In order to appreciate a disconcerting amount of the so-called great art of the 20th century, one must be willing to look past the ideologies of its artists. Ezra Pound was an outrageously outré fascist; Patricia Highsmith was an outspoken racist; Emil Nolde openly idolized Adolf Hitler. The list, of course, goes on, but it is the irrefutable talent of these sorts of artists – artistic geniuses with hateful principles – that proves so complicating to their legacies. In every case, however, they were given a voice in both their time and in the history books.
Last week, New York’s Greenspon Gallery cancelled an exhibition by experimental noise musician and artist Boyd Rice and artist Darja Bajagić after facing intense criticism over perceptions of Rice’s personal politics. In a statement, Amy Greenspon, the gallery’s owner, said: ‘In light of this show announcement it has been brought to my attention the incendiary impact of [Rice’s] work. I have learned more about the artist’s work and past, and conclude that I am not comfortable supporting his project at this time.’
Days before the cancellation, a member of the Google Docs-hosted listserv called Invisible Dole, which is used as a community for artists and others in the art world, had forwarded the exhibition’s announcement to the group’s members with the heading, ‘WARNING: neo-nazi showing in nyc.’ According to initial reports of the show’s cancellation, Greenspon said that she had received threats from various art world colleagues.
When I spoke to her, Greenspon characterized the situation delicately. ‘The amount of management that I sensed a show that drew this much volatility might require felt overwhelming,’ she told me. ‘I felt this was the best decision for me, my business, and ultimately the artists.’
Rice denies the moniker ‘Nazi’ or ‘neo-Nazi,’ but his critics point to a variety of connections he’s had with white supremacists in the past. Rice told me, ‘All they have is a photograph taken 30 years ago that appeared in a fashion magazine for teenage girls,’ referring to a photograph in a now-defunct alternative music magazine from 1989, which shows Rice holding a switchblade, next to the white supremacist Bob Heick. But, also in the late 1980s, Rice appeared on a public access television programme called ‘Race and Reason’ with Tom Metzger, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Rice’s supposed misogyny is also infamous. In an interview on his website, which currently presents an ‘account suspended’ message when trying to reach it, but has since been excerpted on various online forums, Rice published a Q&A in which he stated point blank that he was a misogynist, adding, ‘I don’t think women deserve the same rights as men. I don’t think women are on an equal footing with men.’
Rice’s beliefs often seem so shocking that it’s difficult to tell where the subversion ends and the actual hatefulness begins or vice versa. (Or whether those things can ever be separated at all.) Rice has no doubt packaged himself as intentionally provocative – the 61-year-old artist and musician has also been associated with the Church of Satan – although he tends to spin it as being ‘avant-garde.’ He told me: ‘My back catalogue as an avant-garde musician goes back over 40 years; I’ve written several books, and I have done hundreds of interviews. When I ask people to point out my most racist or anti-Semitic songs, they are unable to do it, because it’s not there.’
But the larger question here is what the responsibilities are of art institutions like Greenspon Gallery when it comes to choosing to show or not show the art of someone with apparently hateful views.
Recently, the denial of platforms for people with objectionable or hateful views has become particularly common. Last year, London’s LD50 art space was forced to close due to ‘constant attacks’, according to its owners, against the building by anti-fascist protestors. The gallery had hosted speakers including Nick Land, an English philosopher associated with the alt-right, and Brett Stevens, an ethno-nationalist who once praised the racist Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik for his decision ‘to act where many of us write, think and dream.’
Last month, Galerie Kleindienst in Leipzig stopped representing Axel Krause after a 13-year relationship, following the painter describing Germany’s treatment of the refugee crisis as ‘illegal mass immigration’, in a Facebook post. In another post, Krause commented: ‘We will be a minority in our own country.’ Christian Seyde, the gallery owner, believed that supporting Krause’s art was akin to supporting his politics, which Seyde said, ‘is essentially what you do if you give him a platform for presentation.’ Krause responded to the news saying that he had voted for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party: ‘And to be virtually marginalized for that is quite a problematic situation’.
And, just last week, the New Yorker’s editor David Remnick came under fire for his decision to interview Steve Bannon, a former White House Chief Strategist under Donald Trump and co-founder of ‘platform for the alt-right’ Breitbart News, on stage at The New Yorker Festival. After receiving significant blowback, including from his own staff, Remnick cancelled the interview and issued a written apology.
All of this amounts to a significant cultural shift and a challenge to the theory of ‘the marketplace of ideas’ – most famously advocated for by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in the mid-19th century, and later, in the 20th century, by the American Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and William O. Douglas. The marketplace of ideas theory says that everyone should be given a platform to discuss his or her views and the best and most correct view will ultimately win out. Closely linked with capitalism and the First Amendment in the United States, this theory has gone essentially unchallenged for the past century, since the 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States, which concerned the legality of publishing leaflets to encourage young men to resist military service, and ultimately ruled that any kind of speech is permissible so long as it’s not ‘of such a nature and used in such circumstances as to create a clear and present danger.’
Over the past few years, however, younger generations have turned against the idea of protections for hateful speech – doing away with the idea that everyone should have a voice in the discourse. Last year, 1,500 American college students across 49 states were asked, ‘Does the First Amendment protect ‘hate speech’?’ to which 44 percent said ‘no’ – that the Constitution does not offer such protection, according to a Brookings Institution study, even though, given the 1919 Supreme Court ruling, and in many other subsequent rulings, US law has no law against hate speech unless it creates ‘a clear and present danger’, which is often applied loosely. Greenspon seemed to recognize this shift, also saying in her statement last week that: ‘as contexts, boundaries and political realities continue to transform, so do the codes of what can and cannot be accepted.’ To this, she added, telling me, ‘I think that more and different considerations have to happen given the current political climate.’
By this logic, and putting the legal semantics to one side, if Rice is indeed a neo-Nazi or a misogynist or holds any other hateful ideology of which he is accused – all of which he rejects – his artwork, which no one had even seen, should not be given any kind of platform. But with this newly skeptical view towards the marketplace of ideas and ideologies – and an apparent shift from relying on legal norms to moral ones – we might assume that there’d be no Pound, no Highsmith, no Nolde, or hundreds, thousands, of other artists if the same theories had been applied in the past. Rice’s art is by no means on the level of ‘artistic genius,’ but the apparently coerced cancellation of his show nonetheless sets a complex precedent.
If we take one thing from this cancellation, however, it is that now, more than ever, all art holds a great deal of power and will be fundamentally viewed as politically charged, whether it’s meant to or not. In the case of Rice, he says the irony is that the works were, in fact, meant to be apolitical. ‘I’ve always felt that politics debases art, and takes it from a mystical realm to a pedestrian one,’ he told me. But to even look at his art, to even discuss it, was, for his critics, simply out of the question. Rice and Bajagić had offered a variety of roundtable or panel discussions to explain their work, in hopes they could save their exhibition; but this too was rejected, according to Bajagić.
And yet, even if the actual practice of denying platforms – of questioning the efficacy of the marketplace of ideas – is a relatively new phenomenon, the underlying compulsion to do so is not. George Orwell thought that the perceived politics of an artist could – and perhaps should – be disqualifying to the work itself. ‘A writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away,’ he wrote in 1943, ‘but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.’
To Rice’s critics, his work was stained with a perceived hateful ideology and thus did not deserve a platform. It appears that, in the art world and beyond, the marketplace of ideas is on the decline. The chorus of voices has given itself license to drown out the stray ones. Not everyone will get to speak. And, in certain cases, that’s probably for the best. ‘If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant,’ wrote Karl Popper in 1945, ‘then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.’
That’s to say, if Rice is indeed the virulent anti-Semite and woman-hater his critics make him out to be, then perhaps Greenspon made the right decision. But, if Rice is the avant-garde provocateur that he claims to be, then shutting down his ability to even enter the discourse – to host even a brief panel discussion about his work – is a needless and dangerous kind of intolerance. Either way, on the whole, the shift is clear: the voices we now hear are becoming one, hitting, if not a single, unified pitch, then at least one where fewer notes exist in every song.
Main image: Boyd Rice. Courtesy: Facebook