There should be no censorship and the powers-that-be should exhibit whatever they want, but is looking at human pain really art?
A long time ago, in the anti-apartheid movement, there was a pamphlet with a naked black bottom on it, full of scars and blood. “Tortured blacks show their wounds,” the caption read. The pamphlet protested police violence, but we activists who were to distribute it felt too embarrassed to do so.
The furore about Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, which shows real chained black people, reminds me of that pamphlet. Do we really need this to be made aware of black pain? Are slave museums with slave cages, slave books, slave movies, slave islands, black marginalisation, daily newspaper reports, not enough?
I have not seen the full Exhibit B because I am a ninny: I walked away halfway through Twelve Years a Slave. I saw Exhibit B’s slideshow though and I have read that it’s art because the black performers are not just passive bodies: they ‘unexpectedly return the public’s gaze.’ The chained black woman dares to look at you –that is unsettling and therefore art. Guilt 2.0.
I disagree with my arts editor, Lara Bourdin, who applauded the cancellation of the show in London. Let there be no censorship. (Maybe the powers-that-be could reject less other art, but that is another discussion.)
Can I suggest that we next exhibit a gas chamber with real smoke coming out of a showerhead in the ceiling, with in it some very skinny actors in striped suits returning our gaze? Or maybe an exhibit of live women, made up to look like they were beaten to a pulp, with spread legs, some blood seeping out next to the incidental coat hanger?