Thursday 19 September 2019

Niamh Horan: 'Libraries and galleries would empty if #MeToo had its way'

There is no room for nuance or the flaws of a tortured artist in a politically correct world that always rushes to judgment

If we are going to sift through the arts in search of offence, our museums, libraries and galleries will have to be gutted. Photo: Getty
If we are going to sift through the arts in search of offence, our museums, libraries and galleries will have to be gutted. Photo: Getty
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Last Tuesday I appeared on Pat Kenny's Newstalk Show to discuss the ban of the song Baby, It's Cold Outside by some radio stations in a post #MeToo world.

To summarise: the lyrics detail a man trying to convince a woman to stay the night, with the woman listing all the reasons she shouldn't. Critics argued it could be interpreted as a man coercing a reluctant woman to have sex.

Within 24 hours, Fairytale of New York was also up for the chop. Its supposed crime? A reference to 'faggot', which the PC brigade deemed homophobic. Given that the lyrics are from the perspective of a raging alcoholic and his heroin-addicted girlfriend, the language is expected and the criticism, idiotic (ironically, it took Shane McGowan to act as the voice of reason and point this out).

But far from 'silly season' nonsense in the run-up to Christmas, such debates suggest a more sinister undercurrent: a creeping censorship across the arts, music and literature.

So who gets to decide which censorship should and shouldn't stand - and where will it all end?

If we are going to sift through the arts in search of offence, our museums, libraries and galleries will have to be gutted.

WB Yeats could be accused of glorifying rape in his poem Leda and the Swan. James Joyce would be gone, too, given that his fiction highlights an underlying fear of women in its consistent portrayals of female characters as either virgins or whores, and Samuel Beckett would mark another casualty given that his greatest work omits women entirely - and when he does include them they are often reduced to either ugly or attractive.

And what should we make of our paedophile-befriending artist Roderic O'Connor? He shared a studio and was a staunch friend of the renowned painter Paul Gauguin. Gauguin took girls of 13, 14 and 15 from the South Pacific islands of Tahiti and Hiva Oa as his brides.

The National Gallery of Ireland exhibited some of his work earlier this year, alongside a collection by O'Connor, but the fact that Gauguin produced some of the world's greatest masterpieces - including When Will You Marry?, which went on to become the second most expensive painting ever sold ($300m) - might not be enough to save him from the thought-police.

Remember, too, some element of the #MeToo movement has celebrated actors and other performers being banished from the public eye because of the acts they are merely alleged to have committed and it is likely that we will never see their work again.

Which leads to the presumption that this inability to separate 'the art from the artist' would see Caravaggio's masterpiece The Taking of Christ hoofed into the skip for the artist's crimes.

Caravaggio was constantly in trouble for everything from assaulting waiters to slandering rivals before he eventually killed a man during an attempted castration.

You think a purge of the art world is far-fetched? It's already happening.

In recent months, Pablo Picasso has been the target by politically correct activists intent on dragging his legacy through the court of public opinion based on today's moral standards.

Although a genius artist, Picasso was also notorious for his misogyny. He famously explained his seduction of girls remarking that "to make a dove, you must first wring its neck" and, as they embarked on a nine-year affair, the 61-year-old artist warned the 21-year-old student Francoise Gilot: "For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats." Now critics see his attitude as reason to do away with any celebration of his work.

Calling him a "man-ball-sack" who she says "f***ed an under-age girl" (Marie-Therese Walter was 17 years old when they met), outspoken feminist and comedian Hannah Gadsby has made headlines in her public appeal that we radically reassess the most famous artist of the 20th Century.

She is unapologetic in her quest: "Separate the man from the art. You gotta learn to separate the man from the art. The art is important, not the artist.

"OK, let's give it a go. How about you take Picasso's name off his little paintings there and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? Nobody owns a circular lego nude. They own a Picasso," she mused.

And art fans are taking it on board. I was at a party several weeks ago when a young woman told me she had visited a Picasso exhibition in Paris. On returning she heard the accusations levelled at the painter and quite earnestly told me she would now have to reassess her admiration.

It is all one step away from burning books.

Two novels on my shelf contain passages, which by today's standards, would be categorised as glorified rape scenes.

In Ayn Rand's Fountainhead, when the macho architect Howard Roark first takes his love interest, the author describes how, "She fought like an animal but she made no sound... He had thrown her down on the bed... It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman"; she promptly falls madly in love with him.

While in Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, Martha Crocker describes her first night with her husband of 30 years. It reads: "Charlie practically raped her... [yet] she had a visceral memory of the most intense ecstasy of her life. It was so taboo even to intimate that you could be aroused by male physical power that she never said a word about it to anyone."

The books would never have seen the light of day if the authors were to put pen to paper following the Time's Up movement.

Indeed as Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, explained: "Few writers with any serious reputation are willing to put themselves on the line for free speech." Nevertheless she stresses that we must continue to preserve the right to have characters who think and do things that are unacceptable.

As for artists themselves, we must ensure that great art will always surpass their creator's human flaws.

We know enough to understand the links between creative genius and their private suffering to realise that great art is often inspired by the same tragic flaws the politically correct seem so intent on punishing them for.

Sunday Independent

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