The Waterhouse Water Nymphs Debate: Is Censorship Art?

Detail of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and The Nympths (1869). SHUT IT DOWN!!

One of the public’s favorite paintings – Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) – was removed from the Manchester Art Gallery in order to challenge historic sexism in art. Those responsible for taking down the painting insist their action was not censorship but itself a work of art. This is an incredible affront to art. Taking down a painting and calling it art is as offensively stupid as burning books and calling it literature. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be radical conceptual political art, and how that’s supposed to work. Ultimately, it’s borderline nonsense, a political stunt, and self-promotion.


What Exactly Happened?

Artist Sonia Boyce, who is scheduled to have a solo retrospective in the same gallery in March, was commissioned by the gallery, in cahoots with the gallery curator, Clare Gannaway, to create a conceptual art piece revolving around removing an ostensibly sexist painting.

Artist, and Professor at the University of the Arts London, Sonia Boyce.

Clare Gannaway, Manchester Art Gallery Curator.

The event included a videoed “take-over” of the gallery space by “performance artists” on Friday the 26th. Most gallery goers, however, only saw a piece of paper with text on it, hastily taped to the wall where the painting once was, and a table with some sticky notes they could use to write their own opinions on and affix them to the wall. Further, reproductions of the painting were removed from the gift shop.

Part of Sonia Boyce’s commissioned artwork which also promotes her upcoming show.

Boyce and Gannaway seem like the kindly sort of people I’d love to have as neighbors, and I’m guessing they had good intentions which made perfect sense from their standpoint, but as is often the case, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Shooting down a male artist to elevate women, after all, does involve shooting someone down, which is a rather bloody affair that can look a tad mean to the casual onlooker.


So, What Were They Trying to Say?

The most crucial argument for taking down the painting is the written document itself, presumably penned by the artist. It states that the removal is intended to,

“prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s collection.”

It continues:

“This gallery presents the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. Let’s challenge this Victorian fantasy. The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?”

Wall text in Sonia Boyce’s art project removing Waterhouse’s painting. [Click for larger view.]

That sounds harmless enough. What’s wrong with re-examining outmoded views of women and envisioning new ways to represent them in a more positive light?

Gannaway has clarified that the art project was conceived with the #metoo and Time’s Up movement in mind. She rejected the notion that the project was about censorship, arguing, “it wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks.”

The real issue wasn’t just the single painting, but rather the whole room devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites, and titled, “In Pursuit of Beauty”. She felt, “For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

She further argued, “It’s about challenging the outdated and damaging stories this whole part of the gallery is still telling…”

The room devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites, and titled, “’In Pursuit of Beauty’.

Here we have a whole room equating beauty with dehumanizing and belittling depictions of women, and nobody has addressed the issue. “Hylas and The Nymphs” was merely the most egregious instance, so was taken down as a prime example. They are not erasing it from history, but just removing it from public display temporarily while a productive discussion occurs concerning how best to adapt curatorial practices to a new and more inclusive era. What’s so bad about that? Who but male chauvinist pigs or die-hard Pre-Raphaelite fans would take exception?


Allow Me To Retort

On the face of it, on a rhetorical level, temporarily removing a painting doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially if it’s for the greater good of updating how the gallery represents women. When you dig a bit deeper, though, there are some rather obvious problems and much more serious implications that could and should upset people (who also support empowering women).

The most immediate conflict was caused by how the gallery audience was treated

In general, gallery goers were a captive audience for this conceptual art project, and that’s already going to start things off on the wrong foot. On top of it, assuming they went to the gallery because they like traditional painting, they wouldn’t want to hear that it’s bad, in which case they were the wrong audience. Combine those two things and you have a recipe for disaster.

The Lady of Shalott (1888), perhaps John William Waterhouse’s most admired painting.

More specific audience problems are as follows:

  • The audience was gypped. They went to the gallery to see paintings and one of the very best was missing, replaced by an unsightly display consisting of a piece of paper taped to the wall with masking tape, and sticky notes. This is like going to see an old surfing movie, and when the mildly erotic beach scene is about to occur there’s a spliced-in, 5-minute public service announcement about the clichéd and opportunistic shots of women’s breasts and butts (like everybody doesn’t already know that) before the film resumes in another location.
  • They weren’t allowed to make up their own mind because the image had been erased from the wall and the gift shop. They couldn’t meaningfully participate with the survey-as-art even if they wanted to.
  • It would occur to them that the conceptual art project could have been a free-standing display, perhaps on an easel, so as not to interfere with their ability to see or assess the work in question.
  • Many will be opposed to anything that smacks of censorship on principle.
  • They may have resented being lectured to; have different political affiliations; disagree that the work was offensive; and not have had a problem with it even if it was somewhat offensive (they may think the protest is prudish)…

A Waterhouse sketch for “Hylas and the Nymphs”.


counter-arguments in more detail:

It really is censorship

Let’s just go with the very first definition that pops up in a Google search:Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information, on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient…” By this definition the painting was “suppressed” on the grounds that it was “objectionable” and “harmful” (as in “harmful stories”), and hence we have a textbook case of censorship.

Gannaway denied there was censorship because “it wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks.” This doesn’t make sense because you can censor something without denying its existence, and you can deny something exists without censoring it. Mere denial doesn’t work here, and we are left with an artist and curator taking it upon themselves to censor art. This is already a smouldering topic in the art-world because of other recent attempts at censorship.

[see my articles: Censoring and Burning Art in the Name of Progressive Morality and The Argument for Free Speech & Against Censorship.]

It’s very difficult to present yourself as forward-looking and about equality when you are practicing censorship. In such cases people might suspect that those behind the censorship are slipping over from lefty politics into the more authoritarian variety, in which case we might ask if the real motive was to empower women, or to “take-over” the art world and subordinate male art and artists.

You can’t judge The art of the past by today’s standards

Even if we accept that the work in the gallery is at least a hundred years behind today’s feminism – because it’s more than a hundred years old – this hasn’t been a new criticism since before I was born, and we can’t really judge art of centuries past entirely by contemporary standards. If we do, we can find excuses to shoot down anything and everything.

For example, when viewed from a contemporary context, we’ll need to paint over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because, well, Michelangelo depicted both Adam and God and everyone else as … … … WHITE!! Does this not imply that if you are not white you are not created in God’s image?! Non-whites are not represented at all!

The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo.

Hey Hey! Ho Ho! racist artists have got to GO!
Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Michelangelo has got to GO!

For one reason or another we’re pretty much going to have to just shit-can all of art history and start over in a bloody new dawn with correct thought conceptual pieces of paper taped to the walls instead.

It’s debatable whether the painting is really degrading to women

The painting depicts Hylas (a favorite of Heracles) being lured into a pond, and his death, by a bunch of water nymphs. On one level, it’s just a cheap excuse for men to paint naked ladies for the male gaze.


The painting above is Henrietta Rae‘s version from 1909, and she was a supporter of feminism and women’s suffrage. The much more offending image, painted a dozen years prior, is below.

Waterhouse Hylas nymphs painting

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. [Click for larger version].

The difference is that in Henrietta Rae’s painting the nymphs are just supposed to be nymphs and not represent all women, whereas the nymphs in Waterhouse’s painting suggest that all women are no more than vapid seductresses. We know this in part because Waterhouse has never portrayed a strong, intelligent, determined sort of woman.

John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra, 1888.

Let’s face it, the connection between art and the political interpretations we foist on it are often tenuous. Those who are offended by Waterhouse’s painting would have been just as offended if they’d seen Henrietta Rae’s painting instead. Faced with that, though, we can always say that Henrietta internalized patriarchy (even if she was an early feminist), or was just trying to appeal to the male gaze because she had no choice if she wanted recognition.

The other view would be that when painting mythological nymphs one has to do it in such a way that they look like nymphs and not like regular women, in which case it would be quite a blunder to suppose that they were intended as commentary on actual women. It’s about the same as looking at a painting of a satyr and concluding the artist is representing all men as hairy, smelly, drunken, stupid beasts consumed with lust.

Peter Paul Rubens, Two Satyrs (1618-1619).

It’s OK to like boobs

Even if Waterhouse and other Pre-Raphaelites sometimes made deliberately beautiful and prurient images of women – call it light erotica if you like – under whatever pretext, what’s the big deal? You can see far more extreme images just by watching Game of Thrones, let alone looking up anything that might arouse you on the internet. In comparison, this classical painting stuff is super tame. Oh my God, there are paintings of modest breasts on nymphs in water!

This is where accusations of the new Puritanism and prudishness get lobbed at the likes of Boyce and Gannaway. If we need to shield our eyes from these classical paintings, than other works by Klimt, Schiele, Reubens, Titian, Modigliani, Manet, and Picasso… are going to have to go, as is virtually all erotic art and certainly all porn.

Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863).

In their defense, I don’t THINK they are necessarily saying sex is bad, or erotic art is bad, but rather that a narrative in which women are consigned to being merely pretty, sexual playthings, or else femme fatales is the problem. Such a narrative could be profoundly suffocating, robbing women of all agency and intelligence, if it were prescriptive and definitive.

It is not convincing, however, that just because these artists made beautiful images of women, lightly tinged with eroticism, that they believed that’s all that women could be. Further, It seems a stretch to assume that renditions of mythological themes would constitute restrictions on female agency at the time the paintings were made.

Boyce used the word “fantasy” in her written statement, which tacitly allows that everyone knows the art being removed was not intended to dictate reality or impose gender norms. We are thus left with non-prescriptive, fantastical, lightly erotic, mythological paintings of women, which Gannaway nevertheless insists are “harmful stories”. Here it is hard to escape all erotic art – which necessarily focuses on some aspect of physical allure rather than mental power – being categorized as “harmful” and thus subject to being purged.

This is not to say we can’t look at, say, a Renoir, and marvel at the oblivious male psychology that preferred bathers look like their brains were the size of walnuts. It’s just … … … low hanging fruit.

Auguste Renoir, Les Grandes Baigneuses, 1884-1887

Note that the woman in the middle was his wife. If Renoir painted women as if they were created by a mad scientist entirely from a cell of breast tissue, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s dictating that people should believe women are mindless sex marshmallows. I only know for sure that he liked that look in a painting that was supposed to be pretty. It ain’t my cup of tea (what’s it got, 8 teaspoons of sugar?), but I think it’s lethally innocuous rather than harmful.

What if it is an eroticized depiction of women according to one man’s tastes? Is he not entitled to be attracted to certain idealized body types? Which images of women are men allowed to be attracted to? None?

Political revolution has replaced artistic revolution in the art world

Currently, there’s a popular belief that all art is political, and thus all art is subservient to the political ends it serves. From this perspective artworks are arguments designed to promote a political agenda or worldview, either consciously or not, and thus can best be evaluated in terms of the merit of their sociopolitical content.

Presently, that merit is primarily determined in relation to a Postmodernist/Cultural Marxist/identity politics agenda. We can already see that radical left politics has infiltrated the art world and is trying to hijack it in the name of the presumed good. This is why art galleries voluntarily remove artworks which are designated as sexist or otherwise not in league with the cause. Rather than protect art from politically motivated attack, which one would expect, highly politicized players within the art-world (including artists, critics, and curators) actively seek to condemn, censor, and even destroy the work of artists.

[see my article: Censoring and Burning Art in the Name of Progressive Morality.]

In the last century, artistic movements have regularly sought to supersede prior movements via stylistic innovations, ostensibly building on them but also presuming to render them passé (ex., Minimalist Abstraction as a response to Abstract Expressionism), all within a presumed evolution of art. Personally, I dislike this mindset regarding art as it arrogantly presumes to render all prior art redundant, and often resorts to drastically limited and narrow styles in a game of one-upmanship.

[See my article: Dismantling the Dominant Art Narrative]

With the marriage of political and conceptual art, however, there is the new attempt to overthrow other artists not just stylistically, but politically. This has the dual effect of rendering the other artist not only moribund, but deplorable.

The most overused words in contemporary art are radical and revolutionary, and now art has become so politicized and radicalized that artistic revolution (often bogus) has been replaced with political revolution (and it need not be in the slightest original).

Because Boyce’s conceptual art installation was commissioned by the institution itself in advance of her planned retrospective, it is brazen self-promotion. Much worse, it is a literal attempt to dethrone Waterhouse while installing herself in his place. It is a coup attempt.

Art is Greater Than Any Political Movement

Art has survived myriad political movements throughout history, and yet we are expected to be comfortable assuming that a current political movement not only envelopes all of contemporary art, but all of art history.

The irony of the protest-as-art piece is that it presumes to be, and presents itself as, undermining the influence of a past oppressive sociopolitical paradigm on the present, while actually imposing a present oppressive narrative on the past AND the present.

Art has the power to throw off the shackles of political ideology, but here it is being used in name to put them on. Here we have political/conceptual art attacking apolitical visual art.

In other words, we have a radical political movement masquerading as art in order to overthrow the art-world and censor real art (all well-intentioned, of course).

How did it all end?

A week after the painting was removed it was restored in response to public outcry.

The fatal flaw of the stunt was to remove an extraordinarily beautiful painting which was the product of hundreds of hours of work, a lifetime of dedication, and an elaborately evolved vision, and replace it with a lecture on a piece of paper and some office supplies on the grounds that the original art was too erotic and objectionable for us to see.

People prefer imbibing forbidden fruit to being force-fed medicine for our own good. We prefer enjoying art to having ideology imposed on us.

John William Waterhouse, Boreas (Greek God of the North Wind) 1903.

Why art-as-censorship isn’t art?

I already proved that taking down the painting because it was offensive and harmful was dictionary definition censorship. There’s a notion that if an artist or art institution does it, however, than it isn’t censorship, but this is just a double standard. It isn’t censorship if the good people who are on the right side of history (so they believe) do it, because they can do no wrong (kinda’ like how we are told non-whites are incapable of racism).

The reason the art project – which more resembles a sophomore, sociology 101 midterm project – isn’t art is the same reason it isn’t music, theater, literature, dance, or architecture. Notice how this kind of “art” gets lumped in with painting and finds itself on a wall in a gallery next to old master paintings, as if it belongs there. But it doesn’t end up in a concert hall, movie theater, auditorium, etc.

I’m well familiar with the arguments as to why conceptual art is art (I have an MFA and my thesis was an installation), and I can agree that all except the most ridiculous, threadbare, and hackneyed stunts may make the cut, but it’s not visual art.

Consider that I could go and burn down a museum, preferably with a Jeff Koons retrospective in it, and call that art. All I’d need to do is scratch my three paragraph justification on a piece of metal, with a hashtag people can use on Twitter, and leave it at the scene. Do you realize I could murder artists and call it art? Do you remember when the contemporary composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, called 9/11, “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”?

If we accept his definition, than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the gulags, concentration camps, and Abu Ghraib are also astounding works of art. And if Sonia Boyce and Clare Gannaway censoring John William Waterhouse is art, than it must also be art when Donald Trump cuts funding for the arts and humanities, including the NEA. Surely he hired an assistant to produce a proposal which was drafted on paper, and people gave their input on it.

The same sort of argument that is used to declare 9/11 art is used to justify censoring a painting as art.

We’ve seen that only far left politics are considered art, and whether or not I agree with the politics in question, I don’t agree with the double standard. If conservative politics and censoring isn’t art, than neither is the far left variety.

I’ve argued extensively, in fact, that conceptual art IS art, but not visual art, and deserves its own category and its own places where it is represented. I certainly prefer living in a world with conceptual art in it.

[See my article: Why People Hate Contemporary/Conceptual Art.]

When addressing Boyce’s political-survey-as-art I would first not just call it art, which implies it is somehow synonymous with painting and other visual art, which it is not, but rather refer to it as conceptual art. Note that just because something is visible, doesn’t make it visual art, any more than something that can be heard is music, something that can be read is literature, and so on. You may have also observed that things which can be heard or read and are not called music or literature ARE called visual art.  Boyce’s piece, which consists entirely of writing, is a case in point.

Next, I would have to ask if her piece had enough going on to constitute conceptual art of any value. We could say it’s really crappy, half-assed conceptual art, and we’d be right, because we do need to make a distinction between a conceptual work by, say, Chris Burden or Marina Abramović, and people protesting at an abortion clinic.

We can’t just say it’s art if someone calls it art (the infamous Duchampian gambit), because any moron could catch onto that and start calling anything he or she does art. I propose we use a sort of standard, even very loosely, similar to what we might apply to distinguish literature from the grocery list I made last week, or someone’s high-school short story assignment. If the short story is hackneyed garbage, than perhaps it doesn’t make the cut.

Boyce’s piece just doesn’t have enough going on aesthetically, conceptually, or in terms of originality to merit being gallery worthy conceptual art. Worse, it shades well into the radical, leftist variety of authoritarianism, the other bookend for deriding art as degenerate.

Boyce and Gannaway honestly believe that we need a reprieve from looking at the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and instead need to have a discussion about sexism and identity politics.

I think we would be far better off taking a break from hitting each other over the head with condescending moralizing lectures, take off our ideological blinders, and have a look at highly imaginative, beautiful, and even seductive paintings.

[And may I politely suggest getting politics the F out of art, or at least allowing art to see a little light and and not be chained perpetually in the dark dungeon of politics?]

~ Ends


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10 thoughts on “The Waterhouse Water Nymphs Debate: Is Censorship Art?

  1. I think anytime you take someone down (literally in this case!) in order to build yourself up, you have to question whether that’s going to last. Art that has lasting power is creative, not competitive.

    I’m rather over-tired of poltics in everything these days – at the Grammys, at the Golden Globes, in sports, and of course, in art. I’m beginning to wonder how America is any different than countries with a dominate narrative, a single story being shoved down our throats. But perhaps things have to swing in an extreme direction before we find balance again.

    Glad to hear that the piece in question is back on the walls. Let’s stop taking art down and start putting art up. If these women want to create a conversation, then do it through art, create something.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Someone over there was trying to get their name in the news and they succeeded. It looks like art can be anything to get noticed, good or bad.
    Some people have medical issues and don’t think clearly because of meds, or their illness. there’s no point in arguing with them, and we don’t want to accidently hurt or kill a weak person by fighting with them. They could have a stroke. A lot of people in the art establishment are suffering from lack of oxygen to the brain, in their stuffy ivory towers.
    I’m trying to make sense of it and these are a few of my observations on the problems we face in the art world today. So it might be best for an artist to do art because they enjoy it and stay out of the art world in general. Who needs the hassle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “So it might be best for an artist to do art because they enjoy it and stay out of the art world in general. Who needs the hassle.”

      I’d say that if one can afford to do it, than yes. But, who can make it in the art world anyway?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Eric a good excursion into the stupidity of Sonia Boyce and Clare Gannaway childish horseplay. It is really a pity mate that you do not have a deep appreciation of “The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach” Ernst Fischer then you could have ripped the guts out of this inept buffoonery. As Sonia Boyce’s works attest some skill as painter I’m at a lose to understand why she risk her reputation with this ill-considered public prank. Declaring something Art does not make it Art (as Fischer so methodically elaborates), but more so proclaiming that something is a conceptional art work does not negate the validity of the Fischer’s test as to if it even is Art in the first instance. This pathetic stunt does not even qualify as poor propaganda, let alone far more difficult to achieve category of Art.

    BTW: I know people that have travelled from Australia to England just to see this painting along with other Pre-Raphaelites works. Imagined how ropeable they would have to be greeted with disgusting censorship.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think your article is amazing! I agree with all of the arguments, especially about judging art of the past from our modern perspective, and my thoughts exactly about Klimt and Modigliani, and what about one of my favourite painters, Egon Schiele, then? I am glad though that the whole spectacle has just brought attention to Waterhouse. How prissy people are sometimes! All in all, an enjoyable and thought-provoking post, cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said, Eric. A thoughtful and thought=provoking piece, well written and it made me laugh a fair bit too. Thanks. Censorship is censorship not matter how you dress it up. The whole issue of “free” speech is a very knotty one. Personally, I like the silly Victorian nymphs. Can I also add that they are women (just) and not children and that does make a difference.

    Like

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