My interesting read of the week popped up from Medium, with a fantastic article by Ben Freeland titled “When Does Good Art By Awful People Become Untouchable?”. My current fascination with discrimination and history certainly was looking for interesting articles around that topic, and this article had me thinking deeply.
Today in my collection, one of my multitalented coworkers (the lovely Tash) found a rice tin in a box of items we had been considering for an exhibition. The rice tin is likely the right time period, is in surprisingly good condition and completely unable to be used. Why? Because it’s trimmed in swastikas.
As someone who wants to teach good history and stare unflinchingly at challenging narratives, part of me rails against not displaying this, purely because someone might interpret it as an item that supports Nazi symbolism. I want to have deep conversations about the rich history that the symbol has and explain that it’s only problematic when used in conjunction with white supremacy.
This symbol is a little like an artist that has become undone by their own criminal behaviours. Admittedly, the symbol itself has never committed and act, but people have used it with intention and now it has this contextual history linking it directly to harm and pain. Would I display this in a war exhibition? Absolutely yes to create those strong links to that period. Will I place it in an exhibition knowing that the symbol causes fear and distrust? Absolutely not. The conversations about how a swastikas can be used is not necessary in a cute little cottage talking about early Australian life.
The article asks when is too soon, to allow art to become seen almost separately from it’s creator. I think this is really tided up with how long that person, or art, or thing, is used as a potential rally to arms for those who seek to justify a moral corrupt position. Richard Wagner, mentioned in the article for his strong links to the Third Reich, is likely not being listened to in reverence by those who currently ascribe to Nazi leanings. Swastikas certainly are. Even if something is no longer used for potential harm, historical narratives should not ignore that history but use it as part of it’s diverse history. Embracing the power of Wagner’s music, does not mean we should ignore that he was, likely, an awful person. His skills in music should not equate a get out of jail card for the impact he had on the people he effected. It may not be too soon for Wagner, but it still is for many others.
That rice tin may never go on display. Or it could stop being actively used, and with some distance maybe we can have some of those discussions in unexpected museums and heritage houses. Maslow hierarchy of needs tells us that you can’t be an open learner and deep thinker if you are afraid of being damaged. For the moment, it’s too soon. That very average tin could inspire even one person to not feel safe in an environment, and that is one too many for me.
Ben Freelands article can be found here: https://medium.com/@benfreeland/when-does-good-art-by-awful-people-become-untouchable-b24b8fdd118f
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.