The Hindley picture: Those who take offence: a portrait in tyranny

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The Independent Online
I feel I owe you an apology before I even begin. Do you really want to read yet another piece about Sensation, the much hyped exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy? Do I really want to write one, if it comes to that? Not very much as it happens, but I find myself with a stone in my shoe and the longer I try to ignore it the more I find it pressing into the tender part of my heel. So, while I understand if you prefer to press on to some more congenial section of the page (I can quite see that this isn't the most alluring opening paragraph ever written) I'm going to have to try and extract it.

It dug in with particular force last Wednesday, when the Daily Telegraph published a piece by the sculptor Michael Sandle, explaining why he resigned from the Royal Academy in protest at the current exhibition of Young British Artists. His valedictory was a mixed media work, in which a long-standing disgruntlement with "cronyism" at the Academy had coincided with a distaste for the catchpenny naughtiness of the current show and a slightly complicated dislike of Norman Rosenthal - the pugnacious exhibitions secretary ("A man so staggeringly conceited and ambitious can't be all bad," Sandle writes). None of these arguments was particularly exceptionable. But the crux of Sandle's article, the last straw which he waves in the reader's face as a justification for his collapse, is concerned with that portrait of Myra Hindley. When the Academy had received the letter from Winnie Johnson, mother of one of Hindley's victims, it should have removed the picture immediately. "It is self-evident", Sandle writes, "that the officers of an institution holding a Royal Charter to foster standards and represent the values of the `great and the good' should have acceded immediately to a request from a woman whose son had been tortured to death, his screams tape-recorded and his body never recovered".

But why is it self-evident? It's true that Sandle's sentence employs a certain coercive chop-logic. Disagree with him and you feel uncomfortably as if you are declaring your indifference to the torture of children. He twists your arm even further in the next paragraph when he writes, "anyone who thinks that this woman somehow should have stopped grieving because it happened so long ago is at best unimaginative". As far as I'm aware, though, nobody has had the effrontery to argue any such thing - Sandle has effectively invented this callous dismissal the better to discomfit his opponents. The question is not whether her grief and distress is legitimate (of course it is, even if you suspect that it has been exacerbated by the campaigners who paraded her in tears in front of the Academy). The question is whether one person's sense of hurt should dictate what a public gallery can and can't display. I don't believe it should. To make such a rule "self-evident" would only confirm the growing power of offence in our culture.

It's true that this is a tough test case - the offence felt isn't remotely factitious (as it is in many other cases, where the taking of offence involves an imaginative tour de force in itself). What's more, my resistance to Sandle's argument isn't dependent on the quality of Marcus Harvey's painting. I've only seen it in reproduction and since the work depends on the distinction between its whole (an emblem of evil) and its representational particles (children's handprints - a standard emblem of innocence) it wouldn't be sensible to come to any kind of final verdict. On the face of it, though, it doesn't look to be a work of great moral seriousness about evil itself. Its clearly not a flippant piece but its centre of gravity seems to lie elsewhere - with the ways that we represent social monsters (the ways, indeed, that we make pin-ups out of our fears, titillated by their intangible persistence). It may well be, as our own critic suggested, a rather gormless work.

All that, though, would be irrelevant anyway if Sandle's argument is "self-evident". It could be the finest masterpiece produced in the last 20 years and it would still be consigned to an Academy store-room. This is an impressive power of veto and it is worth inquiring on what precisely it rests. Sandle's article suggests that the enormity of the original crime must play some part (and it's undoubtedly true that one flinches from the idea of aggravating that particular sorrow) but does that mean that there would be a cut-off point at which a mother's grief could be disregarded? If a woman whose daughter had been killed in a crash wrote to the Academy protesting at the inclusion of a painting of a car wreck would her case be equally "self-evident", however genuine her distress? If not, who is going to arbitrate on the tricky distinctions between a distress that must be obeyed and one that, however politely, would be denied? As both individuals and groups get more skilled in the deployment of their grievances you would need to have some answer to such questions before you conceded the "self-evident" principle.

Sandle at least isn't guilty of hypocrisy. That can be reserved for the newspapers which have gleefully seized on this example of liberal decadence while forgetting how casually they have themselves reproduced that notorious portrait. If the issue is the needless awakening of memories in a grieving mother then how much worse is their crime in blazoning the image over their front pages whenever they felt a burst of moral disgust would suit their purposes? They would defend themselves, naturally, by an appeal to people's genuine sentiments of outrage - always the best disguise for a disreputable act. Winifred Johnson's distress is not irrelevant or simply dismissable - but it isn't, in itself, enough to warrant the removal of the Hindley portrait. To do that would be to concede yet more ground to the growing tyranny of affront in our culture.

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