‘Passion for freedom‘ is now holding its fourth exhibition at the Unit 24 Gallery just behind Tate Modern. The show is a visible and occasionally dazzling manifestation of an often submerged movement in western liberalism that regards the liberal-left mainstream with something close to disgust.
They – we – find the indulgence of radical Islam as a betrayal of the best of the liberal tradition. We are equally repelled by multi-cultural orthodoxy, which puts the interest of a ‘community’ before the interests of the individual, particularly when the individual is a woman. The magnificent Maryam Namazie, One Law for All’s Spokesperson, and a woman you will rarely hear on the BBC, explained the show’s purpose. ‘Real change comes about by challenging and dissenting not by appeasement and silence. It comes about by breaking taboos and pushing aside that which is deemed sacred and art is such an important way of doing this. As Ai Wei Wei says, “if we don’t push, nothing changes”.’
As in previous years, the organisers tempted artists to submit by restating their core principles.
1. Create space for artists and writers who discuss subjects omitted in politically correct circles.
2. Invite people to open and uninhibited discussion. Nothing is more important than critically informed debate. That’s how society has advanced through the ages.
3. Gather like-minded people creating a network of actively engaged citizens who hold high the value of individual’s freedom
I have written at length on these themes, and subscribe to all of the above. I would certainly have gone along as a visitor. But this year, the organisers invited me to be one of the judges, and raised several difficulties as they did it.
I wondered by what right I judged artists. I am not an artist. Nor am I an art critic. I was there because of my last book was on censorship. I could talk about the politics of oppression all night, but what about the quality of the art. Unearned authority confers unwarranted self-confidence. I was a judge, and therefore, my opinion mattered. At the first judges’ meeting I nervously named half a dozen works I admired. Instead of laughing at me, the other judges nodded and wrote them down. After that, I passed sentences without a moment’s doubt.
My second difficulty was that I have come to believe that you cannot judge art on political grounds. Just because you share an artist’s sentiments does not mean you should admire his or her work. I am very uncomfortable with the Sir David Hare school of drama where the author confirms the audience’s prejudices and the audience applauds the author for bravely telling them that they are right in all things.
For instance, I agree with the sentiments behind this work at Unit 24 by Sarah Maple. If I had my way I would have it on the wall of everyone who says the world should leave Syria alone.
But doubtless an isolationist would glance at it, and walk away. Unfortunately the notion that you can judge work solely on its artistic merits is easier to hold in theory than in practice.
Look at these two paintings by Hangama Amiri
If I tell you Amiri is an Afghan-Canadian who painted the women after returning to Kabul, does that make a difference? When you look at them again, you cannot help but know that the artist understands the plight of women facing one of the most murderously misogynistic forces on the planet, and perhaps feel the need to offer her solidarity overwhelming all other emotions.
Other works in the exhibition had been banned elsewhere. Galleries in Holland refused to show Johann Van der Dong’s PO Box to Allah. It mentioned Allah’s name and that was enough to send them into a funk about violent reprisals.
As it was, we awarded prizes to three works. Third prize went to Fiona Dent’s subtle image of a wounded and silenced woman, which is probably as close as you can come to representing female genital mutilation without being arrested.
The choice for first prize was between Ferri Farahmandi’s haunting ceramic statue of a bandaged woman
And the brilliant young Cuban artist Osy Avila Milian’s enigmatic portrait of a young man absorbed in his iPhone, while the free birds fly by.
The consensus by a whisker was that while Farahmandi’s work made better politics, Milian’s was better art. But we were probably wrong. Go and judge for yourself