By now you’ve probably read or heard about the removal of Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs from the Manchester Art Gallery. If your social media circle is anything like mine, you’ve also seen numerous articles, Facebook debates, and sharply worded responses. The institution which sparked this controversy made it clear that their intention was to promote discussion, and in that very general goal I must admit they succeeded. People are angry, concerned, and confused. Speaking personally, I was initially disappointed in the gallery. In the end though, I was much more disappointed in myself.
It would probably be best to clarify a few items right off. Most importantly, if you have not read the official statement that explained this action, I recommend doing so. It took me many third party interpretations before I found my way back to the source. The gallery press release, in it’s entirety:
We have left a temporary space in Gallery 10 in place of Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse to prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.
How can we talk about the collection in ways which are relevant in the 21st century?
Here are some of the ideas we have been talking about so far. What do you think?
This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy!
The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?
What other stories could these artworks and their characters tell? What other themes would be interesting to explore in the gallery?
The act of taking down this painting was part of a group gallery takeover that took place during the evening of 26 January 2018. People from the gallery team and people associated with the gallery took part. The takeover was filmed and is part of an exhibition by Sonia Boyce, 23 March to 2 September 2018.
Contrary to almost every piece of coverage that I initially saw, there is nothing in this statement to suggest that the nude body is offensive. They do not describe the work as immoral, obscene, or otherwise malign the artist or painting in any way.
Additionally, the painting has already be restored to its original spot, being absent for a total of seven days.
How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?
My initial reaction to reading that a Waterhouse was being removed from a museum, ostensibly for an excess of sexiness as all reporting indicated, was anger and exasperation. I had the kneejerk response that I was to see ripple all through our community: this is puritanical censorship. That kneejerk reaction is important, and I will come back to it in a moment.
Following this was my eye rolling at what a blatant publicity stunt the whole thing was. Of course, their press release makes that pretty clear so I don’t know why it seemed particularly significant. But as I read more responses from like minded people, many passionate to the point of rage, I found myself suspecting that we might be missing the point.
The Manchester Art Gallery has been in possession of Hylas and the Nymphs since the very year that it was painted, well over a century ago. It is clearly a valued piece of their collection and history. And nobody had been agitating for its removal so far as I’ve read. To my best knowledge, this painting was a popular, completely uncontroversial piece hanging in a completely uncontroversial museum.
And so the gallery asks us, point blank, should the status quo be so uncontroversial? Are we giving proper consideration to traditional default depictions of women in art? Are we in step with similar conversations of women in other cultural outlets like film and TV? Is our representation inclusive? What improvements might be made, both in contextualizing the past and particularly in creating the future?
It’s all right there in the press release. Not “boobs are bad,” but “what do these boobs tell us about us?”
Unfortunately, the natural response when something which we enjoy is challenged is often to cover our ears and shout. Instead of talking about any of those completely relevant and damn uncomfortable and complicated questions, we do the kneejerk thing: shift the conversation to familiar and easily defended territory, relevance be damned. Difficult questions? Censorship! The lizard brain doesn’t look for nuance, it reacts on impulse. Instead of going straight to fight or flight though, what about assessing whether there is even a threat in the first place?
I can feel it now, you want to say “but this is Art, and this is History, and it’s in a museum! If we hide it away, we are betraying our highest ideals!” And while that is a perfectly valid position, it isn’t the issue. The relevant discussion should be about questioning where our status quo could use some routine maintenance. The stated goal is the opposite of censorship: not to conceal, but to fostering broader, deeper awareness and critical thinking. When I read the news articles and so many online responses (mostly to those articles), I’m warned of a destructive, scary wave of anti-sex hysteria just waiting to break and sweep half of art history away. When I read the statement and listened to follow-up comments from gallery curator Clare Gannaway, however, I see no such thing. All I see there are very reasonable questions about reappraising how art reflects our society in regard to “gender, race, sexuality and class,” and particularly what that will mean for future exhibits and contemporary works.
Unfortunately for me though, this brings me to a tricky place because I’m still very much struggling with these topics myself. By no means would or should I try to direct that particular conversation. I am doing my best to listen, however. The discomfort I have felt for some time at phrases like “the male gaze” and “objectification in art” are huge red flags that I need to better educate myself on issues that were invisible to me for most of my life. Invisible purely because I’ve always had the option to not bother about them.
Whenever I’ve felt some group of people is being overly sensitive, it almost always turns out I’m just ignorant to their problem. And so, as I was rolling my eyes, I saw my own dismissal reflected in the responses of so many others and I forced myself to pause. I reminded myself that these are telltale signs that I have misunderstood the problem, because I’ve been fortunate enough to not know that problem. Because confronting this problem is uncomfortable and threatening, particularly as a male artist who sometimes paints sexy women. But I want to understand it. I want to learn from it. Ultimately, I hope that doing so can help me as an artist. I’m certain it will help me as a person.
These questions and conversations are not new, but many aspects of them are new to me. I look forward to following along as these discussions continue. And I hope, the next time I’m confronted with a complicated social issue hiding in plain sight, I will be quicker to listen with an open mind.
When my kneejerk response to a plea for understanding is to roll my eyes, I now understand it’s because I’ve missed the point.
If you have thoughts on the issues raised in the Manchester Art Gallery’s statement, we strongly encourage you to comment!