It’s been 46 years since the release of Kubrick’s sensationally violent film, A Clockwork Orange, based upon Burgess’s equally strange novel of the same title. The book is a dystopian tale of ultra-violence, psychological trauma and the ethics of morality. The film, however, takes it one step further, emphasising the film’s most explicit elements by including gory and horrifying scenes of rape, nudity and violence, all veiled under peculiar environments, dizzying classical music and an eye-popping art-house aesthetic. The film has been called ‘disturbing and thought-provoking’, ‘disorientating but human’, and has even been described as being directed by a ‘bad pornographer’. After an elderly man was beaten to death by a gang of teenage boys who were inspired by the film, Kubrick himself removed it from UK release. Many texts, paintings and films like this one have been the subject of criticism and controversy. The very reason I chose to comment upon A Clockwork Orange (as well as just wanting to advertise one of my favourite books/films) is to talk about a few recent examples of political art, and in particular, what we should and should not enshrine with the domain of the public eye.
One of the most prominent, recent examples comes from the Manchester Art Gallery, in the form of Waterhouse’s famous classical painting Hylas and the Nymphs. The gallery removed the painting, provoking a discussion about representations of women within the arts and other cultural spaces (not an act of SJW censorship as some people believed it to be, you can see an interesting view on that here). Both of these pieces of work included nude depictions of women over men, leading to much criticism both for their overt sexual idealisation of women, a general trend that has led to the objectification of women over the centuries. But many have also defended both pieces, with Kubrick’s praised for its presentation of society’s uglier side and Waterhouse’s for its intention to be a depiction of a scene from classical storytelling. Clearly artwork of all kinds, including A Clockwork Orange, have some kind of cultural effect upon those that consume it. Either way, and whatever your view, it would be intellectually disadvantageous to ignore all debate on the subject. The sources and interpretations of the paintings are incredibly nuanced and it would be a shame to quell the conversation entirely by removing them from exhibition or viewing.
But is this always to be the case? How about when there is a very limited level of nuance, or when artistic intentions are much clearer? This was the case at the New York’s Met Museum, when a campaign group launched a petition to remove Balthus’ provocative painting Thérèse Dreaming, which depicts an intentionally prepubescent girl laying backwards with her underwear showing. The museum refused to remove it, affirming that they shall not censor anything from their exhibitions, but is that entirely right in this case? Would such an image be displayed if it were photographic? The art critic, Christian Viveros-Fauné, asserts that ‘today, there is no question that Balthus was a paedophile’, and personally I think he was right, especially when you consider that he is famous for regularly displaying nude images of young girls, and that he rather suspiciously avoided all attempts to attach biographical information to his work.
In my opinion, if you had not already guessed, the third example is rather too much for me to feel comfortable with, lacking any other themes, or context to make it worthwhile. Art is full of controversy, contradiction and general nuance; but whilst discussion is always beneficial, we must also be sensitive to the intentions of artists once idealised, but who, in retrospect, had problematic intentions.
This article was intended to create discussion, and so if you have your own opinion, please feel free to share it below!
Words by Samuel Clarke