Degenerate Art: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Take on the Nazis

Here we go again.

It seems that Manchester Art Gallery has removed the painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by John William Waterhouse (not quite a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but what the hell) from public display, in order ‘to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection’.  Clare Gannaway, the  curator responsible, said the aim of the removal was “to provoke debate, not to censor”.

According to the Guardian report, the work was hung in a room titled ‘In Pursuit of Beauty’, ‘… which contains late 19th century paintings showing lots of female flesh’.  Fortunately, Gannaway recognised that “the title was a bad one, as it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale.”

“For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

It might be thought by the uncharitable that such concerns never seem to extend to artistic representation of male pederasts such as those notorious paedophiles Socrates or the Emperor Hadrian (but perhaps removing all those busts of Socrates would be prohibitive on budgetary grounds, never mind Hadrian’s wall).  It might even be noted by such uncharitable spirits that attempts to remove naked women from artistic representation might prove essentially futile, given the enormous presence of aesthetic appreciations of the female body the history of human art.

Don’t worry about this, Clare; others have previously shared your opinion about the need to ‘do something’ about similar degenerate art on ideological grounds and weren’t put off by the scale of the challenge.  They even pioneered your concept of the removal of the art in question becoming an artistic act itself.  Here’s one particularly effective example of scaling-up the project – over 5,000 works of art removed from galleries and public circulation and brought together in 1937 for a special one-off display titled Entartete Kunst.

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‘Like much else in Nazi culture, it allowed ordinary conservative citizens the opportunity to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held but previously been hesitant to reveal’ – Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power.

Sadly, the public at the time found this collection much more appealing than the officially-sponsored and ideologically-sound competing exhibit.  Never mind, there were other contemporary exercises in provocative  conceptual art to explore such ideas, notably the 1935 auto-destructive installation confronting ideologically-unacceptable literature entitled ‘Säuberung’ or ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’.

Take that, you Modernist bolsheviks, Expressionist deviants and Pre-Raphaelite perverts!

Gannaway claims that the Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns resulting from the Weinstein and associated contemporary Hollywood sexual assault scandals influenced her decision, which is not about censorship.  Her initiative might well be assumed to start a debate about deconstructing artistic expressions of heterosexual male sexuality, aesthetic appreciation and behaviour in contemporary culture related in some way to those scandals.  It might even be suspected by those tenaciously clinging to an uncharitable disposition that the repercussions of the Weinstein scandal had provided an opportunity for some to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held against male representations of female nudity but had previously been hesitant to reveal (to paraphrase Richard Evans on the 1937 Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate art’).

The gendered and ideological appreciation of ‘problem’ art revealed by Gannaway’s actions in creating the starting point for that debate means that resulting discussion will follow the usual tramlines imposed by a censorious feminism sanctioning male interpretations of female nudity and the predictable reaction to it, thereby reversing the intended course of that debate entirely.

It might boost the sale of prints of John William Waterhouse’s work, but in a stroke of particular genius this ‘artistic event’ has extended to banning copies of his relevant work from the gallery shop, so the gallery has been denied the commercial benefit which is usually the sole redeeming feature of such inept promotional exercises in public-issue bandwagon-jumping… err, I of course mean ‘such adept examples of enhancing public impact by leveraging the contemporary relevance of museum holdings’.