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The Triple Lens of Art History

The Triple Lens of Art History

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Apparently, there was a bit of controversy recently over the removal of John William Waterhouse’s painting, Hylas And The Nymphs.

When looking at a historical painting, we often get a triple image interpretation, where our 21st century eyes view a 19th century interpretation of a 3,000 year old myth. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs is a terrific example of these overlapping interpretations and sadly, the Manchester Art Gallery missed an opportunity to have a real conversation about the work.

Because the work actually knits together ancient mythology with modern events beautifully.

Upon a casual observation, without any knowledge of its context or history, we see an image of a young man, pausing at a pool filled with beautiful young naked women. At this first glance it seems like a high toned version of the typical young man’s Playboy fantasy, a handsome lad enjoying being in control and free to select his pick among any of the ladies.

Which in this view, certainly lends strength to the feminist critique that Waterhouse and the Victorian painters were objectifying the female as passive vessels of the male gaze.

But of course, Waterhouse and those who viewed the painting had an understanding framed by their study of the classic mythology. In the myth, Hylas was pulled by the women down to his doom, and the painting was understood to be an allegory of the danger of sexual abandon.

But in this view, it could also be seen as an allegory for the frailty of the male psyche itself. Although the Victorian man and his 20th century Playboy fantasy counterpart imagined themselves to be in control, the lord of their manor, there was a nagging underlying sense that they themselves were captive to their own sexuality, which could easily be manipulated by the females they objectified.

Hylas could access the sexual pleasure of the maidens, the painting tells us, but only by falling into the depths of the pool where he would be out of his element and helpless. This becomes a meditation on the Victorian view of sexuality as something dangerous and treacherous.

But their view of sexuality was very different than the original Greek. In the classical myth, Hylas is not just any lad. He is the son of King Theiodamas, who was killed by Hercules. Hercules then took Hylas as a lover and protégé, which was customary at the time. In antiquity, it was common for older more powerful men to use handsome young boys for sexual pleasure, and when the boys grew into adulthood, they were released to take wives of their own.

In this view then, the allegory could be seen that it was Hylas who was an objectified sexual being. When Hercules killed his father, Hylas’s opinion as to whether he wanted to be sodomised by his father’s killer was not recorded, because it apparently wasn’t important. Hylas was groomed and seduced by his captor, being trained and educated while being used sexually until the time came for him to cross the boundary between childhood and adulthood.

So the myth then can be seen as Hylas growing into manhood, losing his youthful beauty. In this sense, Hylas’s fall into the pool is his symbolic break with his role as a sexualized object as his desire turns from pleasing Hercules to being pleased by women. The women are not pulling him to his doom, but welcoming him to his rightful life.

So why does the myth refer to his plunge as a catastrophe akin to death?

Because the myth was composed from the point of view of Hercules, who was grieving for the loss of his beautiful sexual companion. Because then as now, the desires of influential and powerful men were privileged over those of the less powerful.

But I would see it that way, wouldn’t I?

Because I am viewing it through the lens of a 21st century male in the era of #metoo. Viewed though our eyes, the painting and the myth combine to make a commentary on our current era and events, quite different than was imagined by the ancient Greeks and the Victorians.


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Chip is Chip. We all know Chip.

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89 thoughts on “The Triple Lens of Art History

  1. Saying that this is missed opportunity to have a conversation is assuming most people want a conversation. Conversation implies dialogue and a respectful back and forth. Many people just want their side to be listened to and the other sides to agree.

    For this particular debate, everybody is being ridiculous. The original myth and the Victorian painting really teach outdated sexual beliefs that don’t chyme well with the 21st century West. The defenders of the painting should not expect every modern person to see the painting as they do. Most people interpret things through a modern lens.

    The MeToo reading of the painting requires a lot of imagination though. Nothing in the painting suggests that the nymphs do not want Hylas there. Some of them might look slightly apprehensive but they do not look scarred or displeased. This reflects the biggest failure of the MeToo movement, they have ready critiques of how heterosexual men pursue women but they don’t have any idea on what they want instead.

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    • “Conversation implies dialogue and a respectful back and forth…. For this particular debate, everybody is being ridiculous.”

      So are you saying you don’t want conversation either? Because when I look at those two sentences next to each other, respectfully, it’s hard to draw a different conclusion.

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  2. I really appreciated this. I don’t even pretend to be an art expert, especially such things as criticism and interpretation. I am perfectly content with living on the “Oh that looks interesting” level. But reading about this controversy when it immediately came out I had the same thought I have had about many such protests; that in demanding an immediate response to how they feel about a piece they miss the whole point. And art, like music and other mediums, can have layers in it, like points out here, that normal dialogue misses out on.

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  3. Let’s just put Rothkos up everywhere.

    But not Orange, Red, and Red. I’m not sure that such a painting is appropriate in a world that is currently struggling with genders that it has been suppressing for much of its existence and certainly not in a country that has been actively denying their existence. See how the lines are drawn? See the raw sexuality being suppressed? It almost indicates a deep ambivalence about femininity in general… if not misogyny.

    Better to stick to stuff like Rothko’s Blue and Grey. A much more mature work that indicates that he has resolved his feelings about women. Perhaps he finally overcame his anger towards his first wife.

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    • And, I don’t know, but that might be part of the problem. With no roots to go back to, or no base to draw on, it’s easy to see stuff in simple black-and-white terms, or to get all hung up in presentism when life and art are really more complicated.

      I dunno. I’m a scientist so I guess I don’t understand these things. I do remember though going to a meeting where there was a big stand-up cutout of a photograph of Aldo Leopold (kind of a hero to the conservation movement – or at least he used to be, maybe for some he’s now problematic, I don’t know) and one of the people from the Institute that had the cutout asked me if I knew what had been removed from the photograph.

      I knew Leopold had an ever-present pipe, so I guessed that. (I wasn’t too far off – apparently in that photo he had a cigarette in his hand, and whoever made the standup was like “but this might be seen in GRADE SCHOOLS, we must remove the cigarette!”)

      But yeah. it seems to me sometimes that stuff I learned one way in school is now being presented as something much simpler and flatter and black-and-white, and so good is good (1) and bad is bad and there’s no inbetween

      (1) until it isn’t any more….

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    • Even when he had a better grounding in the Classics, I bet Hylas and the Nymphs was either ignored for a wide variety of reasons, mainly homosexuality, or really bowdlerized. Its a very obscure myth.

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      • Yeah, I’m guessing the “NO HOMOS” reason is why the Victorians deliberately misunderstood the painting. And probably lots of other things too.

        Oh man….there was some older book I was reading the other day where they mentioned Alexander the Great and his “special friend” Hephaesteon, and I was kind of giggling over it. I mean, it’s become a sort of weird euphemism but I think when what I was reading was originally written, the author’s intent was that they really were just friends.

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        • To be fair to the Victorians, they knew quite a lot about homos — at least the college-educated folks and the clergy did, having read a lot of classics in the original without a translation. Many of them *were* homos, after all, or rather – since that’s more of a modern conception – they had at some point in their lives experienced passionate love affairs with members of the same sex, many of which were physical in nature. (Hooray for caches of letters that people couldn’t bring themselves to burn!)

          They thought it was immoral to discuss it, to bring the sexual/romantic aspects of those relationships out of the shadows and into open discussion, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know about it – much as Victoria would have been shocked and offended if you talked about her *ankles*, let alone anything north of there, but yet she still had a bajillion kids. It was *scandal* that was shameful, not affection/activity. (To be clear, this still resulted in a lot of persecution of homosexuals and bisexuals. It was just… differently constructed than it was in the 20th century.)

          And those folks who didn’t believe it was immoral to discuss it used a lot of coded language to get past the censorship of the day, so depending on time period it’s quite possible that the author you are talking about knew exactly what a “special friend” Hephaesteon was to Alexander…

          The concept that the Victorians were oblivious to or in fervent denial of homosexuality is to some degree a lens that got put on them by the folks of the early 20th century, who were much more fervently anti- (or in a few cases pro-) themselves. The nuances and complexities of famous homophobic cruelties, like Wilde’s time in jail (which also only happened at the end of the century) get misremembered, mostly because of much more uncomplicated homophobes who intervened between then and now.

          *adjusts glasses nervously, retreats from lectern*

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          • The Victorians called them nature’s own bachelors I believe. Cecil Rhodes being the most infamous of them. Victorians saw homosexuality as an aristocratic vice and feared aristocrats praying on working class young men.

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            • Cecil Rhodes wasn’t an aristocrat, he was the businessman son of a vicar who spent most of his life in South Africa starting at the age of 17. Also the man most responsible for the Boer War, and the very embodiment of British imperialism, by some people’s lights.

              Perhaps you are thinking of Balfour? He was an Earl.

              In any case the positions of power and responsibility held by gay men in Victorian Britain and her Empire were, definitely, numerous. How notorious (vs secret vs politely frowned upon b/c no scandal) any particular individual was or wasn’t is often a matter of speculation, given that the taboos against writing anything down that might become public were so strong.

              Aristocrats were definitely sheltered by their positions (as was Rhodes once he became so integral to the imperialist mission) but generally speaking punishment for any gay man was a matter of public and/or scandalous behavior, not private whisperings. (cf Simeon Solomon, my second-favorite pre-Raphaelite, who was arrested and convicted for attempting to have it on in a public bathroom (how modern of him)… at that point, and not before, he became more or less social anathema. Though to be fair there were folks like Burne-Jones who refused to socially anathemize him.)

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              • What I was thinking was that I should have split my post into two paragraphs. One about the Victorian euphemism for homosexual men. The second about how Victorians interpreted homosexuality. Male homosexuality was criminalized by a Liberal politician that wanted to protect working class boys and young men from what he saw as predatory aristocrats.

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                    • Netflix has a German costume drama called Charite. It’s about the medical break through ma in late 19th century. Nearly all the characters on it were real people. What’s most interesting about it is they don’t try to present a lot of present day romantic morality into the past. So when you have very older men in relationships with women in their late teens, these were relationships that existed in history, it’s otesented as acceptable because that’s how they rolled in the 19th century.

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      • Well, it is part of the well-known myth of the Golden Fleece. I definitely read censored (I now realize) children’s versions that included this story, since why Hercules abandons the quest (to search for Hylas) is a key part of the overall tale.

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    • And more’s the pity.
      I never read the Classical myths in college, I had to pick it up on the mean streets.

      But I’ve come to see the Western Canon as being akin to Shakespeare, where wonderful vibrant literature has been captured by academics and suffocated under centuries of varnish where it becomes a fixed creed.

      IMO, what the conservative defenders of the canon share with those who dismiss it as the artifacts of “dead white men”, is the idea that history requires our judgment, and either obedience or condemnation.

      I think it is more alive and rewarding when we can see it in tension, where historical figures were complex and fallible people like we are.

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      • I think it is more alive and rewarding when we can see it in tension, where historical figures were complex and fallible people like we are.

        Nothing to add, just that this is a wonderful point (and good post, thanks for writing it).

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      • Yes, academics are boring and stuffy in many cases. But another big reason that the classics are not appreciated at this point is it’s very hard to parlay a deep understanding of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which is super entertaining, seriously) into a lucrative job in finance or real estate or whatever else young people care about now.

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        • Which is weird, isn’t it?

          I mean, when corporate titans want to impress us they write these vanity books telling us how they gleaned superior knowledge from reading things like The Art of War or The Prince or something.

          Nobody writes a book saying the secret to corporate dominance is to become skilled in Microsoft Excel or programming language.

          In some ways not much has changed I think.

          In W. R. Hearsts day, the lucrative job was operating a printing press, but the Really Lucrative job was understanding what people want to read, and how to manage the power centers so as to weaponize reporting of information of say, a war in Cuba.

          In our day, the lucrative job is operating a computer to create a program that tracks people’s shopping across platforms, but the Really Lucrative job is knowing how to negotiate and manage relationships with the power centers so as to protect and cartelize the information gleaned.

          In other words, I assert that reading Ovid is probably a better long term career strategy than learning to code.

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          • There might be better exemplars for this than Ovid. Even back in the day his charms were lost to me amid the relentless raping. Kate Waldman’s essay in The New Yorker discusses this in her recent essay, Reading Ovid in the Age of #MeToo. She tries to justify Ovid to contemporary readers ending her essay with this:

            It is hard to read this ancient tale without running into a web of #MeToo-era tropes and preoccupations: how men silence the women they violate; how women are made to feel complicit in their own violations and those of their sisters; how female rage can overflow the banks of just retribution, sweeping patriarchal taboos aside. (This last anxiety has been fretted about more than realized in our current moment.) By the end of the story, the voiceless Philomela has become the most expressive creature of all: a nightingale.

            Yes a wonderful nightingale, but alas not a woman.

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            • There is also Ovid’s dreadful take on how Medusa became Medusa. As a beautiful virgin priestess of Athena, she was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s sanctuary. To curse Medusa for this defilement, Athena turns her hair into snakes. Ovid believed this was righteous punishment because reasons. There is a certain sort of educated person that loves ancient Greece and Rome for their more libertine sexuality than the stricter norms of the Abrahamic religions. There is a lot of bagged with this libertinism though.

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          • Nobody writes a book saying the secret to corporate dominance is to become skilled in Microsoft Excel or programming language.

            The HP Way, describing Hewlett-Packard for some decades. Internal collaboration, and a commitment to absolute technical excellence. Not Sun Tzu or Machiavelli trickery — just being that damned good. ‘Course, then they let Carly Fiorina run things into the ground with trickery.

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        • Didn’t we go over this recently? A grounding in the classics served as a class marker for the elite in Western civilization for several centuries. During the 19th century, it started to disappear because this particular class began to loose power fast. The current elite class in the West has a different set of class markers based around a certain sort of light cosmopolitanism.

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  4. Other than showing actual breasts — although naked breasts are certainly implied — the same basic imagery and sexual temptation theme is used prominently at the beginning of the mermaid sequence in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. A movie that was marketed for kids.

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  5. Well framed post.

    One detail though missing is the gallery presented the removal itself as an artistic act. The Guardian article didn’t explain much what this meant. It did however discuss that it encouraged people to comment on the removal using post it notes. So the removal literally created a space for discussion. Presumably some one in the gallery community was equipped to make similar points about the shifting historical contexts as this post. I suspect the comments taken together may have at least gestured in the same direction. So I’m not sure that your characterization of the gallery as having “missed an opportunity to have a real conversation about the work” is fair.

    Discussions about how to view, use or not use the past and its artifacts are a constant in human interaction. I think it’s a good discussion to have.

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  6. Wikipedia’s take on this painting is that it depicts the (male) fear of one’s sexual drive consuming one’s life. To quote Nuke LaLoosh, “Crash says it (the vagina) is kind of a Bermuda triangle, and one can get lost there. Sometimes that’s good, but you can get lost”. That’s the sort of thing.

    My wife’s aunt Jan has a daughter, Jenny. We all think of the recently departed Al as Jenny’s father, but there was another man whom Jan refers to as “the sperm donor”. Jan spent maybe a year with the man, during which time, in her words, “I was high most of the time”. When she sobered up with a brand new infant daughter, she realized that while he was a sexy beast, he was also a terrible human being, and left him and shortly thereafter took up with Al, whom we all loved dearly.

    There was no coercion on the part of the sperm donor. This is not a #metoo thing.

    This is exactly the sort of scary story that we understand our sexual impulses might lead us into. And in our culture, in our art, we only tell the story about men who follow their sexual impulses, but so infrequently do we show women doing the same. Perhaps sexual agency in a woman is a new concept for us. Simone de Beauvoir wrote “I am responsible for my own orgasm” only 70 years ago.

    Maybe I’m just not seeing it though.

    Anyway, thanks for the essay, Chip. There’s a bunch more readings of the painting you’ve given me.

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    • Your second paragraph is one of the big fears of incels and the MRM from what I understand, having to raise another man’s child and particular the child of the type of other man you can’t stand. Some people do seem to divide the dating world between these are the people you have your sexy fun with and these are the people you enter into loving relationships with. I’ve seen men and women do this. They don’t seem to bother thinking that people put in the sexy fun column might want a loving relationship and people in the loving relationship column might just want some sexy fun. This sort of objectification is horrible.

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      • Well, I have some residual anger about that sort of thing. One can feel a bit used, after all. And it’s not as though Mr Sexy Fun Times was actually good for her.

        And, it turns out I love being around kids. I love being a Dad so much, I volunteer to be a surrogate Dad to kids for a kids martial arts class twice a week.

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    • Dammit I love that painting.

      But yeah, it’s no accident that the femme fatale is an invention of men, and in turn reflects something quite unpleasant about men. The whole notion of sex as chthonic [everthing from Paglia] is perhaps psychologically appealing, but really, it doesn’t have to be that way. Insofar as we have psychological drives pushing us that way — but do we?

      In either case, it seems worthwhile to understand and confront our darker nature. After all, evil is quite banal and incels are boring as fuck.

      Can sex be tamed?

      I don’t know. I don’t even know that we fully want it tamed. I kinda like to mix things up sometimes (even if I spend half my time heartbroken).

      But “untamed” sex is one thing. Male power, control, entitlement, and violence are quite another. To fear women is to fear part of yourself. To hate women is really hate oneself, but that does nothing to forgive the haters. It’s their corrupt minds.

      The femme fatale is a male invention. Women are just people. Some of us like sex.

      Still, damn shame about the painting. Waterhouse is my problematic fave.

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      • It seems to me that quite a lot of people want to have it both ways with sex. They desire something really wild, experimental, and passionate at one time. Other times they just want gentle, romantic love making. Some people only want the former. Other people only the later. That people want wild, uncontrolled sex at times really ends up aiding a lot of hot but rather amoral or immoral people.

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        • And that some people want gentle, romantic love making ends up aiding a whole different class of people. Is it wrong that people have a range of desires and needs?

          Sometimes I want a greasy cheeseburger from McDonalds and sometimes I want a dry-aged steak and sometimes I want a salad. Is that wrong?

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          • “Is that wrong?”

            I would say no, but there are a million vegetarians and/or advocates for sustainable third world development and/or folks who are freaked out about climate change who would say otherwise, at least insofar as you (we – I like all those things though I prefer Wendy’s to McDonalds) act on it.

            Actually, it’s probably closer to a billion if you fold all the folks with a religious prohibition against eating cows in there….

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            • Sure, but making an analogy to the whole “have it both ways” thing. He wasn’t writing a treatise on the ethics of food.

              If having a varied sex life is “having it both ways,” then fine I guess. I have many things, many ways, which seems pretty normal to me.

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              • My point wasn’t just to miss the analogy but that plenty of people have plenty of negative moral opinions about things that others of us find perfectly normal about food, just like they do about sex. To me, those opinions seem like none of my business to *form*, let alone to want enforced, to others, well, categorization is a basic facet of moralizing and it comes from the same disgust place in people’s brains, IMO.

                Wherever it comes from, the commonality of the structure is such that one is unlikely to find an effective argument-by-analogy that involves the pointlessness of moralizing, given that one is most likely to merely stumble upon a different set of Strongly Held Moral Categories. Unless one has knowledge in advance of one’s interlocutor(s) moral categories, I suppose. Sometimes you can get them to make the jump that way. Rarely though.

                Especially if one is talking about fulfilling basic human drives.

                It generally seems more effective (still not universally so, of course) to directly confront one set of categories with a different, more powerful set of categories, than to analogize.

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        • The (implied) idea that amoral / immoral people exist more in the ranks of those who enjoy wild uncontrolled sex than those who want gentle romantic lovemaking is somewhat of a myth.

          There are plenty of gentle, romantic, seductive predators out there.

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          • This is true. What I find objectionable are all the double standards and self-serving hypocrisy around this area of life. Its an over used cliche but it is also a real thing. People who have an uncontrolled romance life often use those without it as emotional crunches. “I don’t have to deal with your pain but you have to deal with my pain” is a real thing.

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            • A real thing that extends far more broadly than how you have framed it, she said as the once-actively-polyamorous once-young person who was the shoulder to cry on for allllllll her serial-monogamist-and/or-nonexistent-love-life college friends while telling them basically nothing about her own struggles.

              Some people bring the drama almost every time, and some people absorb the drama almost every time, and some people are drama switches depending on the relationship and/or context, and some people are drama switches within the relationship and/or context, and that dynamic exists in both platonic and romantic close-relationship pairs (friend groups / polyfidelitous groups are different, more complicated) and it exists independently of anything else (though it certainly is *reactive* – it just has its own source).

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              • Honestly tho, this is just a standard part of relationship balance. It’s a thing we all struggle with, even those of us who have a varied sex life.

                In other words, just because we’re fucking people, that does nothing to imply that we have balanced levels of emotional commitment and relationship skills.

                Like seriously, I could write a long and heartbreaking book on unbalanced relationships.

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  7. “Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs is a terrific example of these overlapping interpretations and sadly, the Manchester Art Gallery missed an opportunity to have a real conversation about the work.”

    Do you mean the museum/gallery itself missed the opportunity? Or its visitors? It seems a bit presumptuous to assume that the museum/gallery made this decision without a real conversation.

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    • From what I read, the decision to remove it was ostensibly to provoke conversation (yay!) but I got the sense there was an underlying effort to push the conversation towards a judgment about its objectification of women, that is, fixing the discussion on our 21st century lens, while not discussing the 19th century lens.

      Because when we see that our interpretation of history is just one of many, instead of The Authoritative Interpretation, it becomes more interesting, more fluid.

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      • So… they didn’t really miss an opportunity for conversation. They’re… having that conversation. They just seem to have a particular perspective while partaking in it. Do I have that right?

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  8. “Because I am viewing it through the lens of a 21st century male in the era of #metoo.

    You can choose to view it that way, or you could view it through any lens with which you are familiar.

    I believe that there is something of the objective and something of the subjective in the way we view art. (I’m in a tiny minority on this nowadays.) I can understand complaining about a piece of art from what a person believes to be an objective position, about its relative beauty or morality. But how does a person simultaneously believe that (a) all art is subjective, and (b) a particular work of art should be removed from exhibition?

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  9. Good piece.

    Museums have the function of providing context. This is why a statue of some appalling historical figure in a museum is different from the same statue in the town square. The context of the town square is “this is a guy we are honoring.” A museum, at least in principle, provides whatever context it wants beyond “this is in some way worth noting.”

    On the other hand, museums in practice tend to be really bad at this. The context often is merely slapping the painting in a room with other paintings from roughly the same time and place, with a little plaque with the artist and date and the vital information that this is oil on canvas (an interesting example of nerdview).

    With nothing more than that, the response of the casual museum-goer is going to be “Titties!” And why should we expect anything otherwise?

    What this painting needs is a version of this writeup, with both the view from Greek mythology and how it was reinterpreted by the Victorians. My inclination would be to leave the modern perspective as an exercise for the viewers, who presumably are themselves moderns, more or less.

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    • Great post! one of my degrees is actually Art History so I really appreciate this discussion.

      From the article linked to

      But the artist Michael Browne, famous for his paintings of Manchester United footballers, saw the event, and posted on Twitter that it culminated in “the permanent removal of Pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs, because the female staff view it as negative, bad taste, out of date. Is artists [sic] freedom in danger?”

      I find the “gallery takeover” event interesting and think it does start a conversation about how we look at art. However If the painting really was permanently removed the event was a failure in my eyes. The discussions are worth having but with the permanent removal of the painting the discussion is ended. Better that the painting is kept and incorporate this discussion in the exhibit with additional didactic signage and links to a website with more information on the event where those who were not present at the event can also participate in the conversation.

      If all art work can only be viewed through the lens of our present and inevitably be found wanting/lacking/insensitive/whatever many great pieces of art will no longer be on exhibit which I think will be a travesty

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        • I believe so but to be honest I’m very much on the periphery of Art History these days. I work in textile conservation which is art history adjacent and run a railroad museum which is a different kind of history interpretation altogether.

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        • One related but not directly so thing that I’ve been mulling over is how deciding what gets shown and what gets stored at any given point is, and isn’t, censorship itself.

          I mean, something like 50 percent of Tate Britain’s collections are in semi-permanent storage and 40 percent of the other half rotate in and out of display depending on what the curators are up to. And it’s not just unimportant stuff by unheard of creators that gets relegated to the back rooms, either….

          Part of the reason I appreciate the widespread photography/digitization movement is that so many things you CAN’T see in person, without special visit authorization etc etc, are available in photographed form on the web now. (And of course, part of the reason I hate it is that a photograph really just *isn’t* the same (even though photo quality of the works available online has increased by leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades)). I’ll forever be grateful that Millais’ Mariana (my favorite pre-Raphaelite painting) was having its regular turn on display the day I happened to be visiting.

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  10. Oh man, I’m late to the party.

    I really enjoyed this! Excellent post, , thank you.

    Perhaps I will have something more substantial to add after I wade through the comments.

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  11. This was good. Made me wonder how that TV series (that I’ve only seen commericials for) that had a docudrama about Einstein and now has one on Picasso is handling Ol’ Pablo, whose reputation (I believe) is coming under some metoo scrutiny as well.

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    • If you’re thinking of Genius (?), the Ron Howard thing – they were quite forthright, to some minds scandalously so, about Einstein’s various peccadilloes (including, his letters seem to indicate, having trouble deciding, after divorcing his first wife, whether to marry his cousin or her daughter)…. so they will probably be pretty blunt about Picasso too.

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  12. This is really an outstanding, compact piece, reverse-engineering the myth and the representation of the myth, through three separate cultural lenses. Props to you, . Here’s my big thought: in terms of display of the piece, a curator can take one of two approaches.

    First, you can hang the picture with minimal commentary, and most of the modern audience will interpret it through a contemporary lens – the quasi-pornographic lens of in which the nymphs represent sexual playthings for the dominant male figure. And that would be how a lot of the audience would walk away from their experience of viewing and interpreting the art. Which is, surely, a problem.

    Second, you can hang the picture with a bit of an essay, perhaps a condensed version of what we see written here. Which is hugely illuminating, and revelatory to both the mindset of the ancients and the Victorians, as well as a good opportunity to reflect on our own contemporary notions of sex. But this requires that people will actually read the essay.

    The curator needs to make a judgment call about how many people would read the essay and gain the tripartite interpretative perspective. Given that, I can’t say that taking the art down was a bad call.

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    • The curator needs to make a judgment call about how many people would read the essay and gain the tripartite interpretative perspective. Given that, I can’t say that taking the art down was a bad call.

      I wonder if that’s how the Taliban felt when they blew up all those Buddhist statues. People are too dumb to figure out the actual significance of these things. Safer to send in Omar with the TNT and avoid uncomfortable questions.

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      • The Taliban were trolling when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. They knew that their wines would beg and plead for their survival. They got their squel and then went on to do what they were going to do anyway.

        A fairer take on this issue from the Taliban’s point of view is that their strict reading of the Quran states no idolatry. The Buddhas are idols, therefore they must be destroyed.

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        • My comment was meant somewhat sarcastically. It does reflect how I feel about this topic though. No matter how much sophistry its dressed up in it feels like book burning to me. I hate it. And not because of some romanticized, scholarly value of any particular piece, but because its an attack on our ability to learn and challenge ourselves and think about our past and what we are.

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          • Given they took it off display for less than a month, and that such was their stated intention for doing the “installation” in the first place, I suspect the curators in question may agree with you.

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            • I know, and I really don’t want to make mountains out of molehills. I feel lucky that I’ve been exposed to as much art as I have. I did some art history at the end of college on kind of a lark and was surprised by how much I liked it. The desire to get rid of even really controversial stuff seems like an unjustified cruelty to those who haven’t seen it but might one day.

              Obviously others differ but I’m glad some share my view.

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              • I think I was trying to clarify because first I typed removal, then I backspaced, then I typed “removal”, then I backspaced, then I typed installation but that seemed to be the *literal* antonym of removal and thus not clear, then I backspaced, then I typed “installation”.

                No shade was intended to be thrown, in other words. Just my weird brain cycling through alternatives.

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  13. Here’s a 4th lens for you – can the artist make me money?

    My google search on “John William Woodhouse” provides, as the first search return, not the artist’s wikipedia page but a sponsored link from a home furnishings company selling prints of the artist’s works.

    And the very first search return is Ophelia, depicted right before (Hamlet spoilers) her unfortunate demise. What does having that print in your apartment represent?

    Eta – or maybe the lens is ‘how do I want people to see me if I display a particular work of art?’

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    • In my admittedly limited experience,that particular print tends to represent “I’ve read (or watched) Hamlet and I identified more with Ophelia than with Hamlet.” College students or young women in their 20s. Many of whom don’t know who Waterhouse is.

      (I assume you searched John William Waterhouse, not Woodhouse? If you searched woodhouse that might explain why the furnishings company came up so high all on its own…)

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      • Yeah, oops, Waterhouse, not Woodhouse. What’s also interesting is that the sponsored link only comes up on my phone, not on my laptop. (and I’m signed into google in both places)

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  14. Testing – I was having problems earlier today. Not sure if it’s my work computer, this site, or I’ve been banned. Let’s see.

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      • I wouldn’t have suspended or banned you without it being pretty darn clear that you were suspended or banned, for whatever that’s worth. (I also can’t think of any recent reason I would’ve even suspended you or threatened you with suspension, but I feel like the former would be more reassuring to me than the latter, were I you.)

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        • I’m not sure if it was the site, or your other computer, but for whatever reason, mysterious to me, the automated spam filter was filing your comment earlier today in the spam folder. (There were 2 different iterations of it in there.) I restored the most recent of the two, sorry it was hung up for so long. If you suspect that of happening again, you could try emailing the inquiry address? 99 percent of the spam folder is actual, unquestionable, bot-produced spam, and there’s a fair amount of it, so unless we are alerted, we don’t tend to fish around in there too often.

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  15. I think there are basically two questions here folded into one:

    1) What do we do with art that we do not like the meaning we derive from it?

    2) What do we do with art that a lot of people derive the wrong meaning from?

    Chip is sorta trying to argue the situation is #2, but…that isn’t really how art works. People look at a work of art, and interpret it.

    It is possible to argue their interpretation is ‘wrong’ in some technical sense, that the work and the artist was actually trying to get across some other meaning.

    But that doesn’t really change what viewers see. Art is an interpretative method of communication, and different people can get different meaning from it, and that is just how art worked. If someone wanted to communicate in an method that was unambiguous, the artist should have used something besides ‘art’.

    And in this case, there’s all indications that the criticizing interpretation is indeed the interpretation of the _painter_, although possibly not of the myth itself. But it’s not the myth on the wall…it’s the painting.

    However, I, as someone who wants the painting up (Or rather doesn’t see a good reason to take it down), argue that people are reacting wrongly to #1.

    The painting is still an important and relevant piece of art, and should be available for viewing. Things can be misogynistic and important at the same time. The point of an art museum isn’t ‘We agree with the message of these paintings’.

    Moreover, this painting’s intended message is really only understood by people who know who the heck Hylas even is, which not that many people.

    There is, perhaps, an argument to be made that people distributing art need to be careful about what message they repeat, but only people who can get the intended message here are pretty well educated and were _already exposed_ to the original story.

    There are plenty of _modern and accessible_ stories, still being written, that present women as evil temptresses who have all the power over men. Movies, TV shows, etc. They have a real and significant impact on society.

    This painting, OTOH, is mostly just going to get viewers who are looking at the topless women, with no context at all.

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