Social media is always an uproar, there’s no way around it. Photography social media is much the same, and mostly it’s mostly harmless fun. I want to draw attention to two recent episodes that were not harmless fun, and which I worry point toward a larger trend.
A graphic designer from Italy named Gian Butterini published a photobook in 1969, called London. Some decades later Martin Parr discovered the book, found it interesting, and arranged for it to be re-issued in a kind of facsimile edition. The opening essays were translated to English, Parr added an essay, and some very small cosmetic changes were made. In 2019 a British academic stumbled across a spread in the book: a photo depicting a black woman, a ticket inspector for the London Underground, was placed across from a photo of the gorilla in the Regent’s Park Zoo.
This is the spread in Gian Butturini's book "London" which juxtaposes a black woman with a caged gorilla, that caused the stepping down of Martin Parr as director of Bristol Photo Festival https://t.co/7xDKLA4h3d
— Zisis Kardianos (@Zisskar) July 21, 2020
The academic immediately noted that in the present era, in the western world, this reads as a racist trope. It compares a black person to an ape. The academic and his daughter took to social media as well as to the street, raising a furor. In the fullness of time, the publisher pulled the book from distribution and Martin Parr stepped down from one or two roles.
Martin Parr no platformed. Gian Butturini cancelled. What do this week’s events say about how we handle historical photos, and how we regard elites? My report: https://t.co/eL2W41QkqQ My thanks to @johnedwinmason @jennieric Brad of @americansuburbx and Damion Berger for quotes.
— Tom Seymour (@TomSeymour) July 23, 2020
More recently, under the auspices of the BredaPhoto Festival, Erik Kessels exhibited on the surface of a skate park a display of digitally generated images of facial plastic surgeries gone awry, the faces female in appearance. The exhibit, entitled “Destroy My Face” was intended to last until the photographs had been fully eroded by the action of skaters skating.
Erik Kessels’ unsettling Destroy My Face installation at @bredaphoto protests plastic surgery with a skatepark papered in pouts, inviting skateboarders to ride over photographs of women that have undergone cosmetic surgery https://t.co/pDcodqXu8z pic.twitter.com/GKkJrx2w0x
— Creative Review (@CreativeReview) September 14, 2020
A small cadre of social media residents, overlapping with the critics of London, read this as violent and misogynistic. They took up a campaign to do, well, something about it. The result was that the skate park has committed to removing the photos, while the BredaPhoto Festival has so far stood firmly by their curatorial decisions.
Well, so what?
The issue at hand is that in both cases a small cadre of social media residents read the work in a particular, singular, way, and successfully parleyed their opinion into a dominant one — with real-world consequences. Artwork was removed from view on the grounds that it “said something” the cadre found unacceptable.
When some ordinary person walks up to a piece of art, they’re likely to come up with a single way to understand the work. Opening London to the spread, they might well recoil from the evident racism. Or, they might see it as a commentary on, an indictment of, racism. Or something else. This is the point of contemporary art after all, If a piece of art only said one thing you could just write that one thing on an index card and skip all the painting, photographing, sculpting.
And this is where the trouble lies. The loudest voices against Butturini’s book and against Kessels’ installation were academics, educators, experts. They should know, if they know anything, that art allows multiple readings, and that these multiple readings are a large part of the point.
Art which critiques, let’s say, racism must of course reference racism. In its richness and ambiguity, it can then be read as racist by anyone who sees only the racism being referenced. That’s ok — it’s unfortunate that the critique doesn’t come across for some people, but that is virtually inevitable. If you don’t want ambiguity, just write it on an index card and be done with it.
The academics arguing against London never showed a single other page from the book, only repeatedly hammering the single spread with the single idea of it being inescapably racist. They omitted mention of Buttutini’s opening essay that specifically addresses the two photographs in question. They omitted other spreads that showed Butturini’s methods. They insisted that their single reading was the only conceivable one and that context was unnecessary. They loudly labeled anyone who disagreed as a racist, or a racist enabler.
Again, these are academics who should know as a basic part of their job that context matters and that multiple readings are a thing.
The voices arguing against “Destroy My Face” similarly included experts who ought to know better, and similarly hammered a single point of view. Again, any attempt to suggest that alternate readings might be available was met with name-calling and boastful blocking.
This strongly resembles the campaign against “Piss Christ”, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix submerged in urine. This photo also admits multiple readings. A vocal cadre saw only blasphemy and hammered that story to the exclusion of all else, raising a national hue and cry in the USA. Copies of the photo were physically damaged, and so forth. It was an exciting time.
A1: I saw this photograph by artist Andres Serrano called “Piss Christ”–a crucifix in a container full of the artist’s urine. It highlighted for me what Christians had done to Christianity. Some people are offended by it but I see a lot of truth in it #slatespeak pic.twitter.com/cuJ38Nk0Cx
— Karen (not like THOSE Karens) (@_karenjgonzalez) August 2, 2019
The difference is that the professional artist class (whatever that might be) of that era stood with “Piss Christ,” rather than calling for its removal. They understood that art is complex.
To be fair, “London” can be seen as racist, “Destroy My Face” as misogynistic, and “Piss Christ” as blasphemy.
They can also be seen as a critique of racism, a critique of social beauty ideals, and a critique of the commercialization of religion. That’s not all, of course, but let’s stop there, as these are the documented intentions of each artist. We know what the artist intended, in all cases, and those readings are clearly visible in the works.
It’s not that the voices decrying these works are wrong, or should be silenced. Far from it, let them be heard loud and strong!
But let other voices also be heard. Shouting “troll!” and boasting about blocking other voices in no way resembles discourse — it is unhealthy, it is damaging. It is not a conversation. It is not how serious educators, serious thinkers-about-art, should be reacting to art.
One of the professional educators decrying “Destroy My Face” (referring to remarks Kessels made) went so far as to ask “Now how about that ‘conversation’ he promised?” to which I have to reply “many of us were having it, but it was a little difficult because your lot kept yelling TROLL! and BLOCKED!!!!” over and over.
The voices that refuse to accept dissent and that refuse to grasp the basics of how art functions should be heard, make no mistake — I listen to them. They’ve usually got some kind of a point to make. In a narrow way, they’re even right.
They’re right, but they’re not completely right. I submit that they are not right enough to be dictating what hangs on the walls of galleries, museums, and our public spaces.
About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog. This article was also published here.