Laura Gascoigne: The Art Police – November 2017

If you’re thinking of committing an art crime, now’s your moment. In June budgetary pressures forced the ‘temporary’ closure of the Met’s Art & Antiques Squad and the transfer of expert staff to the Grenfell Tower fire investigation, and there’s no knowing when, if ever, they’ll be back. So it’s bye-bye blue light, hello green light to thieves, fakers, fraudsters and traffickers of looted antiquities who fund the terrorism the rest of the Met is struggling to combat.

But it’s not the end of art policing; while the official force has been disbanded, unofficial forces are taking over. Alexander Adams’ article New Order in the last issue was a cogent analysis of how the enforcers of the new identity politics are effectively policing public exhibitions. Since his report there have been further developments in the case of the Dakota Elders v Sam Durant, whose sculpture Scaffold was removed from Minneapolis Sculpture Garden after complaints that as a non-Native American he had no hereditary right to refer in his work to the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians by the US Army in 1862. Initially condemned to be burnt, the dismantled Scaffold will now be buried in a secret location. Meanwhile poor old Jimmie Durham, who has spent a lifetime trading on his Native American ancestry, has been denounced by a group of snooty Cherokees as a fake for not being a registered member of the Cherokee Nation. Once an art degree was qualification enough to practise art; now you need registration with your tribe or ‘subset’.

On this basis, only pure-breed something-or-others should be allowed to make public statements, artistic or otherwise, on questions of race. As a half-Italian, quarter-white-West Indian, quarter-Northern-Irish crossbreed I would probably be wise to keep my trap shut but I’m congenitally incapable, so here goes. First off, I would like to point out to these purblind purists a perennial problem with questions of heredity. Who among us can actually prove our bloodlines? Which of us really knows who our fathers/grandfathers/great-grandfathers were? Only our mothers/grandmothers/great-grandmothers could tell us. Are we going to dig all our ancestors up and DNA-test them before presuming to make art about them?

Racial purity is not the only thorny issue in a field where so many subsets disadvantaged in terms of gender, transgender, whatever – it can’t be long before the LGBT contingent have commandeered all the letters in the alphabet – have axes to grind. For the moment different factions are content to share the benefits of affirmative action with other ‘minorities’. (Don’t you love it when women get classed as a minority?) But believe me, they’ll soon be scrapping like ferrets in a sack over the dismembered body of White Male Art.

Of course it’s true that WMAs have had it all their own way for far too long and, yes Guerilla Girls, if women don’t have to be naked to get into the Met, that’s progress. But can positive discrimination in the present reverse the injustices of the past? Nearly all the art preserved in our museums was painted, carved or moulded by men for men, a historical fact that retrospective action cannot change. Maria Balshaw has been making appropriate noises about adjusting the historical gender balance in the Tate Modern by acquiring a Frida Kahlo – an expensive price to pay for a minor tweak – while in Tate Modern’s contemporary displays Frances Morris has already established parity between the male and female artists represented. For the moment, the reach of the levellers has not extended beyond contemporary art, a few misbegotten historical statues excepted. That’s a can of worms I won’t open here, except to agree with Lionel Shriver’s recent observation in the Spectator: “Applying today’s demanding standards of rectitude to previous generations – requiring all past notables to have embraced racial equality, feminism, disability rights, anti-colonialism, non-smoking and gender-fluidity means pulling down virtually every statue standing.” (I would also like to plead that if male memorials are to be replaced with female ones, can they please not be ‘sculpted’ by Gillian Wearing.)

What started me on this subject was being asked to write about two historical male artists who were lamentably far from meeting Shriver’s criteria. First Ernst Haeckel, the 19th century German biologist and illustrator whose breathtaking watercolours of marine invertebrates helped to launch Art Nouveau and are the subject of a new book from Taschen. Haeckel’s paintings were astonishingly beautiful but his views on race were shockingly objectionable. Should we allow this knowledge to cloud our appreciation of his art?

Second Amedeo Modigliani, the subject of Tate Modern’s blockbuster winter exhibition. The problems the Guerrilla Girls may have with his nudes are the least of it. This was a man who threw one of his muses, Beatrice Hastings, through a window and dragged another, Jeanne Hébuterne, by her plaits (a fate avoided by the gamine Hastings, who had short hair). Think about it: a known abuser of women given star billing at an institution that claims to be levelling the gender field. Here we have ‘the most popular modern art museum in the world’ virtue-signalling with one hand while virtual pussy-grabbing with the other. Does its right hand not know what its left hand is doing? No, not while its left hand is counting the takings, because it’s blockbuster exhibitions like this that fund the virtue-signalling.

How long before the identarian art police wise up to this fact and start picketing non-compliant exhibitions of historical art? True, they’d need armies of pickets because there are almost no historical WMAs in the top rank of crowd-pullers who are without sin, and some are offenders on multiple counts. Take Gauguin, the subject of Tate Modern’s moneymaking blockbuster of autumn 2010. Child abuse: check. Cultural appropriation: check. Passing on the clap to healthy young women: let’s not go there.

The difficulty here is that art is funky. If the Tate examined its conscience it would have to confess that misbehaviour adds to an artist’s appeal. How else did the bad boys and girls of Britart awaken public interest in the Turner Prize? Since the subset-appeasers took over running the show, it’s become so boring it has had to be exiled to Hull. Sooner or later our publicly funded galleries are going to have to face up to this conflict of interest because, as night follows day, where positive discrimination leads negative follows.

Art has a long and venerable tradition of pretending to serve morality while undermining it; our Victorian ancestors led the world in double standards and we should learn from them before it’s too late. Step one in confronting censorship is to separate the art maker from the art. To quote Liz Taylor, who had experience in these matters: “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure that they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” Virtuous people need to be kept away from art, from its production and, ideally, from its management. With the exception of a few monochrome canvases, art has never been whiter than white. Should galleries be ‘safe spaces’? Hell no! Virtue-signalling holds up a false mirror to the messy reality art is supposed to reflect. In the immortal words of the love-struck millionaire to the gender-fluid Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot: “Nobody’s perfect”.

Laura Gascoigne
The Jackdaw Nov/Dec 2017