Politicians should stay silent about art until they understand it
The Nazi analogies came thick and fast on Monday night in Athlone. A poster on the Westmeath Independent’s discussion forum kicked things off by writing, “If this is even discussed for more than five minutes in the council chamber they might as well move downstairs to the library and start taking books out and burning them outside the front door.”
“This” was a motion before Athlone town council to ask the new Luan gallery to remove Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV, a monumental painting by Shane Cullen of smuggled messages from H-block prisoners during the 1981 hunger strike.
Councillor Mark Cooney proposed that the artwork be removed “as it is offensive to so many people”. This is not just a matter of aesthetic taste; there is an implied “or else” in the motion. The town council voted to refer Cooney’s demand to the board of Athlone Art and Heritage – whose main funder the council is, and which in turn funds the gallery – to discuss it next Tuesday evening.
In his speech Cooney was quick to return the Nazi ball: “If an artist took the words of Hitler, extolling the virtues of killing Jews, and turned it into art we would rightly call for it to be taken down.”
He made the striking point that he was not contesting the merits of Cullen’s piece as a work of art. What he objected to were the words so painstakingly inscribed on its surface.
There are important issues of principle here, of course. Elected representatives have every right to condemn or criticise any work of art, in a public gallery or elsewhere. They have no right whatsoever to censor works they don’t like. To use an analogy from The Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf (and I would never be so cheap as to exploit the fact that the council meeting was chaired by councillor Jim Henson), politicians are entitled to shout “Rubbish!” They’re not entitled to shout “Get off!”
This is only partly because many of them are so clueless. The position adopted by another councillor, Gabrielle McFadden, in support of Cooney’s motion – “a publicly funded gallery shouldn’t display politically contentious art” – would force the removal of virtually all history paintings and large amounts of modern art, from all public galleries (Picasso’s Guernica from the Prado, for example). This would also mean the Abbey should no longer perform Synge, Gregory, Yeats or O’Casey. But even if the councillors were all highly attuned connoisseurs, the principle would be the same: politicians cannot decide what cultural institutions should or should not do.
However, Cooney’s point about a putative artist who took Hitler’s words about Jews and turned them into a work of art is worth thinking about. Would it not be reasonable to remove such a work from a public gallery? Well, no it wouldn’t. If the artist had turned those words “into art” he or she would by definition have transformed them, which is to say made them into something they were not before. That’s what “art” means. If someone simply scrawled “Kill the Jews” on the wall of the gallery it would be quite proper to paint them out – on grounds of aesthetics as well as of public decency. If, on the other hand, someone made a work of art that incorporated and transformed those words, that work would be raising a very different set of questions, about how well or badly this act of transformation had been executed.
This is why the only reasonable argument for removing Cullen’s work would be to say that it is not art at all – in other words that it does not transform its materials, in this case the words of the H-block prisoners.
But Cooney is not making this argument. (He accepts the “artistic merit” of the piece.) And he is quite right not to try, for Cullen’s work is very obviously artistic. It faithfully copies the words contained in the original materials – the messages of the hunger strikers – but then changes everything else about them. It turns them from flimsy cigarette paper to stone-like surfaces, from tiny writing to huge panels, from the intimacy of notes smuggled in bodily orifices to monumentality, from contingency to permanence, from the private and secret to the open and public. Above all, it makes the words deeply ambiguous: they can be read now as heroic relics or as a commentary on the way history becomes frozen, institutional and official. It turns the certainties of propaganda into the slipperiness of public memory. If you can’t understand this distinction, a dignified silence is a good option.