Sunday, 4 February 2018

Time makes ancient good uncouth

It's a good painting, isn't it? Skillfully done, artfully posed, compositionally satisfying. And exploitatively law-breaking...

Probably. If painted today.

But it wasn't. It was painted by John William Waterhouse in 1896.

In 1896 you could be hanged by for murder. You couldn't vote if you were a woman and if you were a child of 13 without the means to pay, you couldn't go to school. Two million of you (as recorded in the 1891 census) were servants and if you were killed or injured at work you (or your family) weren't entitled to a penny in compensation. (That Act followed in 1897.)

And the subject of the painting - Hylas and the Nymphs - comes from an even earlier era. In the Classical Greece of the painting's subject there were far worse fates than being a servant or - for a child - being sent up a chimney rather than sent to school.

Life was different then. Standards were different. Worse, in many ways. But using that to judge (and censor) art of the era is a dangerous (and futile) occupation.

Of course, that's not what they said they were doing. When Manchester City Art Gallery took down the painting, they cited 'artistic reasons' and a desire to 'provoke debate'.

Fine. If a tent or an un-made bed can be a work of 'art' these days, so can a blank space on the wall.

But why, in that case, also remove all examples - postcards, keyring, bookmarks, - of the picture from the gallery shop as well?

I suspect the reason reveals the fig-leaf of 'debate' behind which a censorious act of judgmental bigotry was hiding. Like the fig-leaf of 'moral purity' behind which the bonfires of Nazi book burnings were being stoked. Or the fig-leaf of religious piety behind which the Pope, apparently, insisted Michaelangelo paint, er... fig leaves on the Sistine Chapel nudes.

Because, as the American poet James Russell Lowell had it, 'Time makes ancient good uncouth.' To try and judge the past by the standards of the present is futile, and risks blowing history - as well as Waterhouse's nymphs - right out of the water.

Far better to let them be in their tranquil lilly pond, don't you think?

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