Visitors to museums often rely on the explanatory caption panels placed beside exhibits to make any real sense of them. Pity poor visitors to York Art Gallery in England, then, many of whom may have been unaware of the precise historical context surrounding the institution’s prized 17th-century oil painting by Italian Old Master Bernardo Cavallino, depicting the martyrdom of St. Agatha. Staring ecstatically up toward heaven, Cavallino’s dying St. Agatha seems to await imminent acceptance into the welcoming bosom of the angels.
Gallery-goers are not told Agatha’s (partly legendary) story, in which the young maiden was put to death by a cruel Roman prefect named Quintianus for bravely refusing to sleep with and then marry him. Punished first by being forced to work in a brothel, she was then tortured to death, with the culminating horror of having her breasts removed with sharpened pincers while still alive. In Cavallino’s depiction, St. Agatha discreetly covers her chest wounds with her hands and dress, leaving her disfigurement to the viewer’s imagination. Just looking at it, it is by no means obvious what is going on.
Reading the plaque next to the painting, visitors would have been none the wiser about Agatha’s cruel fate, as its author appears to be not an actual qualified art historian, but a random “transmasculine” pundit — that is to say, a woman play-acting at being a man via acts of voluntary, rather than enforced, self-mutilation of her own chest — who had been engaged to give a personal self-absorbed perspective on the painting thus:
St Agatha is usually shown with her severed breasts on a plate to represent her martyrdom. Here, however, she covers her newly flat chest and looks towards Heaven in ecstasy. This reminds me of the gender euphoria I felt the first time I, as a transmasculine person, wore a chest-binder. It hurt my ribs, but I finally saw myself the way I wanted to be. I see myself in androgynous Agatha. Euphoric, despite being tormented for simply being ourselves. Artworks of saints like this speak to the queer experience of pushing against social norms to live euphorically as ourselves.
While it certainly makes a nice change to see an LGBT cultist actually praising a Christian figure for once, the acclamation of a woman who has just had her breasts forcibly torn off by her intended rapist as being an “androgynous” and empowered icon of gender-bending is simply grotesque.
Breasts of Burden
The insensitive and celebratory attitude of this unnamed neurotic navel-gazer toward St. Agatha’s shorn mammaries is deeply creepy. On account of her grisly doom, Agatha is Roman Catholicism’s patron saint of both breast-cancer and rape victims alike, some of whom still pray to her for intercession today. How might such genuine victims react to having their actual sufferings conflated with the solipsistic, self-inflicted pseudo-problems of the anonymous “transmasculine” art critic?
According to the gallery, such notices are intended to “invite respectful discussion from differing perspectives.” In that case, in a spirit of genuine plurality of opinion, perhaps they might like to combine their present caption with one from a so-called “gender-critical feminist” arguing back that she objects most strenuously to the idea of having her biological and social identity as a woman being systematically erased by the twisted actions of state-sponsored trans activists, as symbolically and aptly represented here by the forced removal of St. Agatha’s shredded breasts?
It is perfectly possible to have an intense and subjective response to a work of art that is worthy of expression in a personal essay or other written work, as with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s raptures in front of Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Dead Christ,” providing the partial inspiration for his novel “The Idiot.” But hanging this particular scribbled Post-It note up in York seems akin to the Uffizi or the Louvre galleries displaying essays from those more harmless lunatics who claim to see UFOs in Renaissance paintings (they’re actually discs of holy light emanating from the clouds of Heaven) as being valid interpretations of what is actually displayed within their gilt-edged frames.
Recently, I watched an otherwise instructive BBC documentary about the centenary of James Joyce’s Dublin-set 1922 novel “Ulysses” that was ruined by the bizarre implication that the final words in the character Molly Bloom’s famous concluding monologue, “yes I said yes I will Yes,” were somehow a reference to the “Yes” vote in Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage, which took place almost 100 years later. It seems these monomaniacal obsessives are seeing the gay equivalent of UFOs in paintings all over the place these days. Just because Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” resemble certain unfortunate contestants on Ru Paul’s “Drag Race,” it doesn’t mean they actually are; just because the artist himself once had a Blue Period, it doesn’t make him a “person who menstruates.”
False Mammary Syndrome
The offending anti-explanatory caption was created as part of a project termed “Queering the Burton” (a specific wing of the gallery) designed in conjunction with a local gay group aimed at transforming the taxpayer-funded gallery into “a more welcoming and inclusive space for the LGBTQI+ community” at the expense of systematically alienating everyone else. The consequent queer responses to these works, displayed on the walls, are filled with blatant anachronisms. They are said to “creatively draw on lived experience,” but that is a mere euphemism for trans agitators making these paintings all about themselves rather than their actual subjects; they should have been asked to craft captions for paintings of Narcissus, not St. Agatha.
Naturally, some of the so-called Queering Group’s projects are aimed at brainwashing children, with a school-holiday-period “Curious Takeover!” of the gallery targeting 4- to 7-year-olds. The building’s contents were repurposed to “celebrate families of all shapes and sizes,” although perhaps not any normal ones consisting of a happily married mother and father. Meanwhile, the invaluable lecture “How To Queer a Museum With Matt Smith” promises a “how-to guide” account of how the curator in question has “subverted museum displays” across the nation to make them gay.
But how can you make exhibits gay when in actual fact they simply aren’t? “How Curators Are Queering Art History,” an online interview with Stanford University Professor in Art History Richard Meyer, author of the book “Art & Queer Culture,” gives a good idea of the most efficient tactics to pursue. Why not simply seek out certain chance old items that happened to have been created by long-dead homosexuals (or presumed homosexuals), such as photographs and yellowing scrapbooks of news clippings of women dressed a bit like men, then just arbitrarily reclassifying them as somehow being art, even though their creators “would never have called [themselves] an artist,” and replacing all the boring old non-queer paintings and sculptures in our museums with them instead, regardless of their actual aesthetic worth?
“I like the idea that sometimes queer history is invented history,” Meyer explained. “I love that about queer culture. It’s not all based in factual claims, but the power of the imagination to create things that weren’t there in the moment.” Or, indeed, that simply were never there at all. When will these tedious people finally stop making such a public exhibition of themselves?