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This Royal Academy shop row risks hindering understanding more than helping it

·3-min read
The Royal Academy of Arts in London (PA Archive)
The Royal Academy of Arts in London (PA Archive)

Earlier this week, the Royal Academy released a statement on Instagram stories, explaining why they had decided to withdraw an artist’s work from the gallery shop. A long essay had been unearthed on the textile artist Jess de Wahls’s blog in which she said that she could “not accept people’s unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to when they were born and deserve to be extended the same rights as if they were born as such.” Elsewhere she expressed support for the rights of trans people as a marginalised group. Eight complaints had been directed to the RA, which said that it was “committed to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and does not knowingly support artists who act in conflict with these values”.

In response, the non-profit advocacy group Sex Matters wrote a letter to the RA’s secretary and chief executive Axel Rüger, suggesting that the removal of de Wahls’s work breached the Equality Act 2010 and the European Convention on Human Rights “and goes against your own commitment to be inclusive and representative of diverse cultural and personal experience, and your values as a forum for artistic expression.” At the time of writing, the Royal Academy had not responded to requests for comment.

So, there’s the basic background. I do not know whether the removal does indeed breach either of those legal frameworks. I understand, furthermore, that de Wahls’ long essay would be extremely upsetting for people who consider unequivocally to be the case what she does not. Is it the world’s most helpful move on the part of the RA, though, to make such a public decision, and so quickly, in the case of an artist who, hitherto, was barely known? If de Wahls’s embroidered flowers (which is apparently what was on sale in the shop) artistically expressed anything more aggressive or harmful than the beauty of nature and her skill with a needle, then I could more clearly understand it.

But art, much of which, like embroidered flowers, is innocuous in and of itself, is made by people, not all of whom believe the same things, due precisely to their diverse cultural and personal experience. Perhaps the RA feels like they’re making a gesture of support for a marginalised community, which is great and admirable. But could there have been a better way of doing it? More considered, more constructive? Less guaranteed to whip up a whirlwind?

Every time something like this happens, the surrounding furore makes it feel like we’re back at square one with better understanding an issue which seems more divisive than it needs to be. Personally, I’m inclined to listen to people who feel marginalised with empathy and compassion, and try to understand how much I don’t understand. Every swift slam of condemnation, though, makes it harder for people who want to inform themselves or help others through the issue.

I suspect that not many more people would have read de Wahls’s essay, written in 2019 (she’s not exactly a household name, at least she wasn’t until this morning) if it hadn’t been dredged up and made public in this way. Instead, the ultimate effect of both the dredging and the subsequent banning is likely to be to discourage those making a genuine effort to better understand what all this means, and encourage people - whatever their views - who are more interested in making noise than in making things better, to shout louder. Debate isn’t the right word for what’s needed, with its implication of combat, of winners and losers. What’s needed is compassionate conversation, or people will never understand each other, and isn’t that what ultimately is best for everyone?

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