Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 via Wikimedia

is censoring art ever right?

Last week, Manchester Art Gallery removed JW Waterhouse’s 1896 Hylas and the Nymphs from display. Approximately three minutes later, all hell broke loose.

by Matthew Whitehouse
09 February 2018, 9:07am

Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 via Wikimedia

Much ado in the art world this week. Last Wednesday, Manchester Art Gallery announced its decision to remove JW Waterhouse’s 120 year old Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls to "encourage debate" as part of a project by contemporary artist Sonia Boyce.

Outrage ensued. Berets were eaten. Jonathan Jones was presumably found holed up in a darkened room, rocking back and forth and mumbling about creeping cultural fascism and political correctness gone mad.

And he'd have a point. You could argue that any form of censorship is an affront to free-expression. Art is meant to be challenging, infuriating, thought-provoking. It can’t all be watercolours and Jack Vettriano. That would be like living in a dentist’s waiting room.

Anyway, Manchester Art Gallery swiftly reversed its decision. In a statement, that can be enjoyed on an infinitely higher level if you read it in the style of Daria, they said: “Following a fantastic response to its temporary removal [!] … Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Hylas and the Nymphs will be back on public display at Manchester Art Gallery from tomorrow, Saturday 3 February.”

Brilliant. Well done everyone. Now we can get back to the important issue of what exactly is going on underneath Donald Trump’s hair.

But hang on a minute. The decision to remove the Pre-Raphaelite work might have been a bit heavy handed, sure, but didn’t it raise some interesting points? About, you know, outdated Victorian fantasies of bare breasted nymphs and how art could perhaps speak to us in a more contemporary and relevant way?

You see, art is not black and white (unless you’re Bridget Riley, wheyhey!). Works that are held up as masterpieces today are based on narratives that might not be acceptable in 100 years time. It’s only right that we should at least want to ask the question -- as we are in fashion, in music, in film, where men who were previously considered visionaries, may well have benefited from a system that places a higher value on certain works to the exclusion of others.

No one wants Waterhouse’s naked nymphs to be destroyed, for goodness sake. It’s not a Banksy! What the removal of the painting was supposed to trigger was a debate on the context in which it should be presented when returned. It was about people having an opinion on what they want to see from an art gallery. To suppress or prohibit those voices would be a form of… Now, what’s that word again?

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

JW Waterhouse
hylas and the nymphs