If the origin of my work is a scandal, it is because, for me, the world is a scandal.
This magnificent quote from Bellmer appears as the epigraph to the current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the first major retrospective of Bellmer’s work in the UK. Surrealists make their own scandal, but not in conditions of their own making. In Whitechapel, it seems, the scandal of Bellmer has taken a new turn.
The French newspaper Le Monde has today reported that the Whitechapel Gallery has censored its own Bellmer exhibition. Since this story has not (yet) been picked up by the UK press, let us summarise Le Monde’s account. This exhibition, originally mounted at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, arrived at the Whitechapel in September, and twelve pieces were removed from the exhibition the day before it opened to the London public. The gallery’s explanation for this to Le Monde was simply lack of space. But Agnès de la Baumelle, the curator of the exhibition, told Le Monde that the works had been personally removed by Iwona Blazwick, the Whitechapel Gallery Director, as an act of censorship. According to Baumelle, Blazwick had described the works in question as “sulphurous” and had declared that they would be dangerous to exhibit not just because of their “paedophile” overtones but also because the area of Whitechapel has a large Muslim population. Baumelle herself has protested at the works’ removal, as have two of the collectors who loaned items for the exhibition. One of the collectors has threatened to withdraw all of his loans from the exhibition unless the twelve censored works are reinstated.
Self-censorship by cultural institutions has become commonplace in “liberal-democratic” states since September 2001. But if Baumelle’s account is correct, and as Le Monde notes, the removal of these works takes self-censorship to a new level. The censored works are not themselves directly blasphemous and have no overt religious content: according to Baumelle, they have been deemed offensive to Muslims simply by virtue of their eroticism, and without any Muslims (or anyone else) having made any actual complaint about them whatever. We surely do not need to labour the underlying racism of such an action, which would assume that local Muslims are (a) a homogeneous mass, (b) uniformly sexually regressive and (c) incapable of critical engagement with these works which they have been prevented from seeing. As Director Designate in March 2001, Blazwick told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that one of the things she liked about the Whitechapel Gallery was the “interesting” location with its “variety of communities”, and that “the Whitechapel should be there to ask questions”. Perhaps these works have been removed because some of those “communities” are now regarded as incapable of understanding the questions.
What can be done about the apparent censorship of Bellmer in London? There are various options, depending on our political proclivities and tactical preferences. We could challenge the Whitechapel Gallery itself to confirm or deny the account given by Baumelle to Le Monde. We could protest to – or indeed at – the gallery and demand that the works be returned to the exhibition. On a deeper political level, we can engage in long-term political action to oppose the conditions which make such censorship not just possible but inevitable: the culture industry in which art is an object of consumption for customers (no doubt including protestors outside art galleries) who complain if they don’t like the product; the “multiculturalism” which claims to respect diversity while trading on identitarianism, essentialism and (real or imagined) religious idiocy; the “liberal-democratic” public sphere which stifles dissidence in the name of diversity, desire in the name of public safety, and poetry in the name of taste. But above all we can and must continue to practise Surrealism as practical revolution in everyday life – not an artform to be tolerated as free speech, exhibited in galleries or debated in the press, not even a “lifestyle” to be celebrated among others, but a state of erotic fury, a total and uncompromising revolt, a concrete utopia to be lived, NOW, with all the urgency of desire.
On one point we do agree with the comments ascribed to Blazwick: Bellmer really is sulphurous. Our opponents may not be wrong, after all, to be afraid of him. “Here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds” (Bakunin). More brimstone!
The article in Le Monde can be found here.
Details of the Bellmer exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery can be found here.
The Whitechapel Gallery's email address is email@example.com.
Iwona Blazwick's telephone number at the gallery is 020 7522 7890.