RIGHT OF REPLY / The director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery defends her decision to display pictures portraying the Bulger killing

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The Independent Culture
The Whitechapel Open, a show of work by artists living or working locally, has been going since 1901, and has always mixed styles, subjects and levels of achievement. The intention is to offer a large cross-section of what is happening, rather than a prescriptive selection chosen by one critic.

The exhibition has become temporarily sidetracked by last week's row over the two ink-jet prints by Jamie Wagg, one of which, Shopping Mall, uses an image connected with the Bulger murder.

We were surprised at the reaction. In the first three weeks the reviewers had extremely divergent views; the Times and the Telegraph both found the Wagg works noteworthy. It is not the first time that there have been contradictory opinions about whether an artist can use a particular image related to an already vivid tragedy.

The shadowy video image of a child being led away will never again be the fraternal scene it might once have seemed. It has become a national icon, used on the cover of the Independent on Sunday Review and for the book Every Mother's Nightmare. It has been carried by the police into schools in the North West to warn children of the dangers even in a crowded shopping mall. It has already entered the territory of art and Wagg's prints in no way desecrate James's memory.

Such is the public suspicion of artists that many people accepted the Daily Mirror's suggestion that Wagg was out to profit from the image and that the family's rejection (site unseen) of what he did as 'art' should prevail. The prices available on request reflected studio costs. No one enquired about buying them, neither had we any expectations of them selling.

The Bulger family told me they would like James's memorial to be the grave itself and yet his mother described it a few days ago as 'a pile of stones with his photograph on them'. Like doctors, artists address painful and abhorrent situations with a sense of perspective and have made some of the worst moments, from the Crucifixion to the Raft of the Medusa and on to Guernica, into images that transcend the facts.

Catherine Lampert was talking to Dominic Cavendish.

The Whitechapel Open runs to 26 June, sponsored by BT