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Real Art Is Bound to Cause Offence

Artists traditionally have faced a choice: stay true to their calling, trading financial security for intellectual freedom—or put art aside in favour of a steady paycheque and the stifling strictures that come with corporate life. But in the current era, something has changed. Artists now experience the worst of both worlds: They still struggle to make ends meet, while enduring all of the oppressive controls that come with selling out.

One well-known recent example is that of Anders Carlson-Wee, the poet who denounced his own poem after being shamed by his editors at The Nation. Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith had published Carlson-Wee’s poem, titled How-To, in July, but then had second thoughts, suddenly declaring it to be full of racist and ableist wrongthink. The poet, too, felt the need to beg for forgiveness, telling the world, “I am sorry for the pain I caused.”

But this is just one piece of a larger trend. There is a concerted effort among many progressives to pre-empt artistic risk-taking. They want the artist to work on pre-approved themes and express pre-approved truths, even if the artist herself suspects those truths may not actually be truths at all.

This policy of obedience is toxic to creativity. Artist’s need freedom to explore the unknown—to follow their thoughts wherever they go, and to represent their beliefs through art. Creating real art is bound to cause offence in some cases, yet the practice must be encouraged. Otherwise, the goal of art will be to placate ideological critics, thereby pushing it into the realm of propaganda.

Last month, actress Scarlett Johansson walked away from Rub & Tug, a film about transgender gangster Dante “Tex” Gill, after protesters claimed that she effectively was taking a job away from a transgendered actor. At one point, a representative for Johansson released a statement directing protesters to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman, three cis (i.e. non-trans) actors who have played transgender characters in recent years. The seemingly flippant tone of this response only fueled the outrage. And protesters continued to press the issue until Johansson finally stepped down from the role.

Gill (1930-2003), who began life as a girl* named Lois Jean Gill, was a gangster who ran a string of brothels thinly veiled as massage parlours. In 1984, The Pittsburgh Press awarded her the title of both “Dubious Man of the year” and “Dubious Woman of the Year.” She was at war with the Mafia. One of her parlours was destroyed in a bombing. Another was burned to the ground by an arson attack. She was the leader of a doping operation that provided the Pittsburgh Steelers football team with anabolic steroids. And a lot of the help she received in growing her business came from Pittsburgh’s gay community. Gill spent her millions on expensive jewellery (which she gave to favourite prostitutes), trips around the world, large parties, exotic animals—and, according to some reports, gender re-assignment surgery. She got busted on tax evasion and was sent to jail, where she died. Gill lived a fascinating life. But due to the efforts of protesters, it’s a story we may never see told in a popular movie.

By accepting the role of Gill, Johansson was not doing a disservice to the trans community. In fact, having an actress of Johansson’s stature attached to Rub & Tug was likely the only way this film was ever going to be made. The original casting decision was part of a trend in Hollywood of hiring big-name actors to play sexual minorities, thereby ensuring a wide release even if a film’s budget is tiny.

Brokeback Mountain, a hugely successful $12-million movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, is an obvious example. Following that 2005 blockbuster, the role of Harvey Milk in Milk (2008) was given to Sean Penn, and Benedict Cumberbatch played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). The rumoured production budget for Rub & Tug was $30-million (a small fraction of the cost of your average big-ticket Hollywood release), with the film being produced by New Regency, a studio that has been nominated for Best Picture Award at the Oscars three times (winning twice) over the last six years. No surprise: The fate of the film is up in the air since Johansson’s departure.

Days after Johansson stepped down, Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, which advocates for greater LGBTQ representation in film and TV, praised Johansson’s decision:

[Her] announcement, together with the transgender voices who spoke out about this film, are game-changers for the future of transgender images in Hollywood. Hollywood changed how Americans understand gay and lesbian lives, and TV is starting to do the same for transgender people with authentic transgender portrayals being major hits with critics and audiences. The film industry has a real opportunity to do the same.

Artists should be nervous when advocacy groups gain influence over the creative process: Their focus is never art. It’s always their own narrow agenda. “GLAAD will be holding dedicated pressure on studios to fulfil their social responsibility for LGBTQ inclusion, and we are here as a resource to help them achieve their goals,” read the introduction to GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index. It’s a sly move to insist that furthering social responsibility—not making great movies—is the proper goal of a film studio. (From a film artist’s point of view, meanwhile, the only “social responsibility” that requires advancement is their responsibility to tell great stories.)

Notwithstanding her purported expertise, Ellis appears to have forgotten how Hollywood actually changed America’s perception of gay and lesbian lives. It was not by waiting until the stars aligned and a perfectly diverse cast appeared. For Brokeback Mountain, Director Ang Lee hired the best actors he could get, full stop (which was a challenge at the time, as there was a lingering stigma in Hollywood against playing gay characters). The producers of The Imitation Game, likewise, fought hard to get Cumberbatch on board because they thought he would be perfect for the role of mathematician Alan Turing. As for Milk, Penn told Rolling Stone that the movie’s Oscar success (including Penn’s own Best Actor award) was a large reason it was seen by so many people. “If we hadn’t gotten these eight nominations, we’d be straight to video right now. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Films such as Milk and Rub & Tug do not have a guaranteed audience. Unlike comic-book movies and blockbuster sequels, on which a studio can bank nine figures solely on the basis of brand recognition, art-house films about gay or trans individuals typically require some infusion of star power. Even if Rub & Tug is produced, New Regency will have a difficult time getting the public to see it if it fails to attract attention on the festival circuit and at pre-screenings—which becomes difficult without a high-wattage star.

Some activists in this field will seek to argue with artists on their own terms—claiming that a transgender person will give a more authentic performance when playing a trans character. But there is no evidence to back that up. It is an actor’s job to embody characters who are different from themselves. Indeed, when Milk was released, New Yorker film critic Dan Denby praised the decision to cast Penn as the star: “By casting a famously macho actor as Harvey Milk, Van Sant has made the central humanist desire for self-acceptance and pride newly powerful. Giving himself utterly to the role, Penn takes an actor’s craft and dedication to soulful heights, making a demand for dignity that becomes universal.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, the campaign to kick Scarlett Johansson off Rub & Tug is fueled by an ideology that, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to the death of acting as we know it—for there is no reason that the required congruence between actor and subject must end at gender or skin colour.

*   *   *

In 2016, a group of transgender activists at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, protested a talk given by Kimberly Peirce, the self-described gender-fluid woman who co-wrote and directed the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry—a biographical movie about Brandon Teena, a transgendered man who found love in Nebraska, but then fell victim to a brutal crime. The film won Hilary Swank an Oscar for best leading actress and was a launch pad for Peirce’s career. Yet protesters at Reed claimed Peirce was yet another “cis white bitch” who made money off of transgender stories. In a foreshadowing of the Johansson controversy, Swank also was criticized for stealing a job from a transgendered actor. These protesters, powered by luxury outrage (basic tuition at Reed is $56K/year), waved their placards and chanted songs until Peirce left the stage.

Peirce is a brave woman whose ground-breaking film brought visibility to the transgendered community. She lived through the AIDS epidemic and was openly lesbian at a time when many struggled to reveal their sexuality. She had the authentic lived experience (a quality so often sought after by activists) to know what being a sexual minority was like in the 80s and 90s. Yet none of this mattered to protestors who had the good fortune to grow up in a more enlightened age.

This year, a Chilean film, A Fantastic Woman, won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It follows the story of Marina, a young transgender woman whose life is thrown into disarray after her boyfriend dies of a sudden aneurysm. Marina was played by Daniela Vega, a transgender actor. Yet when the Hollywood Reporter asked the film’s director, Sebastián Lelio, about the Johansson controversy, he said: “I’ll never make myself available to join or empower any idea that aims to restrict one of society’s most precious assets, which is the freedom of its artists.” Lelio also refused to insist that other directors should follow his example of casting transgendered actors in trans roles:

Whenever the decision to cast Daniela Vega is interpreted as an authoritarian gesture, a gesture that tells people what to do, I always raise my hand and say ‘No.’ I’m not commanding anyone to do anything, I’m exercising my [own] artistic freedom.

That freedom Lelio speaks of is slowly being clawed back. George Orwell wrote that “even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.” We now inhabit a moment when even artists—especially artists—are becoming afraid of forbidden thoughts. Works of art are being protested and suffocated even before they’ve been created. If it appears that a movie will not be adequately “progressive,” it dies in utero; and the risk-taking artist is ostracized.

Well-known American economist Eric Weinstein has argued that universities should have strong departments and weak administrations. Such a dynamic would allow the most productive professors to take risks and break ground for the rest of their profession, with minimal fear of repercussion. Publishers of art should provide cover for their artists in a similar fashion. Artists should feel reassured that they will get the support they need to make creative decisions about hot-button subjects; otherwise, they will have, in the back of their mind, the knowledge that one controversial choice could ruin their career. In the film world, the result will be fewer serious stories about the Holocaust, slavery, colonialism, totalitarianism and sexual identity—and more throwaway movies about talking dogs and wacky bachelor parties.

We should also remember that in many cases, it is actually beneficial to have one’s culture, community or identity interpreted by outsiders. It provides an opportunity to see oneself through the eyes of another—and a chance for the person interpreting your community to gain a deeper understanding of its nuances. At a recent speaking event in Vancouver, Eric Weinstein’s brother Bret (who became famous after being hounded off the campus of Evergreen State University in 2017 by protesting students) had Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris “steel-man” each other’s debating positions, an exercise by which one articulates an opponent’s argument in the strongest possible terms. Peterson said after the show that this exercise was valuable because it improved his understanding of Harris’ point of view. For an artist, putting the care and effort required to effectively represent another community may be seen as the social equivalent of steel-manning.

James Baldwin said the role of the artist is to tell people things they don’t want to hear. If someone doesn’t want to hear a story that makes them uncomfortable, that’s their decision. But they have no right to place their hands over other people’s eyes and ears. Boys Don’t Cry and The Imitation Game are both hard to watch. They are also, by any useful definition, true works of art, advancing the audience’s understanding of the underlying subject. Any doctrine that would serve to destroy such art does a great disservice to both creator and subject alike.


*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dante “Tex” Gill was born a boy. Quillette regrets the mistake.

Gabriel Scorgie is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter@GabrielScorgie.


  1. To add to this, there was a petition to cancel a Netflix show called “Insatiable” before it even came out. The reason? It’s allegedly fat-shaming and harmful (

    The show got pretty bad reviews across the board once it came out. But still, these people who constantly yell and scream and try to get movies/shows banned before they even come out…. don’t they realize they’re behaving like religious fundamentalists? Nowadays, it’s like all art must adhere to progressive dogma or prepare to be savaged.

    I say all of this as a person who leans mostly left, by the way.

    • Martin28 says

      They are worse than religious fundamentalists. They are religious fundamentalists, with power, who insist that everybody else sees the world in the way they do. We must remember that progressives today are limiting their own thinking. Their behavior, like the Reed College protestors who are nurtured and protected by their own universities, seems insane. This is a mindset that cannot acknowledge its enormous logical fallacies. To question that logical fallacy is to publicly burn you membership in the progressive tribe. There are real penalties for doing so, as Johansson found. The media, Hollywood, universities, foundations, and, increasingly, corporations, are playing along. If the world seems insane, well, it is.

    • RadixLecti says

      It got bad reviews from professional reviewers and critics. Who get paid by newspapers and websites. No prizes for guessing which way most of those entities lean.

      While Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, for context: the same bunch of losers panned the first season of “13 Reasons Why” and STILL claim that it was a flop and failure, even though Netflix saw fit to produce a second season (and have green-lighted a third).

      If these morons had actually watched “Insatiable” they’d have seen that it actually has lots of annoying nods to their even more annoying shibboleths. Most noticeably, one of the supporting characters comes out as a lesbian under the tutelage of a “strong”, obese, confident black lesbian who takes part in “normal” beauty pageants (as opposed to “plus size” pageants) to show people that beauty comes in “all shapes and sizes”.
      In another example, when the lead character asks her incredibly effeminate male pageant coach for advice on whether she should have an abortion, instead of advice or an honest opinion she gets progressive CorrectSpeak: “I’m a man, so I have no right to tell you what to do”.

      But of course the show commits the cardinal sin of admitting that overweight people become attractive to a larger number of people once they lose weight, so WE MUST STOP THIS ABOMINATION FROM GAINING CULTURAL TRACTION.

    • martti_s says

      ‘Insatiable’ is not about fat shaming at all.
      It is about selfishness, greed, cruelty, jealousy, groupthink, stupidity, hypocrisy, and the power of money and friends in high places.

    • The series is rather edgy and offensive, which is what makes it interesting art. I find it curious that according to Metacritic, only the reviewer from The New Yorker had anything positive to say.

    • Eric From Chicago says

      I believe in the Godly power of the remote control. Put your art out there, and I will give it a chance…but only a very quick chance. David Letterman? Gone. Jay Leno? Stays.

      And yes…I believe Die Hard is a Christmas Movie just like Deadpool is a love story.

  2. And so, here it is, arriving almost on time, Quillette’s monthly transgender-themed installment. It’s silly enough that trans-y stuff gets such wildly disproportionate coverage in the mainstream and minorstream press -– after all, when has .0013 percent of the population (JAMA’s statistic) ever gotten more “ink” than these poor, confused people and their seething advocates? — but shouldn’t the clearer heads at Quillette be above dipping their toes in the fetid pools of intellectual fashion?

    If nothing else, the article did yield the splendid phrase, “powered by luxury outrage,” to describe the fervor of protesters at a $56,000-a-year American liberal arts college.

    Finally, I’m reminded of Picasso’s aphorism about art being “an instrument of war.” Some brave artist somewhere needs to declare war on social justice warriors and all their censorious and schoolmarmish comrades in academia and the media. Perhaps something like a “Piss Marx” or a “Piss Kamala Harris” is in order.

    • Steve says

      “Perhaps something like a “Piss Marx” or a “Piss Kamala Harris” is in order.”

      This remark achieves a novel sort of involuted barbarism.

    • Colonel West says

      Heck, I’d settle for a “Piss Theodor Adorno” or a “Piss Michel Foucault.”

    • Martin28 says

      But of course Quillette cannot ignore transgenderism. The theory, the ideology—if not the reality—are attacks on human nature and biology. Transgender people are fine, but the ism and the movement are troublesome. That they are all over the media at every level, and that the coverage is all supportive of the social justice trans narrative, is a indication. This is not just a fad. It is central to the social justice circular reasoning. I hope that Quillette continues to point out the fallacies of transgenderism.

    • Centrist Gal says

      You shouldn’t be dismissing the implications of transgender activism as a mere intellectual fashion. Just because they are few, doesn’t mean they aren’t becoming increasingly powerful. If they are such are tiny minority, why are Governments legislating how the rest of us must address them? Why is the UK looking at amending the Gender Recognition Act so that you can legally change your gender merely by self-declaring? The UK health service issues Pap smear reminders to ‘people with a cervix’ and doctors and nurses are advised to refer to ‘pregnant people’ not ‘pregnant women’. A man in the US changed his gender on his license so that he could get cheaper car insurance. Fully equipped men are wandering into ladies’ toilets and girls’ change rooms. Nobody can do anything. Gender quotas? Simply get your staff to identify as whatever gender is required to meet the quota. Gender can change daily, apparently, and the rest of us must accommodate that, and learn the correct pronouns. The push for gender neutrality (which, ironically, is oppositional to transgenderism), is accelerating. It is happening in Australia, right through the public service, including the Army. People who are prepared to stare death in the face apparently might get offended unless their colleagues use the correct gender neutral language. We now have things like LGBT ‘accreditation’ where people are instructed not to use the term wife or husband about their OWN wives and husbands, in case they offend someone. Qantas has issued a similar edict to staff: do not use gendered terms such as husband, wife, ladies, gentlemen but use ‘folks’ ‘partner’ ‘parent’. Healthline, a heavily trafficked online health service in the US, will no longer use the term vagina, but has replaced the word with the term ‘front hole’ so that transgender people do not feel uncomfortable. Do some research on gender neutral education in Sweden, Germany, Canada, and now Scotland, where very young children are told they can choose their gender. Ottawa’s Planned Parenthood organisation tells elementary children that there is no such thing as male and female anatomy. Meanwhile there has been a big increase in teens requesting SRS and hormone treatment. You need to wake up.

      • @Centrist Gal

        You ask: “If they are such [a] tiny minority, why are Governments legislating how the rest of us must address them?” If the “issues” related to transgenderism received the amount of attention in the media that they deserve (or at least the amount of attention which one would think might be commensurate with .0013 percent of the population), none of the horror show litany of things mentioned in your comment -– e.g., “front hole” replacing “vagina” as the term of choice among medical professionals -– would have ever happened. Billions of humans would have been appropriately indifferent to the First World hardships of these people. But I guess this kind of proportionality was never going to be in the cards given the click-bait, activist journalism now in control of most of the mainstream media, and the insatiable hunger of the Left to find new classes of “victims” to champion.

        Still, your points are well-taken. A quibble, though: The man changing his gender on his driver’s license in order to get cheaper car insurance lives in Canada, not the US.

        • Centrist Gal says

          Ah, yes, that makes more sense; Canada seems to have gone further the path of insanity than the US.

          The media is certainly playing a role in pushing LGBTQ-ZZZZ issues by presenting a very one-dimensional, shallow perspective, and promoting various celebrities, models, and public figures to try to normalise transgenderism and gender ‘fluidity’, which are fundamentally illogical concepts that ultimately unravel. The more that traditional gender norms dissolve, the more ‘gender’ (unmoored from biological sex) becomes meaningless. There is NO awareness among the general public of the sort of legislation that is quietly being passed, nor any deep thinking going into the implications for themselves, their children, and society generally. The public are happy to wave their little rainbow flags and support Safe Schools because that shows their progressive credentials and what good and inclusive people they are, without having any idea of the complexities or politics behind all of this. Now we are seeing in-fighting between transgender activists, the gay and lesbian community (who are being accused of transphobia), feminists (who understand the risks to affirmative action and women only spaces like prisons and change rooms), and also between transgender people and transsexuals, who ALSO object to the concept of transgenderism, which they consider to simply be transvestism! Most people don’t understand that this has moved way beyond acceptance and tolerance for people who don’t fit the norm. In the UK, the editors of a number of newspapers were hauled before a hate crime inquiry for fueling ‘hostile sentiment’ towards transgender people. My friends and family are shocked when I tell them about the legislation, policies and educational curricula that has quietly been introduced. People who rely on the MSM for the ‘news’ have no idea. They don’t grasp how free speech is becoming less and less free, and language more and more controlled. People need to start pushing back against those who are instituting these barmy laws and policies.

        • Indie Wifey says

          It’s a proven fact that the wills n ills of the few affect the majority; laws prove it, axioms encapsulate it
          I hear “they” & “we” the history buff in me hears royals of old speake to their subjects, for they are the Land

      • Eric from Chicago says

        I just hope folks don’t get their front hole and back hole mixed up.

        Which..on it’s ludicrous.

        Gender can change daily? Really?

        Wait until the 2020 Census takes place. Us white suburban guys are going to list out all 39 of our genders and all 47 of our races. The data will make the US Government scream with glee that they’ve achieved Peak Diversity across America.

        Better part of this is some Progressive President down the road won’t be able to look at Census data to see which areas need more ‘diversity’ for the sake of ‘diversity.

    • Sally says

      The “$56,000-a-year American liberal arts college” referred to by A New Radical Centrist and the author of the article is Reed College, where I had the misfortune of spending my freshman year a few years back. The author’s “luxury outrage” description was right on the money. Of the five people I knew at Reed who I would have counted as my friends, all were from the upper or upper middle-class. I’m a liberal, but I can only describe these people as extreme and delusional in their political and social views (e.g., pro-reparations, extreme hatred of heterosexual white men, and believing Zimbabwe and Venezuela and Cuba to be “model societies”) . Also, they all shared one other important thing: All suffered from fairly profound mental health issues. This seems to be something that runs through a lot social justice types I’ve met – lots of depression and borderline disorders. Also, a lot of narcisism. Has any research been conducted into this?

      • Centrist Gal says

        I don’t think they became like that by themselves. I think the ideology causes the depression, anxiety and narcissism. They are in a constant state of cognitive dissonance, because their stated principles clash with the reality of their affluent backgrounds. They know they are hypocrites, but they can’t face the fact. Their natural drive, competitiveness and ambition is quashed by concepts like ‘white privilege’ and a feeling that they should be sacrificing themselves to save the world and help minorities. They are taught to hate themselves, their countries and their histories, and are taught that the world is facing ruination from capitalism and global warming. There’s an emergency, and they have to fix the world, but it’s such a big problem, they can’t cope. The generally peaceful society they see around them doesn’t fit with the evil image of the West that has been drummed into them, so they create drama and violence so that the world matches the distorted view of it that has been manufactured for them by their elders and peers. They turn all of that inner hatred and shame onto ‘the other’; the ones who caused it…the sexists, the fascists, the bigots, the capitalists, the racists. If they have progressive parents, the parents probably started it, and then their professors finish the job off for them. They are cult members.

    • Bob in Wexford says

      The original “Piss” artwork was of course Andres Serranos’ notorious “Piss Christ.” That particular work was subject to the same kind of fury and attempts at censorship (by the political right) that art today suffers at the hands of the political left. Things certainly have changed, haven’t they? Who would have thought even ten years ago that the left would replace the right as the staunchest opponent of free expression?

      • Peter from Oz says

        Bob in W
        I think you will find that no-one on the right wanted Piss Christ to be banned or the artist censored. They rightly called the piece a terrible and disrespectful farrago. They also questioned the fact that public money was given to the ”artist”

    • Bob (Again) in Wexford says

      @A New Radical Centrist —– I’ll bet that progressives would be a lot more outraged at a figurine of Kamala Harris dunked in a jar of urine than one of Karl Marx similarly situated. The only victim class to which Karl could claim membership is “Jews,” and that’s not much of one anymore among the SJWs. Kamala Harris, on the other hand, has got more than a little intersectionality going on.

  3. Shank says

    I can’t get too worked up about the “Rub ‘n Tug” casting fiasco, to be honest. I’m sure Johansson would’ve given a good performance but, issues of trans representation notwithstanding, the fact is that she looks absolutely nothing like her subject. I mean, not at all. I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that Scarlett Johansson is easily one of the most beautiful actresses in the world. The very notion of her playing Dante Gill, who was 300lbs if he was an ounce and who had a face like Jackie Gleason’s bulldog, is unintentionally hilarious. Make up can only go so far, after all.

    • Anne18 says

      You obviously never saw Meryl Streep play an old, bearded Rabbi, or Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America.

      • Indie Wifey says

        Or ages ago see Mary Martin play Petah Pan 😉
        This is all so absurd
        The best acting oughta be those who stretch selves to the uttermost extreme and manage it’

  4. Mark says

    The more I read about transgender activists, the more excited I am to tell transgender people that I won’t use their pronouns.

    Enough is enough.

  5. Ruben says

    I had to do a lot of googling before I finally found the reference. I assume the “Piss ______” refers to the art work by Andres Serrano called “Piss Christ”?

  6. Peter from Oz says

    ”Yet none of this mattered to protestors who had the good fortune to grow up in a more enlightened age.”
    This is obviously incorrect. The whole point of the article is that we now live in a far less enlightened age, an age in which we are encouraged to admire the sterile and the ”other” and denigrate or marginalise the normal.

      • Peter from Oz says

        And you missed the double sarcasm, with a twist of irony.

  7. Farris says

    Freedom of speech is being slowly strangled. Free speech can not be contingent on who is offended. It wasn’t right when the religious right wanted to ban speech and art they found offensive and it’s no better when the censors are on the left. When the standard for speech is whether it is offensive or hateful speech is no longer a freedom. Yes hate speech, whatever that is, must be tolerated. The intended audience has the freedom to walk away, not buy a ticket or change the channel. What most fail to understand is that speech says as much about the speaker as it does the subject. Allow the cads, low brows and hate mongers to reveal themselves so they can be avoided in the future. That being said, bowing to social pressure does not implicate the First Amendment guarantee but rather shows a lack of character and intestinal fortitude. When someone finds your speech or art offensive, you must decide if you have the courage of your convictions. If that offends anyone, too bad.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Well said. I find most of the utterances by ”progressives” to be hate speech, but I wouldn’t want those utterances censored. That would be a sign of weakness. Strong people answer bad arguments with better ones. But of course the left is wrong on just about all counts. Therefore they have no arguments, so they have to resort to censorship.

  8. Martin28 says

    This is another example of the dangers of elevating social justice above reason, truth, and free expression. If social justice premises cannot be questioned, then of course we cannot let artists be free. They must support the social justice narrative or they must be publicly humiliated and shamed. When something cannot be questioned, it soon becomes absurd. But nobody can point out the absurdity. The king always wears the finest clothes. Isn’t that a wonderful suit you are wearing, Sire! The social justice warriors appear to be oppressive, and they are, but they are oppressing themselves first. The are oppressing and suppressing their own thoughts because they have elevated their own goals above reason, truth, and free expression. And their enablers are legion.

  9. Bob in Wexford says

    The original “Piss” artwork was of course Andres Serranos’ notorious “Piss Christ.” That particular work was subject to the same kind of fury and attempts at censorship (by the political right) that art today suffers at the hands of the political left. Things certainly have changed, haven’t they? Who would have thought even ten years ago that the left would replace the right as the staunchest opponent of free expression?

  10. “Real Art Is Bound to Cause Offence”

    It is interesting times when Post Modern Lefites are pushing the censorship buttons. This used to be mostly a religious and conservative thing – pushing back against the threat to bourgeois values.

    Is it? I wonder how far the author is willing to push it? So which way is the artist allowed to cause offence? How far is the author of the article willing to go?

    Ezra Pound is the seminal figure of modernist English literature. He exerted significant influence over other brilliant canonical writers – Hemingway, Eliot, Frost, Steiner, Joyce and others. And even when he rejected a writer – he still had lasting effect – as he did with Hart Crane.

    Yet, he became a fascist and a traitor and vile anti-Semite – and in the very real sense of these words. His legacy therefore is significantly tarnished.

    T.S Eliot the anti-Semite? And his anti-Semitic poetry? Wagner? Knut Hamsun? Eric Gill was a sexual deviant – his sisters, his teen daughters and he even did his dog! Salinger and young girls? Michael Jackson and possible interests in boys? Orson Scott Card and his homophobia? H. P. Lovecraft’s Racism? And didn’t even Orwell chide Kipling for his racism and support for colonialism? How many of the Christian religious right would support the rights of works such as Piss Christ and The Holy Virgin Mary?

    And in other recent times – how far is this pushing offence-pushing allowed? Where do we stand on Kevin Spacey? Do we support Gay Talese’s position for example?

    In some cases it is easy to separate the art and the artist, but mostly not, and particularly not in this climate. Arguing against the censorship tendencies of the snowflake generation is easy. It is really easy to support cases such as Anders Carlson-Wee and all the others the writer mentioned. But how far are we, as a society, really willing to let the artist to go? Racism? Sexism? Fascism? Homophobia? Murder? Sexual deviancy? And not in the postmodern sense either, but in true meaning of those words.

    This is a poor article. The writer should have explored the subject further rather than irrelevant name dropping. Roping in Jordan Peterson’s name in an article does not make it a good article.

    • The art and the artist are separate. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be selective as a personal choice if we want to be. I would never read Hemingway because of his animal cruelty but don’t let Wagner’s anti-Semitism stop me appreciating his genius, although I deplore such views.

      We would be well to get away from the idea that an artist is a moral figure due to his or her talent and/or popularity or because some of them preach on social issues. Artists have been some of the nastiest people on the planet, as well as some of the nicest. The nastiness doesn’t necessarily interfere with the quality or enjoyability of their work.

      • @ Wicked One

        “I would never read Hemingway because of his animal cruelty but don’t let Wagner’s anti-Semitism stop me appreciating his genius, although I deplore such views. ”

        This is just contradictory! You cannot be serious.

        As fuzzy as it might be, I think there is an ethical line that even the artist in the name of art shouldn’t cross.

    • Frank says

      Lambasting a passing reference to a particular person, the context of whose inclusion was actually relevant to the author’s point, does not make for a good critique of the article.

      • @ Frank

        It was NOT a passing reference. It took quite a chunk. And it was completely irrelevant.

        Peterson name at the moment is being thrown – especially at this site – like he is the answer to everything.

    • Charle says

      I agree it is a poor article. Where is the evidence from Greek times onwards that art has to cause offence? The Greek statues of Aphrodite are to show the ideal of feminine beauty.

      The Italian Renaissance is not about producing challenging art. Great art was paid for by patrons be it kings, aristocrats, cardinals, popes or wealthy merchants. The idea of the artist suffering for their art is largely a 19th century creation. Robert Graves in the “White Goddess ” criticizes debauched and degenerate poets as a betrayal of The Muse.

      Historically painters and sculptors were apprenticed to a studio where they were trained and this meant only a few highly technically skilled artists were produced. Many painters and sculptors earned money by undertaking specific commissions – paint the patron, his family or his estate. The Dutch painters undertook commission for wealthy merchants.

      Musicians were brought up in orchestras funded by rulers. Writers of plays were parts of groups of actors. Most great writers had jobs which paid the bills and writing was a side line. Dickens started as a journalist; S Maugham trained as a doctor; Chaucer had various jobs; Shakespeare was employed by the Lord Chamberlain’s men;Tolstoy owned an estate, The Brontes worked as governesses and lived at their father’s home; P G Wodehouse worked in bank until he was successful.

      Great work can be produced by nasty people ; Carvaggio for example.

      The apprenticeship was legal contract between parent, Master and apprentice. A specific sum of money was paid by the parent to The artist to train the apprentice over a 5- 7 year period. The Apprentice lived with the Master. This system only produced what the market needed. Perhaps the real issue is that the change of the training artist from a form of craft training( learning in studio, company of actors, orchestras, private income ) to one where they attend a college. The modern system means academics at university produce more graduates than the market needs. Also graduates feel entitlement to income. Consequently, the modern system produces more artists with a lower average level of ability, with some very poor ones. Consequently, many artists have to be challenging to be noticed as their art is incapable of doing so. Michaelangelo’s David, Sistine Chapel, Pieta , etc were not designed to cause offence

      • Centrist Gal says


        Agree. Trangressive art died decades ago. It’s all been done before, over and over and over. Since the ‘radicals’ took over the institutions and professionalised anti-art, counter culture is now the orthodoxy. Camille Paglia has an excellent talk on YouTube (about an hour long) about this, entitled “Art and Spirituality”. Protest art is completely de-fanged, tired, and cliched. The only issues that could form the basis for a counter-counter-culture (eg. Islam, transgenderism, identity politics, immigration, or the death of art itself) are off-limits, and any artist that dared to venture into those areas would be dismissed as a fascist, bigot etc. The radicals are now those who are returning to traditional concepts of skill, artisanship, aesthetics, and narrative/representational painting. The left has totally destroyed art, and in their usual hypocrisy take their fat pay cheques while they pretend they are ‘speaking truth to power’. We really are looking at Soviet style art coming out of art education; the art must support the political ideology, and young artists are being conned into spending lots of money to dance to the tune of their Marxist teachers who manipulate them into creating repetitive, meaningless, cliched, political art. Yale University openly states their art is about ‘social justice’.

  11. Mike says

    Remember when a white gay women got the Oscar for playing an asian heterosexual man? (which was totally deserved)
    The perfect snub to our crazy times…

  12. Gonout Backson says

    “But how far are we, as a society, really willing to let the artist to go?”
    Please, define the supposed “not letting the artist go”. I’m interested in your definition of “how far is too far” and the practical description of “not letting”.

  13. All coming from the snowflake-generation idea that people have a “right” to not be offended by anything. Sounds preposterous on the face of it, yet this is the cultural milieu which sensible people have allowed to grow and suffocate us.

  14. Sean Wood says

    James Baldwin said the role of the artist is to tell people things they don’t want to hear. If someone doesn’t want to hear a story that makes them uncomfortable, that’s their decision. But they have no right to place their hands over other people’s eyes and ears.

    On the other hand, calling something art doesn’t make it so and certainly doesn’t necessarily justify financial support out of public funds:

    • L. D. says

      Agreed. I have no idea where the line is – art vs not art. I think that line is individually determined.

      If it is publicly funded art, having an a say on it is more than fair – ’cause public funds means I’m paying for that sh*t.

    • @ Sean Wood

      “calling something art doesn’t make it so”

      It sort of does. If someone creates an “art work” it is art. It doesn’t have to be good art and can be terrible. But this doesn’t stop it being Art.

  15. Authoritarians of any ilk prefer propaganda to reality for obvious reasons. Intellectualism, free thought, liberty, equal protection under the law, are all hard for those who can’t handle their own brains and need others to tell them what’s appropriate to think and want and find entertaining.

  16. X. Citoyen says

    Decadent politics attacking decadent art. Not sure what to call this phenomenon. Self-immolating decadence, maybe? Political ouroborism?

    At any rate, I find myself unable to squeeze out any tears. The same Frankensteins who’ve fed and profited from the monster of radical politics for decades now find themselves facing its maw. I’m reminded of the recording industry’s reaction to Napster. After feeding canned antinomianism to two generations of teenagers, the industry worked itself into high moral dudgeon when its charges showed no respect for intellectual property law: “Rebelling against society, its norms, its laws, and institutions is what being cool is all about. But copyright infringement is evil!”

    One might argue that the radicals’ victory is still bad for us all, even if the defeat was self-inflicted. But I have to wonder whether the world would be a worse place without a film about a brothel-running transsexual gangster. It’s safe to surmise that there’d be nothing edifying about the film. Yet another piece of transgressive porn to titillate the po-mo moviegoer. Perhaps this is the natural endgame for artistic movements that sacrifice art to political messaging in order to capitalize on political fashions: les bourgeois refuse to be epater, leaving only the po-mo audience, which, being the main consumer, asserts its right to have a say in the message.

    • Constantin says

      Citoyen X – I fear that by the time they start eating each other everybody else has been already digested. I would not rest my hat on the hope or expectation that their ravenous appetite for power and destruction will lack discernment to the point of self-destruction. What if it is too late and no Phoenix raises from the ashes left at the end? 🙁

      • X. Citoyen says

        Constantin: Your point is the worm in my apple. I wish I had an answer.

  17. I agree with the point of this essay. I do wish that, since Gill self-identified as male, that you had used male pronouns in reference to him. speaking as a (pro-liberty, anti-censorship, pro-IDW) trans woman, I would literally not misgender my worst enemy.

  18. donald j. tingle says

    Did the Sistine Chapel offend the Pope? Did Las Meninas offend the King?

    This sort of rhetoric is not only so far removed from reality as to be useless, it adopts the basic premise of the transgressive totalitarian left (that art is necessarily transgressive and offensive) it seems to want to criticize.

    Is that the point all along?

    On reflection, I guess this piece is an attempt to turn the left’s rule (art must be transgressive and offensive) upon itself (it should accept art it finds offensive), a tactic that never works because they just don’t care.

  19. bodydrawings says

    I am a visual artist trained in a university. I was in graduate school in the 90s during the culture wars – driven at that time by the religious right. There was censorship in my field not of the work itself – the work was already made – but of the funding behind it. This funding was in the form of NEA grants for exhibitions at museums and funding of individual artist grants. The latter were eliminated. This is a problem and it deserves a conversation but it is not a problem of the magnitude of censorship that is a result of the current (or continued) culture wars.

    This censorship takes place before the work is even created – in the form of who can say what about who in who’s voice, in the form of uni-dimensional interpretations of work, and in the demand that work not be offensive. The outcome is a field where even past work is under suspicion, current work is policed, and future work is impacted.

    • Kathy J Hix says

      bodydrawings: Declining to fund is not censorship.

      • Indie Wifey says

        I think it is, esp when funding is via gov And esp when that decision is influenced by groups organized around IDeology, which work to force others to comply at the cost of broader spectrum
        Others. In capitalistic societies $ is the ultimate gauge of praise, acceptance, and guides rejection and shut down. You can bet what seems deferential is also/actually leaning to newer more promising revenue stream

    • Charlie says

      The renaissance artists, Mozart, Holbein ( artist to Henry VIII of England) Bach all undertook commissions for patrons. Holbein created Henry VIII image.

      Perhaps patrons commissioning art produces better quality than civil servants?

  20. Indie Wifey says

    Thank you this and thanks Qiullette for Providing this forum. Nothing fascinates or angers me more than this quashing of the creative universe.

    Imo, entertainment aka Hollywood’s slavish love of bad guys that helped open the door to the Oval Office for a babe brandishing, brash bad a$$ president – and I say this as one not transfixed with trump fear or hate, but as one who is amazed by the irony.

    I call this cultural prohibition and predict like its predecessor it will have long term toxic cultural half-life ramifications

    The pigeonholing of progressive casting is breath-takiny absurd. we should laugh as we cry. It is – or was once – called Acting.

    Might as well also virtue-vet all songs to silence and strip museum walls bare, being that statutes of limitations and due process, thanks to metoo, are moot. The iconoclastic rioters are already in charge of all statuary, whether topically connected or not. Tipper Gore’s warning label (kid speak for “buy me”) crusade seems quaint by comparison.

    The Weinstein brothers are almost iconic: You know which other brothers, professors, radical creative thinkers (progressive, old def) were also attacked and even exiled from their university careers? The brothers Grimm.

    • Indie Wifey says

      (pardon all typos & syntax errors. I’m all thumbs w my thumbs & auto fill is my nemesis. I invoke this for all quillette quips going forward)

  21. bodydrawings says

    @Kathy J Hix
    It is censorship – in a way – if the art can’t be shown and seen. And museums (and university galleries which were also involved) are public places where artists get shown and art gets seen. But I understand what you mean.

    The difference I am trying to point out is that during that time there was discussion after discussion in my courses (in rural Kansas) about the merits of the work, the rights of the artists to make it, the funding issue and its impact, free speech, etc. People had a wide variety of opinions on the matter and the discussions were productive and we all learned a lot.

    I suppose it is possible that some artists in that time period were afraid to make the work they wanted to make as a result of the conflict but it would have been because they were afraid they wouldn’t receive funding or jobs – which is completely different than being afraid to make the work itself. And that, I guarantee you, is happening now.

  22. bodydrawings says

    I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you that I have a BFA and an MA in visual art. I am midwestern and my work ethic is impeccable. I am good at my craft and have a cohesive body of work that spans 30 years. It doesn’t matter how hard I work, how many hours I put in, or how many people are impacted by my work. I can’t get ahead. You (global you) could blame this on me and tell me to get a real job. Some people would blame it on capitalism. But I followed the rules and they don’t work for artists.

    • Charlie says

      You are a prophet in the wilderness and your ability shows up their inadequacy.

      My family have been artists for generations. Grand parents went into advertising, designing posters with their art training because they had no patrons. The reality is that since WW1, read Robert Hughes “Shock of the New “, art has become dominated by western Marxists and standards have declined. From 1450 , artists were trained with doctors in dissection; a practice which carried on until 1914. Artists are no longer have to draw dissected bodies and even do little technically accurate life drawing. Perspective is hardly taught at all.

      To be trendy now is to show an absence of any of the traditional skills. The idea that any modern day artists should have the understanding of perspective demonstrated by Rafael in ” The School of Athens ” is laughable.

      The fools run the asylum and laugh at the sane. You have mastered the traditional craft skills of an artist which mean you are linked to the masters of the Renaissance. The absurdity is the Russian Communists post 1917 maintained high standards of technical training for their artists and described the splash of paint on canvas as debased bourgeois rubbish.

      Since the 1960s( probably 1940s) , the art world has been dominated by mediocre art tutors who lack the fundamental technical skills producing even less able graduates. Art with no technical skill is sold to the new rich who lack any understanding of the technical skills in order that they may demonstrate they are not philistines. It is a vast money making racket for the mediocre: from the lecturers employed at university, the administrators, the construction companies building the studios, the art dealers, gallery owners, journalists. Perhaps art declined with the role of the critic from the end of the 19th century. Popes, cardinals, merchants, Kings and aristocrats did not need critics to tell them what they wanted.

      What I have been told by skilled artists , that those involved in book illustration and book cover design often show more skill than those on fine art courses. Looking at the often abysmal design of adverts, illustrations and what is called commercial art you may earn money in this field and then undertake fine art for the few people who appreciate it.

      When modern artists are trained to draw with the same skill as Rafael, (particularly those of the head and hands of the Apostles), then the Art world will have regained it’s sanity and nor longer be money making scam for the mediocre with the newly rich being fooled as in the tale of the Emperors New Clothes. Those the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad: the best comment on much of the modern art world.
      Drawing hand gestures in perfect perspective is the easiest way to test an artist’s drawing skill- look at Rafael’s Apostles.

      Perhaps you could take on an apprentice and teach them the fundamental skills of Western Art?

  23. bodydrawings says

    What constitutes good or real art and where it comes from is a complicated and ongoing conversation and the comments section of this particular article is probably not the place for it. But universities should be and used to be. Spaces that care about art and artists outside the academy should be. Instead, what I am experiencing and witnessing as an artist is a dictating of what work is acceptable according to the principals set forth by activists.

  24. bodydrawings says

    Thank you for the support and suggestions that you expressed through your comments. I have a feeling even if we disagreed about some of the points and principals involved in this topic the conversation would be civil and productive. This is most heartening.

  25. Charlie says

    The Greeks realised beauty was a result of balance, symmetry, proportion, self control and grace. Activists are mostly ignorant of such matters or even despise them.

    In engineering what looks good usually works well- St Paul’s London, The Spitfire, E-Type Jaguar, Severn Bridge by Gilbert Giles, etc, etc . Computers do not change the aesthetically challenged into Michelangelo ; all they allow is the production of ugliness more quickly and on a greater scale.

    Perhaps contact Pininfarina

    The Italians respect good design.

    The only challenge actually is for artists is to produce greater work than the Masters: is this possible? Will anyone ever draw better than Rafael or sculpt better than Michelangelo or paint better than Leonardo or Caravaggio? People called Michelangelo the Divine One. When we see his work are we seeing The Divine?

  26. Pingback: “Otherwise, the goal of art will be to placate ideological critics,… | Dr. Roy Schestowitz (罗伊)

  27. Charlie says

    Pingback. Did Michelangelo or Holbein have ideological critics? Critics may have appeared in the end of 18h century and ideological ones at the end of the 19th century. What is the points of critics?

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