, and racism itself.
If this is the way things are going to be, where do we stop? Do we ban Schindler’s List for its antisemitism, or Nabakov’s Lolita for its hebephilia? In the Mantel case enough people called bullshit for it to come to nothing, but if she had been a conservative author, would she have enjoyed the same level of support? The counter-argument for Exhibit B only came, in the pages of the Guardian and Independent after the show was cancelled. Unless the Left learns to defend freedom of expression, even when it disagrees with what’s being expressed, the literalists will win, and that means everyone else will lose.