Is This the Moment ‘Cancel Culture’ Comes for the YBAs?

Damien Hirst, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, 1991. Photo courtesy Thomas Hawk (Flickr, Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0)

How online conspiracy theorists are drawing a line from Balenciaga’s bondage-themed photoshoot to the art of the Chapman Brothers

Can you cancel the Chapman Brothers? Towards the end of last year, we were treated to the spectacle of certain conspiracy-minded social-media influencers attempting just that, as part of the fallout from the controversy surrounding Balenciaga’s now notorious bondage-themed child photoshoot.

The Chapmans’ work has been sold for years via Christie’s, which is owned by Groupe Artémis, the holding company for the investments of François-Henri Pinault, the multibillionaire husband of Salma Hayek. Pinault also happens to be CEO and chairman of Kering, the multinational corporation (founded by his father) specialising in luxury goods, whose brands include Balenciaga.

Many online rightwing conspiracy theories (think Pizzagate, QAnon) circulate around the theory that the world’s (liberal) elites are a) all secretly paedophiles, and b) all mocking us by hiding this fact in plain sight. And now look. Christie’s auction catalogues tell us everything we need to know. Not only are they dressing up teddy bears in bondage gear. Those very same people are selling each other these weird dolls with adult genitalia glued to their heads! ‘The CEO of Balenciaga’s parent company sells sickening child sex mannequins,’ the truthers write. ‘Let’s make him viral.’

But of course. When the Balenciaga scandal broke, both brand and creators were extremely contrite: amidst condemnation from the likes of Kim Kardashian, both photographer Gabriele Galimberti and Balenciaga creative director Demna apologised and distanced themselves from it. By contrast, as far as I know, the only meaningful response anyone has made to the attempt to cancel the Chapmans is just to point out that, well, this is the Chapmans. Yes, they’ve spent decades making this Brass Eye paedophile special-ass artwork, and yes, you probably don’t like it. It’s weird, it’s crass, it’s ugly. It’s unsettling, but not in a way that seems to open up a space where anything new or beautiful can emerge. But, you know. That’s just the sort of Nathan Barley shit we’re dealing with here. You not liking it is mostly the point.

Work by the Chapman Brothers. Photo courtesy RJ (Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

No doubt whoever was responsible for the Balenciaga shoot was trying for something similar, too: they wanted to provoke. But the difference is that, ultimately, their provocations were bankrolled by their paymasters because they thought it might help sell bags and shoes. At some stage in the process, it appeared to make commercial sense for the brand to associate itself with provocative art. When it turned out that it probably didn’t, the ripcord was pulled pretty quickly: celebrities and consumers had made it clear that this would make it less likely for them to endorse, wear and buy Balenciaga products, not more (that’s not of course to say that apologising has actually worked).

Whereas the Chapmans are solely artists, who make something that is simply art, and not also representative of a brand. Art, yes, is big business – as the prices that artists like the Chapmans command at auction affirm (and as the YBAs were always distinguished by embracing). But this time, it’s not big business because you have to sell a lot of it: it’s big business because certain very wealthy individuals will pay lots for small amounts of it. When what materially matters is their view of your art, you are likely – as an artist – to approach something close to the autonomy that art has long liked to pretend that it possesses: you will not be beholden, morally or however else, to the standards imposed upon you by consumers.

And so: no, you probably can’t cancel the Chapmans. Maybe their collectors could, but they’re also the people least likely to: since any such ‘cancellation’ would negatively impact their investment. If you own a Jake and Dinos, you are incentivised to continue to pretend that it is, if not within the bounds of acceptable good taste (because it intentionally isn’t), then at least, probably because of that, good.

This is just what it means to exist in a world whose order is dictated by the market. People often like to pretend we live in an age characterised by an attitude of febrile moralism. But really when a public figure gets ‘cancelled’, what’s talking is not morality: it’s money. This is a big part of what #MeToo was really about: movie studios realised that ‘open secrets’ about the behaviour of people like Harvey Weinstein might now stop people from paying to see their films.

Fair use.

Or perhaps it is most accurate to say that morality is able to speak here, but only through the market. A rightwing influencer cannot really be held to account, morally speaking, from the left: because the left do not comprise their subscriber base (of course, this does not stop them from being held to account legally, for instance by the Romanian police). Groups (for instance, ‘the online left’) might be unified to a certain extent by a shared set of convictions. But their various (usually self-appointed) spokespeople are accountable to their audience only because this is how they make their money. Every now and then, a leftist writer will ‘heel turn’ their way into writing for rightwing publications, upset at the ‘censorious left’. But all they’ve really done is trade in one set of standards to be held to account against for some other one.

All of which is, in a way, proof that the conspiracy really was hiding in plain sight all along. The Pizzagate types realised that the auction house and fashion house were both ultimately owned by the same guy. But you don’t have to come up with some (mostly) confected story about elite paedophiles to be able to say that something is wrong here. The problem, really, is that however good or bad we might ever try to be, everything that we do or say is materially constrained by, and so ultimately serves, an order in which everything is organised so that most of the money continues to flow towards the same handful of guys (even if you don’t want to make loads of money, you still have to do things like make rent, and eat lunch). Whatever standards we might choose to apply, with or against one another, and however we might choose to hold each other to account, just so long as we exist under capitalism, and have stomachs – the house always wins.

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