Cries of censorship and safe-spaces have blared conspicuously over the art-consuming world in recent years. The outrage of exclusion is an ever widening issue, but the soreness of hidden or prohibited content is only felt in the visibility of its absence: a speech cancelled or a website blocked. More quietly, the world we are shown is constantly shaped by a process of selection. In the case of art, museums and galleries are the result of careful construction by their curators.
This fact has been emphasised at Manchester Art Gallery in recent weeks when they temporarily took down ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’: a Victorian painting by J. W. Waterhouse depicting a male lover being lured by naked adolescent girls. Its removal was part of an initiative by artist Sonia Boyce, who left a notice in its place encouraging debate as to how such artwork should be selected and presented in the modern day. The response - an irritated bouquet of sticky notes arranged in the area of the canvas - has ranged from a dismissal as “prudish” to “feminism gone mad!”.
However, this noisy aversion to “censorship” seems to overwhelm the initial scheme for discussion; the question is not one about the particulars of this specific painting, but of the necessary decision process that occurs at the root of every art collection. Simply, Boyce has uncensored the hidden curatorial process: what do we think?
Visual arts curator Paco Barragán makes the distinction between “soft” and “hard” censorship, where the former describes that which occurs before the exhibit is released to the public sphere.
One key difficulty that has arisen from the question of banning art is in defining the lines of acceptability. Campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo attempt to do this by amplifying the voices of the oppressed against the racist or sexist “standard”.
But while one might look at the painting as “mildly erotic”, another might see it as “romanticising voyeurism and the objectification of children”, depicting poedophilic allusions that are not at all mild. Another might be enthused by the delicate brush strokes used to outline Hylas’ right nipple. Perhaps it could be presented differently, in an exhibition that challenges the historical objectification of women at the male gaze. Alternatively (as in a previous work by Boyce) it might only be viewed through peepholes that make viewers aware of the act of looking. As with the discussion prompted by its removal, this uncovers and challenges societal norms by bringing them to the forefront of our consciousness: the precise opposite of censorship, surely?
From racism to sexism to fascism, it is only with this awareness that we are able to recognise and therefore challenge the most inconspicuous societal norms.
The actual criteria for what constitutes “censored” art it not hardline, either. Visual arts curator Paco Barragán makes the distinction between “soft” and “hard” censorship, where the former describes that which occurs before the exhibit is released to the public sphere. At this stage, the exhibition remains to be a mere possibility that has not yet been legitimised by the crucial element of an audience; its malleability is a necessary part of everyday curatorial practise. The controversy only exists in so-called “hard” censorship, when a work is removed or discontinued from an already open exhibition. Here is where the dispute happens. As in the case of Waterhouse’s painting, now viewers can see the gap…
In other words, the decision of Manchester Art Gallery was not one to conceal a controversial painting, but to expose the empty space. WThe experience of a gallery or art collection is shaped just as much by what we don’t see as what we do. Don’t censor censorship! From racism to sexism to fascism, it is only with this awareness that we are able to recognise and therefore challenge the most inconspicuous societal norms.