It’s not every day that art inspires protests. These days you’re more likely to see protest art inside the gallery, with the Tate Modern, the William Morris, and the Victoria Miro all getting in on the act over the last year.
But things haven’t exactly been every-day on the Hackney art scene of late. Dalston’s LD50 Gallery has now closed, following pressure from anti-fascist protesters. On Saturday 25th February, hundreds of people marched outside the gallery on Tottenham Road, with the campaign group Shutdown LD50 alleging that the venue had been “function[ing] as an organising space for racists and as a media platform to infiltrate the London art world.” The protest came in response to a conference hosted by the gallery featuring speakers such as the anti-feminist journalist Iben Thranholm, ‘neo-reactionary’ philosopher Nick Land, and anti-immigration activist Peter Brimelow.
On the other side of things, LD50’s owner and director, Lucia Diego, has insisted that the exhibiting artists and invited speakers were addressing legitimate topics such as globalisation, immigration, and economics. She has argued that “as an art gallery we need to be able to open discourse.”
With the doors of the gallery now firmly shuttered, the row has – predictably – ended up being dominated by the issue of censorship. Plenty of commentators, including The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones, have criticised the protesters for carrying out what has been labelled “a pathetic attack on free speech.”
Free speech debates are rarely productive, and never conclusive. Here, as is so often the case, the real subject of the controversy – the art itself – has been drowned out by the shouting on either side. As Linda Stupart, a South African writer based at Goldsmiths, University of London, tweeted: “Feeling really shook about LD50 being actual fascists, but also realise I haven’t been paying attention to the artworks and that changes now.”
So what has the gallery been showcasing to cause all this fuss? Well, it’s not exactly easy to see. LD50’s website has been taken down, its Twitter account has been deleted, and its other social media accounts have been turned over to re-posting articles about the protests.
Leaving the conference speakers aside, a glance at LD50’s previous exhibitions reveals that the gallery is not just a straightforward platform for fascist propaganda. For example, in 2015, LD50 hosted a major exhibition by the enfants terribles of the Young British Artists movement, Jake and Dinos Chapman. The duo shot to fame in 1991 when they defaced Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ etchings, and have since continued to shock the art world with hideously mutated mannequins of children, a diorama depicting the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald, and SS officers in blackface having sex.
Although often grotesque, taboo-busting and deliberately provocative in its critique of liberal sensibilities, their work does not set out to endorse the far right. If the ‘90s taught us anything, it’s that the shock-value seen in the work of the Chapman brothers, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and others can still be surprisingly powerful. Strangely enough, the protesters and LD50’s exhibitors would probably agree on that.
Neither does such art feel like an attempt at propaganda. In some sense, effective propaganda and thought-provoking art are antithetical. The former seeks to make the viewer unconsciously and unquestioningly accept a clear message, and we certainly can’t say that of the Chapmans or many of the other exhibitors at LD50.
LD50 certainly isn’t off the hook though. In recent months, seemingly inspired by the American presidential election, the gallery has been pushing more nakedly political ‘art’. A cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump was on display in a window around the time of the vote in November, and the gallery’s social media accounts have been putting out increasingly extreme material, including ‘Pepe’ memes and photographs of mass-murderers Anders Behring Breivik and James Eagan Holmes.
Also featured are digital artworks depicting medieval knights and space travel – all hallmarks of the aesthetic of the so-called ‘alt-right’. Although often left unlabelled, these images push a clear ideology – one centred on the supposed ethnic and cultural supremacy of the ‘civilised’ white man. It’s hardly surprising that diverse inner London has bristled at this.
— London Student (@LondonStudent) February 25, 2017
Not only is the artistic merit of recycling stock memes and motifs questionable, there is no real critical engagement with the beliefs embodied in these images. Instead, there is simply a taunting assertion of the far right’s ‘correctness’ on any issue the liberal left cares to name. LD50 seems to have embraced this policy of empty confrontation – trolling by any other name – with open arms.
For example, a now archived version of the gallery’s homepage attacks the way in which “A position on the left has become the only permissible orientation for cultural practitioners and apparently any who dare eschew this constraint are now publicly vilified, delegitimated [sic] and intimidated with menaces.” No specific points of contention or coherent alternatives are offered.
From this, it’s not hard to see where LD50 went wrong. In an effort to stay ahead in the zero-sum game of being provocative, the gallery has exchanged surprising art forms – that is, what the likes of the Chapman brothers do so well – for purely shocking content. Being politically different has become a substitute for being artistically interesting. In the process of pushing that content, LD50 has drifted into the realm of propaganda.