2021 comes with its particular cultural framework, following one very tumultuous 2020. It’s a year in which we’re still bound to our homes, in which culture is less accessible in person and increasingly more accessible online, a framework in which we have more time on our hands than ever and more willingness to engage politically. It is also the year when the term “cancel culture” has started being an intrinsic part of the art discourse vocabulary. As with most concepts that disperse to the masses the origins of the concept seem murky. One day we all simply just knew what “cancel culture” meant, or assumed we knew by deducing it from those that made themselves the victims of it.
It would be a shame though to jump to conclusions. For the sake of understanding cultural dynamics, it is worth digging a bit deeper into the origins of “cancel culture” to get at what it truly stands for, and also the play of power that it reveals. I’ll then use this knowledge to bring it a bit closer to home and define the impact that such a term can have on local Dutch art discourse in light of one incident in particular: the ongoing JA scandal. And here I’m less interested in the case itself, and more interested in the discourse that it gave birth to via the online.
Though it seems that the first time you’ve heard of it is in 2020, the term 'cancel culture’ doesn’t originate then, but it can be traced back to the mid-2010s. Its origins can be found via Black Twitter or more specifically online queer communities of color which form a meta-network of culturally linked communities online.
The dreaded term itself (‘cancel culture’)
I’ll dive right in. I’ll start by defining the term. To ‘cancel’ can mean to stop giving support to a person and to be critical of their actions, and this support is usually denied from the side of an audience. ‘Cancelling' can be done by ‘boycotting’ - refusing to buy someone’s books, see someone’s movies, engage with someone’s art, and so on. It can also take the form of addressing an institution that displays/promotes the work of someone whose actions one is critical of, which is a form of ‘de-platforming’. But the platform is not taken away by the ones ‘canceling’, usually the institution that gives a platform is petitioned to stop giving said platform.
Though it seems that the first time you’ve heard of it is in 2020, the term 'cancel culture’ doesn’t originate then, but it can be traced back to the mid-2010s. Its origins can be found via Black Twitter or more specifically online queer communities of color which form a meta-network of culturally linked communities online. From there the term can be further found in connection to the #metoo movement, which initially took center stage in discussions in 2017. Via these signifiers, it can be defined as an intersectional online based tool of fourth-wave feminism.
‘Cancelling' is made bottom-up. The ones that ‘cancel’ use social media platforms (Twitter, later on, Instagram, Facebook, etc.), as well as financial pressure (“don’t buy their product!”), and they do this with the stated intent of going against sexism, racism, violence against women, anti-trans discourse, fascism, and to favor a diverse and inclusive, and more leveled playing field in sectors such as print media, television, the arts, and so on. For the ones “cancelling” there’s no debating racism, sexism, discrimination based on gender identity or country of origin, a position which is in itself progressive.
Then why do I call it the dreaded term?
Well, it seems what ‘cancel culture’ is going against, in the words of the ones criticizing it, is “freedom of speech” and “fruitful debate”, through the means of “moral consumerism”. Bas Heijne beautifully illustrates his own moral panic about the term in the piece “In de huidige ratingcultuur is de klant koning, rechter en beul“ published in the NRC Handelsblad, I’ll quote him at length:
“The problem with moral consumerism is not really that so much is cancelled, but that the constant judgments get in the way of any fruitful debate. That is why the excuses and knee-jerk reactions seem so unreal and calculated: they are about money and survival, not about awareness.
How do you end this culture of clashing judgments and moral blackmail? Not easy, because our urge to wipe out, boycott, and cancel, I think, does not stem so much from our desire for a better world, however much I would like to believe that. Rather, it stems from spoiled consumerism driven by, yes, capitalism, which wants to settle moral issues with economic coercion and enforce awareness from a distance, through dismissal or through the annual accounts. As long as this is not recognized, a real, vital culture of debate is a long way off.”
I’ll get to why I disagree with Bas Heijne’s statements later, but I am appreciative of him clearly stating the framework in which the term ‘cancel culture’ operates.
What does any of this have to do with the Dutch art scene?
‘Cancel culture’ has its origins in US-based discourse, but due to its online dissemination as a strategy, it has easily been co-opted in scandals taking place all across the world. Which brings us to the Netherlands. How has the Dutch art scene dealt with the concept of ‘cancel culture’?
Well, up until 2020, the Dutch cultural field highlighted the need for “freedom of speech” above all else.
But this idea seems to have gone out the window following a series of scandals which ranged from misogyny in the skate park (the case of Erik Kessels, BredaPhoto and We are not a Playground), to abuse in art schools (the Julian Andeweg story), to toxic work environments (the case of the quitting Perdu curators documented by Cultural Workers Unite) and the list goes on. All of these scandals came out at the tail-end of 2020, and they are still very much raw in the local imagination. The one particularity of all these cases? They all took place to various degrees within the online, even if some were either before or later also framed by traditional media (newspapers, art magazines, documentaries).
It’s not that the art field just discovered criticality in 2020. But it seemed for the first time that a different way of managing trauma, abuse, and toxicity, had risen to the surface. And it’s main weapon was the astute handling of social media by a new generation of voices, which seemed to have appropriated the tools of ‘cancel culture’ from the US and applied the same mechanisms in the Dutch art scene.
The case of JA is quite specific. What has finally happened in light of the revelations of the NRC article with documented his 14 years of transgressions, abuse and violence, is the “cancelling” of the artist in the form of: demanding that he no longer be given shows, that his work no longer be displayed and also taken out of collections, that his gallery no longer represent him, and media no longer sing his praises. Framed within the context of “cancel culture” this is an instance of de-platforming and also petitioning to boycott the purchasing of his art by collectors, museums and the funding of his practice by funding institutions.
This is a very particular case to consider since due to the nature of his output: limited edition art objects, the boycotting cannot happen directly, since those that have been survivors of JA and those appalled by his behavior most likely cannot afford to buy his work.
What happens when the new and ever more online Dutch art world experiences a scandal?
There was an implicit understanding of the unstable nature of how information travels online, as most statements that were posted at the time, as commentary to the article, within the Story format of Instagram, tended to be screenshot-ed by many and then reposted, further amplifying the outrage. This is what in internet slang is called “receipts” or proof of something.
The original news broke in a Dutch newspaper of national significance NRC Handelsblad. The news was not directly available, but posted behind a paywall.
What can be observed are a few characteristics of how online discourse around the scandal was shaped:
Because of the enormity of the scandal and its very nature, a lot of emotionally invested actors, willing to break paywalls, apply automated means of translation and use their own personal archiving means (Dropbox accounts) in order to pass the article further were needed to share the article.
The instance of online sharing happened fast. Within a few hours of the article breaking, it was re-shared at length.
It wasn’t just the original article that was re-shared, opinions on it were also re-shared with the same speed. The practice could be likened to one real life tactic that was employed during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, that of the human microphone, “a means for delivering a speech to a large group of people, wherein persons gathered around the speaker repeat what the speaker says, thus "amplifying" the voice of the speaker without the need for amplification equipment”.
There was an implicit understanding of the unstable nature of how information travels online, as most statements that were posted at the time, as commentary to the article, within the Story format of Instagram, tended to be screenshot-ed by many and then reposted, further amplifying the outrage. This is what in internet slang is called “receipts” or proof of something. Since users understand that if they don’t screenshot quick the information might vanish.
This meant also that the archiving of the scandal was done non-hierarchically, and bridges were built in real-time between online acquaintances in solidarity.
In the aftermath, not much of what was saved was placed online, there is no definite archive of the scandal as it happened online, but the shared opinions did create new human bonds that happened behind the scenes.
Only one living archive of the scandal and its opinions exists under a hashtag on Instagram: #juliaanandeweg, which was created with a double function: to boycott the artist’s official online promotion, and to warn others of his transgressions.
Is the field of debate in trouble?
It’s naive to assume that the material in question in both cases would just disappear, given that one of the tendencies of online controversies is screenshot-ing and saving media when one is emotionally invested.
There was a great deal of attention given to how “freedom of speech” and the portrayal of the transgressive artist “bad boy” would be maintained online. Bas Heijne, the one I quoted above, chimed in on the concept of “freedom of speech”, even if he wasn’t directly speaking of the JA case. He worried about: “enforce awareness from a distance”.
And here, one example is how Mister Motley came under fire for putting offline a recording of an interview with JA, which predated the revelations about him, and which focused on his artistic persona. The deleting of the interview lead to a public statement from Mister Motley’s editor, Lieneke Hulshof, in November 2020, and a commitment to counter this move with further articles on related topics. The justification at the time:
“I feel it is necessary to remove an interview with an artist suspected of rapes, many threats, stalking, and assaults. Within hours, the interview became a sensation tool on websites like Geenstijl because they wanted to listen to someone suspected of many rapes. People wanted to see how he explains his artistic practice when it shouldn't be about that right now. Our interview thus took on a whole new purpose and we no longer had any control over the context in which it was shared.”
In this instance, the prestige granting institution of Mister Motley decided to de-platform the artist.
Another wave of online indignation happened when an article posted on West Den Haag and written by Tara Lewis was taken down after it was framed as victim-blaming.
The statement from West mentioned:
“After an extensive conversation following an appropriate complaint, West has decided to remove this article. We would like to affirm that it was neither the intention of the author nor that of the editors to cause anyone harm. West rejects any form of violence. We would like to offer our sincere apologies to anyone who nevertheless experienced this article in this way. We will be happy to meet with anyone who would like to discuss this matter further in person.”
In this instance, at the request of the audience, West decided to de-platform the artist.
It’s naive to assume that the material in question in both cases would just disappear, given that one of the tendencies of online controversies is screenshot-ing and saving media when one is emotionally invested. So it’s safe to assume that the very ones that asked for the material to be taken down still have stored copies of it. But what the act of petitioning for something to be taken down from an authoritative source of information has done is to stop giving authority to the transgressive figure of the “bad boy” currently under investigation.
What these initiatives do is chip away at the importance of this particular traditionally promoted artist whose image was further propped up by magazines, tv shows, podcasts, institutions, and so forth.
It would also be foolish to think that this deprives the artist of a platform overall. At this moment JA does still have access to the same social media platforms as the ones that have contested his status.
What “cancellation” does is simply demystify the artist and level the playing field. As a reminder that: "Social media allows hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of everyday people to leverage networked collectivity and a sense of immediacy to demand accountability from a range of powerful figures, including individuals and institutions." (from DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture”Meredith D. ClarkUniversity of Virginia, USA)
The “bad boy” is under investigation, long live the online anonymous!
The scandal triggered by the exposure of JA as an abuser was also generative, it created resources.
I’d like to mention three such instances of grassroots initiatives that took the case further and used social media as a primary tool of dissemination. They too act as “freedom of speech”, but they are not glorified as such.
Since the informal distributed online couldn’t prevent the abuse documented about JA, they could though point to others that had crossed boundaries in hopes of preventing future disasters, and they did this through the means of “cancelling” or rather “calling out” other individuals that had crossed boundaries of a sexual, xenophobic, and racist nature.
There was a follow-up to the article on NRC Handelsblad in the form of a page entitled CallOutDutchArtInstitutions, created on Instagram, and later on dissected through the lens of the media. The page was created almost instantly after the article about JA was published in November 2020. The page used to reside at: https://www.instagram.com/calloutdutchartinstitutions/, but is no longer accessible. The page attracted tens of anonymous submissions, and it also didn’t manage to post them all before, a few days into being active, its creators decided to put a stop to it, most likely overwhelmed by the wealth of material they were showered with and also under legal threat.
Another instance of newly created and anonymously propelled online resource is art.goss. It’s first post, published mid November 2020, references @calloutdutchartinstitutions, and it situates itself on a legacy of female resistance:
"In the wake of @calloutdutchartinstitutions and the accounts that have sprung from it, we are a collective of womxn gossips —revitalizing its other long lost meaning of ‘female friendship’— that want to provide a platform for high effort art goss."
The page can still be found at https://www.instagram.com/art.goss/, and since its inception has worked to educate, inform, and dish out gossip on topics which range from benevolent misogyny, to slander, cancel culture and racism.
And the ultimate bottom-up tool of resistance is the lecture that was crafted by Silvia Gardini, a student at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München, with a background in legal studies, that decided to offer her knowledge to a larger audience in the form of a live presentation on the legal implications of the JA case. The lecture was entitled “Despite allegations” and it has already aired twice, for a Dutch and German audience, educating an entire art school generation on how the legal system treats accusations of abuse, rape, and transgressions.
What these initiatives have in common is their generosity, their plea for accountability and transparency of institutions, and their honest attempts to tackle the failings of institutional structures. In other words, while the ones that still believe in the traditional and toxic status building of the artist were busy defending “freedom of speech” and the artist’s persona, the savvy social media anonymous got to work in not just demanding accountability, but also building alternative structures. The balance of power shifted thanks to them and with the help of social media.
As Meredith D. Clark brilliantly argues in DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture”: “The absence of deliberation in chastising bad actors, misconstrued as the outcome of cancel culture, is a fault of the elites’ inability to adequately conceive of the impact social media connectivity has for shifting the power dynamics of the public sphere in the digital age."
What the real question is in all this is, how long will it last?
And furthermore will these lessons of the online be properly preserved for future generations, or will each new generation need to reinvent its tools of resistance once again?
I’d like to bring us back to Bas Heijne. He asked:
“How do you end this culture of clashing judgments and moral blackmail? Not easy, because our urge to wipe out, boycott, and cancel, I think, does not stem so much from our desire for a better world, however much I would like to believe that. Rather, it stems from a spoiled consumerism driven by, yes, capitalism, which wants to settle moral issues with economic coercion and enforce awareness from a distance, through dismissal or through the annual accounts.”
He seems, in his quote, to not believe in the honest intentions of the ones arguing against sexism, racism, violence, anti-trans discourse, xenophobia and so forth. But this skepticism might actually say more about his beliefs, and the failures of his generation, than it does about the ones that advocate for a more level and inclusive field of discourse at present.
I mentioned initially that Heijne accurately stated the framework in which the term ‘cancel culture’ operates, and what I mean by that is that it operates within the confines of capitalism: more precisely as a last-ditch effort, usually consumerist in nature, on behalf of a more inclusive playing field. This is by no means ideal. But it does go to show that the only way one can advocate for progressive values under the current economic system is with the same tools the economic system provides.
So how does one end “clashing judgements and moral blackmail?”.
The solution exists, though I don't think it's that simple to accept for those that criticize the practice of so-called “cancel culture”: redistribute power. And this can happen through allowing access, not hoarding visibility, or functions, or status, and, in the case of the art field, valuing practices that might not be built up through traditional means of gallery representation, magazine mystification, and overall institutional massaging, but that are built with a solid moral backbone instead.
Until that happens, it will be inevitable that the practice of “cancelling” will continue to shake outdated principles out of existence, yes, also through economic pressure, in order to advocate for a more inclusive sector. Because a true field of debate needs to also include the voices of the ones that don’t have access to publish their ideas in a nationally distributed magazine, those that might see their online histories wiped out, but replaced by bonds of solidarity, those that do have clear and inclusive ideas that travel from person to person, amplifying their strength as they allow us to believe that another art world is possible.