Tale of two ‘cancellations’ proves we need to move past this cliché term

There were two significant arts controversies in Australia this week that tapped into pre-existing fault lines that have long divided the arts community: the question of who should be provided a platform, and on what basis organisers, audiences and sponsors should make moral judgements about the actions of individual artists.

In recent years it’s become du jour to describe those fault lines as a debate over “cancel culture”. But both local controversies serve as reminders that the actual issues at stake – who gets to make art, who gets to be paid for it, who gets to perform in front of hundreds or thousands of people, who should perform alongside them and who should sponsor it– are specific and complicated, and demand more from us than simply throwing them all into a bucket labelled “cancelled”.

Mohammed El-Kurd and Susan Abulhawa are on the program at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week.Credit:Instagram/T Sauppe

The first debate kicked off when Bluesfest announced that it was adding controversial Sydney band Sticky Fingers to the festival lineup. The group have been heavily criticised within the music industry over a number of years for a series of incidents including allegations of violence against women aimed at one band member, and a criminal conviction against another. Bluesfest’s announcement that the band would be joining the Easter lineup referred to the group as the “bad boys” of Australian music.

The announcement was quickly met with criticism from a number of Australian musicians and within the week another band on the lineup, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard withdrew from the bill. It’s not exactly clear what part of this situation is “cancel culture”. Were Sticky Fingers “un-cancelled” by being added to the lineup? Was Bluesfest “cancelled” because it was criticised for hiring the band? Were King Gizzard trying to “cancel” Sticky Fingers by cancelling themselves from the bill?

Viewing the entire ordeal through the prism of who has or hasn’t been “cancelled” isn’t just flattening, it masks serious and important questions about the role of art, and how it should or shouldn’t be experienced. Bluesfest is, of course, allowed to add whatever bands to their lineup that they like.

And considering the whispers that ticket sales have been sluggish, you can see why they thought that a controversial, yet still popular, band might help drum up some attention. In turn, other artists and audiences are allowed to express their dismay that a festival they have traditionally enjoyed is giving space and money to a band whose values they think are out of step with contemporary standards. Those artists are also completely within their rights to withdraw their labour and not align with a festival they think has done the wrong thing, as King Gizzard have done.

Acknowledging each of these things doesn’t mean you have to agree with every decision. But it helps focus the conversation on what is actually important. Do festivals have an obligation to create a safe environment for artists who may feel threatened by others? Should they listen to audiences who don’t want their money going to an act they don’t think is deserving? What role do artists actually play in helping define appropriate behaviour? All of these questions are far more interesting, and important, than the proposition that Sticky Fingers and/or Bluesfest have been “cancelled”.

The second controversy touches on similar principles but involves other dimensions as well. The Adelaide Writers Week has been heavily criticised for including two Palestinian authors on its lineup, who have been accused of posting anti-Semitic tweets (though those accusations are contested). One of the event’s key sponsors, law firm MinterEllison, has withdrawn its support over the issue.

The event’s director, Louise Adler, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has resisted calls to “cancel” the two writers. In an interview with this masthead she suggested the demands are more about the writer’s political views than genuine concerns about safety.

“The agendas are perfectly transparent … Some parts of the Jewish community leadership are entirely opposed to individual writers or discussions – views that they don’t share on the nature of the conflict in the Middle East,” she said.

Adelaide Writers’ Week director Louise Adler outside Tonka in Melbourne’s Duckboard Place.Credit:Eddie Jim

Bluesfest isn’t the Adelaide Writer’s Week, and these two writers aren’t akin to Sticky Fingers. But like with the former example, the artists, organisers and audiences would be better served with a more specific conversation about what is actually at stake. Writers festivals are supposed to provoke and spark debate, but should certain ideas be off limits? Who should decide that?

Is Louise Adler, one of Australia’s most high-profile and venerated publishers, really programming anti-Semites, or is she right that there’s a political agenda at play? When sponsors like MinterEllison support arts events should they be able to influence who is on the bill? When the Sydney Festival was the target of a boycott over its inclusion of a dance work partly funded by the Israeli government many of the same voices demanding the Adelaide festival drop the writers claimed arts and politics shouldn’t mix, so should they?

Again, like with Bluesfest, all of these questions are vitally important to the arts community. They are also very unlikely to go away and, if anything, are becoming increasingly urgent.

All of us – the artists, the organisers, the sponsors and the audiences – would be better off if we engaged with them, rather than resorted to the reductive frame of who has, or hasn’t, been cancelled.

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