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Co-Founder of Freedom in the Arts, Rosie Kay, thinks the arts in the UK have strayed into a culture of intolerance, which has led to cancellation and a climate of self-censorship that has to be addressed. 

Image of three faces with mouths taped closed

Jorm Sangsorn/iStock

There is a cultural revolution in the arts that we need to talk about. We’ve got issues. 

There is a shifting set of ideological beliefs that anyone working in the arts must appear to adhere to and be careful to never dare to question. Dogmatic theories surround new subject matter, which sees the articulation of Martin Luther King's ‘colour blind’ stance as racist, the fact that humans cannot change sex as transphobic, and ‘privilege’ needs to be rebalanced as measured by a system of oppression measures that include immutable factors. 

If you step outside this set of dogmas, you could be targeted; examples will be made. A few brave souls have spoken out, or been outed as ‘heretics’, and while this has helped create a small, mostly anonymous pushback in the arts, public denouncements have served as an example and deterrent to all.

This is the chilly, censorious atmosphere Denise Fahmy and I encountered, first personally, and then as a new support organisation for artists. We set up Freedom in the Arts (FITA) last year with three key aims: to protect all artists; to protect freedom of expression; and to help arts organisations navigate this difficult time and support them to uphold their core values of freedom and impartiality.

Personal cancellations

The background to these personal cancellations, each one a personal tragedy, has been an unprecedented difficult time for the arts. Post Covid, most arts organisations have endured significant financial challenges, staffing issues, shrinking profit margins and either non-returning audiences, or audiences with radically changed social habits. 

This new risky economic reality has strained what was once the warm collaborative relationship between partners, venues and artists, not helped by a generation of ‘artist activists’ pursuing politics in the workplace rather than artistic excellence.

In the face of this new arts landscape, funders and stakeholders have first stalled, seemingly paralysed by the risk of staff acrimony or an online pile-on, and then muddied the waters with a complex new reputational risk register.  

Leaked Police Scotland staff guidance regarding the new Hate Crime Act used our sector, the example of a performing comedian or actor, as potential instances of inciting hate, a crime now liable to up to seven years in prison. 

On top of this, a government seemingly not quite at the controls, and without any kind of obvious understanding of the arts sector, has entrenched the arts in a widening political divide across the country.

Future no-go areas

No wonder the arts is not the place of playful curiosity, buoyant exploration, or experimental and fruitful new directions that I have experienced in my career in more confident and creative times.

Producers and programmers of new work need to be mindful of the current and possibly future no-go areas. Where once it was celebrated if an artist such as Lloyd Newson of DV8 explored homophobia in Islam, iconoclasm is harder to find today. 

Sex and gender? Certainly a no. Trans activists could target any production by a woman who holds or expresses gender critical beliefs. Be very careful around race or disability, cultural appropriation versus homage is tricky, climate change is possibly welcome (but certainly no climate deniers) and Brexit is one viewpoint only. The problem for next year’s programme is who knows where the next verboten subject will come from?

At FITA we have been busy meeting creatives, bringing diverse artists and art leaders together and discussing the issues in a Chatham House-style forum, with the promise that no one will be cancelled and all viewpoints are welcome. We have built relationships in the media, politics and the wider arts networks. Where we can, we contribute to the debate around artistic freedom in the press.

What needs to be done? 

We need to acknowledge that the arts in the UK has strayed into intolerance. This has led to cancellation and an insidious climate of self-censorship. At FITA we have so many case studies of artists’ cancellations across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we could write the playbook. 

The effect on these individuals is huge. These people have often dedicated their lives to their craft and have little wealth to fall back on. The loss of livelihood threatens family security, while an attacked reputation can be devastating, especially for beliefs that may be integral to the artist’s work.

If artists are silenced, we risk losing a generation of talent, as well as deterring new, unique voices from joining the profession. We must avoid realising a conformist arts sector, where beliefs may be policed by colleagues or bureaucracies. To reflect the breadth of artistic talent in the UK, FITA aims to a support the arts to properly commit to artistic freedom with the mechanisms and confidence to actively protect it.

We need to nurture excellence, which takes time and effort, and look for more than just the Instagram slogan of the week. We can respect our artistic history while responding to the present. Finally, could we please stop posturing, stop pretending, stop being empathic and earnest and try instead to embody values of discipline, integrity and impartiality. 

Instead of safe spaces, let us now have brave spaces.

Rosie Kay is Co-Founder of Freedom in the Arts.

You can sign FITA's open letter here.

Link to Author(s): 
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Arts Professional welcomes readers' opinions. Please ensure your comments observe our policy.


This article reads as: 1. Trans people are not humans as we know them - how can we undermine them? 2. We have to get OUR opinions on biological sex announced in the arts and culture industry at every opportunity because vagina's are under threat and everyone needs to know this all the time - shout shout 3. oh - what do you mean we can't shout about biological sex all the time in arts spaces where everyone is supposedly welcome? 4. we are cancelled - oh why are we cancelled - trans people are cancelling us - wail wail If you LITERALLY just got on with your lives and let trans people get on with their lives there would be no issues. YOU are the issue. YOU create this. Shut up, get on with doing great work (if you even ever did any?) and have a good feel of your vagina - it is still there and NO ONE cares about it or wants to take it away from you.

A breath-takingly incoherent take from nowords here, but when you boil away the insults and the ranting the comment is best summed up in the phrase 'shut up.' Artists should never feel they have to be quiet.

well it depends on what your 'cause' and work is. You are making your life's work putting tans people under threat of discrimination and death by banging on about biological sex at any given opportunity to anyone who will join the JKR cult - you have to question why/if is this a life or death situation for you and WHY are you so compelled to put a tiny minority in so much danger. What legacy are you leaving? What difference does your 'art' make? Who benefits? Trans people are murdered, feel deeply unsafe and threatened. Please read Lauren's article on this Platform - which is deeply coherent LOL - yes I am justly angry and not as coherent. Go and see Emma Rice's Blue Beard - her time spent making work about the REAL dangers to women is incredible and maybe your 'artistic' focus could shift to something that really does make a positive difference to the world. There is a tiny few people in the UK who are trans/non-binary and making it your lives work to erase them by so-called free speech is ludicrous and deeply damaging.

Just to be clear, my previous reply of “hear hear, well said” was to Frankafka for her “very revealing” comment! 100% agree with that.

The puerile tone of this comment just about sums up what we are dealing with here. Bitter entitled misogynous narcissistic men who have no talent and who say LITERALLY a lot. They are best ignored. Personally, I think this comment crosses the line, however, in its 'suggestion' about what Rosie should 'feel'.

Thank you, Rosie, for this thoughtful piece and the excellent work you and Denise are doing. There are so many who support you.

Great article. This is exactly what is happening in the arts. The usual suspects no doubt will be along shortly to whine ‘transphobia’ but those of us with GC beliefs actually want better outcomes for people with ‘gender dysphoria’. The arts should be leading the way in exposing the absurdities of this ideology, but given the extent of capture and cancellation, this is only now gaining momentum.

Absolutely this. Hopefully more people will feel able to speak up now the Cass Report has been published. We are sick of being silenced.

Important and timely piece. The arts and artists should be free to say what they like and say it wherever they can. If you're in favour of shutting down someone's right to freely create, their right to express themselves, their right to challenge prevailing attitudes and ideologies, then you've no business being in the arts at all.

I know a writer who had a book deal cancelled and an actor who keeps losing work because they hold there are 2 sexes and women are oppressed on the basis of sex, not gender. People in the arts, media and academia are keeping quiet because the alternative is losing their jobs. There are many in the film industry with GC beliefs but they never voice them because they will not get hired. These are industries which depend on 'relationships' and 'networks' - it is almost impossible to apply the EA and employment law in this sector. Thank you Rosie and Denise for being brave enough to stand up and support us. I wish I was braver.

Rosie Kay is a dancer not a writer but, like her dancing, her writing comes from the heart and is grounded in her personal experiences. This is a hugely thoughtful article. It's a shame that there is more than just a perception of intolerance in the Arts, and she should be praised for taking a stand to redress the balance.

This is a good and balanced article..it is vital that artists are able to express themselves freely. Having lived and worked in communist countries, I understand how vital that freedom is. (Tolerance only seems to be demanded in one direction on the trans issue - and the hyperbole and nonsense that comes with any discussion on the issue can be seen in the first response...which makes it even MORE important that ideas are challenged!)

We have supported artists and their freedom to free expression since 2009. When we started people could understand why, why in London. We had first venue cancellation and appropriation of gallery fee taken unlawfully from us by the owner under the pretence of security concerns in 2013. We survived the terror attack in Copenhagen in 2015. We have been on the frontline for 15 years. This year we are celebrating freedom of expression in Brooklyn, New York! We congratulate Rosie for starting this initiative and we urge her not to give up. Keep going! Creativity, love, friendship, truth and joy awlays wins!

At present the dogma that deconstruction and linear forms of activisms (many of which are dully, overtly misogynist and/or hypersexualised) are the only ‘real’ arts does seem to dominate funding, discourse, and fashionable zeitgeist. All very phallocentric, louche, and both boring and unsavoury. Audiences are quietly absenting themselves, or mocking absurd signage, or writing quite serious letters to arts bodies. Artists should be allowed to be those things of course. But making spaces and funding again for all the other artists *building* rapport or communication with creativity and engagement with their media needs to be brought back into the public arena. It is much easier to tear down, to deconstruct, than it is to build up, to make good. We don’t call deconstructing a hospital with a missile in Mariupol a work of art, but a built hospital there, or anywhere, absolutely can be. Rosie’s essay is a valuable contribution to the making-good process. Yes, it’s also a warning: we do need to conserve and grow the means by which we build and repair. All artists, regardless of politics, are the materials we need. The neo-orthodoxies deserve the same process of critique and deconstruction as the old orthodoxies. There is no sacred caste of artist or of artistic attempt. I hope ACE and other funders listen to Rosie and her colleagues. Britain’s artists and audiences deserve this broader conversation.

Apart from the overall principle that one would imagine and hope that artists would decry what is effectively censorship of any artist, it is worth looking at the particulars of what has been condemned/deplatformed. Claudia Clare for work that references women’s experience of violence. Rosie Kay dared to say that biological sex is relevant in some aspects of dance. I can’t remember the particulars of why Jess de Wahl’s embroidery was deemed unacceptable by the RA shop but her work doesn’t look hateful to me. Many will not have seen the details precisely because of the hold of #NoDebate and the assumption that if someone is being condemned for being hateful/ ‘trans phobic’ it must be true they are.

The arts and by that I mean comedy writers, comedians, actresses, actors, musicians, dancers, radio DJ's etc should be leading the way in exposing just how bonkers this ideology is and the harm it has done and continues to do. It's no surprise that those cancelled are mostly women, which tells you a lot about this movement. To be cancelled because some blue haired student feels unsafe about words that have yet to be spoke, that NO Debate has become so powerful a term, shows who really are the cowards. To not stand beside those who have been cancelled for telling the truth, there are two sexes, men can't become women, nor women - men, should not be controversial. What should be controversial is the people who believe you can swap sexes and who don't see any harm in adult males accessing women only spaces as well as the seeking to dismantle the safe guarding that has been built to protect children. Drag queens have no place telling story's to children, that is not art. There is no such word as transphobic, the people who use these terms are the ones who should be cancelled and a much closer look at their activities both online and off. My thinking is the ones who shout the loudest are the ones with something to hide. It's certainly not Rosie & Co.

Thanks for publishing this excellent article. Remember when singer Roisin Murphy got piled on for saying puberty blockers were 'desolate'?' The BBC’s radio station 6 Music removed a five-hour celebration of Murphy’s music from its schedule, and like so many others she was forced to apologise. Those of us working in children's books still feel we cannot speak out, as the industry appears captured. Just why so many people don't mind lying to children when it should be our duty to tell the truth astonishes me. As for the insulting comments above about those of us with gender critical views just 'getting on with our lives', pause for a moment and realise that's exactly what we did, for decades. Until we were instructed to lie.

Great article, thank you Rosie for having the strength to speak up. The Arts are indeed truly lost when a ‘minority’ has so much clout - on casting decisions, funding, language, basically any actual choice made in the Arts (theatre in particular) resulting in the silencing of women, or anyone who doesn’t agree. This isn’t about a vulnerable minority any more this is about an ideology that has crept into and is infiltrating EVERYTHING. Don’t be fooled, this is NOT a harmless minority this is something much more sinister - freedom of speech is at risk and what the hell are the Arts about if not a vehicle to challenge and question what is happening in the world? Arts that cancel and silence betray the essence of what Art is. If you don’t agree with this, make art to challenge it, don’t silence.

Thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt piece. The hyperbolic first comment- it’s hard to believe the author read the piece- shows the aggression of activists- ‘shut up’, really? I’m off to join FITA- a much needed organisation.

Most of the censorship and self-censorship happens well behind the scenes and well before performances, events, exhibitions are ever staged. I know that were the number to be documented and exposed, it would shock thoughtful people who value freedom of expression. Many artists who have faced this pressure to change their work, to say something different, to avoid certain topics and leave certain perspectives unexplored will never go public with what has happened for fear of being labelled as 'controversial' or a 'phobe' of some kind. This label is ascribed by others, often with malevolent intent and, when left unchallenged, is the direct opposite of the individual freedom required for art to flourish. Rosie Kay and Denise Fahmy are exemplary women who have braved the wrath of the censorious on behalf of all artists and audiences. We should salute them, but more importantly, emulate them.

Rosie Kay and Denise Fahmy should be not just saluted but emulated for standing up for freedom of expression in the arts. They have really pulled back the curtain (apologies) to reveal the insidiously destructive attempts to silence artists, writers and performers. Not only that, they have supported those who wish to speak up and defend the artistic space from those who would politicise it to death. Thank you Rosie for such an insightful article and to Freedom in the Arts for the work you do.

Thanks for all your work. The arts council is out of control with authoritarian pseudo intellectualism.

Trans people have always existed and will always exist. Why does their flourishing trigger you so much? Amazing how theses bigots who cry about losing their freedom of speech always seem to get plenty of column space and airtime in traditional media. I wonder of any of these feminists have spoken about the plight of women and children in Gaza? Or is it only white women’s lives that matter?