Why you should worry about the Hylas takedown

Waterhouse Hylas painting obscured by Mary Whitehouse saying

COMMENT: The high-profile removal of a popular painting has backfired very badly. But this should be a wake-up call over a new emerging threat to artistic freedom.

Grief, what were they thinking? If you witnessed the unfolding public reaction to removal of a much-loved painting from a northern gallery, a thought of that nature probably crossed your mind. Manchester Art Gallery says it’s delighted that they provoked such depth and breadth of feeling amongst the public, but when the vast majority of comments outright opposed the removal – with various unflattering remarks regarding the gallery’s management – it’s clear they’re in full-on damage control. And to anyone with the slightest grasp of public opinion, it was pretty obvious what would happen, especially when your reasons for doing it smack of moralising. It was completely unavoidable, and it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Or is it? Some people suspect – given the level of idiocy required to not realise how badly this would go down – that this was their plan all along. Perhaps it was all a publicity stunt. After all, a lot more people know about this painting now than before. And it might have been, but I can think of two other possibilities as to their true motives. One possible motive is a little more concerning than a publicity stunt, and the other one is a lot more concerning.

As a north-east based theatre blog, it would not normally interest me what is going on in north-west in fine arts, but it has been raised as a censorship issue and this is an anti-censorship blog. And yes, one of the two motives I am considering is censorship. Just an attempt, and a badly bungled attempt, but bungled because they were too obvious about it. What we have to worry about is not an overt attempt at censorship in Manchester that failed, but possibility of more covert attempts at censorship elsewhere that succeed.

Are you sitting comfortably? You might not be by the end.

What we know happened

Normally, I start off comment posts like this with a factual summary. If I’m going to lay into one side, it’s only fair that first the facts are presented fairly and accurately, even if some of them don’t suit my arguments. However, this time I’m going to make damn well sure I write the facts that don’t suit their arguments. There is so much revisionism going on, I do not want Manchester Art Gallery glossing over the extent of this slow-motion car crash.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! Skip to summary

So, this all originated from the work of an artist named Sonia Boyce. According the Manchester Art Gallery website, her new work was “a night-time group takeover of the gallery exploring ‘gender trouble’ among the gallery’s 19th century painting displays and wider culture”. Nothing wrong with this as such, artists criticise other artists all the time. What was controversial was interfering with the viewing of other artworks. This is not the first time she had done this – in 1995 she did an exhibition called “peep” where non-Western artifacts at Brighton Museum had to be viewed through holes in tracing paper to make viewer think about whatever the point this was supposed to make. However, this time, she had removed a Waterhouse painting, one very popular with the public. In its place, there was an empty space where people could write on post-its their thoughts on this painting’s removal, in an initiative called “Challenging a Victorian fantasy”. Prints of the work were also removed from the gift shop. For a few days, this went relatively quietly, with post-its accumulating on the wall and comments on their blog post. Then it spread to social media, then the national media picked up on it, and then all hell broke loose.

Regardless of how Manchester Art Gallery tries to spin this, it was a full-scale PR catastrophe however you measure public opinion. Apart from the odd kind-of supportive comment hastily retweeted on to @mcrartgallery’s feed, reaction was split into roughly two camps. One camp said they loved the painting, the claims of a Victorian fantasy were breathtakingly ignorant, and that claiming it was in the name of provoking debate was a pathetic excuse from an out of touch management team. The other camp said the same first camp, but added that the people responsible should be sacked. They were massacred on social media, the comments page of every news article, on their own web page intended to get comments, and in a poll on the Manchester Evening News. A low-key e-petition managed to get 1,000 signatures in two days. Even the letters pages to The Guardian – which one would have thought would be the most likely forum to support this  – was unanimously against.* Most embarrassingly, a lot of feminists attacked the gallery for undermining #MeToo by associating this stunt with the movement.

(* Actually, there was one letter that criticised the painting from the perspective of someone who actually had waded in a pond full of water lillies, who pointed out that lolling in smelly mud is the opposite of erotic. She did not express an opinion either way on the acceptability of nymph tits in 19th century paintings.)

I’d like to say how pleased I was that Manchester Art Gallery listened to the comments, saw sense, and chose to put the painting back. Yes, I’d like to say that, but I can’t because that’s almost certainly not true. When it was reported the painting was going back up, it featured a comment from a spokesperson from Manchester City Council, owners of the gallery. It would have been a steep co-incidence for them to comment at exactly the same time the gallery opted to do a U-turn – so reading between the lines, it appears the Council overruled (or at least threatened to overrule) the management of the gallery.

Since then, Manchester Art Gallery has backpedalled a little, but not much. They issued another press release saying for the first time how important people’s views were and how important painting were to the gallery. Importantly, however, there was not one shred of an apology offered for removing the painting in the first place. They are still taking the line that it was great that such a debate has been started, and the fact that hundreds of people have commented is being treated as measure of success – never mind the fact that it was near-universal condemnation.

But, hey, we got our debate, right? And the painting’s back. Just a PR stunt, surely? Storm in a teacup? Well, I’ve only got started. What I’ve written so far is what we know happened, but we haven’t starting asking why. I have two theories at to what their real motives were. One is only contemptible. The other theory, the worse theory, is far more alarming.

Why it’s not about debate

I have a rule that I do not make accusations as serious as censorship if the actions taken can be explained another way. In this case, the alternative explanation requires me to believe management we motivated by a combination of arrogance, incompetence, and denialism. But that’s okay. I do.

I may as well give my own position on Hylas and the Nymphs before I go on. It’s quite quick: I don’t have one. I’m not that interested in fine art, only the implications for artistic freedom and censorship, especially in theatre. I suppose I do have a broad-reaching view on nudity in paintings, which is that I’ve never entirely bought into this notion that a different set of moral standards applies to painting. I don’t see why a nudey lady in an painting should get a free pass, but a similar picture of a nudey lady in the centrefold of Playboy shouldn’t. But, at the end of the day, it’s only fair to ask what harm does it do? Contrary to what some people seem to think, a normal man does not go round committing sex crimes just because he saw a picture of a hot bird with no clothes on, be it a 19th-century painting in a gallery or a 21st-century photo on the internet.

Of course, context is everything. A picture of a nude model posing in an art journal is different from the same picture on a web page where readers describe how they’d do her. The context claimed by Manchester Art Gallery was that this painting was a Victorian fantasy that needs to be challenged.  As I said, I have zero interest in this painting so I have no idea whether it’s actually is a Victorian fantasy. (If it was, I still don’t see why joining some attractive ladies for a skinny dip requires challenging as a permissible fantasy, but I digress.) What I do know, however, is that the vast majority of people who expressed an opinion totally disagreed with this description. Far from a fantasy of hot babes enticing Hylas for some hot babe action, it’s pointed out that in the myth, they are luring Hylas into the water to drown him. For from glorifying a man for objectifying women, they argue, it is the women who are the powerful ones here.

But, Manchester Art Gallery management fanboys exclaim, look at the debate we’re having on a painting. Wasn’t it wonderful, the way that taking the painting away for a few days caused such and interesting discussion on such an important work of art? Well, yes, maybe, if that truly was then intention. But I don’t believe it was. You see, my theory is that “it started a conversation” was simply their excuse to do something they knew would probably fly in the face of public opinion. And why not? This excuse has worked plenty of times before.

I first complained about this practice back in 2014 with pretentious piss-weasel Paul McCarthy’s giant butt-plug Place Vendôme in Paris. It caused enormous anger amongst the people of Paris who objected over something they hated being imposed on them by arrogant officials, but not only were their complaints considered worthless, it was considered vindication of the great man by creating this debate about modern art. What’s that you say, you’re sick and tired of all of these stunts being excused under the guise of “promoting debate”? Our point exactly, you are adding the wonderful debate we the enlightened bestows upon you. This circular logic has been used again and again to impose artistic decisions nobody asked for and nobody wanted. And it might have worked this time too, were it not for the fact that they made it so blatant – blatant, that is, that they didn’t really want public debate. What they really wanted was public validation.

Why so blatant? Well, for a start, if you want to start a free and open debate, one wouldn’t use such loaded statement, and by “loaded” I mean sentences that contain unfounded assertions of fact in the so-called conversation-opener. In the statement put on the wall and on their blog (scroll past the update to get to the original piece), it said “Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!” One would have thought that had they wanted a fair debate, they’d have written “Is this a Victorian fantasy? Does this need to be challenged?” The rest of the wording wasn’t any better – it was quite obvious they didn’t consider their claim was up for debate, instead trying to narrow debate to how we respond to it. After the first 11 comments of total disagreement, Clare Gannaway, the museum’s curator for contemporary art and obvious ringleader of this stunt, doubled down with more of the same, disregarding every argument made so far, and throwing in a spurious link between this painting and that sex party at the President’s Club. I suppose this could normally be justified as providing some balance to the debate, but can I really believe she’d have played devil’s advocate had the comments gone the other way? Um, I think not.

Henrietta Rae's painting with Mary Whitehouse going In addition, for people claiming to be interested in discussion, they displayed a woeful lack of knowledge of what they were supposed to be discussing. You don’t have to agree with the prevailing consensus on what a painting means, but you should at least try to learn what the prevailing consensus is, and that was Google-level research. I suppose they made a token acknowledgement to the story by saying that there are two types of naked ladies in art, “passive decorative form” or “femme fatale” (presumably man-drowners fall into the second group), but one would have thought they would have noted that there are women who painted similar stuff before going on about male fantasies. Instead other people pointed it out to them. Christ, they’re so bad at this.

After the painting went back up, they changed their tune considerably, saying how important the painting was the the museum’s collection. It is not clear whether the Council ordered them to do a U-turn, or whether they chose themselves to switch to damage control now they realised the game was up, but I cannot believe they coincidentally had a change of heart at exactly the same time the Council intervened. One thing notably absent was any sign of contrition. The public weren’t just overwhelming in their support for putting the painting back up, they were also overwhelming in their opposition for taking it down in the first place under the guise of debate, and yet still the gallery claimed this was vindication of their decision. Apart from the one U-turn forced on them, the management have not taken part in the debate to address any of the criticisms. It’s little use listening if you ignore everything you’ve listen to.

But Manchester Art Gallery’s biggest sin is their disdain for the “wrong” kind of debate. Apart from their obvious preference for the verdict they wanted, it was also pretty obvious what they waiting the scope of the debate to be: namely how bad the painting was and what do do about it. Instead, the public wanted to talk about the ethics of taking the painting down, something which they have utterly refused to engage in. One other thing the public are questioning whether the gallery’s management should stay in their jobs; I have a little more sympathy for management not wanting to engage with that, but when you do something that was so obviously going to enrage to public, what do you expect?

Whilst they haven’t expressly said those topics are not open for discussion, some of their more sycophantic supporters have – including the writer of this article, supposedly from a writer and curator who happened to take an interest, but given she did not disclose her affilation as co-creator of the aforementioned Brighton exhibition makes me suspect it’s really a shill piece for the gallery. Contempt and ire, they say, wilfully obscures the discussion. Tough shit. You don’t get to dictate the terms of the conversation. You wanted a debate, you got a debate, and if the public chooses to discuss different things than you hoped for, you can’t turn round and shout “No, not that discussion!” After they’d banged on about how important it is to discuss things some big-wigs supposedly don’t want discussing, it’s staggeringly hypocritical to get upset when the public choose to talk about things they don’t want discussing.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on a management team when the plan went this badly wrong. My guess is that they may have been prepared for a fair amount of pushback, but wildly underestimated how bad it would be. Had the feedback on their own web page been kinder, they could have dismissed the universal condemnation on social media as typical internet trolls. Or they might counted on stay how women and men expressed different views “and that’s telling, isn’t it”, were it not for the fact that both sexes were overwhelmingly against. Or they might have counted on enough modern art curators to auto-defend their actions and tried to pass that off as public exoneration. Or anything, anything to spin the narrative to the verdict the wanted, anything they could cherry-pick to show support, if only they hadn’t been trounced in public reaction on each and every front. I guess they’ll think twice before picking this kind of battle again.

So that sums up why I don’t believe for a moment they were after a debate. They wanted a loaded discussion to claim public support for a stance they already believe in. It’s just that they bungled it badly. But it does raise the question: supposing they’d been right? What would have happened if they’d got enough support to claim victory?

Possibly nothing. Their interest may have been nothing more than proving a point and looking good to their peers. Or things might have been taken further. That brings us to the second scenario. The far more worrying one. The one that every artist who values their freedom should care about.

Why it could be about censorship

First thing’s first. If anyone from Manchester Art Gallery is reading this and doesn’t like what I’ve said so far, it’s going to get worse. Up to now I’ve based by arguments on facts, but now I’m going to speculate a lot more on your motives. And you are not going to like what I’m about to suggest. If this offends you, I’m afraid you’ve brought this on yourself. No-one is buying your excuses for why you’ve behaved this way. You need to come clean over your real intentions. Until you do, I make no apologies for floating suggestions for what your intentions were.

One other thing before anyone strawmans me: I have no particular interest in protecting people who want to spew sexist or racist bile in the name of free speech. Anyone who wishes to do that is on their own. I do, however, oppose the practice of using racism and sexism as an excuse to censor art, when all the art under attack does is violate somebody’s petty moral codes. I will return to this in a moment.

Right, where were we?

I have a theory that the real reason for the removal of the Hylas painting wasn’t just to start a debate, or even grab some attention. Maybe, just maybe, the true reason was to test the water. Had there been enough support, or enough indifference, this might have paved the way for a new kind of censorship that now threatens the arts. Not just in one art gallery in Manchester, but everywhere.

Before I say what, though, a bit of background. I have long-standing opposition to censorship on this blog, certainly not when the grounds for censorship was that it offended someone – if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. And if art expresses a view you find objectionable, the correct thing to do is respond and tells us why that view is wrong. Anyway, I don’t know whether I’ve changed or the world’s changed, but I’ve seen a lot more effort to censor art in the last few years as politics grows more bitter and polarised. Some consider censorship of the arts a left-wing thing. That’s not quite true – anyone who remembers Mary Whitehouse knows the authoritarian right tries just as hard as the authoritarian left to ban things they object to. But in order to get anywhere in arts censorship, you need artists willing to censor other artists. The authoritarian right has few friends in the arts world, and they get nowhere. The authoritarian left does, and sometimes succeeds.

What Mary Whitehouse and others on the authoritarian right did achieve, however, was developing a handy blueprint for arts censorship. She worked out that no-one’s interested in banning things just because of some busybody’s sensibilities. What you have to do is to persuade the public that it’s harmful in some way. Of course you rarely win an argument over art being harmful in fair debate, so don’t have a fair debate. Instead, pick on something that plenty of people have heard of but few people actually understand. Ideally, whip up panic so quickly that the people who could defend it are so tainted with this degeneracy that no-one will engage with them. These tactics honed by the authoritarian right have been appropriated by the authoritarian left, except that instead of “think of the children”, they treat everybody like children.

This tactic is doing varying degrees of damage over different disciplines of the arts. One area that is under particular threat is Young Adult fiction, where there’s tales of online witch-hunts calling authors out for allegedly sexist or racist content – and by witch-hunt a mean the metaphor of the thing that never found actual witches (and by “allegedly sexist or racist” I mean “obviously not sexist or racist for anyone who actually read it”). One horror story I heard of was The Black Witch, called out for racism. The evidence? In the story, humans are considered a superior race to selkies, fae and wolfmen – clearly, so some claim, a coded message for racial discrimination. Well, uh, yes, except the point of the book is that racism is bad. That is like claiming Harry Potter is a racist book because of the stuff about mudbloods. With one difference: so many people know about Harry Potter, that claim would be torn to shreds in minutes. Small authors don’t have fan following to protect them. The few people who actually read the book were online shamed too for the crime of reading the racist book. Smart censors choose their victims well.

So far, theatre in Britain has largely been spared this. Possibly thanks to open festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe, the ethos of freedom of expression has held up very well. When people have tried get work banned, they are called out, the consequences are severe, and often the play gets even more popular thanks to the Streisand effect. But I have suspicions of a new censorship tactic emerging. Under this system, no-one tries to censor the plays themselves – but they want everything surrounding it controlled, so tightly that it has the same effect. Venue managers are leaned on to refuse bookings from the wrong kind of plays. Reviewers are told to penalise artists who express ideas deemed incorrect by the censors. If you have enough people on your side, anyone who is non-compliant, can be targeted with hit pieces as a warning to others. They won’t describe any of these practice the way I do, of course. Instead, it’s all nicely packaged as using exercising social responsibility in your position.

Artists are still free to do what they want, but with enough culture policing, theatre that expresses incorrect ideas, cut off from enough publicity and opportunities, will fail to get off the ground, thereby sheltering prospective audiences from wrongthink. If you’re powerful enough, the same treatment can be given to theatre that expresses insufficient  correct ideas (because All Art is Political™ and failure to stand up to the bad side means you’re supporting it), so that audiences can be exposed to more rightthink. Are there enough people in theatre to make this a reality? At the moment, probably no. Are there people in theatre who wish they could? I fear the answer is yes.

Anyway, that’s enough background. Let’s get back to the matter in hand, How much does Manchester Art Gallery’s stunt have in common with the tactics I’ve described? Too much for comfort. Misunderstanding art to find problems with it? Tick. Making claims that art is harmful? Tick. Attempting to control how the art is perceived? Tick. True, they haven’t gone the whole hog and attacked dissenters for supporting a misogyny in a misogynistic painting, but only because they couldn’t do that and expect to keep their jobs. What if they could? What if they knew they had enough support to take things further? One thing’s for certain: if it’s censorship you’re after, you don’t stop at one painting. If you can successfully take down work for violation of arbitrary moral standards and get away with it, you can go ahead and take down more. There’s plenty of ideologically compliant work you can choose from to fill the space. Just as long as you’re sure there’ll be no repercussions.

But whilst there’s plenty of justified alarm over the motives of taking down the painting, I don’t think there’s nearly enough alarm over their original plans to eventually put it back up. “They made it clear from the start the removal was temporary,” say the fanboys. “That proves it’s not censorship.” I’m not so sure. Before their forced U-turn, the talk was of putting it back at an unspecified time in the future, in a more appropriate context for the 21st century. In other words, surround the painting with whatever we think will judge the painting appropriately in 2018 (where current year = what we decree the correct morals for society). Don’t let the plebs make up their own mind, and definitely don’t let them see the art without being shown what’s wrong with it.

At the risk of using the most over-used insult in the history of the internet (and apologies for repeating the point many other people have already made), prior to the climbdown, the way they were headed was uncomfortably close to the Degenerate Art Exhibition of Nazi Germany. The Nazis knew there was only so far you could go telling people how terrible the Bad Art was before people wanted to see for themselves what was so Bad about it. So they had a exhibition in Munich with writing around the Bad Art to inform people why it was Bad. It didn’t work quite as well they intended – the fact that they went to such lengths to tell people how Bad it became a badge of honour for the works exhibited. A bit like what’s happened with this Hylas painting now. However, the biggest victims of Degenerate Art weren’t the artworks in the exhibition, but the works that were banned quietly without the publicity.

Which leads me on to the most serious question. If Manchester Art Gallery wanted to censor paintings like the Hylas one (or at least label them as bad/degenerate/problematic), it backfired spectacularly – it was too popular, they picked the wrong fight. But how many works have they censored quietly? How can we be sure that the curators at Manchester Art Gallery are refusing to exhibit works, not for any lack of artistic merit, not because it isn’t what the public wants, but simply because it expresses an opinion that the curators want repressed? It’s one thing if it’s something horribly sexist or racist, but when the curators here conflate harmless artistic expression with sex clubs, we can’t trust their judgement. The state can only censor art overtly. Art curators can censor art quietly and call it curation.

Only that doesn’t matter any more, not in Manchester. Like when Senator McCarthy overplayed his hand going after the army, Manchester Art Gallery overplayed its hand going after Hylas and the Nymphs. Their reputation now lies in tatters, and there’s no chance they’ll be able to do anything remotely like this in the future without being found it. No, the people we have to worry about are other cultural autocrats, wherever they may be, who aren’t so blatant over using their positions of power to suppress off-message art. Who is refusing to programme the wrong work? Who is writing bad reviews to punish the wrong ideas? Who is turning down grants to the wrong artists? It’s almost impossible to tell; how can you prove that was the reason?

We can be pretty sure the Hylas removal wasn’t about provoking debate (at least, not the one they claim credit for starting); we may never know whether censorship was part of their true agenda. Either way, this became a battle of artistic freedom versus culture policing, and the right side won. But this just one battle in a war. Let this be a wake-up call for all of us. A small number of people in the arts world wield a huge amount of power, and what we learned last week is – in at least one place – with great power comes great irresponsibility. It’s not Manchester Art Gallery who should worry us now, it’s other authoritarians using their power to suppress artistic freedom. We know very little about who they are, where they are, and how many of them there are. We can only watch out for this and be ready when it happens. Eternal vigilance has never been so important.

The TL;DR summary:

And if you’ve skimmed through that, here’s the brief summary of what’s wrong with the stunt Manchester Art Gallery pulled:

  • They are engaging in a lot of revisionism to gloss over the fact they had massive public opposition, no matter how you measure it.
  • They asked leading questions to try to steer the debate to the outcome they wanted, backtracking only once it was clear the public wasn’t buying it.
  • They behaved like they have the right to set the terms of the debate, and that questions over their decision as management are off-limits.
  • Whilst I’d stop short of calling this act censorship, they may well have been testing the water to see if they could make this into censorship later.
  • Their rhetoric also had things in common with arguments used to justify other censorship campaigns.
  • It’s not Manchester Art Gallery you should be concerned about now, but similarly-minded people elsewhere who haven’t been quite so obvious in the tactics.

In short: last week’s fiasco is a wake-up call for how easily the few in positions of power can misuse it for their own purposes. They aren’t the first, and they won’t be the last. Don’t let your guard down.

Postscript: Just in case any sycophants from Manchester Art Gallery start digging through my blog, they’ll probably notice that I didn’t complain when someone vandalised Paul McCarthy’s butt-plug tree. Fair point, why am I protesting against one and not the other? Well, it all boils down the principle I’ve said before: if you don’t like it, don’t see it. If you really object to nymphs in the nuddy that much, no-one’s forcing you to enter that room in the gallery. You cannot, however, expect the same of a public square in Paris. Telling people who hated that to do their shopping somewhere else is not a reasonable request. I don’t think I can go as far as support the vandalism, but I also have trouble feeling sorry for the artist when it was a deliberately inflammatory act that enabled him to play the martyr. Try taking down a piece on contemporary art in Manchester Art Gallery that nobody likes, then two events might be comparable.

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