It being a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend – when Manchester makes its annual grab at looking fresh, clean and full of expectation for the summer ahead – seeking chilled out stimulation Gail and I took a long overdue trip to the recently refurbished and extended Whitworth Art Gallery.
Firstly, I should say that walking anywhere in the vicinity of Whitworth Park in springtime does something to my head as it reminds me of a blossomy day in May 1981 when I, and a group of university chums consumed an ample quantity of magic mushrooms and wandered around giggling and touching things randomly. How appropriate that the same park is now dotted with abstract sculpture although in these days of stern realities, there is no space for hallucinated re-imaginings of anything. Only a drug addled idiot could possibly mistake this sculpture in the shape of a climbing frame for an actual climbing frame. Duh!
Inside the gallery, the architects and curators have done a fine job. The new spaces are inviting, beautifully lit… and full of interesting artsy STUFF. I could easily write a critique of the art and installations therein – seriously, if you’re in Manchester, make some time for a visit, it’s an excellent series of displays – some are better than others…
…but the thing that really caught my eye was this official ‘warning’ posted at either end of one of the new exhibition spaces:
My pulse quickens. My expectations are high. I am about to be SHOCKED.
So what is this piece of art so offensive that the gallery offers the services of its staff to guide you through it unoffended?
I’ve been known to rail loudly against gallery zombies who wander round with their iPhones taking pictures of pictures they are absolutely never ever going to look at again (the ultimate double fail – they didn’t look at the paintings then, and they’re not going to look at them later either), so I hope you’ll forgive my hypocrisy on this occasion, just to illustrate this blog.
Schütte’s installation – entitled Low Tide Wandering (admittedly the sort of title that makes me sigh) comprises a sequence of prints/sketches/etchings, pegged to ‘washing lines’ across a gallery thoroughfare, through which the viewer has to weave. The images are eclectic – portaits of friends, doodles (there’s one of a plate of Strudel), cartoons, satirical observations. My initial response is that it’s pretty good. Certainly it’s the kind of thing I enjoy, although Grayson Perry has a lot to answer for – 80% of new art I see these days is stuff with writing on. Enough with the scribbling guys!! But taken on its own it’s funny, smart, astute. A sort of artist-thinker’s mind map hung out to dry labyrinth stylie. It’s fun.
Gail has wandered off to explore it on her own. ‘It’s over here!!’ She calls to me merrily. I go over, and hanging in no particular pride of place, not far from the strudel, is a minimalist doodle of a black American jazz trumpeter, and the single algebraic supremo of racial slurs. The n word.
Now, obviously, the interpretation of any artistic piece – pretty much anything at all actually – is by its very nature subjective, but I would confidently venture that Schütte isn’t endorsing racial labelling. He’s clearly (well, clearly to me, anyway) juxtaposing the iconic imagery twentieth century music making with a racist label, and asking the viewer to explore their response to the disparity between the two.
Nearby, not far from the Strudel, there’s a cartoon of the Twin Towers, adorned by the caption: ‘Holy Shit’. Do I need to explain that here? Of course I don’t. I’m sure you get the drift. This is an artist who deals in multiple meanings. It’s hardly the stuff of a PhD on semiotics and irony.
I go over to the young, keen and highly articulate gallery attendant. I ask her whether anyone has requested, as the gallery plaques offer, to be guided through the installation avoiding the depiction of the racist word. ‘No,’ she says, ‘but I have had people come up to me asking for me to point it out so they can look at it.’
Whoa. Say that again. I mean, let me get this absolutely clear: The gallery are warning people that the installation contains images and words that may be considered offensive, and offering to assist people so that they don’t see this stuff, but actually what people are doing is asking the staff to point them out to them, so they don’t have to hunt for them or stumble across them as the ‘wandering’ part of the title – (see picture above) – clearly intends. And all of this after the gallery has explained the meaning of the work – the artist’s intention – in case they take one of the prints literally as a racist attack on a black jazz musician.
And no one has asked to be shown an inoffensive route through the exhibition?
‘Not from me, no.’ She explains that sometimes people come up to her, unsure which of the prints is supposed to offend them the most, and they just want to check with her to be sure.
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Irony overload.
The Gallery attendant doesn’t see it as being in anyway ironic. She’s quite a serious soul. She then tells me that one of the people who asked to be guided to the ‘n’ word picture was an African American woman who had heard that there was a racist art work on display at the gallery. She had come especially to check up on the piece, and demanded to be directed straight to the offending item, to judge for herself whether it was indeed offending.
‘What did she decide?’ I ask.
The attendant tells me that after lengthy consideration the woman had come to the conclusion that it was racist and offensive, because although the word was in the context of an artistic juxtaposition of ideas, and she understood that, and she understood Schütte’s intention, Schütte is a white German artist and therefore the word is not his to use.
Oh my pirouetting aunt.
Hang on a minute. So even if the viewer understands that the intention isn’t racist, and appreciates that the artist isn’t racist, the mere existence of the word on that piece of paper, put there by the wrong person renders it racist.
Was that a noisy tree I just heard falling in that empty forest…?
Well… in the eye of the beholder and all that, and I know that just as I find this whole thing beyond satire, equally one can’t tell someone not to be offended, you can’t tell them that something they find to be personally racist isn’t racist… but really, really?!?
The level headed Gallery Attendant is admonishing of my bewilderment. ‘I get it,’ she says. ‘The woman was African American and the word is far more potent for her.’
My brain is short circuiting now, like a confused super computer in an episode of Star Trek. So are we talking about the wrong artist and the right viewer? Or the wrong viewer and the right artist? Or is it the wrong artist and the wrong viewer? Or is it the right artist and the right viewer and her offence is part of the art work as a whole? I don’t think so (to that last one) because it seems to me that the Whitworth Gallery has completely lost trust in their visitors to simply look at stuff and make their own minds up. Like you normally do with art. Suddenly we’re ‘warning’ people which creates a prurient attraction to a racist word – and then telling them how they’re supposed to respond. This is surely light years adrift from Schütte’s original intention.
The attendant tells me that the gallery’s first response to complaints about the picture (I don’t know who from, or how many) was to remove the print in question. Then they had a change of heart – something of a censorship issue there I guess – and put it back and opted for the warning plaques.
Look, I get that it’s an offensive word, and that it’s incredibly potent… but I do squirm at the idea that words are owned by anybody (isn’t that how racism and prejudice kick off and are empowered to start with?). It’s about context. And that may not be a black and white thing. I choose that phrase quite deliberately, and in the spirit of Schütte’s ambiguity. I appreciate that context can be harder to justify when an ‘outsider’ starts to play artistically with someone else’s keyword of oppression. But hang on a minute – racism affects everyone, so everyone needs the space to talk about it – and that means that I should be able to type the word nigger right here if I feel I need to, and be trusted that I’m not endorsing Southern lynchings by doing so.
I feel the same about a word like yid. I hope I have the sense to understand that a non jew using the word may well do so for the best of reasons, and that if I understand it, and I understand the context of it, the mere existence of it on a piece of paper in an art gallery isn’t somehow validating the holocaust.
I’m aware that there are plenty of jews who don’t share my feelings – but I believe that, in itself, to be equally problematic. A sort of territorial clinging to the instruments of our own oppression. It skews everything. But perhaps that’s a subject for a different blog…
Back to The Whitworth’s artistic safety notices! The minute we stop trusting audiences to think for themselves, we kill our art stone dead. Ambiguity and context – and the pursuit of meaning – are at the heart of what makes art, art. But when I see an explanatory warning plaque in an art gallery I fear we’re developing a suffocating fear of ambiguity. Is this the stifling undertow of Charlie Hebdo – a literalist fundamentalism that turns everything to a frightened grey sludge?
It’s feeling like a new thing to me, but then I’m reminded of something that happened to me in 1983. I had just left Cardiff University where I had been studying for a postgraduate diploma in Theatre Studies at The Sherman Theatre, and along with a bunch of mates (not the mushrooming ones) we decided to sell-out every performance of a show for the Edinburgh Festival and actually make a bit of cash, by calling it Live Sex On Stage. Utterly shameless? Most definitely. But as satirical reviews about pornography go, this one was not bad at all. Here’s the poster:
Just to clarify, that’s the whole poster; a dayglo trompe l’oeil of a peeling tacky sex club poster pasted onto a brick wall emblazoned with the title ‘Live Sex On Stage!’ in crude lettering. Assuming people to be generally intelligent, making the poster a poster OF a poster, we modestly hoped it was clear that our poster WASN’T an ACTUAL Live Sex poster but a poster for a show ABOUT a live sex show.
Not so. In Hull, our show (which contained neither sex nor nudity, above the elbow) was closely scrutinised by two very disappointed members of the local Vice Squad (who had to watch from the lighting box because the performance was sold out, and to stand at the back of the auditorium would have infringed fire regulations).
In Worcester, moral panic set in a lot earlier. We were playing a council run venue and apparently there were complaints about the graphic nature of the poster. I’ve hunted high and low for the clipping so I could reproduce it here, but thirty years on it appears to be mislaid, so I ask you to trust my account of it. The gist of the article in the local rag was as follows: ‘Following complaints about the graphic nature of a poster for fringe theatre show, entitled “Live Sex On Stage!”, due to play at the blah venue next month, council officials have agreed that the word “Sex” be blanked out on all posters advertising the show displayed in council run premises. Councillors agreed that uncensored posters, with the word “Sex” fully visible, would be displayed openly at the Central Library.
To this day I cherish the thought of the good folk of Worcester trooping into the centre of town to look at a three letter word on a poster of a poster on a wall to decide whether they were titillated/outraged (delete where not applicable).
Wait a moment. Am I trivialising The Whitworth’s n-word controversy by comparing a vicious racist noun with a piece of ridiculous parochial prudery?
Well perhaps, but, equally perhaps the Worcester response gets to the nub of it. Terrified by the mere sight of the word ‘sex’, the authorities there decided that it would be permissible for the word to be seen in at least one library where, after all, the same word could probably be found in hundreds of worthy volumes. They trusted that people going to a library accepted that there were all sorts of words, with sticky connotations, which had a right to exist as part of the grand panoply of human experience contained (safely) within the walls of a municipal oasis of learning.
In a swimming pool, or on a bus stop a poster with the words ‘Live Sex On Stage!’ is just that. In a seat of learning, those who venture within are expected to search for deeper meanings.
Shouldn’t the same apply to an Art Gallery?
I would say so, but on the other hand I know those who would insist that that was an elitist view. The n word is racist in any context – stick Schütte’s picture on a bus stop and it’s a hate crime – putting it in a gallery doesn’t exempt it. To which I say, an art gallery is only elitist if you restrict those who might go there to an elite. The Whitworth is free to enter, and located within easy walking distance of the university to one side, and several deprived residential areas to the other.
Let’s not hijack social liberalism to say that it’s somehow wrong to hail our galleries, theatre and indeed central libraries as safe spaces for difficult, distasteful or even dangerous ideas.
And of course, there will always be an element of censorship and/or selection, but having agreed to display the thing, for god’s sake – for art’s sake, for humanity’s sake – please don’t put up signs recommending that people close their eyes. It’s an art gallery! If there’s anywhere where signs should be crying out for people to walk around with their eyes – and their minds – wide, wide open, it’s here.
We headed downstairs, through Sarah Lucas’s wonderful and witty ‘Tits In Space’ installation, to where the gallery had regained its sense of irony…
…much to my wife’s disappointment.