Is it art – or a trigger warning?

Once, the establishment might have left the unsavoury implications to the viewer’s own intelligence

Artillery Row

At Tate Britain’s current exhibition of British Baroque (helpfully subtitled ‘Power and Illusion’), a warning in one of the rooms sternly states that ‘there are artworks representing slavery on display in this room’. Although the text notes that ‘as a museum, we want to show works from the past that don’t shy away from the brutal histories they reflect’, this has to be done in a fashion ‘that feels safe for all visitors’. Therefore, it is necessary that these ‘challenging artworks’ are not displayed ‘without warning’, and spectators are reassured that ‘a group of Tate staff with a range of expertise and experience will discuss every point raised and we will use this to guide the steps we take in this area.’

Anyone reading this could be forgiven for having their interest piqued to a level of near-mania. What are these challenging, deviant pictures? And how can they be displayed in public at all? The answer comes relatively soon, in the form of Benedetto Gennari’s portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, dressed in the guise of the goddess Diana. The artwork – which is apparently so transgressive that no image of it can be found on the Tate’s website – depicts the duchess surrounded by black servants and pageboys, represented in semi-naturalistic detail. The most disturbing detail is that, although they are shown smiling, they wear collars around their necks: a reminder that, even in mythological settings, the realities of 17th-century indenture and bondage were ever-present.

It is easy to ridicule the woke, but that does not mean that we should refrain from doing so

Once, the establishment might have left the unsavoury implications to the viewer’s own intelligence, but now it is consisted incumbent upon the gallery to spell out the significance of what the picture depicts. An earnest notice now notes that ‘until very recently museums, including Tate, would have displayed paintings such as this one with little or no acknowledgement of the demeaning way Black figures are represented.’ But now, in 2020, things have changed. ‘In displaying this work, we hope we can begin to explore these difficult histories. This important but deeply troubling picture is included in the exhibition because it challenges us to reflect upon the presence of Black people in Britain and their mistreatment.’

It is possible that there might be those who are interested enough in the Baroque era to pay up to £16 for a ticket, but are shocked and appalled at the realisation that there was slavery in 17th century England. Yet these people seem to be very much in the minority. Were this to be an isolated incident, then one could argue that it is a rather over-earnest attempt on a curator’s part to be socially relevant and inclusive, and that the presence of such warnings is at least preferable to overt censorship.

However, when I visited the William Blake exhibition at the Tate last year, I saw the sign ‘Please be aware that the art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of cruelty, suffering, sexual violence and the brutal treatment of enslaved people’. Once inside, I discovered that Blake was an early proponent of LGBTQ+ rights, something that came as something of a surprise to me, and may well have been a revelation to him, as well. On which note, a forthcoming exhibition of Aubrey Beardsley’s art – the first in half a century – warns spectators that ‘Many of Aubrey Beardsley’s works use deliberately provocative imagery, including nudity and sexually explicit content’. A future Andy Warhol display also boasts further nudity and sexually explicit content; it is with relief that one discovers that a Dora Maar exhibition is simply surreal, rather than obscene or trigger-worthy in some fashion.

It is easy to ridicule the earnest and often ludicrous preoccupations of the woke, but that does not mean that we should refrain from doing so. Tate Britain might be guilty of being over-protective of its visitors, but at least they are writing their signs in clear and comprehensible English. This is not the case at the Barbican, which is using some extraordinary language at its current ‘Masculinities’ exhibition. Indeed, much of what is being written could be accurately described by Kingsley Amis’s phrase ‘the sceptre of bum’, in both senses.

One display is ‘an attempt to expose and destabilise the systems of hegemonic male power that enable and normalise these acts of violence.’ Once one has attempted to translate this, another treat is round the corner, in the form of the caption on the artist Ana Mendieta’s 1972 work ‘Untitled. (Facial Hair Transplants)’. This series highlights ‘the idea that binary gender constructions are social constructions that frame and overdetermine sexualities’, and that ‘by hybridising her identity, Mendieta problematised those classifications, suggesting that so-called masculine identity as expressed through facial hair is nothing but artifice.’ Which is, when one breaks this down to comprehensible English, essentially saying that growing a moustache or beard can temporarily change a man’s appearance.

Another section of the exhibition, entitled ‘Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space’, boasts that it ‘examines the unequal power relations that exist between genders as well as the relationship of marginalised masculinities to the patriarchal order, which is predicated on the dominance of hegemonic masculinity.’ It is impossible not to feel that the curators of this exhibition, who seem to have an uneasy relationship with the more elegant uses of the English language, have taken reference in a kind of woke bingo in an attempt to see how many buzzphrases that they can include. ‘Hegemonic’ thus appears at last twice, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘patriarchal’ have a fair airing and ‘masculinity’ is used multiple times in the same sentence.

Judged purely semantically, this is truly appalling writing, cliché-ridden and sloppy, but few are likely to make a formal complaint, as the intentions behind it, after all, cannot be challenged. There is nothing wrong with an exhibition exploring male identity, and in fact most reviews of ‘Masculinities’ have praised it for bringing together a collection of rare and unseen work, but the sanctimonious, hectoring tone displayed is likely to irritate and offend considerably more than anything being shown in the exhibition.

The irony is, of course, that many great figures in the history of art were Problematic to the highest degree in their personal lives. Beardsley almost certainly had an incestuous relationship with his sister, and Eric Gill notoriously slept with both his daughters and his dog. Paul Gauguin would undoubtedly be regarded as a paedophile today for having contracted a marriage to the 13-year old Polynesian girl Teha’amana. Damien Hirst stated that the 9/11 hijackers had ‘achieved something which nobody would have thought possible, especially to a country as big as America. So on one level they need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing’. Caravaggio was a murderer, as was Benvenuto Cellini. And yet all of their work remains in major collections, and is repeatedly displayed in exhibitions. Few would have wish for their art to be consigned to basements, or shadowy vaults owned by opportunistic collectors, acquiring this work cheaply and hoping that that society changes again in the future.

I visited a Gill retrospective, ‘The Body’ a couple of years ago in the village of Ditchling, where he worked and lived between 1907 and 1924. The warnings here were restrained compared to the Tate’s – ‘there are a small number of drawings and wood-engravings which are sexually explicit in content’ – but there was also the valid question asked as to whether Gill’s ‘disturbing biography’ affected how we felt about his depiction of the human figure. Visitors were asked to leave a note with their impressions, for others to see.

They made for interesting reading. There was no talk of ‘hegemony’, or ‘patriarchy’, and nobody referred to having been triggered by Gill’s work. Instead, there was a range of responses. Some talked of how the display had been ‘challenging and disturbing’, but they were glad that they had seen it; others commented that they ‘didn’t know what all the fuss was about’ when it came to Gill’s art, as its appreciation could remain separate from the context in which it could be created.

This may be untrue, and indeed understanding something of Gill’s biography makes the work all the more compelling – and disturbing. But what I appreciated about the exhibition was that it did not attempt to guide spectators to an ‘acceptable’ conclusion, but instead to use their own intelligence, not least in having chosen to visit the museum at all. Art should be challenging, surprising and unorthodox, and the continued propagation of work that has something to say both about our past and the contemporary is a very welcome thing. But obscuring it with trigger warnings or incomprehensible jargon is not the best way of dealing with it. Display interesting art, and give people enough credit for their intelligence to respond to it in their own ways. Otherwise, a very regrettable hegemony will be created – with or without the patriarchy.

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