Veils uncovered: Artist Martha Mosse’s performance of “The Slut, The Spinster and the Perfect Woman” at the Passion for Freedom show
Delivering this year’s Reith Lectures — the first contemporary artist to do so — the media-friendly transvestite artist and potter Grayson Perry posited the notion that perhaps art had lost one of its central tenets: its ability to shock. Sure, there was no shortage of claims being made by both the media and the art world: that Tom was “radical”, Dick was “cutting edge” and Harry was “breaking boundaries”. But all this obscured the truth, which was that art was no longer any of these things, that artist and audience had got well and truly used to each other, and familiarity had bred jadedness.
There’s no denying this but, in keeping with art itself, Perry’s observations were rather behind the times. For art has not shocked, provoked or otherwise challenged for years now. The belief that it does, should or could is almost endearingly quaint when one hears it voiced. Certainly the words used to describe creative activity, such as those above, are a product of the general hyperbolic drift in many aspects of our everyday language. And, rather like racism, the more the arts diminish in relevance in relation to both our personal and national life, the more overblown and indiscriminate are the claims made of it.
Of course the notion that the arts should shock is a thoroughly modern one in historical terms but, even as it became accepted and then entrenched as a cliché, wider social developments throughout the latter half of the 20th century were working to undermine it. The gradual dismantling of social and moral boundaries left art with less and less room for manoeuvre, if to challenge and provoke was its purpose. It is hard to be truly transgressive in a society where around two million people take recreational drugs each week, drink to oblivion as a matter of course, treat debt as a lifestyle choice or no longer bother getting married. We are, as it were, all bohemians now. All that seems left for art in this respect is to retreat into a cul-de-sac of its own minor personal preoccupations.
Consequently Tracey Emin’s unmade bed might have meant something to her, but the overwhelming reaction of the public to it was amused indifference or an irritation at having her banalities foisted on them. Shocked they most definitely were not. Those parts of the metropolitan intelligentsia who infest gallery private views may flatter themselves by clinging to an idea that they are at the cutting edge of something or other, which they then feel they must champion, but in truth they are the most sheep — like of all, slaves to concocted fashion, political whim and received wisdom.
Broad social changes are not the whole story, however. The growing loss of cultural resonance which characterises all of the arts, even at a time when they are slavishly and sycophantically celebrated by a 24-hour print and broadcast media, derives from their reluctance to take up, comment on or, yes, be shocking or provocative about the most important issues facing us. When they do proclaim or offer an analysis, it is invariably so late as to make it irrelevant, and is furthermore almost always comfortably in line with the political and social orthodoxies of the day.
If you doubt this, then try to think of a novel, play, film or piece of installation art which, for example, seriously criticises the doctrine of multiculturalism. With a tiny number of honourable and genuinely brave exceptions — Lloyd Newson’s DV8 dance troupe’s 2011 production of Can We Talk About This? being one — there is a deafening silence on what is one of the most urgent issues of our time. Similarly, the chances of the BBC commissioning a drama which explores the experiences of an ageing white couple in an area transformed by mass immigration — surely a subject with real dramatic potential — are virtually nil. And if such a project ever did see the light of transmission, the audience could be forgiven for predicting quite accurately all the conclusions that would inevitably be drawn.
On a whole host of issues — foreign aid, climate change, social inequality — the viewer, gallery-goer and novel-reader, far from being shocked, provoked or given even a slightly alternative perspective, generally know exactly what they are going to get. For our cultural establishment, there is a right and a wrong way of looking at such issues and as a result the arts, far from being “challenging” or “cutting edge”, have essentially become the providers of window dressing, a sort of visual aid unit, for the views and assumptions of the political and media class.
This narrow-minded complacency is illustrated perfectly by the state of British satire, currently at one of its lowest ebbs. Whether on stage, in print or hanging on the wall, satire is the ground on which artistic creativity and politics meet with most urgency, yet with the exception of the Westminster-fixated BBC series The Thick of It, it is hard to know where to find it. And yet never has it been more needed.
A satirical treatment of the various strictures of political correctness, whether small and absurd or large and insidious, could power a whole TV series alone. But the satirists’ pens remain largely untouched; it is sobering to ponder that we have been debating the rights and wrongs of the wearing of the burka — an issue with an increasing everyday social and legal impact — without any recourse to satire. When in 2006 it did appear in the shape of the cartoons of Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the British press retreated. It was left to Channel 4 to discuss whether or not banning the cartoons was a danger to free speech, which it concluded it was not; then, in a move which was beyond parody or satire, it refrained from showing them for fear of causing offence.
This is worrying enough, but what is far more important is the way in which, for all its protestations about the value of freedom of expression, the creative world shows such little enthusiasm for standing up for it.
This was illustrated recently by the fate of the annual Passion for Freedom exhibition, which, in exhibiting work by artists concerned with human rights abuses and the quashing of freedom (including by Islam), was already very much the artistic exception that proved the rule. The organisers had to find another venue at the last minute after the original gallery got cold feet. And then, astonishingly, the festival was ignored by the national culture press.
It is indeed the increasing presence of Islam, and a fear of Islamism, which more than anything else has exposed the claims of the arts apologists to be seriously at the forefront of anything. My colleague Nick Cohen pointed out, when we debated freedom of expression at a recent Standpoint Salon, that some individuals in our media are prone to a fake courage and believe themselves to be taking huge risks in what they say and write. I think the same is true of the creative sphere. Over the past decade people in the arts have caved in and censored themselves at the prospect of Islamist reaction, sometimes out of fear of violence, other times a politically correct desire not to give offence, or because in some skewed way they feel their job is to stand up for those their dogma tells them are “victims”.
When the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street by a Muslim extremist who had taken exception to Submission, a film the director had made about the treatment of women in Islam, there were few expressions of outrage from Britain’s cultural establishment. On another occasion, London’s Barbican Centre removed pieces from its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims. The filming of Monica Ali’s bestseller Brick Lane was moved from the East End after the film company gave in to protests from activists. A reading at the Royal Court Theatre of an adaptation of Aristophanes “sex strike” play Lysistrata, set in Muslim heaven, did not go ahead. And when the BBC drama Spooks was criticised by some Muslim groups in its first series for portraying radicalisation in a mosque, it subsequently went out of its way to ensure that plotlines portrayed threats coming from just about any quarter other than Islam.
The drip-drip effect of such trimming and censorship is that the message becomes internalised. If such instances as those above appear to happen slightly less now, it is not because we have become more comfortable in our own skins, less paranoid. It is simply because we have learned what we can and cannot say, especially when it comes to Islam. Christianity of course remains the fair game it has always been. Jerry Springer: The Opera was oh-so-bravely broadcast by the BBC, in the face of thousands of telephone complaints from Christians. It could of course be done in the safe knowledge that nobody might face death as a result. But we can safely say that a country that produced the popular classic The Life of Brian must get used to the fact that it will never, ever see The Life of Iqbal.
Having set the ball rolling by asking whether art has lost its power to shock, Grayson Perry should perhaps get the last word. In 2007 he declared in a statement which some admired for its honesty but others might have seen as depressing evidence of how meek our arts had become, that when it came to his own work, he had “not gone all out attacking Islamism because I feel the real fear that someone will slit my throat”. To which perhaps one can only answer: artist, heal thyself.