I awoke this morning to a post by Agathokles Martinios, On the Censorship of Art. His post is a response to a report that the Manchester Art Gallery has removed a painting by John William Waterhouse, “Hylas and the Nymphs”, to highlight the gender issues in our culture…
Where to start?
Okay, lets first look at the myth of the painting… Herakles and Hylas are of the crew of the Argonauts, they come to an island and look for food, Hylas gets entranced by a nymph and is drawn into the water… dying. Hylas is described as being Herakles companion, but in most circumstances with Herakles, he is not simply a companion… but a lover. Herakles is so distraught he abandons the crew of the Argonauts and desperately, and in vain, looks for his lost lover.
In modern telling, this myth can relate to LGBT+. Hylas typically falls in love with the Nymph, thus he abandons his same-sex love for a woman, whereas Herakles still seeks that love. It is Romanic and recognised in the Greek revival of the 1800’s by folk like Oscar Wilde.
In terms of the artist and the painting… I actually know this work very well, I’ve reproduced it with my partner a few times on the street. Waterhouse is a latter 1800’s artist, unfortunately for him he did not have as much success as his predecessors of the Romanic Pre-Raphaelites, however he is interesting as he is representative of a link between the highly polished and Academic works and that of radical contemporaries of his time like the Impressionists. Waterhouse’s art is often left unfinished, murky and with what we regard as impressionistic, comparable to the Pre-Raphaelites. Nevertheless, he remained unpopular in western culture until the late 1990’s where there was a resurgence of popularity of his art… still… his art is not valued as much as his predecessors or contemporaries.
As an artist, Waterhouse is not very interesting. He created quite a number of beautiful pieces, but there is no scandal or indication that he was not anything but a stereotypical Victorian bloke – unlike his predecessors like Millais, Rossetti and Hunt. Any misuse or objectification of the female is that of his time or applied by our contemporary cultural context. (Frankly, it is odd to choose this picture for debate.)
The painting is interesting for myself as when you look at the nymphs, each has the same face, each is the same model and those who have exposed breasts do not have nipples. To me this represents their divine nature, as being something other than human. Thus the fate of Hylas is natural and supernatural, it is not exclusively female.
Now onto my opinion. I have a grave fear for our current culture, what I call “secular puritanicalism” is raising its ugly head. This is a really dangerous road for us.
In a culture that is based upon consumer/disposable/consumer/disposable we hold no value on art. We’re saturated in art, yet we swipe it away on our phones or scroll past it on our computers. We disregarded art in a microsecond. However, before we reached this jaded zeitgeist of thought, art was valued as an object of posterity. All art, regardless of the cultural context placed upon it in the present, is represented of prosperity. What this means is that art does not belong to you, me, or the gallery hosting it. Art belongs to future generations. We *never* have the right to censor art, we *never* have the right to determine “what is art”. That is for the generations of humans to determine until the end of time.
If we are not careful, we will be heading into a new dark age. One not based upon religious ideals, but that of so-called secular ideals of gender inclusiveness. These concepts are of our time, flawed. They are not right in terms of prosperity, in terms of art. To use art created in the past as a point of political argument is immoral, it is appropriation at its lowest.