Bothered by Art Censorship? #MeToo

The Manchester Art Gallery announced this week that it has removed from exhibition the painting Hylas and the Nymphs by J.W. Waterhouse, and also the post cards of it in its gift shop. The gallery’s stated goal is to “challenge this Victorian fantasy” of “the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale.'”

The move feels hollow to me; a knee-jerk reaction.  Taking down a Waterhouse painting does not protect or empower women.

I’ve written about Hylas and the Nymphs before; it is a beautiful painting that depicts a scene from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts.  Hylas was the son of King Theiodamas, who was killed in battle by Herakles.  Herakles then raised Hylas as his own. Known for both his striking beauty and his military prowess, Hylas was later taken to the ship called the Argo by Herakles and became an Argonaut.

Waterhouse’s 1896 work shows the moment when Hylas encounters a group of water nymphs.  Struck by his attractiveness, the nymphs lure him into the water where he will meet certain death. Let’s be clear: the nymphs are not “passive decorative form[s]” – they are predators, luring Hylas to his doom. (He was homosexual, by the way.  The scene is not very #MeToo-ish.)

Censorship does not create a genuine and thoughtful debate. Claire Gannaway, curator of contemporary art for the gallery, said in this article that TimesUp and #MeToo helped contribute to the decision.  #MeToo is about honest, forthright dialogue, and it’s a stretch to associate the movement with a painting of mythical nymphs beguiling the fictional Hylas to his death .

Perhaps the idea of yanking the painting is based solely on its nudity, in which case the actual subject matter is ignored entirely, and Waterhouse’s work is being shoved aside based on an anticipated visceral reaction viewers might have in the split-second before they get the chance to digest the work and truly understand it.

The Manchester Art Gallery claims to have removed the painting to facilitate “discussion,” and indeed it has – it’s all over my Facebook and Twitter feed. It has certainly generated a great deal of publicity and garnered a lot of backlash. Yet the gallery must have known that removing the painting would spark social media activity, and that in itself implies the image would be shared repeatedly.

The commotion hasn’t been all bad. Hylas and the Nymphs has been plastered across social media, introducing it to new audiences – and that’s something that I can always get behind.

Enlightenment about gender or sex isn’t inspired by cloaking them. The #MeToo movement is about stepping forward and sharing your voice; it is about unwaveringly facing truths. Instead of sanctimoniously sacrificing a meaningful work of art, the gallery might have chosen to promote a painting that would highlight issues relevant to harassment or assault.

If the breasts of Waterhouse’s nymphs, which have been viewed by art lovers since the late 19th century, are suddenly so objectionable, then why draw such attention to them with this announcement?

Maybe “discussion” isn’t the only motive at play here. Is this all an elaborate publicity stunt?  If so, it has worked remarkably well.

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9 thoughts on “Bothered by Art Censorship? #MeToo”

  1. What a stupid thing to do. There are many books ,works of art etc that may not fit into modern day values exactly .Are we to hide them all.There are so many really vile things happening today these people should get a life.

  2. It’s official, the world has indeed gone mad. I think and hope it was a publicity stunt. Art has always provoked opinion and discussion and should continue to do so.
    Best wishes

  3. My first thought was that this was an isolated and idiotic decision. I’ve been hoping that the outcry in at least certain newspapers means that these kinds of silly bans won’t be happening too often. But maybe it is a publicity stunt? In any case, as you say, some good has come out of this, as it is ultimately publicising a beautiful painting and the Pre-Raphaelite genre. I love the irony that more people are now seeing the painting on their screens than would have done had it been left in the Manchester art gallery!

  4. Part of the problem, I think, is that people are no longer familiar with Greek legend, so they don’t understand the context. They see a group of naked girls in a pool and don’t understand the title……Waterstone would have been able to assume that viewers knew what ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ meant.

  5. Another example of the secular Puritan revival underway. The Revolution is over the age of Liberation spent. Any speech or art that might give offence, according to the dictates of some cloistered body, must be censored and the perpetrators duly punished, even if it means exhuming them from the grave to do so.

  6. It was intended to generate discussion. That was made clear by the gallery. Who do you think was meant to discuss it? Maybe the public? So yes, by definition it was a publicity stunt of sorts, and I think getting the public talking about art is a great thing, and well within the remit of a public gallery.

    You do know that the removal was always intended to be temporary? So is it really “puritanical” censorship?

    As you say the temporary removal certainly did its job, to get publicity and generate discussion. It’s a shame so many of the responses were angry knee-jerks from people I would have hoped were bright enough to know better.

  7. I find this mystifying. this painting has nothing to do with #metoo, and as you remark above, it’s nothing to do with a story of female exploitation or abuse. if anything, the reverse, as hylas was the one in danger here… an ignorance of classical mythology, and of European folklore, is showing in the removal of this painting. or else, a nasty strain of Neo-prudery, but I doubt it as there are plenty of other nude figures still on display. sigh…

  8. I was embarrassed by how little Claire Gannaway knew about the painting and the myth that inspired it. Her actions did much to damage the public perception of Feminism and an important movement like #metoo. Her frankly bizarre attempt to cast the painting as an example of pedophilia (by labeling the nymphs “pre-pubescent”) when they’re clearly adults was beyond the pale. As a personal aside, I found her outrage ludricrous. Waterhouse is hardly the most sexual painter of the time. His women are always somewhat untouchable and seem to dwell in a sphere separate from us. If she finds Waterhouse unbearably lewd I can’t imagine what will happen when she stumbles upon Manet’s Olympia. I do think the ensuing uproar from both sides of the political spectrum will discourage this kind of extremism for at least the next few years.


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