Today’s UK Times…on it rolls…
Anatomy of a cancellation by the culture Stasi
The Royal Academy’s decision to ban an artist’s work over her views should be a test case for anti-discrimination laws
Saturday June 19 2021, 12.01am BST, The Times
In January, the artist Jess De Wahls got in touch to say she’d made an embroidery of my mother’s hands. A photo I’d posted on Twitter of my first care home visit in many months had moved her to sew. She didn’t want payment, just for me to have it. Now this touching work sits by my desk.
De Wahls is no cosy cross-stitcher: she deploys her needle for political, especially feminist purpose. She embroiders fallopian tubes giving the finger, had a show called Big Swinging Ovaries, ran a vagina sewing workshop at Tate Modern. She’s funny, outspoken, has bright red hair and lavish tattoos. As all artists should be, she’s freethinking and bold.
She also has a sideline in embroidered flower patches, dahlias and pansies you iron onto T-shirts or jeans. Liberty stocks them, and the Royal Academy shop had just reordered when this week its head of commercial emailed to say she’d received eight complaints that De Wahls was transphobic. She wrote back. Silence. The RA Instagram account, with 500,000 followers, then posted: “Thank you to all those for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention.” They would no longer sell De Wahls’s flowers.
How does it feel to be “cancelled”? In a searing essay, the acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes of the vicious social media response to a 2017 interview in which she stated “trans women are trans women”, ie biological sex is immutable. A student Adichie mentored in her writing workshop tweeted that she should be attacked with machetes. Members of a new “puritan class”, Adichie writes, answer questions with mantras, “flatten all nuance, wish away complexity” to enforce the latest ideological orthodoxy. Incapable of real loyalty or compassion, they “pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness” while they “demand you denounce your friends”.
Adichie could be writing about De Wahls. Growing up in communist East Berlin (she was six when the wall fell) she trained as a hairdresser, but arriving in London aged 21 began sculpting and painting while working in a tiny salon at the Soho Theatre. No one could be more sexually liberal: she spent her twenties in fetish clubs and, although straight herself, her friends were mainly gay men and lesbians.
Moreover, when she was 12 her parents announced their marriage was ending because her father enjoyed sado-masochism but her mother did not. Yet they still live together in Berlin as happy flat-mates. Her mother has a long-term boyfriend. She shows me a photo of her father visiting London, a tall, beaming bald man in make-up, earrings and red high heels. Abhorring labels, he calls himself “a paradise bird”. Yet De Wahls points out that as an occasional cross-dresser he comes under Stonewall’s all-encompassing “trans umbrella”.
So, a few years ago, when gender theory took off among Soho Theatre colleagues, “and they’d disinvite a friend from a party because she believed that only women have vaginas”, De Wahls was bemused. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’” They were. When she asked questions, they insisted trans women were biological women, just like her. This denial of science, of tangible reality, this insistence that 2+2=5, troubled her.
After immense thought, sleepless nights and with much trepidation, in 2019 she posted a 5,000-word blog. “I have no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex,” she wrote. “However, I cannot accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to which they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such.”
The response was immediate and merciless. She was driven from her Soho Theatre salon. A gay friend whose hair she’d cut for ten years tweeted: “Never trust a bitch who does vagina art.” A colleague trawled her Facebook page, ordering lifelong friends to disavow her. All her offers to meet and talk were blanked.
Meanwhile the Instagram “embroidery community” set about destroying her livelihood. Petitions were launched, an exhibition in Australia was cancelled and every collaboration with a charity or company sabotaged. When she donated a work for raffle to raise money for period products in India, a male embroiderer hoped he’d win so he could burn it. One prominent stitcher of cheery flowers and “be kind” homilies has ranted non-stop about the injustice of it being De Wahls’s work that the snobbish RA chose when it finally allowed embroidery into “its hallowed halls”. Rather than her own, maybe?
Adichie’s essay wonders whether such vitriol is really to win compassion for trans people. Or has their cause become a legitimised outlet for baser feelings: professional jealousy, misogyny, amorphous rage? Now that shifty serotonin buzz from hurting someone you dislike comes with social cachet. What fun! You’re a good guy, for being vile.
As people sweat in silence, fearful that one misspeak will mean they’re next to be cancelled, De Wahls thinks of her childhood. “It’s Stasi bullshit. Like when my parents ordered me not to tell anyone we watched West German TV. But I refuse to back down. If I don’t, maybe young women will feel more bold.”
How bizarre that the art world, the crucible for shocking and subversive ideas, balks at the mere fact of biological sex. As I write, the RA’s tremulous head of commercial just told De Wahls “everyone is still thinking”. I’d hope such cogitation includes the Maya Forstater ruling which recently defined gender-critical feminism as a legitimate belief. De Wahls’s embroidered flowers would make a fascinating test case.