Art and the administrators
John Ozimek on local politicians' war on culture
11 Sep 09

This is a guest post by John Ozimek

Has the time come to remove the meddling hand of local democracy from the staging of art in Britain’s galleries? If a row now being played out against the backdrop of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes.

Every other year, GoMA focuses on social justice. This year’s exhibition — sh[OUT] — is a celebration and awareness-raising of lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender life. It has not been without controversy.

First there was “Made in God’s Name”, an installation that invited visitors who felt excluded by traditional religion to “write themselves back into the Bible”. That went down like a lead balloon with some Christians, even, reportedly, upsetting the Pope.

Next up was a display put on by Spanish artist, Dani Marti. This included a film focusing on a gay male prostitute, telling the story of his sexual self-discovery at the age of 52, and providing some fairly graphic insights into his use of crystal meth and fisting. This, plus other work designed to celebrate HIV survivors, was due to go on display in the main GoMA facility.

Public outrage followed, driven in part by the local press. Senior councillors were unhappy — even though few, if any, of the detractors had actually seen Dani Marti’s work.

The official GoMA line is that polite discussions were held: Dani Marti agreed that a film exhibit might be problematic in an environment designed for short soundbites; and the controversial bits might get taken out of context. So it has been moved to a smaller, more out of the way venue.

That is not quite how Dani and others from the LGBT community tell it. He is adamant that the gallery — and its curators — were happy with the staging of his works and had agreed a programme that would counteract the soundbite effect. He believes, however, that once public pressure started to mount, first councillors, then Culture and Sport Glasgow — the funding organisation behind GoMA — saw his works as a “problem” for which a political solution had to be found.

In the end, there is no reconciling the two points of view. To put it charitably: someone has hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Meanwhile, to add insult to injury, a talk by transgender artist Del La Grace Volcano was left off the events programme. “A big misunderstanding”, say the organisers.

“Right”, says Del La Grace, clearly unconvinced.

Perhaps this problem was always there: perhaps, as government pushes for local councils to widen the appeal of their arts facilities, it is one that is going to get worse. In Wigan recently, a leading Tory councillor condemned Fetish Rocks — a celebration of alternative sexuality — because it would attract the wrong sort of person to Wigan.

In Harrow last year, a local artist had to remove nudes from a local exhibition because they were “not suitable for family viewing”.

What these incidents have in common is a playing to the public gallery by councillors, elected for their political skills, rather than aesthetic sensibilities. Not a happy prospect: for elected officials are always going to prefer to play it safe and bow before the moral majority; and democracy, in the end, becomes the enemy of art that nudges at the boundaries.