I was down at the De la Warr Pavilion gallery in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, last Saturdaym marking their exhibition celebrating the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys: trying to talk up the Speakers’ Corner concept as he might have practised it, making free use of an artificially defined environment for freedom of expression.
That is, a cardboard cutout of a giant hat, laid on the floor in the corner of the room for me to stand and speak from. That’s how I came to be challenging personal, public and legal restraints on offensive language in a public place. By swearing like a Baltimore drug dealer, in an art gallery sitting in a town that is a British by-word for genteel sensibility. For an hour…
My justification — echoing Beuys — was that at the real Speakers’ Corner in London you could listen and be offended. Or maybe engaged, informed or free to dispute me. Or just free to walk away and not avail yourself of any of these ‘opportunities’. I was limited only by those personal rules on how far I was prepared to offend; the validity of my case for offending; and the audience’s tolerance, or not, of the offensiveness in question.
I also figured Beuys would allow that by adding an element of performance and political context to offensiveness, your licence to offend is extended. Bill Hicks at one end, maybe Boris Johnson at the other. So I rashly had a go, with the intention of channelling the late master of ideas-in-performance, Ken Campbell as well.
In not-so-short order I cited Jay-Z and Girls Aloud; Victoria Cross winners Guy Gibson and Johnson Beharry; the lexicographer Eric Partridge and Meg Ryan; Voltaire and the Egyptian hieroglyphic roots of the word cunt — which I refused to say, to make a point; Max Mosley, Rachel Cusk, the failings of rights-based jurisprudence, and creating spaces for free expression where the right to be offended, or to offend, is a voluntary affair. Until the law steps in. Choice of context and rules restraining free speech can be voluntary; laws not. Luckily no one called the police.
There was much more, but volume of words proportionately reduced size of audience. The critical view was that it was the rambling eccentric Bexhill local boy Eddie Izzard that I was channelling, well ahead of Ken Campbell, never mind Joseph Beuys. My neighbour Ian Sayers said the effect was a bit like the scene in Life of Brian where aliens drop Graham Chapman in front of an audience expecting a sermon. But I still got the odd laugh.