19 Sep, 2009

No social justice for Glasgow’s art?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

In allowing censorship of the city’s celebration of gay, lesbian and transgender art, Glasgow is betraying the very minorities it claims to represent

We have received a complaint about this piece from Culture and Sport Glasgow.

In the two decades since Glasgow was crowned European capital of culture, the city has firmly established itself as a thriving hub for arts in the north. From the epic £27m refurbishment of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, to the success of Glasgow-associated artists such as Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, Simon Starling and Jim Lambie (all of whom have appeared on Turner prize shortlists) – the Glasgow art scene has become, as Hans Ulrich Obrist described it, something of a “miracle”.

So, it comes as a surprise to see the debacle unfold at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) recently, over the city’s social justice biennial. I am specifically referring to the troubling scrutiny exercised by Culture and Sport Glasgow (CSG) of GoMA’s Sh(OUT) exhibition, a taboo-shattering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex collection. Despite the irony in censoring a show that promotes equality and human rights, CSG and GoMA have been practising just that from the outset. First, by taking the tentative step to ban schoolchildren from the exhibition, and then removing “offensive” elements from a public display that had angered religious groups. After the Daily Mail coined the display as “gay pornography”, the tension reached fever pitch when CSG chose to pull three pieces of work by the internationally renowned artist Dani Marti.

Marti’s work, which included an intimate video conversation with an HIV-positive male, was pulled because CSG believed it would be detrimental to the programme, and could potentially “overshadow” more important issues. Now Marti’s pieces, along with some other elements of the programme, will be held at Tramway, a less accessible venue on the south side of the city. Unsurprisingly, the artist wasn’t best pleased with the concession, arguing that CSG were “compromising the civil rights of the people in [the] work by refusing to let them speak to a wide audience, as was originally intended”.

Regardless of the subject matter, or its public perception, there is something rather worrying about CSG’s slippery slope towards censorship, and its infringement on curatorial independence. Undeniably, the authority of CSG and the GoMA producers comes into question as soon as they start denying access to elements of a programme. By hiding aspects of the collection to avoid negative press, the organisers are acting despotically. It’s arrogant and patronising to suggest the public needs to be protected, or that people can’t make decisions about whether they appreciate or understand a work of art.

The Sh(OUT) scenario also raises an interesting question about the prickly relationship between art and the media. In contemporary art history, public controversy has traditionally been an expansive outlet, causing art’s audience to grow. Everyone from Picasso to Du Champ, from Warhol to the Young British Artists, managed to surmount mass disagreement about their purpose and credibility. Arguably, this debate has been for the greater good of the art community, allowing art a reinvigorated place in contemporary culture.

This downbeat furore is made even more depressing with a series of notable revelations. In 1998, the vice-chancellor of the University of Central England (now Birmingham City) was interviewed by the police with a view to prosecution, because he defended the university’s right to maintain a book with Robert Mapplethorpe’s Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977), an image depicting a man urinating into the mouth of another. The director of public prosecutions subsequently ruled out the case. As such, it is no coincidence that this very photo was chosen by curators for inclusion in the Sh(OUT) exhibition. Yet the precedent that went into defending Mapplethorpe’s artistry over a decade ago seems to have evaded CSG, who now appear incapable of understanding the irony of their actions.

Indeed, the entire process of arts censorship is cyclical in its foolhardy bigotry, with recent news of a photography lecturer at East Surrey college facing serious disciplinary action (and possible redundancy) for introducing students to the photography of Del LaGrace Volcano – whose work, interestingly enough, is also included in Sh(OUT). This, coupled with the onslaught of negative press against the exhibition, poses frightening implications for citizens who wish to speak, think and act freely, and for the minority artists involved, who hunger for representation.

As Dani Marti argues, “art should be a protected forum. If we don’t protect it as an independent platform, where transgression and the questioning of ethics, morals, politics and sexuality is allowed, then society won’t be given the permission to grow”. Critics who disagree with public funds being used for such an exhibition are missing a vital point. Art (unlike a mass, publicly funded medium such as television) is more often than not maintained in a physical capsule (the venue), and subsequently is one of the few forums that enable minorities to display the divergent aspects of their existence without censorship. Accordingly, the head of CSG Bridget McConnell and her various councillors should be held accountable, both to the art world, whose integrity they are undermining, and equally to the oppressed minority, whose voices they are irrevocably stifling.

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