Does art communicate? (My "Philosophically Speaking" students would generally say, "yes.") And, in a related vein, what is to be done about art that has come to be recognized as socially or politically problematic? This article by a philosophy fellow at Cambridge who is also a working artist takes up these questions.
"In 2014, Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B (2012) was shut down at the Barbican in London after protests caused ‘security concerns’. The installation, based on 19th- and early 20th-century ‘human zoos’, showed Black people on display, chained and restrained. Even though the artist – a white South African man – intended the work to expose historic racist and imperialist violence, protesters implored the gallery to censor it: ‘Caged Black People Is Not Art’ read one banner. And in 2019, an exhibition of Gauguin’s portraits opened at the National Gallery in London with a public debate to address ethical concerns about the artist and his work. Paul Gauguin was a sexual predator, and when in the South Pacific – where he created some of his best-known paintings – he used his colonial and patriarchal privilege to sexually abuse girls as young as 13, knowingly infecting them with syphilis. ... These cases, among many more, show that, far from being innocuous objects hidden away in museums and white cubes, artworks are historically informed objects that do things and say things. Artworks are created by people in particular times, responding to specific events and ideals. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), the philosopher Arthur Danto observed this with his thought experiment: a series of indiscernible red canvases could conceivably constitute completely different artworks, depending on their title, context of presentation, and so on. There is more to a painting or sculpture than its aesthetic forms of colour, line and shape. External properties, such as the artist’s identity and relevant events during the work’s creation, must be considered to fully understand the work. ... Crucially, artworks are communicative objects, the messages of which are partly determined by the surrounding context and are sometimes different to what the artist had in mind. ...
"So, should we forever hide away Gauguin’s paintings? Quietly remove all Confederate and slave trader monuments? ... One familiar objection, expressed by museum professionals such as Vicente Todolí, former director of Tate Modern in London, is that censorship would mean losing great art. ... Given that aesthetic experiences are considered valuable, this loss would apparently be regrettable. ... A different kind of concern about censoring harmful art is that doing so might sweep under the carpet problematic canons and past atrocities. Such erasure could even result in a widespread amnesia (at least within dominant groups), where many won’t adequately confront our true history. Removing statues and paintings without anyone noticing might not properly engage with the problem in the first place; it could even be tantamount to dismissing the magnitude of the atrocities honoured by the monuments, or the immoral messages expressed by the paintings. ... Instead of censorship, some have opted for an alternative response to hate speech. We can challenge, refute or even undo the harms of hate speech with more speech. ... First, manipulation of an artwork and its curated space. ... Second, transparent curation. ... Curation tells stories about the work on display, and curators have a responsibility to give accurate and true narratives surrounding the art. Facts shouldn’t be suppressed to furnish more convenient narratives obscuring truth. ... Outright censorship is rife with problems generally, let alone art censorship, which is far more complex than straightforward speech. So we need to find new ways of signalling our disquiet, disgust and outrage at art that perpetuates social injustice."
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