Described by historians as a decade of pivotal change , the 70’s saw the role of women in society altered as Feminists took centre stage. Environmentalism was made mainstream and The Black Nationalist movement grew from a fracture of The Civil Rights. Despite this prolific wave in social movements, could it be we digressed into hiding behind art and creativity because we no longer possess a freedom of speech- Because the voices of freedom speakers have been silenced? Or is the voicing of opinions through creativity just a new social development?
Perhaps Philip Wolmuth’s new book ‘Speakers’ Corner, Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace’ can help portray what we are lacking; unmediated, face-to-face public debate. Being the first ever photographic book on Speakers’ Corner published in the UK, Wolmuth’s unique collection of previously unpublished images span back over thirty-five years.
Regarded worldwide as the home of free speech, Speakers’ Corner witnessed a wide range of topical debate, from serious talks on religion and anti-religion to nonsensical speeches on..well.. nonsense. “When I first visited Speakers’ Corner in 1977 it seemed just as George Orwell had described it in 1945- the resort of preachers, eccentrics and ‘a large variety of plain lunatics’. On this world-famous patch of concrete and grass, a great number of speakers were standing on bespoke platforms, ladders, or upturned milk crates, shouting across each other to attract the attention of a sizeable motley crowd of onlookers. Hecklers shouted back. -The cacophony was bewildering. But I soon came to see that something unusual was happening in this north-eastern corner of London’s Hyde Park: genuine, unmediated public debate.”
~Extract from ‘Speakers’ Corner, Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace’, Philip Wolmuth
Speakers’ Corner has also bared witness to the stark decline in the number of speakers and size of the crowds, particularly over the period covered in Wolmuth’s book (1977-2014). Once, summer Sunday afternoons attracted forty to fifty speakers, but today fifteen to twenty stands a rare accomplishment.
Recorded in Speakers’ Corner is the electrifying legacy of the nineteenth century campaigners; who fought for with unfaltering resilience, and won, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The speakers, hecklers, regular and irregulars still gracing Hyde Park’s northeast corner, are the heirs of those campaigners upholding this traditional display of unrestraint.
Pseudonymous English Graffiti artist Banksy, is one of the many individuals concealing his identity behind the mask of creativity. In doing so, he freely ventures into various political and social themes, including anti-consumerism, anti-war and anarchism. Combining dark humour with graffiti, his work has featured on walls, bridges and city streets throughout the world.
Although his descriptive art has stirred powerful conversation, it could be said his brazen attitude and politically related comments, such as his list of “people who should be shot”, is solely due to his anonymity.
Similarly, a group of feminist female artists who forged the name Guerilla Girls, use art to display their loyalty for many a political cause. Formed in the city of New York in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls began the mission of fighting sexism and racism, bringing gender and racial equality within fine arts to the forefront.
“Reinventing the “f” word: feminism!”
The girls wear gorilla masks to remain anonymous, upholding the belief all focus should be on the issues, not on their physical appearance or personalities. But sadly, protecting themselves from negative repercussions inflicted by prominent figures in the art world is primarily the logic behind the masks.
As with the very subject of this article, the question falls to each individual “do people of the 21st century hide behind art because there is no true freedom of speech?”-it is of course a matter of personal opinion. But one thing I’m confident of, is the need for more peaceful, unmediated and not mass-media fuelled debate.
You can buy Phillip Wolmuth’s ‘Speakers’ Corner-Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace’ here