An art gallery in Manchester, England removed a famous painting by pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse from an exhibit in January. By February, after public outcry, it was back.
The painting is Hylas and the Nymphs, a depiction of a young man being lured into a pond by a group of beautiful, nude water nymphs. It’s certainly sexual in nature, probably a PG-13 or even R scene if one had to subject it to the ratings of the Motion Pictures Association. But it wasn’t religious groups, armies of homeschooling moms, or puritanical conservative activists who wanted the painting removed.
No, it was the new puritan — the woke activist.
The painting, which hung in a room entitled “In Pursuit of Beauty,” was removed “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” The gallery’s curator felt a “sense of embarrassment” that the 19th century art displayed in the room depicted women as passive objects and femme fatale figures without proper modern #TimesUp and #MeToo context.
After its removal, there was indeed conversation in newspapers, social media, and on the wall of the gallery, where visitors left Post-It notes: “good subject for debate, but please put it back and analyze in context!” and “Why not remove ‘Sirens & Ulysses’ in Gallery 6? Based on similar concept of femme fatale? Was it a bit too heavy to carry?”
The removal was a prelude to a March exhibition by Sonia Boyce, a modern artist and professor at Middlesex. She called its removal “art in action,” saying the idea was to get more people involved in the value judgments that go into what art is displayed. The gallery claims the removal was never meant to be permanent. Postcards of the work were also removed from the gift shop. Her full explanation is here.
Here’s how the removal of the piece went down — in the most eye-rollingly woke, modern art professor way possible. A professor and five members of a “drag collective” walk into an art gallery to talk about viewing art in a non-binary way. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
“The reason why I invited five performance artists to Manchester Art Gallery last month — Lasana Shabazz, and the drag collective Family Gorgeous: Anna Phylactic, Venus Vienna, Liquorice Black and Cheddar Gorgeous — was to ask them to respond artistically to various works in these historical galleries with an audience of gallery-goers. This was to help us consider these artworks in a non-binary way. The takedown of Hylas and the Nypmhs happened at the end of this event. I think people who weren’t there imagine a rather raucous, militant action, but in truth the taking down was sedate and quite low-key. Once the painting was off the wall, people continued mingling.”
Calm, censorious mobs are still censorious mobs. The point of this exercise, whether it created conversation or not, was to send the signal that this particular work is outside of bounds. After a seven-day absence and lots of outcry, the painting is back up, and the gallery calls the response “fantastic.”
“We’ve been inundated with responses to our temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs as part of the forthcoming Sonia Boyce exhibition, and it’s been amazing to see the depth and range of feelings expressed. The painting is rightly acknowledged as one of the highlights of our pre-Raphaelite collection, and over the years has been enjoyed by millions of visitors to the gallery. We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades — and not just from local people but from art lovers around the world. Throughout the painting’s seven-day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues.”
This week, word also came out of Duluth that public schools there will stop requiring the study of Mark Twain’s
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” because the canon of American classics is not properly woke and uses racial slurs that school officials feel students can’t possibly handle and contextualize, despite having teachers who are supposed to teach them to handle and contextualize things.
Duluth schools will generously allow these American masterpieces to stay in the school library where students can read them on their own time, but they will not be part of required 11th grade readings thanks to years of complaints about the use of racial slurs in these works.
The local NAACP head called the novels “just hurtful” and local school officials suggested plenty of other novels can teach the same lessons without hurting students.
“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” curriculum director [Michael] Cary told the Duluth News Tribune.
The decision did not involve teachers, only administrators. The Superintendent has an interesting take on what teaching and learning should be about.
“When curriculum materials are making some students feel uncomfortable, then we need to make a better choice,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said.
Getting rid of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Mark Twain works are not without precedent. They’ve been moving steadily up the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books over the last two and a half decades as wokeness becomes the new cause for censors.
The most recent high-profile jettisoning of “To Kill a Mockingbird” happened in Biloxi, Miss. in 2017. There, officials brought the book back after outcry in the community. Students now have the option to do an intensive study of the book with parental permission.
At the time, a group of mature 11th-graders from New Jersey wrote letters appealing to Biloxi officials not to abandon the book, making me believe for a fleeting moment that the children really are the future.
“These derogatory and offensive words are powerful; they make people uncomfortable because they are painful to hear. However, it is critical that discrimination, offensive language and racism are discussed in the classroom,” they wrote. “We need a book like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to illustrate the extreme prejudice that existed in our country’s past and to help start a conversation about the issues that sadly still exist today.”
A lot of art can potentially make people uncomfortable, particularly when it deals with different times and hard issues. Disappearing controversial words and works doesn’t make us smarter. Even if art is calmly removed by a non-binary group of performers with awesome outfits and names, let’s not pretend it’s a conversation.
More speech makes a conversation, not less.
In Manchester and Biloxi, speaking up for speech subverted silencing. If we have some more of that, we might be able to keep more nice things and nice conversations.