What do we find acceptable on TV, in the cinema, in the lofty spaces of our museums? Could we imagine a situation where work is removed from galleries for inciting terrorism, or race or gender based violence?
There seems to be some kind of agreement with the notion that galleries are apolitical, that they are neutral spaces - therefore take anything from the world, and plop it into the gallery - and whizz-bang - like a magic trick the painting /sculpture/person is transformed into a thing that questions. Or does it?
It doesn't take much to unpick this delusion anyway - just look at the demographic - blindingly white, almost exclusively male, and most of the time middle class. In no senses of the word is a gallery neutral. What we put in, and what we therefore take out already has its political implications. Galleries and museums show us what society thinks is good, important. Which is why it is something of a shock that the Royal Academy has just opened an exhibition by Allen Jones.
Allen Jones became notorious back in 1970 for making a series of works that depicted women in bondage gear as furniture. But this wasn't furniture, this was sculpture, or in his words 'a radical contribution to sculpture'. The work was accompanied by a guide for the sculpture's care: "She is built to withstand the inevitable urge to sit on her, but do not abuse this privilege". Unsurprisingly these sculptures caused a stir amongst the bourgeoning women's movement. Protests were held ensuring that anyone since has thought twice before showing them. Which makes me wonder about the current 'wave' of feminism, and how it is played out in the art world. No protest now I notice.
The last...well lets see 30 years of the art world have been pretty much apolitical. Eighties - well that's a given - produced Jeff Koons, the nineties were all about the YBAs - with their penis faced children mannequins and the 2000s have been dominated by the boom in the art market - with all its dodgy investors, and slick celebrity art fairs.
What's interesting in the whole Allen Jones phenomenon is his inability to compute the criticisms leveled at his work. A similar response is seen in Norman Mailer around the same time, when he attempts to get to grips with feminism. I don't think it's a complicated notion the idea of equality, nor the notion that depicting women as subordinated useable objects might encourage us to think of them in that way. Given that they are so often treated as such, this reiteration of that treatment only goes to reinforce the status quo. Done another way, the work could push us to question all this.
We could pass all that off as old-fashioned unreconstructed masculinity, a modus operandi that is on its way out. But then, no. Because actually people are busy making this kind of work right now. A young artist used a couple of 'sex workers' (self described as sensual masseuses), to make art work in a hotel room. This particular artist, (who will remain unnamed) has again completely failed to understand why its a problem that he has drawn a parallel between himself as 'exploited' artist and the 'sex workers' whom he has employed.
This reminds me somewhat of the shockingly unanalyzed response of Daniel O'Reilly to the axing of his ITV show Dapper Laughs. Watch the Newsnight appearance - he seems only to be able to think about himself, how this is the end for him. There seems not to be a glimmer of recognition of how his actions and words might make women feel, that his overt sexism, claimed as 'ironic' might not be that funny. Sexism isn't funny you see, sexism sees women punished, violated, demeaned daily.
This claim of irony is as unconvincing as Jones' claim that his work is not 'about women's objectivity but their subjectivity'. However many times he repeats this claim, I just don't believe it, because I just don't see it. To me there seems a tacit acceptance of the subordination of women, if we are happy, or even ok with seeing these images. It seems to be an echo of our neoliberal attitudes, a kind of anything goes approach, which conveniently ignores the larger political structures that hold things in place.
Certainly, Jones' women do not have personalities - they are like shop mannequins with identical bland faces. Unnamed-Ace-Hotel-Artist also effectively anonymized his 'sex workers', and they are real people, thus ensuring that it is he who gets the glory of this oh so wonderful work (ha ha) and of being the beneficent patron. Why didn't he give them money to go home, take the night off or something? May be they enjoy their work?
Walter Benjamin writes about a progressive audiences reaction to film, as opposed to art. With film he says, the progressive audience can take whatever horror is thrown their way. With art, this is just not so. Paul McCarthy's butt plug Christmas tree in Paris is just such an example of this. The reaction of the French public was venomous. The extent of this hostility can be encountered within the exhibition: a video projection shows the artist scribbling those insults on to large sheets of paper while muttering them aloud to himself. Here the criticism has been incorporated in to the work to brilliant effect, exposing the violence of the public opinion, against which what ever might be offensive about making sex toy sculptures pale in significance. The result is quite wonderful.
What I would like to propose is this: for anything to be creative, in its fullest sense of the word, it has to resist the status quo, for to do anything else is just to repeat what is already out there. I am all for the Kantian idea that true creativity, true freedom can only be self-created. For us to be responsible creatures we must create our own values, rather than wait for them to be given in a rulebook from above. This is not to say it is easy, or 'natural', for god knows what we would be, if we weren't shaped by the world around us. It is inevitable that most artists and others do not achieve it first go, its something to be worked at, and we frequently get it wrong. Buts that's ok, and once pointed out to us, we can acknowledge it, and make better work. We should all welcome good criticism.
Jones' work doesn't really offer us any thing new and further still it rides on the back of the exploitation of women to his benefit. Even more depressingly he seems to have learnt nothing in the past 40 years: his empathetic faculties seem to fail him, as do his technical abilities. The work, if any thing gets worse as he gets older, leaving the occasional half decent painting behind. I imagine that there must have been some financial rewards for following this path - rules from above seem to have been his guide. Which is a shame. Sexist work can be good of course, but when it's bad to boot, the only thing it offers is a negative in the world.