‘…to Deprave and Corrupt’

17 – 18 May Braziers Park. Oxfordshire

12 – 5 pm with a debate on censorship 2.30 – 4.00 pm

 

Taking as its reference point the famous Exhibition of 1937 ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) which the Nazis set up in Munich in order to ridicule the avant garde in the name of a supposedly pure ‘German’ art. There’s a very simple question we can ask ourselves here: what do we want from art? To be comforted and reassured, or to be provoked into reassessing our prejudices? Both, perhaps, at different times. And what mechanism do we want standing between us and our ability to make up our own minds? State censorship? The attentions of an aggrieved individual with a scalpel, let loose in the National Gallery?

It does depend, of course, who’s operating the censorship, and to whom. On whose behalf, they would say, it’s always a question of protecting the depravable and corruptible. The public, in other words. Us. At one extreme is action by governments, of any complexion, though the so-called liberal democracies do tend to use subtler methods. Totalitarian regimes have traditionally had a particular fear of the power of art, and an unassailable capability to suppress it. After some years of the most extraordinary flourishing – indeed, co-optation – of experimental art under the new Bolshevik regime, the Soviet Union under Stalin diametrically reversed course. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, extremely popular when it appeared in 1934, was denounced and banned two years later on a charge of formalism, the regime’s chief buzz-word for these occasions; in other words, experimental, avant-garde, not conforming to the bland criteria of socialist realism. Shostakovich’s symphonies also came under attack, leading to the famous subtitle of his much toned down Fifth symphony: ‘An artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. Shostakovich was lucky, or sensible. Many creative artists were silenced, in a lot of cases for good.

As for the Nazis, pursuing a similar agenda of bland and comforting nationalistic art, in the mid-thirties they sent a commission round every regional art gallery to collect any art with a modernist – ie in their terms ‘internationalist’, ‘Bolshevik’ or even ‘Yiddish’ tendency (a catch-all insult, whether or not the artist was Communist or Jewish). These were put on show in an exhibition in Munich in 1937, under the title Entartete Kunst – Degenerate art, literally, though rather cumbrously, art which has decayed to the point that it no longer had any right to be considered such. Since art in the early twentieth century had been in an unparallelled ferment all over the Western world, and had been particularly strong in Germany and Austria; the selectors accumulated over 5,000 works. Distortion of form and colour and lack of interest in perspective, refusal to use any trace of conventional technical skill, subject-matter which could be considered in any way at all ‘an insult to German womanhood’: there was plenty of opportunity to take offence.

At the other extreme, liberal democracies do also have laws which prevent the dissemination of certain images. The Obscene Publications Act covers any material which is seen, read or heard, and the test is that it might be considered to corrupt and deprave a significant number of the people who
might be exposed to it. Here the class basis of the law is transparent: definitions are elastic, and depend on the ‘protection’ (in inverted commas) of the innocent. Not the police, or people who go in search of this material, or, most significantly, of whoever is sitting in judgment: they are all above or below being corrupted. The ones at risk are us.

At risk, too, from the deranged, the politically motivated, or the busy-body. Every now and then art on public view is censored in the only way open to the individual – by being damaged. Very high-profile abstract art can be apt to attract this kind of attention: three paintings by Barnett Newman have been vandalised, twice by the same person, and this week one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals has been put back on display after 18 months in restoration. In 1914 the suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery as a protest against the arrest of Mrs Pankhurst, a suffragette leader. Richardson, who later became a member of the British Union of Fascists, explained she was damaging a beautiful object as a response to the damage done to a beautiful human being.

We have brought together six artists whose work has either offended, been banned, seeks to offend (or question the term) or offends by omission (or emission) or indeed all of the above. With the works in this show we have tried to cover the spectrum of censorship, from the state’s control of disseminated information to the private individual taking offence, and very often also taking action.

In the first place, Joshua Raffell’s beautifully crafted interactive dolls, very clearly designed to provoke – which fulfilled that aim to the full when shown at Supernormal festival 2010 and banned from any further appearance here. Banned, that is, possibly unilaterally, and almost certainly without any real democratic basis. We have shown these figures in our gallery in London, so far without the slightest sign of offence being taken, though it is possible that here in the country different standards apply. (It might incidentally be worth pointing out that Josh’s work, by its craft combined with its subject matter, is fairly obviously the work of a gay man. It’s worth pointing out too that it has been vandalised, both here and at Chelsea College of Art where Josh is now completing an MA.)

Richard Bateman displays the exact opposite side of the censorship issue, presenting us with an image that has been censored to the point that it gives hardly any information at all: this painting, from his 2002 series caustically titled ‘Welcome to the 21st century”, displays a newspaper image of a hooded, depersonalised terror suspect, in the course of so-called extraordinary rendition (definitely a censor’s use of language). The tiny marks against the yellow background display the only traces of flesh visible in the original image. (It is perhaps precisely this lack of visual ‘information’ that provoked the slasher in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).

With the works by Bernadette Moloney and Darran Leaf we are back in the area of the intentionally upsetting and the macabre, in other words pieces that, like Raffell’s, push at the boundaries of taste and in so doing expect, even to attract offence. Moloney’s piece is a part of Brazier’s history, originally shown as part of the International Artists Workshop which she helped to found. She found three baby crows’ remains in a fireplace that had been boarded up, and put them on display. Leaf’s photographs are of a woman in the hands of a make-up artist. In fact it’s his dead mother being prepared for cremation or burial and it is the artist making her up. A mother, it might be mentioned, with whom he was on extremely bad terms.

Jordan McKenzie’s work also challenges the decencies. In Tate Modern he has been reprimanded by the attendants for disco dancing on one of Carl Andre’s floor pieces, and here his drawing – from the series ‘Spent’ – has been made by the action of sperm and graphite on drawing paper. A counterpart to the celebrated piece ‘Piss Christ’, by the American Andres Serrano. An image, like McKenzie’s, whose provocative effect depends on its title, or an account of its materials and its making; for Serrano, a plastic crucifix suspended in his own urine. An ambiguous image, in any case: certain Christians, like the art-critic nun Sister Wendy Beckett, defending it as a representation of the sufferings of Jesus at the hands of sinners through the ages. When the piece was exhibited in Melbourne, however, the Catholic Archbishop tried to get it removed from display (he failed). The piece has been attacked on more than one occasion.

The drawing by Thomas Rowlandson creates the opposite effect: using bawdy (or beyond bawdy) to make a presumably satirical point, all we have left after two centuries and limited historical knowledge is the obscene image. In Veronese’s case the facts are better-known: commissioned to paint the Last Supper for a Dominican Priory he was called in front of the Inquisition to answer a charge of heresy, for including ‘drunken Germans, dwarves and buffoons’, none of whom had any place at the Last Supper. Given three months to change the picture, Veronese simply changed the title to ‘Christ in the House of Levi’.

studio1.1, London May 2014