May 24, 2018

A blog version of a letter I am going to write to the AGO

The Art Gallery of Ontario recently changed the name of Emily Carr's painting "Indian Church" because the title contains "hurtful language." Carr painted it in 1929. This is an artist's creation, named by the artist, that reflects both her art and the period in history in which she created that art. Changing the title erases the context of the piece in favour of being inoffensive. This is so dangerous.

I absolutely believe in changing how we currently use language to reflect our growth as a society. Change the name of your football team to something that doesn't denigrate other human beings. Don't use the words "faggot" or "retard" as insults. Change the pronoun in the national anthem to be inclusive of all genders. As a society, I think it is our responsibility to address inequality whenever possible, and language is one way to do that.

But don't censor "nigger" out of To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, because that word tells us something about the characters who use it, as well as valuable information about the era in which the book was written.

Language itself is not inherently offensive. Context and intent are critical in providing meaning. For example, the term "queer" could be hurtful when yelled out the window of a passing car at two men holding hands, but it could also refer entirely non-insultingly to a particular literary theory or the especially discerning eye of a homosexual man trying to help an unfashionable heterosexual man buy new shoes.   

Censoring the language of art, and thereby revising history, is a slippery fucking slope, and I'm once again reminded of Beatty's speech in Fahrenheit 451 about why art and literature were abolished: everything will offend someone, so let's get rid of it all. Michelangelo's David's enormous cock and balls are offensive, nipples are offensive, the word "fuck" is offensive, blood and carnage and rape are offensive, so let's eliminate them entirely. Let's pretend they don't exist. Let's pretend the world has always been peaceful and tolerant and good (and clothed). 

The name of the painting "Indian Church" makes me think about how Europeans came over and brought death and Christianity to the indigenous people of this land in a way that "The Church at Yuquot Village" does not. It adds a rather unpleasant undercurrent to what is a rather peaceful painting. Maybe that was Carr's intention. Maybe not. But who the fuck are you, museum curator, to change the artist's personal work based on your personal whim?

Art SHOULD offend you sometimes. It should make you think and feel and react. And if you think political correctness is more important than creative integrity, perhaps you shouldn't be a curator of art at all.