Delegating curatorial responsibilities to the public is nothing new: in 2014, Seattle’s Fry Museum featured the “#SocialMedium,” an exhibition curated entirely by visitors via social media. That same year the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston fully relied on the popular vote to choose the canvases for their “Boston Loves Impressionism” show. While such curatorial crowdsourcing can be seen as either a democratic and inclusive pushback against outmoded gatekeeper oppression, or as a reckless abdication of professional responsibility, there is no question that the “new museology” trend of treating museum visitors as consumers (who are to be pleased and entertained) as opposed to learners (who are to be uplifted and educated) is all but irreversible.
But the recent decision by the Manchester Art Gallery to remove John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs, allegedly “to prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks,” strikes me as a particularly low juncture in the steadily downward trajectory of recent curatorial decision-making. According to a Manchester Art Gallery blog entry titled “Presenting the female body: Challenging a Victorian fantasy,”
The act of taking down this painting was part of a group gallery takeover that took place during the evening of 26 January 2018. People from the gallery team and people associated with the gallery took part. The takeover was filmed and is part of an [upcoming] exhibition by Sonia Boyce.
Sonia Boyce’s name in the above text has a live link to a webpage for the upcoming retrospective by the artist (the film will be featured there as a “new commission”). This exhibition page explains that the “night-time group takeover of the gallery” has been performed in association with Lasana Shabazz (we are redirected to his Twitter feed by another live link), and a group of drag artists from Family Gorgeous, with the aim of “exploring ‘gender trouble’ ” in “painting displays and wider culture.” The gallery blog invites everyone to “get involved in the conversation” at #MAGSoniaBoyce, to opine about “what other stories could these artworks and their characters tell” and “what other themes would be interesting to explore in the gallery.”
Predictable confirmation of why this foolhardy act took place at this particular moment is provided by Clare Gannaway, the gallery’s curator of contemporary art, who openly declares that her decision to purge this Pre-Raphaelite artwork from a selection of late-nineteenth-century canvases in Gallery 10, unfashionably labeled “In Pursuit of Beauty,” was inspired by “the debates around Time’s Up and #MeToo.” Given the mechanics of publicity around #MeToo, it would be naive not to assume that the whole affair was just another blundering attempt to exploit the exposure now automatically accorded anything associated with the #MeToo brand.
Its obnoxious self-promotion apart, this administrator-sanctioned act of vandalism exposes the more general dangers of devotional art history, as do the equally misguided attempts to contextualize the painting’s alleged sexual impropriety. The museum’s blog page buoyantly summons its visitors to “challenge this Victorian fantasy!”— an ambition that is wildly and oddly anachronistic in its quixotic struggle with the mores of an era that ended over a century ago. Do Sonia Boyce, Lasana Shabazz, and drag artists from Family Gorgeous know that the Victorian era ended conclusively with the death of the eponymous monarch on January 22, 1901? And while it is hard to contradict the blog’s banal observation that “[t]he gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all,” it’s a pity the group missed the issues of class, gender, and sexuality in the painting they ousted.
One is left to speculate whether Boyce, Gannaway, or whoever was supposed to be the adult in the room has properly pondered the subject matter of the “Victorian fantasy” they chose to remove. They really should have done so, because the painting contains a striking statement of women’s power. The story to which it alludes concerns a beautiful youth, Hylas. He was admired by the much older Hercules, who brought Hylas along on the Argonautic expedition. Juno, notoriously ill-disposed towards Hercules, decided to separate him from the subject of his affection. The opportunity presented itself during a pit stop at Mysia, when Hylas headed to a spring to procure some fresh water for Hercules. Juno incited some predatory water nymphs to pull the hapless Hylas into the spring’s murky depths, where they retained him for their erotic amusement, while the heartbroken Hercules called out in despair for his protégé. Eventually, the Argonauts had to depart the island empty-handed, and the only thing left for the grieving Hercules was to establish a cult of Hylas upon his return to Cius.
Clearly, the ancient source of this allegedly prudish “Victorian fantasy” already contains plenty of “gender trouble.” But, perhaps because the myth’s sexual predators are female nymphs acting in pursuit of erotic satisfaction at the behest of a vindictive female goddess—rather than, say, goatish male artists in pursuit of young women’s bodies—the Manchester Art Gallery vice squad missed the chance to discuss such issues, choosing instead simply to purge the offending artwork. Their intellectual sloppiness caused the group to target, mistakenly, a painting that actually illustrates the lethal nature of female sexuality.
Even if one believes Gannaway’s assurances that the removal of the painting was not an act of censorship, and if one resists the eye-roll as the MAG curator bemoans her “sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with [male artists pursuing women’s bodies] sooner,” it is difficult not to conclude from this whole unpalatable episode that, in today’s climate of identity tribalism, generating controversy and curatorial crowdsourcing are the two most reliable strategies for drawing art museums into the public eye. Since The Guardian broke the story of the painting’s ejection on January 31, there has been a steady trickle of articles and broadcasts about the event in media outlets ranging from The Sun to the BBC. It appears that, in the society of the spectacle, it will take no more than hubris to make art history great again.