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Barbican's cancellation of LRB talk exposes 'huge rift' over Israel-Gaza

Artists and arts workers say senior cultural figures are censoring expressions of solidarity with Palestinians, after Pankaj Mishra talk cancelled by London's Barbican Centre
A talk due to be given at the Barbican Centre in London by Indian author Pankaj Mishra has been moved to a church (Chris McKenna/Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0)
By Oscar Rickett in London

Artists and arts workers have spoken of a “huge rift” in the cultural sphere over the Israel-Palestine war, after London’s Barbican Centre cancelled a talk set to be given by the Indian author Pankaj Mishra on the Holocaust and its reverberations, as Israel continues to decimate Gaza.

According to a Barbican press officer, the prestigious performing arts centre was discussing hosting a series of events with the London Review of Books (LRB), when an advert in the LRB revealed that the title of Mishra's talk would be, “The Shoah after Gaza”.

Barbican executives then decided to cancel the arrangement with the LRB, "given we had not had time to do the careful preparation needed for this sensitive content", the spokesperson told Middle East Eye.

In a statement, the LRB said it was “disappointed” with the Barbican’s decision, but “glad that this important series is going ahead at St James church, Clerkenwell”. One of the talk’s organisers told MEE it was now sold out. 

An acclaimed essayist and novelist, Mishra recently wrote about the relationship between post-war German governments – many of which still contained Nazi figures - and Israel in the LRB. 

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In that essay, Mishra details the ways in which German support for the nascent state of Israel, including through arms sales and diplomatic support, “expedited the rehabilitation of Germany only a few years after the full extent of its genocidal antisemitism became known”. 

A description of his talk on the LRB’s website reads: “A powerful western narrative holds the Shoah to be the incomparable crime of the modern era. But we find our moral and political consciousness profoundly altered when Israel, a country founded as a haven for the victims of genocidal racism, is itself charged with genocide. What is the fate of universal values after Israel’s collapse into violent nationalism?”  

The bosses versus the workers

Since the Israel-Palestine war erupted following the Hamas-led attacks of 7 October, pro-Palestinian public figures, artists and culture industry workers in the western world have been censored by institutions and governments for condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza, which has now killed 27,708 Palestinians, most of them women and children.

Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Isik, founders of the Berlin-based fashion label GmbH, recently told Middle East Eye that other designers and artists were “scared” of speaking out on the issue.

“We know we have many allies behind the scenes, but everyone is scared. Scared of losing their business and livelihood. We understand that fear, but we have no option but to resist,” the designers said. 

Huseby told MEE that he was supposed to give a talk yesterday as part of Berlin Fashion Week, but that it was cancelled after the Berlin Senate, the programme’s sponsors, told the organisers it was “not the right time” to “have me and a Palestinian participant on a panel talk on diversity and equality”.

'All institutions now are basically neoliberal vehicles of one kind or another, driven by capital, sponsorship and corporate patronage'

Mark Turner, curator and literature professor

Huseby said that the curator Edwin Nasr, originally from Beirut, and the Palestinian artist Jumana Manna have also had events cancelled. 

The documentation platform Archive of Silence has now recorded 91 “concrete examples of institutions, organisations and workplaces that censor, silence and punish voices that challenge the rigid political mainstream in Germany regarding Israel-Palestine”. 

Victims of this censorship include the author Masha Gessen, the politician Bernie Sanders and the organisation Combatants for Peace. 

An artist and architect based in London, who preferred to remain anonymous, told MEE that “there’s a huge rift emerging in the arts and cultural space, primarily between people in positions of power and everyone else”. 

In the US, this was exemplified by the fallout following the publication of an open letter on the website Artforum, in which more than 4,000 people, including the photographer Nan Goldin and conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, called for Palestinian liberation and “an end to the killing and harming of all civilians, an immediate ceasefire, and the passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza”.

The response from the upper echelons of the art world was swift, brutal outrage. Artforum’s editor, David Velasco, was fired. 

A host of gallery owners and art collectors, including Marianne Boesky and Stefan Simchowitz, condemned the letter for - as Boesky put it - flouting “the rules… that you must condemn Hamas before you can support any Palestinian base from being killed”. 

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“All institutions now are basically neoliberal vehicles of one kind or another, driven by capital, sponsorship and corporate patronage,” Mark Turner, a curator and professor of English Literature, told Middle East Eye. 

“And in the absence of real government funding, the arts is held over a barrel by corporatism. Arts, education and other institutions cannot cease to be places of debate and meaningful encounter, where societies engage deeply with complex and difficult issues.”

The London-based artist and architect who spoke anonymously to MEE said that in the art world “there are curators who have made their careers staging activist artist shows, but the very senior people aren’t of this mould, and there hasn’t been any tension about it until now because no one actually disagreed with each other while they were previously ‘radically contesting the political’.”

This is not the first time in recent years that the issue of Palestine has flared up at the Barbican, though, with the Resolve Collective, a design studio, dismantling its exhibition early in June 2023 after “an act of anti-Palestinian censorship by a member of the Barbican comms team”.

"The Barbican has a proud history of presenting Palestinian voices and artists, including as a longstanding host of the London Palestine Film Festival, which took place most recently in November 2023," a spokesperson for the centre told MEE.

Speaking of this moment of cultural censorship and top-down corporate power, Turner said: “History will be unkind. If there is such a thing as history in the future."

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