What to make of art galleries who display major works and then cover them up to avoid offending people?
Yesterday, we made a vital step back into normality, venturing forth to belatedly catch the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain – a show that had been delayed due to the lockdown, and now was open to reduced audiences, something that worked rather well given that much of Beardsley’s work is pretty small; having fewer people crowding around it made it a lot easier to enjoy.
We don’t need to tell you how important and brilliant Beardsley’s work is, and the Tate exhibition is nothing if not thorough, taking in most of the art created in the frantic five year period between his work on La Mort D’Arthur in 1893 until his death in 1898. We are huge fans of Beardsley’s work, and seeing it ‘in the flesh’ was a real treat. But there was one aspect of the exhibition, right at the end, which left a rather sour taste in our mouths.
There was a depressing inevitability that Beardsley’s work for the privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – although some of his best-known art – would be shunted off into a separate room, complete with a warning about its explicit nature. Given that his work for Oscar Wilde’s Salome has already been displayed in a previous room, it seemed a bit excessive. Given his reputation, was anyone going to attend a Beardsley exhibition and then be shocked at his surreal sexual imagery, which is after all more cartoonish excess than serious erotica?
But more depressing still was the display of Gerald Scarfe’s piece Beardsley, in a closing section exploring the Victorian artist’s influence on subsequent generations. Scarfe’s cartoon follows the Beardsley style of sexual exaggeration and giant phalluses – it is not pornography by any stretch of the imagination. Yet this piece was hidden behind a black curtain, with a warning sign that not only made people aware of the ‘explicit’ nature of the piece, but also implored people to close the curtain once again after they had looked at the shocking image.
We were genuinely aghast at this, and we were not alone: other people read the sign and chortled in disbelief, and one rebellious chap pulled the curtains open, admired the artwork and then wandered off, leaving the art visible for all. And why not? The idea that this image would somehow shock and distress people in an art gallery is beyond ludicrous. Displaying art and then covering it up is an appalling sop to prudery. Imagine thinking that anyone attending this exhibition would be shocked by this work – what sort of mindset is at work there?
This neo-prudishness was presumably because the Tate feared that if a single person was offended, they might complain – possibly to the police. It’s happened before, with artistically ignorant plods turning up to demand that important and serious artworks are covered up or removed. The artwork in question is usually of a more challenging and graphic nature though. Perhaps the Tate feared legal action, or bad publicity, or simply felt that in a world where people are perpetually taking offence to everything, simply displaying this piece without ‘trigger warnings’ was too much. But rampant sexuality is a major theme in Beardsley’s work, and to take such a lily-livered approach seems laughably over-cautious, especially as many of the captions – when not making hand-wringing excuses for Beardsley’s portrayals of comedy dwarves – were taking digs at his publishers – John Lane in particular – for their cowardly censorship of his work. But Lane and others were doing this in the 1890s. For a major art gallery to still believe that these pieces are somehow beyond the pale would be laughable, if it wasn’t so damned depressing.