“The Deadheads got their Jerry, and mom’s got her Barry…”

I’m rarely in sync with the squeaking styrofoam cogs of the news cycle, but sometimes a story turns my head, and I can write about it even after several weeks because it fits a pattern I halfway wish I hadn’t noticed.

Transport us, O muse of blogging, to England, where at the end of last month, the Manchester Art Gallery removed a painting that apparently troubled almost nobody but museum staff:

It is a painting that shows pubescent, naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom, but is it an erotic Victorian fantasy too far, and one which, in the current climate, is unsuitable and offensive to modern audiences?

Manchester Art Gallery has asked the question after removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most recognisable of the pre-Raphaelite paintings, from its walls. Postcards of the painting will be removed from sale in the shop.

The painting was taken down on Friday and replaced with a notice explaining that a temporary space had been left “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” Members of the public have stuck Post-it notes around the notice giving their reaction.

[. . . ]

[Curator of contemporary art] Gannaway said the removal was not about censorship.

[ . . . ]

Waterhouse is one of the best-known pre-Raphaelites, whose Lady of Shalott is one of Tate Britain’s bestselling postcards, but some of his paintings leave people uncomfortable . . .

We can’t have art making generically identified “people” uncomfortable, now can we?

This story ripened and rotted fast. After seven days of ridicule, the museum put the painting back on the wall and continued to claim that the removal itself was itself an artistic act to accompany a new exhibition. No one explained why that stunt necessitated the disappearance of postcard replicas from the gift shop.

Four days later, I read that concerns about discomfort prompted a major change to the high-school English curriculum in Duluth:

A Minnesota school district is removing To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from its required reading list because they contain racial slurs.

[ . . . ]

The decision was praised by the local chapter of the NAACP.

Call me crazy, but a town that’s more than 90 percent white is doing all students a disservice by not demonstrating to them that mature, thoughtful readers of any age can discuss fictional depictions of racism without succumbing to emotional breakdowns.

I wish I hadn’t noted so many similar stories in the past year:

Ten minutes of searching will net you many more such examples, without even considering professors getting fired for asinine comments, the toppling of statues—which, yes, are also works of art—by latter-day iconoclasts, or the policing of jokes between friends of different races in the music world.

It’s an old story, this business of people telling other people what they can read, see, say, make, or know, but one thing has changed since my teenage years. The perpetrators used to be finger-wagging church ladies. They called on TV networks, libraries, schools, stores, and museums to restrict or ban books, music, and art. They received an inordinate amount of deference and press attention while trying to stoke moral panic about comic books, rock music, role-playing games, newspaper cartoons, radio hosts, shows about liberal priests, Satanic corporate logos, or whatever other ungodly cultural mooncalf shambled past their porch. Artists, writers, and other creative souls replied, sensibly, that people who didn’t want to read or see certain things could and should change the channel or skip the museum and let fellow citizens make their own choices.

Back then, threats to wall off artists and writers from the public came from the outside. Now, however, the poles in the art world have flipped. Curators, professors, artists, teachers, readers, and students—the people we once entrusted to protect free expression or expected to defend open access to books, art, and ideas—are starting to do it themselves.

This would be an obvious post with an obvious point, except that our cultural narrative hasn’t caught up to real trends. Mrs. Prudeshrew from Spittoon Falls praying in vain to exorcise Judy Blume from the library stacks is no longer a major threat to literature and art. Scolds, censors, control freaks, and prudes are now policing words and works from within, adopting the traditionally conservative position, anathema to them until recently, that certain books and art are virtuous while others are not, requiring the most enlightened and most orthodox to draw clear lines in the putative interests of everyone else. They’re toying with newfound privileges as censores librorum, empowering themselves to determine which creative works are sufficiently inoffensive to public faith and morals to deserve a nihil obstat.

This is why humans crave power. This is how most of us use it when we get it. None of this ever really changes. The assertions of moral superiority, this impulse to nail down sinners and damn the impure, all show that church ladies can come from anywhere, even with no church in sight. I’ll be watching to see if this timidity and moral preening get worse in literary and artistic circles. I want the doors of secular institutions to stay open to unorthodox, offensive, and literally irreverent ideas, without the precondition of a single profession of faith, while I still have the ghost of a choice.

(Avert your eyes! Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, from Wikimedia Commons.)

6 thoughts on ““The Deadheads got their Jerry, and mom’s got her Barry…”

  1. Let’s call it a “movable fuss”, the banning of Huckleberry Finn. The varies from year to year, but most years one can count on it being celebrated somewhere in the US.

    I would have sworn that there is a black-and-white reproduction of Waterhouse in Peter Green’s Antioch to Actium, accompanied (this is Green) with a cutting remark. But after looking in the most likely places, I don’t see it. It sounds from The Guardian’s article as if the museum started a conversation, just not the one Ms. Gannaway had in mind.

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  2. Yes, the Huck Finn hubbub is perennial, and I think it’s a good idea to discuss openly whether kids of certain ages are ready for certain books. In fact, one third of “challenges,” according to the American Library Association, are from parents questioning whether the subject matter of a particular book is appropriate for a particular grade. That strikes me as civic engagement, and I have a hard time lumping in all of those cases with uncompromising demands by censors. That said, I do think this latest kerfuffle is consistent with the other cases of timidity from within the institutions that ought to be encouraging everyone to be less terrified of, and less moralistic about, words and images and ideas.

    And yep, you were right about Green. Just searched and found him describing the painting in a caption as “Greek mythology as refracted through late-Victorian English prurience and gloomy summer weather”!

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  3. That’s funny, because these days “Greek mythology as refracted through late-Victorian English prurience and gloomy summer weather” would be the sales copy on the back cover of a best-selling novel.

    I might take issue with the idea of age-appropriateness in reading. My parents never filtered or monitored what we read. They figured, rightly, that we’d read anything were interested in, and being interested in things and reading about them was good for us intellectually. They also figured correctly that if something was too “mature” for us, it would bore us and we’d naturally not want to read it. So I had easy access to whatever I wanted to read, yet somehow I managed to grow up a bit of a prude.

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  4. I could have written that post–I knew and regretted those eye-rolling instances. And I’ve yet to see any serious discussion of condemned sculptures *as* pieces of art. Amusing to see the museum back up and then claim a different purpose for the Waterhouse incident. (The Waterhouse Incident. Soon to be a novel.)

    On that business of reading at grade level, my fairly recent experience with three in high school in a place that thinks rather well of itself means that I believe there is a pronounced slide in what is considered grade appropriate. That is, public high schoolers are now reading books that were once read in lower grades, or else reading books that weren’t read before but aren’t always particularly well written. Also, the crafty bag or poster book report has often replaced any penetrating appreciation of the text. Alas.

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  5. Scott: Thanks for your comment! I’m open to the question of age-appropriateness, mostly because it’s not “remove this from the library” or “ban this from the school”; rather, it’s a parent raising concerns using the only available mechanism in a process otherwise monopolized by professional educators and government employees. I personally haven’t the foggiest idea what age-appropriateness is—but I can’t, for example, fault a friend of mine who complained when her kid’s elementary school assigned “Captain Underpants,” not because she was shocked and offended but because she thought the book was stupid and crass and didn’t teach the kids anything of value. I’d rather not see most of those relatively rare parental expressions of concern lumped in with cases of “bans” or “censorship,” which are also pretty rare. But then I suppose that’s the point of this post: Threats to freedom of expression hardly come anymore from the Victorian biddies of River City, Iowa (“Chaucer! Rabelais! Balzac!”), but from within cultural institutions that used to pride themselves on being both more open and more neutral with regard to the ideological content of literature and art.

    Marly: Good to hear from you! When time permits, we should try to tease out the implications of public statues as art, the assumption that allowing the continued existence of a statue is the same as approval, and the complete absence of aesthetic considerations. In the end I suspect I can live with the removal of statues that blatantly glorify terrible people, but only through public discussion, not emotionalism and quasi-religious fervor.

    (The things people tell me about what goes on in their local high schools make me realize how extraordinarily lucky we are. No “crafty bag” or “poster book report” for the kids in our town, thank goodness…)

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  6. Those are all good areas to question…

    I had to tell my daughter to pretend that one of her English classes was a crafts class tangentially related to books…

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