Curators need to stand up to offence-takers

Arts venues need to stand up for the public's right to view controversial art.

Alexander Adams

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In a recent article about the controversial artist Allen Jones in the Spectator, the following disclosure was made: ‘Revealingly, a recent Jones retrospective organised by a German museum was turned down by the woman director of one of the main public galleries in London with the words “we don’t want any trouble”.’

It seems even the prospect of criticism is enough to ward off directors of public venues from displaying politically difficult art.

This is not the first time. In 2006, Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, was accused of pre-emptively censoring an exhibition of Hans Bellmer’s sexually explicit art. Some works ‘deemed potentially offensive’ to the local Muslim population were withdrawn before the exhibition opened. No complaint from a member of the public had been received by the venue before the decision was made.

In an article for the Art Newspaper, I discussed the decision of a museum in Germany not to show photographs by the Swiss painter Balthus. The photographs, which were of a partially nude underage model, had been exhibited in New York previously without incident. (The photographs have since been published in book form.) The curators in Germany knew the content of the work and saw no problem during the planning of the display. A few months before the exhibition, a critical article appeared in the German press denouncing the event. Quite coincidentally, the museum board decided to drop the exhibition, citing ‘legal implications’. No ‘legal implications’ had ever been present before the article appeared, and the suspicion is that this was an excuse to drop an exhibition which would have been controversial.

Visual-art venue directors delegate most of their curatorial, writing and managerial duties to staff members or freelancers. Almost the only responsibility they have, other than acting as figureheads and glad-handing sponsors, is to make decisions about the type of art and artists that will be displayed at a venue. If these directors refuse to programme events which have artistic merit but are liable to draw criticism, then they have shirked their responsibilities and deprived the general public of the chance to see potentially great art.

It is all very well to say that refusing to host an event is not the same as banning it, but in the case of visual arts that cannot be experienced outside of a gallery, or theatre productions that cannot be seen outside of a venue, then a refusal to support an artwork means this material is effectively unavailable in any form. It is the duty of public venues to support genuine but difficult art that has merit. If these venues fail to do that, private patrons and sponsors are unlikely to step in. Public funding of difficult and non-commercial art is a necessity precisely because it is this sort of art that will not reach the public without that support.

If any threats of violence or sabotage are made against staff or property, then these are criminal matters to be dealt with by the police. Likewise, if any material that is illegal is displayed in public then complainants can refer the matter to the authorities. There seems to be an unwillingness to stand up to pressure groups and say: If you don’t like the event, you can avoid it, but you have no right to prevent others from experiencing it. Without this courage, pressure groups will be able to control programming in arts venues that are subsidised by us all.

Perhaps worse than the extremists are members of the moderate middle class who worry about offence caused to others: minorities, the vulnerable or the disadvantaged. If curators and directors start to join that group (as it seems they are) and pre-emptively censor exhibitions, then the officials who are appointed to defend and promote difficult art will end up undermining both artists and public access to arts.

If a few angry letters and hostile comments – or just the prospect of them – are all it takes for leaders of major arts venues in Britain to bow to extremists, bigots and the nervous middle class, then expect to see further encroachments on freedom of speech in the arts. In some countries, creators, consumers and supporters of the arts face actual bans, prison sentences and even extra-judicial murder. It is shameful and concerning that curators in the West are so willing to sacrifice our liberties – liberties that people in other countries sometimes die fighting for.

Alexander Adams is a writer and art critic based in Berlin. He writes for Apollo, the Art Newspaper and the Jackdaw. His book The Crows of Berlin is published by Pig Ear Press. (Order this book from Pig Ear Press bookshop.)

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