Cancelling the art world – the culture of consequences 

Natália Blahová15. apríla 2022529

Slovak version

On October 30th 2020, the Dutch newspaper nrc. published a lengthy and explicit report about how 20 people came forward to tell their stories of rape, sexual assault, abuse, stalking, intimidation, and theft. One name connects them all – Juliaan A.

A name very well known to the contemporary Dutch art world spread immediately over social media, newspapers and social circles – and this time not as a praise or glorification of the man. This day is considered as the start of the #metoo movement in Dutch arts and culture.

Juliaan A. has been a stable name in the Dutch art world since his studies at Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague, from which he graduated in 2012. In 2015, he was accepted to Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, by many seen as the highest point of art education one can reach in the Netherlands. In 2018, he was nominated for the Royal Prize for Painting, sealing his growing fame with a photo in which he smiles and shakes hands with Willem-Alexander, King of The Netherlands.

To put his success into perspective, in 2015 he received 50,000 euros in art funding from the Mondriaan Fund, and in 2017 around 38,000 euros on a talent scholarship. Additionally, De  Nederlandsche Bank, ABN Amro, the Leiden University Medical Centre, de Bonnefantenmuseum  as well as multiple private collectors have purchased and own his works.

His CV and his ever-growing portfolio show a successful young man who worked hard to achieve what he wanted, recognition, respect and adoration.

“The Harvey Weinstein of the art world” 

As described by one of the survivors who spoke to nrc., Juliaan A. appears as a romantic “bad boy”. Alternative, deeply into music and literature, and with great knowledge in both, always surrounded by people who either looked up to him for his work or his lifestyle. Heavy metal music, tattoos, band t-shirts, boots. One might think that the era of an intellectual, yet rebellious and problematic man in the arts is over, but this story proves us wrong. Romanticising “bad boys”, putting them on a pedestal and downplaying their “bad” actions towards others is nothing new. In arts, music or culture especially.

The article manages to perfectly (yet horrifyingly) describe Juliaan’s A. persona, his achievements and lifestyle, while contextualising the abuse and explicit accusations put forth by his accusers. Lucette ter Borg and Carola Houtekamer, who put together the shocking text, have taken on the task of investigating past years of Juliaan’s A. personal and public life as well as the people involved and affected by it. They managed to recover and collect stories from as far back as 2008, talking to more than 80 people affected by him, and suggesting how Julian’s A. behaviour was something of a public secret for more than a decade. Despite the fact that multiple victims spoke publicly about their accusations, including accounts where the police was involved, galleries and institutions did little if nothing until the article was published.

Several victims have gathered the courage to speak up, possibly putting not only their lives but also their own art careers in danger, yet little to none has been done. Galleries and institutions, or even individual artists involved with Juliaan A. would either joke about it, or completely diminish anyone’s attempt to call him out. It is known that his alma mater, KABK, has been privately aware of this behaviour during his study years, varying from allegations of several victims to situations of Juliaan A. damaging or stealing other students‘ work. At that time he got suspended for just two weeks.

Juliaan A. himself, as well as people close to him have never publicly responded to the nrc. article. He has since been “cancelled” in the art world and not many have heard of him. A gallery that used to represent him, and who’s director’s response when firstly asked about this case was  “What an artist does in his spare time is up to him.”, has since suspended their collaboration.  Juliaan A. is currently under investigation after at least 5 people have filed a complaint to judicial authorities. Despite a few attempts to un-cancel him, creating a massive backlash, currently nobody really knows of his whereabouts or plans for the future.

Art world (not) united

One would think that the triggering content nrc. journalists have collected and published  immediately brings society into a common understanding and condemnation of such crimes and the abuser himself. After the initial shock highly expressed over social media, the art world and its members split into two groups – one standing together with survivors, condemning situations mentioned in nrc. and potentially confirming or adding their own stories that they did not dare to share before. The other group would defend the artist, either by protecting themselves as “not knowing about his doings”, or knowing about it and attempting to separate his personal life from his work.

The published article has not only opened up the discussion of abuse and power in the art world, but also created a safer and open space for more people to come forward and talk about their experiences in art education or later as art professionals. An Instagram account @calloutdutchartinsitutions was created, and in the span of a few weeks has collected and anonymously published stories from students as well as alumni of all art academies in The Netherlands. Names were named and every morning people involved in the Dutch art world would wake up expecting new posts to come. As a reaction, two major art academies, and the two that have been mentioned on the Instagram account the most, have published their apologies and promised to create a safer space for all. Some have terminated their contracts with the teachers and mentors, who allegedly used their power to abuse, bully or discriminate against their students based on gender, race, or ethnicity. Some have attempted to create either online platforms or in-house spaces to come to in case of such a situation happening on their grounds. As reactive as it may sound, this serves as a temporary band-aid for on-going systemic problems. Cutting connections and terminating work contracts may stop called-out abusers from causing even more violence and trauma, however, it does not automatically create a safer environment. The urgency is on finding and limiting the reasons which feed and allow the existence of such abuse in the first place.

Eventually, the Instagram account @calloutdutchartinstituitions, after facing several private threats and an investigation from the police on hate speech and spreading misinformation, had to be deleted.

Separating the artist (human) from their art (work)

One of the major arguments against “cancelling” Juliaan A., or the others recently accused and called out for their wrong-doings, is mentioning lengthy lists of their achievements and contributions to this society. Across the spectrum of arts and culture, no less in the political world, defenders of abusers restlessly point out their cultural market value.  As if “It’s possible to separate the artist from their art”. The individual may be violent and dangerous, but their work doesn’t harm anyone. This was the sentiment of a gallerist representing Juliaan A. who later admitted knowledge of the allegations at the time.  He chose to ignore the allegations for his own benefit – whether it’s his business or reputation, and he chose to diminish victims’ traumas for his or Juliaan’s A. career growth. As if someone’s personal trauma is of less value than someone else‘ (their abuser’s) work. And as if only once we collect enough evidence – thus enough people who experienced abuse or violence from this person – we can start to condemn his actions. The limit seems like a fluid line in this situation, and the art world has evidently benefited from moving it back and forth.

But was not Juliaan’s A. work made possible under the opportunities and circumstances given to its maker? Did not his career flourish thanks to the lack of meaningful scrutiny by the art world and its support mechanisms?  Did not this work grow in value and recognition thanks to the institutions dismissing the allegations and allowing the artist’s presence in the art world? Did not the institutions and art spaces presenting Juliaan’s A. work swipe people’s personal experience with the abuser under the carpet for protecting their own liability, reputations, and earnings?

The line may seem thin – and given the scenario of innocent until proven guilty – one might think that completely removing their work from the public eye is a drastic gesture. On the other hand, knowing that most abusers will never be proven guilty or even accused, allows potentially dangerous people to continue producing art and acting unimpeded in their success. This allows the perpetrators to become even more public, enabling them a larger space to present their voice – and themselves. Bad advertisement is still an advertisement and in this case means that despite their wrong-doing, their fame and recognition may grow in power and size. On the other hand, victims rarely have the chance to apply “guilty until proven innocent” on their abusers and statistically most of them never find their justice.

One thing is to speak of a person who has harmed others and take the necessary measures to disable them from continuing to do so. Another is the question of how someone so known and public could get away with years of abuse and violence, that’s been made public while still growing their fame and recognition as if it’s virtually a positive part of their persona?

Power structures are entangled in every system, and knowingly in arts too. Public image plays a humongous role and facing backslash or criticism may harm it. At the same time, the art world presents itself as open-minded and ever evolving. Perhaps in some recent cases taking on topics and statements for the sake of remaining “on top of it”. We all recognize certain institutions shifting their focus more on (re)presenting values such as feminism, rights for queer and non-binary people or #BlackLivesMatter, and sometimes presenting those solely for their marketing purposes. Performative activism does not help anyone, nor does ignoring serious allegations against someone public.

Action – reaction 

The idea of being “cancelled” certainly creates a lot of fear especially for people in public view. If being famous (or popular, or well-known in their field) is a main part (or a consequence) of their job, and mostly serves to provide income, one surely fears losing it. At the same time, publicness should come with a certain responsibility.

Being responsible for your own actions or words should come as a base. Being held accountable  for your actions should come right after. And lastly, the institutions and people involved taking action after harm has been done and re-evaluating the conditions and reasons under such situations took place. Demanding greater accountability from public figures does not seem as such a difficult task if we wish to live in a safer society. Unfortunately, every world has their own Juliaan A., and his story proves that abuse of power is not necessarily an individual affair.

Looking at the long and now untangled web of victims‘ stories, as well as Juliaan’s A. career and his private life, we need to focus on the core of the problem. Uncovering the wrong-doer’s actions can easily be concluded by calling that person “mentally ill” or “crazy”. Separating the abuser from the rest of us. And while in many cases convicted abusers are psychologically tested and eventually diagnosed, as a society we must look at the bigger picture.

If it’s possible for someone like Juliaan A. to get away with years of abuse and violence, while his career flourishes, we must look at the wider circles around him, rather than just keeping our focus solely on the abusive individual. In no circumstances could one get away with so much harm, if others around him would not ignore, diminish or belittle his actions. And while it is hard to keep an eye on every single person involved, uncovering the support of abusers by bigger institutions such as galleries, museums or art schools, and calling them out, should now come as a norm.

At the moment, the weight of fighting for justice still falls on the victims‘ shoulders, who courageously re-tell their experiences with abuse, and take on the emotional labour of reliving their trauma. Given the fact that in Juliaan’s A. case nobody truly acted on these stories for years, and actually supported his career growth, whether to protect their own business or their reputation, one can only imagine that many victims don’t come to tell their stories at all. This only shows the urgency for institutions to be prepared for such scenarios in advance, rather than just trying to come out clean once the news breaks. We should know by now that (sexual) violence and abuse used as a tool in any power structures does not come as a surprise.

Secondly, we all shall find the courage to take a strong stand in situations like these. If the victim, or someone close to them, is questioning whether to come forward and possibly harm their own career, education, or their social relations, we have failed to create a safe society. If the institution, whether educational, a museum or a gallery, is depending financially, culturally or socially on the works of the abusive and violent makers, and weighing whether the general moral beliefs are below or above their business and marketing agendas, we have failed equally.

Culture of consequences 

This story could easily be applied to any other current art world, and sadly on the other spheres too. Take out Juliaan’s A. name from this text and apply any other name that has circulated in the media or your social circles recently. If the fear of someone being “cancelled” overshadows the actual reasons for their cancellation, and this person eventually gets more space to un-cancel themselves than the actual space their victims get, we have yet to learn a lot.

If as a society we manage to shift from our fear of being cancelled, to taking on the responsibility to deal with the consequences of our actions, we may have a chance. Perhaps for starters – if your fear of being cancelled is stronger than your belief that society should be safe for everyone in the first place – rethink your values again. Consequence culture may be just a re-named cancel culture, but it surely gives us a chance to evolve from the culture of fear to a place where we actively work together to disable abuse and violence in workplaces and our private lives. In this case, where the cancel culture may operate just as a peak moment to call out and stop certain individuals from their wrong-doings, and the possibility for abusers to frame themselves as “the victims of cancel culture”, consequence culture opens up a space for a discussion and a constant check-in of our position towards achieving a safer society as well as giving the space for victims‘ stories. Institutions should be able to work out a moral code that would serve as a norm, as clearly we are unable to operate from a general understanding that violence and abuse should not happen. And once individuals aware of the consequences start checking who they get involved with, whether for work or private relations, we can slowly build a safe space, not only in the art world, but for us all.

The author is a visual artist, a volunteer for Neighborhood Feminists and is based in Amsterdam.

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