Selected Session from the Battle of Ideas Festival
Almost everywhere you look, the arts are beset by controversies and cancellations.
At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, comedian Jerry Sadowitz’s show was canceled by The Pleasance for what staff called “unacceptable” content. Cineworld pulled U.K. screenings of the film The Lady Of Heaven this year, after protesters claimed that the film was “blasphemous” and offensive to Islam. In 2020, staff at Hachette Book Group staged a walk-out, demanding the cancellation of the upcoming release of Woody Allen’s memoir.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many arts organizations canceled performances linked to Russian artists and funders. Similar cancellations—or boycotts—have long taken place against Israeli artists under the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Critics of cancel culture say that the arts cannot survive in this worsening climate of censorship. Artistic freedom, they say, cannot flourish when artists themselves feel restricted by political orthodoxies or concerns about causing offense. But others argue that accountability, not free speech, is more important. Giving films like Gone With The Wind a trigger warning, or asking publishers to stop working with writers who are accused of racism, are seen as important steps in cleansing the art world, which has often been considered out of step with contemporary sensibilities.
Cancel culture has come for the arts—but can the arts survive it? Do bans and cancellations cripple artistic expression, or do they provide audiences and art lovers a tool to hold artists accountable for their unpalatable biases? Will sensitivity readers and diversity box-ticking allow more socially conscious art to grow? Or will it kill off the more unorthodox works that have always pushed at the boundaries of artistic freedom? And why are the arts the focal point in these culture wars?
Dr. Tiffany Jenkins is a writer, author, and broadcaster. For BBC Radio 4, she wrote and presented the series A Narrative History of Secrecy, which reexamines secrecy’s importance and usefulness, and Contracts of Silence, which looks at the rights, wrongs, and reasons for the rise of non-disclosure agreements. She also hosts the podcast Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She is an Honorary Fellow of Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and a former visiting fellow at the London School of Economics in the department of law. She is also the author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, and editor of Political Culture: Soft Interventions and Nation Building. Her latest book, Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life, will be published in 2023 by Picador.
Ms. Rosie Kay FRSA, MCR St. Cross College, Oxford, was born in Scotland and trained at London Contemporary Dance School. She founded the Rosie Kay Dance Company (2004-21) and is now the C.E.O. and artistic director of K2CO LTD. Her works include Romeo + Juliet (2021), Absolute Solo II (2021), the multi-award winning 5 SOLDIERS (2010- present), 10 SOLDIERS (2019), Fantasia (2019), MK ULTRA (2017), Motel (2016), Sluts of Possession (2013), There is Hope (2012), Double Points: K (2008), and Asylum (2005). She choreographed the live Commonwealth Games Handover Ceremony (2018) and the film Sunshine on Leith (2013). She was also the Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the School of Anthropology, University of Oxford (2013). Her awards include National Dance Awards, Best Independent Company (2015); Royal Society for Public Health Award for support to military communities; Bonnie Bird Choreography Award; and Young Achiever of Scotland by the Queen.
Mr. Winston Marshall was a founding member of the Grammy-winning band Mumford & Sons. He is also co-founder of Hong Kong Link Up, a nonprofit organization to assist HongKonger integration in the U.K. He is the host of The Spectator podcast Marshall Matters, exploring taboo topics in creative industries. Publications he has contributed his writing to include The Spectator, the Jewish Chronicle, Newsweek, the Daily Mail, and Welt am Sonntag.
Ms. Emma Webb is the director of Common Sense Society–United Kingdom. She was most recently deputy research director at the Free Speech Union, a membership organization fighting to protect freedom of expression in the U.K. In 2020, she co-founded the heritage campaign group Save Our Statues. Prior to that, she was director of the forum on integration, democracy, and extremism at the Westminster think tank Civitas, and a research fellow at the foreign policy think tank, The Henry Jackson Society. She is a regular contributor to GB News and TalkTV, and has appeared on flagship BBC political programming The Big Questions, Politics Live, and Channel 5. She has written for a number of publications including The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times, and hosts a weekly political show for the Westminster-based New Culture Forum podcast. She is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and King’s College London.
Ms. Claire Fox is the director of the Academy of Ideas, which she established to create a public space for the unrestrained contest of ideas. She also co-founded a residential summer school, The Academy, that demonstrates “university as it should be.” In May 2019, she was elected as an M.E.P. for the North West England constituency of the U.K. in the European Parliament elections. In 2020, she was made a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham. In 2020, Claire became a member of the House of Lords as Baroness Fox of Buckley. She is frequently invited to comment on U.K. TV and radio programs including Newsnight and Any Questions? She has been a regular reviewer on Sky News and is a monthly columnist for Municipal Journal. She is the author of I STILL Find That Offensive! (2018), and No Strings Attached! Why Arts Funding Should Say No to Instrumentalism (2007). She has written a range of chapters and essays, most recently “Narcissism and Identity” in From Self to Selfie: A Critique of Contemporary Forms of Alienation (2019).
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