My life as a connoisseur

4 November 2012

6:11 PM

4 November 2012

6:11 PM

Passion for freedom‘ is now holding its fourth exhibition at the Unit 24 Gallery just behind Tate Modern. The show is a visible and occasionally dazzling manifestation of an often submerged movement in western liberalism that regards the liberal-left mainstream with something close to disgust.

They – we – find the indulgence of radical Islam as a betrayal of the best of the liberal tradition. We are equally repelled by multi-cultural orthodoxy, which puts the interest of a ‘community’ before the interests of the individual, particularly when the individual is a woman. The magnificent Maryam Namazie, One Law for All’s Spokesperson, and a woman you will rarely hear on the BBC, explained the show’s purpose. ‘Real change comes about by challenging and dissenting not by appeasement and silence. It comes about by breaking taboos and pushing aside that which is deemed sacred and art is such an important way of doing this. As Ai Wei Wei says, “if we don’t push, nothing changes”.’

As in previous years, the organisers tempted artists to submit by restating their core principles.

1. Create space for artists and writers who discuss subjects omitted in politically correct circles.
2. Invite people to open and uninhibited discussion. Nothing is more important than critically informed debate. That’s how society has advanced through the ages.
3. Gather like-minded people creating a network of actively engaged citizens who hold high the value of individual’s freedom

I have written at length on these themes, and subscribe to all of the above. I would certainly have gone along as a visitor. But this year, the organisers invited me to be one of the judges, and raised several difficulties as they did it.

I wondered by what right I judged artists. I am not an artist. Nor am I an art critic. I was there because of my last book was on censorship. I could talk about the politics of oppression all night, but what about the quality of the art. Unearned authority confers unwarranted self-confidence. I was a judge, and therefore, my opinion mattered. At the first judges’ meeting I nervously named half a dozen works I admired. Instead of laughing at me, the other judges nodded and wrote them down. After that, I passed sentences without a moment’s doubt.


My second difficulty was that I have come to believe that you cannot judge art on political grounds. Just because you share an artist’s sentiments does not mean you should admire his or her work. I am very uncomfortable with the Sir David Hare school of drama where the author confirms the audience’s prejudices and the audience applauds the author for bravely telling them that they are right in all things.

For instance, I agree with the sentiments behind this work at Unit 24 by Sarah Maple. If I had my way I would have it on the wall of everyone who says the world should leave Syria alone.

But doubtless an isolationist would glance at it, and walk away. Unfortunately the notion that you can judge work solely on its artistic merits is easier to hold in theory than in practice.

Look at these two paintings by Hangama Amiri

If I tell you Amiri is an Afghan-Canadian who painted the women after returning to Kabul, does that make a difference? When you look at them again, you cannot help but know that the artist understands the plight of women facing one of the most murderously misogynistic forces on the planet, and perhaps feel the need to offer her solidarity overwhelming all other emotions.

Other works in the exhibition had been banned elsewhere. Galleries in Holland refused to show Johann Van der Dong’s PO Box to Allah. It mentioned Allah’s name and that was enough to send them into a funk about violent reprisals.

As it was, we awarded prizes to three works. Third prize went to Fiona Dent’s subtle image of a wounded and silenced woman, which is probably as close as you can come to representing female genital mutilation without being arrested.

The choice for first prize was between Ferri Farahmandi’s haunting ceramic statue of a bandaged woman

And the brilliant young Cuban artist Osy Avila Milian’s enigmatic portrait of a young man absorbed in his iPhone, while the free birds fly by.

The consensus by a whisker was that while Farahmandi’s work made better politics, Milian’s was better art. But we were probably wrong. Go and judge for yourself

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • Blazingcatfur

    This is very heartening to see. Pity that the pseudo-left who embrace savagery dominate in numbers.

  • tasafaahmad

    This exhibition is an addition to misrepresenting ISLAM particularly in context of women.The ARTISTS should also show the chapters from Bible in which VELING OF THE FACE WAS USED BY HIGHLY RANKED LADIES is very clearly documented in GENESIS 24:64 AND 65.My question to ARTISTS is could they show the that part of picture too to the world that what un-veling has given to this world?Isn`t that very ill and disfiguring?Be honest while showing that part to world as ARTIST.

  • Eddie

    There is a huge amount of censorship out there, especially for anything that goes against what has become know as the ‘liberal agenda’ (though it ain’t liberal!). For example, every writer knows that if they write about difficult issues – for example Islamic extremism, racism against white people, how single parent families increase the likelihood of bad outcomes for children, how step families have 5 times the rate of abuse, how abortion is not the wunnerful solution it’s portrayed as, and many more – they wil never ever get work commissioned by the BBC or indeed other TV channels.
    As the BBC has a monopoly on radio drama, we get a constant diet of politically correct women’s plays which very often promote misplaced multiculturalism and always portray ethnic minorities as synmpathic characters.

    It’s like in The Bill, where the muggers were often white and the coppers often black. Errrr…. Where IS Sunhill exactly?

    As a writer, I know how desperate writers are for commissions – so one gets self-censorship, ehere writers avoid these difficult subjects.

    Even an established writer like Ashley Pharoah could only get his play about abortion on the radio, not TV, and only then at 9pm. Why? Because it portrayed both sides of the argument and didn’;t show abortion as a 100% great thing. BBC drama needless to say is more or less run by women of feminist bent who want to silence all debate about such issues.

    Of course, the worst offender is the BBC, which banned sketches about Muslims from a comedy show but of course allows sketches about Christians, atheists, everyone else. Fear? Cowardice? The po-faced puritanical tendency of the left? In the USA, Huckleberry Fin was taken off library shelves 100 years ago for being to pro-black; now it’s taken off shelves by ‘liberals’ who say it’s anti-black. How Mark Twain would have loved that one!

    Most writers would support freedom for writers to write what they want – but there isn’t much point if the script you write willl never get made, so writers pander to fashions and so constantly try and write about ethnic issues (which the BBC is in love with) and also women’s issues (most viewers of TV drama are women and most producers are too).

    The pofaced censorship of the socalled liberal left is JUST as bad as any censorship by Islamic vice and virtue police – and has the same motivation: an attempt to silence all criticism.

    • Sarah

      You have precisely no understanding of what feminism means. You are politically and philosophically illiterate.

  • hdb

    Great, Nick wants to put the rights of the individual before that of the community. So I will be expecting his piece against male circumcision to appear soon? No, didn’t think so. The only community Nick wants to bash is muslims. If Jews want to take razors to little boys willies that’s no problem for him. His lack of intellectual honesty is astounding.

    • chriscanada

      Resorting to moral equivalence has somehow become elevated to argument in public discourse. You are not justifying the poor behaviour of the Muslim community by holding up an example of arguably poor behaviour from another. Both are examples of poor behaviour. I was tempted to comment about your lack of intellectual honesty but there is nothing intellectual in your comment, no argument, just finger pointing like a child in the playground excusing itself because the Jewish kid behaved poorly too. I do not doubt your honesty – this sort of ridiculous and earnest hand wringing surely comes from your well intentioned heart. Why don’t you apply the same moral standard equally across the board and then decide whether you are offended by FGM and how loudly you should pitch that level of offence relative to the rest of the world.

  • Trofim

    I have no doubt at all that one day, as they grow in strength and numbers they will deface major works of art in galleries in Britain and elsewhere, should those works of art be judged indecent or the like. They might, if they’re having a good day, warn us to remove them from public view first or destroy them, but it’s going to happen.

  • chesters

    Daniel, I agree that a rational fear is not the same as a funk, and yes I’d be terrified if I received death threats, on the other hand ,it seems that art is not safe under the rule of the Islamists. Whilst they are busy hating and killing people, they like to do a bit of vandalism and desecration on the side as per the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the shrines of Timbuktu.

    They have even threatened to blow up the Pyramids. So nothing is too big or too ancient for them to want to destroy.

    Islamic Rage Boy – agree: I’m surprised the mullahs haven’t already taken offence and organised demos outside this exhibition.

  • Daniel Maris

    One thing that always puzzles me is silence and acquiescence of most feminists in all this. Why aren’t there demos outside the Saudi and Iranian embassies as persistent and virulent as those outside the South African embassy during the apartheid era?

    One point though: a rational fear is not the same thing as a “funk”.

  • chesters

    great article Nick and I think the exhibition sounds wonderful. Shame on the Dutch for not having the courage to show the POBox to Allah. It reminds me of a talk I attended a couple of years ago by a very senior person in a well known UK university which prides itself on it accessibility and commitment to inclusivity. He was talking about franchising courses to countries which included several middle eastern and Islamic dominated regimes. He commented nonchalantly that the Uni had had to ‘be very careful’ about certain images it used in its History of Art courses, especially those which portrayed nudity. He was very keen that ‘no offence’ should be caused, and it was obvious that this desire not to offend (and presumably to keep the money rolling in) trumped any concern he might have had about artistic freedom, about censorship, and about the human rights record of those countries he was doing business with (let alone with the question of how you can study the history of art properly without coming across a few nudes.) I challenged him but he simply could not see my objections.

    • Islamic Rage Boy

      How long before the “British” muslims are screaming bloody murder over the “P.O. Box to allah”?

      • Eddie

        I’ll give it 2 to 4 months.

        If you look at the other instances of Muslim tantrums about books, cartoon etc, you can follow the time line which goes something like this: book/cartoon/whatever gets published; nothing happens and almost no-one even knows about said book/cartoon; some local Muslim West-hater living in Europe bombards some radical cleric in the East (usually Pakistan) saying how disgusting it is that Mohammed is being abused etc; radical cleric then makes inflammatory speeches blaming the Jews, the US, the infidels for insulting their holy prophet and demands revenge; Mentalist Muslim Mob then starts attacking Western targets and burning products from the country which has published the cartoon/books (Danish butter, whatever).
        Several people die because of this Muslim mob hysteria and gthe clerics whose inflammatory rhetoric caused the riots that caused their deaths blame the west and honours these corpses with the absurd term ‘martyr’. Then Pakistan gets more funding from the USA.

        • FrenchNews

          You forget the social media Eddie. Let someone film and YouTube the offending object and reaction from the outrage industry will be almost instantaneous.

          • Eddie

            True. But what is needed is some Muslim cleric in the near East to whip up a willing crowd into a frenzy – social media and YouTube are so full of noise, and joke clips by emo-teens, that I doubt even the most dedicated Islamic hate monger could stand trawling through it all!
            My point was that the Danish cartoons, like the Rushdie novel, took months before causing riots – i.e. vested interested used them as focal points to promote their paranoid victimisation of Muslims fantasy, and thus whip up hatred against the West. The irony is that most people would never have known about the novel or the cartoons if those Muslim clerics had not elevated them to ‘evil infidel’ status.
            I am perpetually disappointed and disgusted by our media, esp the BBC, which refuses to show the Mohammed cartoons or similar for fear or reprisals – so proves itself cowardly and willing to jettison all our values in the name of diversity and multiculturalism and equality! PAH!

  • AY

    sometimes I wonder if there are two Nick Cohens, – one is coherent courageous journalist, clearly expressing non-trivial thoughts on uneasy subjects.
    and another one.. full opposite.
    guess who was writing the article this time..

    first victim of politics is most likely truth.
    and the truth is – to be lax on subject of art quality will lead to tyranny again.
    tyranny of mediocirty.

    all presented artefacts bring political message, – and have no relation to art.