Evening Standard Comment: Jess de Wahls – The Royal Academy must rethink

·1-min read
The Royal Academy of Arts in London (PA Archive)
The Royal Academy of Arts in London (PA Archive)

The Royal Academy faces intense scrutiny over its decision to remove the work of Jess de Wahls from sale following eight complaints because of a 2019 essay, in which she is accused of harbouring “transphobic views”.

In her essay, the artist wrote that she had “no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex” but that she was unable to accept “unsubstantiated assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex”.

Prejudice in all its forms is wrong. Yet de Wahls’s, whose work celebrates women and explores the female body, made a considered argument and her language did not cross a line into hate speech. She is entitled to her point of view.

Indeed, the move by the Royal Academy raises huge concerns not just on free speech but the way in which it reacted. The Academy displays the work of a diverse set of artists. Is it now prepared to remove from sale work by artists who have expressed views which would now be considered sexist, racist or homophobic?

Axel Rüger, chief executive of the Royal Academy, must come out and explain the institution’s decision to effectively boycott de Wahls and why she was not even informed of the decision beforehand.

In his important role, he should be fostering an environment where art sparks conversations and artists are free to speak their minds, not effectively cancel an artist on the basis of a minor social media storm.

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