Icing is a medium of expression. I think often of this marvellous interview with the musician Todd Trainer (drummer in Steve Albini’s band Shellac) with the music journalist Holly Day:
Yeah. Icing has definitely always been a part of the visual aspect of Brick Layer Cake. All four records have had icing on the covers, both front and back covers – literally all the artwork that has ever appeared on my records is icing, so that’s a theme, an aesthetic theme … Icing is a rather limited medium – I shouldn’t say “limited”. It’s an unforgiving medium to work with, because you only get once chance to really do it right.
Trainer’s album covers, with their naïf cursive, are a thing to behold, and I wonder if there are other modern artists working in the medium. There are probably similarities in technique to art made from neon tubing, as practiced by people like Bruce Nauman or Tracey Emin. And since icing is very much a craft, it is surely ready for a Grayson Perry subversion.
Icing as an ‘expressive act’ is something that supreme courts on both sides of the Atlantic have had to concern themselves this summer. In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd v Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker refused to create a cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony. And this week, the United Kingdom Supreme Court handed down its judgment in Lee v Ashers Baking Company and others, where a company with Christian owners refused to create a Bert & Ernie cake with the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it. They were subsequently sued by Gareth Lee, the customer, for discrimination.
Siding with the bakery, President of the Supreme Court Lady Hale made clear that they had not discriminated against the customer, but the message on the cake. Mr Lee’s sexuality and political beliefs were irrelevant: They would have refused to fulfil the order for anyone.
Lady Hale also reasserted a fundamental tenet of freedom of belief, which is also crucial to our right to freedom of expression: You cannot force someone into an act of expression to which they object.
This has implications beyond statements made in cream and sugar. The Ashers ruling is one that crosses the political divide. You cannot compel someone to make a pro-gay cake, but neither can you force a publisher to put out sub-standard book, or demand that students unions give a platform to people they find offensive. Nor can you force a newspaper to print an insincere apology, even when they lose a libel trial.
It also has implications for another controversy, the dispute between the Core Issues Trust and Vue Cinema in Leicester Square. Back in February, the charity made a booking at the cinema in order to screen Voices of the Silenced, a film about gay conversion therapy and the supposed evidence for its efficacy. Following a campaign by PinkNews, Vue decided it no longer wanted to host the screen and cancelled the booking at the eleventh hour.
In August, Vue apparently paid compensation for the cancellation. The Core Issues Trust called it an ‘undisclosed sum’ but Vue said it was a nominal amount. Apparently this was purely a contractual settlement and not because of discrimination or a suppression of free speech.
What’s interesting and amusing here is that, between the two cases, we have gay rights activists and fundamentalist Christians on alternate sides of the same debate. It seems to me that neither side can have it both ways. Those who believe that it was fine for Vue to refuse to screen the film should also agree that it was acceptable for Ashers to refuse to bake the gay cake. And those who cite freedom of belief as a reason for supporting the bakery’s decision should also support the cinema’s freedom to avoid screening a film with a message it vehemently opposes.
Of course, many activists will happily support their ‘side’ in both cases and ignore any contradictions that such a stance would raise. Such people may champion themselves as defenders of free speech, but in fact they are merely defenders of their own agenda. Contrast that with the admirable stance of Peter Tatchell, the relentless activist for gay rights who nevertheless sided with Ashers. The precise arguments that Tatchell made two years ago were the ones endorsed on Tuesday by the Supreme Court.
I think part of the reason that Ashers and Vue both became the focus of tension is because neither company had specific policies in place to deal with these conundrums. If they had, then perhaps the unwanted custom could have been blocked at the pass. But for this oversight, we should not judge them too harshly. When billion dollar social networks cannot get their Terms & Conditions straight, what hope for a family run small business?