My goodness what a muddle we seem to be getting into around men and women and what is offensive and what is not. When I heard that Manchester Art Gallery had removed the pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse in case, in the current climate, modern audiences might find it offensive, I exclaimed, like Victor Meldrew, “I don’t believe it!!” I gather I wasn’t alone and, thankfully, the painting has been put back. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/31/manchester-art-gallery-removes-waterhouse-naked-nymphs-painting-prompt-conversation
But where are we at, on this centenary of the Suffrage movement? Are we getting distracted up misguided alleyways that potentially do a disservice to the intentions of the suffragettes? Actions like removal of a historical painting diminishes the aim of equality with men. Paintings depict our history, male and female, good and evil. The wonders of humanity and its bestialities. We can’t just wipe it out, however distasteful some people might find it today.
Personally I worry that acts like taking down the painting in the Manchester Art Gallery does little for women’s rights and freedoms. In fact, to remove a painting feels like a worrying step towards some puritanical purge. After all it is dictatorships that ban culture, paintings, music, dance and – often – remove women’s rights. Are we now to remove all paintings that depict nude figures? What about so many mythological paintings – masterpieces depicting rape and kidnap? Do we wipe the myths from our history books? What about Botticelli, Titian, Picasso, to mention just a few? What will be left in our art galleries? Bare walls probably because the thought police can find offence in almost everything if they think hard enough.
At the same time we heard, this week, that the female models who accompany the Formula One drivers on the grid will be replaced with ‘grid kids’. This seems totally pointless when several of the girls who used to be employed to escort the racing drivers were perfectly happy with the way they earned their money. And why shouldn’t they be? Surely these kind of high-handed decisions lead to limiting women rather than empowering them? Surely this creates some prescriptive model of how women should behave, which could take us back a few centuries rather than forward?
But while we get into a predicament about whether to remove nude figures of women from the walls of art galleries and museums there is a serious point to remember. This is that huge numbers of women around the world are less fortunate than we are in the developed countries. That many women still don’t have, or don’t dare use, the vote. That many women are routinely abused by men and the system in which they live. That we still have a long way to go to enable women to be recognised as a valid and equal part of the human race (which of course we are if you are brave enough to challenge religious texts and outdated habits of thought and behaviour).
So when I hear comments such as “feminism has gone too far” and “there’s going to be a backlash against feminism” I disagree, because so many women are nowhere near equality. But I do question whether some of the arguments being used are less pertinent than others and perhaps are being presented in ways that can alienate people, which is unhelpful.
OK, so the painting shows naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom – but who is powerless in this? Is it really the young nymphs? Surely they are using their power to lure him in? Are the young women really represented as passive decorative creatures or are they actually using their subtle art of seduction for their own benefit?
But this is where the muddle lies and where there are such confused messages. After all, alongside this puritan movement we are also living in an era where celebrity models strut their stuff wearing very little and where we regularly have television dramas that broadcast horrifying scenes of rape and violence against women. Not to mention the porn and sadism of some video games. Surely there’s a balance to be had here as this seems to be in direct contrast to discussions of whether advertisements or paintings are “sexist” or objectify their subject.
But I am wary that what is being done in the name of protecting women is actually removing the freedoms that we have battled so hard to achieve. These freedoms could be removed in the blink of an eye if we were subjected to a dictatorship or religious movement and so we have to be watchful, however well-intentioned a suggestion might appear to be.
The female or male body should be allowed to be displayed, whether on canvas, screen or at a party. As long as it is a choice. As long as no-one has been bullied into doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
What will make a difference is education. A World Health Organisation survey revealed that “men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have low education, a history of child maltreatment, exposure to domestic violence against their mothers, harmful use of alcohol, unequal gender norms including attitudes accepting of violence, and a sense of entitlement over women”.
So we have to teach children to identify the boundaries within which they feel safe and in control. We have to alert them to the dangers of being lured into sexting photos of themselves or being groomed into doing things they don’t want to do through social media or bullying. This requires teaching girls to be more confident and assertive of their rights and to rehearse the words they may need to speak in order to say no. We have to help boys and girls to understand that every one of us has a responsibility to manage ourselves wisely and also a responsibility for our impact on others. I also believe it will help for everyone to learn more about the sexual arousal system and the way that testosterone hijacks rational thought, leading to increased risk behaviours.
But taking a painting off the wall isn’t going to provide those skills. Great art demonstrates the command of observation, creativity and painting, depicting philosophical ideas, social and religious concepts. Namely, it educates us and broadens our minds.
Let’s keep the focus on making sure that women’s voices are heard and taken seriously. If the conversation revolves around concepts of powerlessness and victimhood it taints the reputation of women. Women come in all forms. As the playwright David Hare commented recently when asked if he would have “strong women” in his new television series Collateral , “I have the right to portray all kinds of women without being called misogynistic… I want to be free to portray silly women and weak women and clever women; I want to be able to portray all women. When we can portray all women equally, that will be equality.”
This feels right to me – after all there are silly men, weak men and clever men and we all add to the rich diversity of human life. Let’s make sure that our freedoms of speech and creative expression are not limited by the “I can’t be offended” brigade. We have come a long way and it would be nice to feel that in future education will have brought about further change in many more areas of the world.