Illustration by Michael Rea

Will Gompertz: Cancel culture is stifling the arts

The Barbican’s artistic director on the challenges facing his industry
May 10, 2023

What is the first news event you can recall?

I was born in the mid-1960s, so I should probably mention the Moon landing or the Beatles breaking up or the Vietnam War, but they were all a bit abstract for a happy-go-lucky boy living in rural Kent. The first news event that felt real to me was the drought of 1976. I vividly remember the scorched earth photograph on the front cover of the Sunday Times Magazine and the feeling of dread it caused in the pit of my stomach.

What is the biggest problem of all?

Our disconnection from nature. It is at the root of many of our problems. We perceive progress as a linear construct of continuous improvement, but that is not nature’s cyclical way. As we teeter on the edge of oblivion fuelled by the fruits of our “progress”, a pair of blackbirds are raising their chicks in an old hedge by our front door—both the hedge’s and blackbirds’ ways of life are unchanged. They know their place; we are losing ours.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Everything is copy.” It’s one the late American journalist, essayist and screenwriter Nora Ephron often used, which she attributed to her mother—who was also a screenwriter. The point being: however badly life might be going, the experience could always be used as content for an article or script. I find that a cheering idea.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

Two generations: my mother and father who devoted their lives to working for the NHS. And my early Victorian relations, the brothers Benjamin, Lewis and Isaac Gompertz. Benjamin was a brilliant mathematician and actuary who invented the Gompertz Curve; Lewis was an animal rights activist and co-founder of what is now the RSPCA; and Isaac was a poet. Being Jewish, they were not allowed a university education, so they did quite well under the circumstances.

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

Listening to the school choir in which my daughter sang soprano. It was a Thomas Tallis piece. The sound they made and emotion they conveyed was utterly gorgeous and deeply moving.

The great artists look at the world differently. Can anyone do likewise?

Yes, but you have to work at it. The postwar French artist Jean Dubuffet summed up our collective blindness when he said: “The things we truly love, which form the basis of our being, we generally never look at.”

What is the greatest challenge facing the arts industry today?

There are a lot, not least the ill-conceived financial cuts to classical music. Covid and Brexit have also caused significant problems. But it has to be cancel culture. The purpose of the arts is to question, challenge, reflect and enlighten. Great art reveals a truth, and debate and disagreement about the nature of that truth is a function of art. But such is the rallying power of social media, debate is being stifled by self-censorship and fear of disagreeing with the prevailing orthodoxy. Previous generations have fought hard for free speech; so must we.

And the greatest opportunity?

To give a voice and provide a platform to those who have historically been denied an opportunity to share their stories and experiences and energy.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I was a knife-thrower’s stooge at a holiday camp on the Essex coast. The sound of the heavy metal blades thudding into the board, against which I stood, haunts me to this day.

What do you most regret?

Artistically, I most regret not learning to play a musical instrument when I was a child. It wasn’t for the lack of opportunity. My parents had an old upright piano on which I quickly mastered “Chopsticks”. I left it at that. Mistake. 

Will Gompertz’s latest book, “See What You’re Missing: 31 Ways Artists Notice the World—and How You Can Too” (Viking), is out now