The cancellation of Martin Parr

Woke intolerance risks destroying artistic expression and cultural debate.

Manick Govinda

Martin Parr is probably the most well-known living British photographer. His exhibition last year at the National Portrait Gallery, Only Human, which I reviewed here, had audiences flocking to see his colour-saturated photographs that portrayed a Britain that is imbued with compassion, humour, as well as a sense of sadness and uncertainty, as we journeyed towards exiting the European Union.

But not everyone enjoyed it. During the run of the exhibition, a small group of young black women, led by one Mercedes Baptiste Halliday, called Parr out by picketing outside, after discovering that he was editor of the 2017 reissue of a photographic book, originally published in 1969, called London, by the Italian photographer Gian Butturini.

The 2017 reissue of Butturini’s book includes a new introduction by Parr. The book is, according to one recent account, a ‘stark portrait of a city made of contrasts and contradictions, from the point of view of a complete outsider’.

The controversy focuses on two images, laid out next to each other. On the left page is a photograph of a black woman worker for London Transport, and on the right is an image of a caged gorilla at London Zoo.

The juxtaposition of these two images is, of course, perplexing in 2020, over 50 years after the book was published. Why did Butturini place these images alongside each other? Is he comparing the black woman to a gorilla – is it a racist image? Or is he making a different kind of point? After all, the beauty of art is often its ambiguity.

However, critique was not enough for the women who picketed the gallery. Halliday was reportedly given the book by her father on her 18th birthday, and was shocked by the juxtaposed images.

The picket attracted little attention in 2019, but a concerted social-media campaign against Parr has now led to his resignation as director of the inaugural Bristol Photo Festival. Like a sinner, Parr has been forced to admit his error of allegedly promoting racism in photography.

His letter of apology reads like a forced public confession, of the sort that was demanded in Maoist China. His public apology, and specific letter of apology to his accuser, are sad to read. He is almost grovelling to his accusers, begging for forgiveness for being a white man of nearly 70 years of age, and failing to see his accusers’ perspective.

‘I am looking to learn and change and hopefully use my position of influence to do some good in this situation’, he writes in his letter to Halliday. But such apologies, as we know, are never enough.

Parr’s apology also goes one dangerous step further, by calling on the publishers of Butturini’s book to immediately withdraw it from sale and destroy all existing copies. So there we have it: another step closer to book-burning.

It is extremely worrying that a photographer of Martin Parr’s standing voluntarily placed his head under the guillotine and requested the destruction of a book that he previously had no problems with appreciating and supporting.

It seems that critical debate is not enough for many politically correct photographers, students and academics. These protesters never simply want to open a discussion about contentious art. Instead, it is all about denunciation and censorship.

Even those who criticise this trend are mobbed. Paul Halliday – the father of principal protester Mercedes, and an MA course leader at Goldsmiths – accused me on Twitter of being a ‘brown racist enabler’. He has denounced others for their associations with Parr.

Parr is sufficiently wealthy to withstand this humiliating experience, but younger artists and curators without his status and success will suffer most from this climate. Which artist’s or photographer’s head is next on the block? In the wake of Parr’s cancelling, some on Twitter are going after photographer Lua Ribeira, for a photograph she took of a black woman with the chain of a handbag draped around her face.

Artists and curators must not give an inch to these cyber witch-hunters and should make no apology for their art practice or tastes. This does not mean silencing debate on art, aesthetics, society and culture. Free debate and free artistic expression are crucial to democracy and public life.

But demanding that people be cancelled and silenced, and that books be destroyed, is something different entirely. This kind of intolerance must be resisted.

Manick Govinda is an independent arts consultant, artists mentor and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @manick62

Picture by: Getty.

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John Pretty

28th July 2020 at 9:29 pm

I am pleased to see this piece, but I have a couple of grumbles.

“Parr is sufficiently wealthy to withstand this humiliating experience”

Is he? And W-T-F has his bank balance got to do with this?

Rich people are immune from public humiliation are they? The rich can comfort themselves with their millions can they?

(No, I am not rich. I just don;t see the relevance of his – claimed – financial wealth.

Another beef:

“But such apologies, as we know, are never enough.”

Such apologies, as we should know, should NEVER be offered. Apologising is appropriate in some social contexts, but not here. In these contexts an apology is – in effect – a confession of guilt.

William Clouston

27th July 2020 at 3:27 pm

The original move to infer racialism in the content of the book is, as Manick has said, at the very least uncertain due to ambiguity. Who can know the mind of the artist but the artist himself? And from that initial presumption/assumption a whole chain of events unfold… many of which are harmful. Such is the world we now inhabit.

James Knight

27th July 2020 at 2:52 pm

If he is wealthy enough, why resign at all? It all looks rather demeaning.


27th July 2020 at 2:22 pm

It seems noone is old or rich enough to say ‘publish and be damned ‘ Duke of Wellington’s answer to this sort of criticism. If neither Parr nor the person who took the photographs in 1969 ( when pictures of beautiful black women started to be popular ie Marsha Hunt ) meant any offence by this casual linkage why should they apologise? However surely Ms Halliday’s parents knew better than to give their daughter the name of the ultimate in expensive cars in Western capitalism which when juxtaposed with the name of a Christian ritual contain two evils of ‘white privilege’. Surely the names Cultural Maoist or Cancel Culture would be nicer?

Alex Ander

27th July 2020 at 9:50 am

The woke/ cancel culture climate is not really a problem per se if the complaints/ activism were self- contained insofar that they internal/ intramural squabbles.
What continues baffles me is that institutions of power, organisations, media, sporting world, music & entertainment etc are completely & utterly cowed by this.
Didn’t there used to be a time back in the “good ole days” when there were some pockets of life to escape to that were completely immune from political views?

jamie murray

27th July 2020 at 9:47 am

As soon as I read he’d issued a grovelling apology I felt it very difficult to sympathise, it’s an act of cowardice that doesn’t do anyone any favours.
If a wealthy man of 70 years of age and with no need to earn a living or establish a career won’t stand up and fight back against this nonsense then how can anyone, especially those with desperately needed livelihoods to protect?. Very disappointed in you professor!

Ray Diator

27th July 2020 at 10:10 am

70 years old. Wealthy.
Tell ’em to sod off

Philip Humphrey

27th July 2020 at 10:36 am

I wish somebody would. We need a culture of freedom, confidence and innovation, not one of fear, self censorship and treading on eggshells, where it’s possible to “offend” even if you genuinely didn’t mean to.

George Whale

27th July 2020 at 11:00 am

Precisely. Grovelling submission only emboldens these zealots.

Asuryani Waderer

27th July 2020 at 9:03 am

When the name “Goldsmiths” was mentioned, then all became clear. Is this not the very same Goldsmiths whose students thought the Soviet Gulag was a healthy education camp?

Dominic Straiton

27th July 2020 at 8:06 am

Only a racist would have noticed. When the book was published no one would have. Every time someone apologises to these goons the worse it gets. Answer. Rule 1) never apologise. Rule 2) never apologise. No matter how grovelling it is,they wont accept it anyway.

Jonathan Palmer

27th July 2020 at 1:55 pm

Rule3) If in doubt refer to rules 1) and 2)

John Kloyd

27th July 2020 at 7:44 am

Its soooo soooo sad that the older generation are not as enlightened as the ‘kids’ of today. Lets cancell them all…

Mike Stallard

27th July 2020 at 6:49 am

If you publish a rather vintage picture on a republished book then you are going to get a different take on life. Aldous Huxley wrote a book praising – LSD for heaven’s sake. I had a book called Little Black Sambo as a child – and I loved both the book and him, even though it wasn’t drawn very well.
If I put a picture on the wall of Chairman Mao next to an ourang outang, is that racist? In Peterborough we had a saying – Takes one to know one… These three women are being extremely silly and ought to be laughed at, not treated like the thought police!

Ray Diator

27th July 2020 at 10:16 am

Maybe old photos of our cities and postcards will indeed be banned soon.
What, no BAME people, no fatties, no men who think they’re women, what a terrible place the past was!

John D Henry

27th July 2020 at 2:16 am

I’m a photographer myself, and images may be alongside each other for all sorts of reasons, chronological, artistic, similar lighting etc. More than likely the last thing that would occur to any reasonable person is any connection between a person of colour and a gorilla, in the same way that you wouldn’t connect such a person with a picture of a peacock etc.
To survive in the current woke climate, by necessity you need to see everything through the prism of race (i.e. to be covertly racist) to attempt to eliminate any possibility of offence to the most sensitive soul (or those who are actively looking to be ‘offended’). Even so it is next to impossible to completely eliminate this risk. Some innocent shadows in the next photograph may unintentionally produce a perceived outline of a monkey for example. People who seek offence will generally find it.
We are currently in a position where the bar is so low for many white people that their livelihoods can be instantly destroyed by an innocent unintentional event. Conversely the likes of BLM organisation and their supporters can be as racist as they like to certain targets including whites, Jews, and ironically other black people if not the right ‘type’ (for example black police, military, conservatives etc.). Deliberate offence is fine even if based solely on skin colour (i.e. all whites are racists, white privilege, white lives don’t matter, use of deliberately offensive words ‘gammon’ for white men, ‘Karen’ for white women; or in the case of the ‘wrong sort’ of black person, offensive names such as Uncle Tom and coconut.
Generally us British are known for our tolerance and fairness. What’s happening now is patently unfair. The current cancel culture clime, is removing some of the most talented and useful people we have from their work for often the most innocuous reasons. The current double standards and patent hypocrisy is highly divisive, beyond reason, and will likely make race relations far worse.

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