Minor differences: the censoring of Kirsty Whiten

Quing (furs)horsehead (man)

Here’s a fun game for children of all ages. What is the difference between the two images above?

Both of them are by Kirsty Whiten, a Scottish artist who makes work about – among other things – gender, ritual, class, sexuality, family, and religious iconography. (Declaration of interest: I’ve known Kirsty for years. She’s a friend.)

Until Monday this week, the image on the left was on public display in an Edinburgh street, as part of a show by Kirsty called Wronger Rites, the centrepiece of this year’s LeithLate festival. It was taken down after a small number of complaints from local residents, initially voiced on Twitter. It was “inappropriate”, one felt, “bordering on sexually graphic”. The principal cause of concern, it appears, was that the artwork was close to a primary school – one tweeter said it made their two-year-old child cry. These complaints reached three Edinburgh city councillors, and as a result LeithLate was asked either to remove the artwork or replace it with something “slightly more appropriate for all ages”. LeithLate offered to put up another of Kirsty’s artworks in its place – the image on the right.

I’ll leave it to others to unpick this sequence of events, and decide whether there is anything further to be done. Obviously it raises lots of questions. Should a significant Scottish artist have a work of public art censored because it upsets the sensibilities of a small number of people who live nearby? Was there enough consultation before the decision was taken? (At least as many people spoke up on Twitter in support of the work.) How much of a factor was it that certain people just don’t like the drum, the tower on Leith Walk on which Kirsty’s art was pasted, described in one council email as an “eye sore”? And, incidentally, do two-year-old children not cry all the time, for reasons that are often inexplicable, even to them? Is it at all possible that the child was crying because they picked up on an adult’s negative reaction, or because they’re frightened of dog masks, or because they were just hungry or tired?

What most interests me, though, is why the image on the left is considered “inappropriate” for public display near a primary school, but not the image on the right. “I very carefully considered which images to place there,” Kirsty told Greener Leith this week. “I’m quite fascinated that this one image has caused ‘offence’, there is nothing explicitly sexual about the image, as a body in a bikini doesn’t stand out on the high street, there are an unending supply of these in advertising. Perhaps it’s the body type that required censorship? A fat body standing proud? Unglamourised and a little queer?”

It’s difficult to say, without interviewing every single person who objected. But my theory is that it’s about imaginary genitals. The part of the blue costume that is hanging down between the figure’s legs arguably looks a bit like a penis. And the figure’s hands are positioned close to the thing that arguably looks a bit like a penis, fingers apart, as if preparing to, well, who knows, but it’s probably quite dirty. And look, the figure is wearing something that might be a bra. And a bra, combined with hands near genitals, tends to signify sex, particularly if it’s red, the colour of passion. The dog mask perhaps reinforces this impression too, dogs being famously shameless about humping in public, whether it’s other dogs or people’s legs.

Except that, if you look at the image closely, the ‘bra’ could just as easily be a swimsuit (it has yellow and blue spots on it), and the thing that arguably looks a bit like a penis is actually the face on a fox fur stole. The hands are where they are to stop the stole falling off. And red, as far as children are concerned, is the colour of traffic lights, strawberries and one of the Teletubbies. So you see what you want to see. That includes children – someone else on Twitter said their child thought the picture was funny. I agree. To me it just looks like someone dressing up for fun. They’re wearing a giant furry dog mask, for heaven’s sake.

In other words, this seems to have little to do with any measurable criteria of what is  “appropriate” for children to look at in the street, but quite a lot to do with certain adults projecting their own, very personal anxieties about sex on to everybody else – and children in particular. Perhaps Kirsty is right and the ‘queerness’ of the image is a factor. If you insist that the blue fox’s head resembles a penis, then what we’re looking at is someone who is either transgender or a transvestite. If this makes people uncomfortable, let’s call it what it is: transphobia. But if that’s the case, why is an image of a male looking figure in women’s high heels an acceptable replacement? A few people I know think the image looks like a woman giving birth. Is that something a child shouldn’t see, really? Are parents, in 2015, still telling children that babies are left in the back garden by a stork?

Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree here. Perhaps there is another, compelling reason why the image is “inappropriate” for children (ideally a reason that takes into account the recommendations of a recent House of Commons Committee, that sex education should be compulsory in primary schools). I’d be genuinely interested to hear it.

Meanwhile, here’s another perspective. Kirsty Whiten is a brilliant artist – and also a brilliant mum – making thoughtful, engaging work that challenges all kinds of assumptions about gender, about sexuality, and, increasingly, about parenthood, as she continues to raise two lovely, well-balanced children, who are exposed to her work on a daily basis without any harm coming to them. To me, the fact that Kirsty’s work has caused a reaction like this just illustrates the importance of what she’s doing. And yes, I am completely happy with my children seeing all of the images in Wronger Rites. In fact, one of them is in the show.

CORRECTION, 25 June, 3pm: An earlier version of this blog stated that Deidre Brock, formerly a councillor for Leith Walk, now MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, asked for Kirsty’s artwork to be removed. I have now been informed that the request did not in fact come from Deidre, and that she was unaware of the situation until she read my blog. I would like to apologise to Deidre for the error.

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3 thoughts on “Minor differences: the censoring of Kirsty Whiten

  1. A well thought out and considered article. I should also own up that I have the privilege of being considered a friend of Kirsty’s and I have enjoyed following the progression of her artwork over the last 15 years. I find the attitude tells us more about the creeping nature of Neo Conservatism in popular culture than it does about a child’s reaction to a particular image. So for the sake of argument (not something those on twitter are renowned for hence why your complaints are limited to 140 characters) lets pretend the child was scared… my response would be – good. Kirsty has achieved more in one picture than several hundred hours of Pepper Pig and Thomas the Tank engine ever could.

    Artists and performers have been intentionally scaring kids for thousands of years – it’s a key learning point, it’s how adults debunk the fear of “going into the woods” by showing the wolf to be just a person dressed up, a performer, clown acting like a beast – “to scare the children”. Fear is a very powerful tool – like all things of power it can be used in a positive and a negative fashion. You can use it to re-enforce prejudice and hatred (does that feel right Mr/Mrs Twitter moaner – I’ve not much experience of that side of things) or you can use it to explore, to provoke these feelings and seize the opportunity to discuss them with the children or adult in question. Would it not have been better to speak to the child about their fears – or to perhaps invite Kirsty to the primary school to discuss the paintings and answer questions about what they mean to the kids. Positive and Negative responses – we always have a choice and too often we take the easy one, which is always negative.

    Kirsty is continuing a tradition of art that stretches from Cave walls to Renaissance Italy and now Edingburgh – we all devour images of masked balls on venetian streets, the work of Erroneous Bosch still amazes and divides hundreds of years after it was drawn. But they all serve the same purpose – to defy the obvious, to bend the rules, to view from the outside and to expose the status Quo, the mean thought, the rule of thumb even the common good, for what they are – censored, mind numbing generalisations that impose the average on all and deny the extraordinary to everyone.

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  2. Grow up Edinburgh! As a “Mum and a Granny” I have taken umpteen family members through the national museums and galleries. Nudity and sex abound today in advertising, film, tv etc. Kirsty is an artist.

    I will proudly take my 5 grandchildren to see and appreciate my friend Kirsty’s work.

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  3. This feels like one of those whopping kinfe in the back moments for Leith’s (seemingly futile) long-term identity fight over super-gentrification and the soul-sapping homogeny of the high street. Un-ironically it was a bearded Glaswegian wannabe lumber-hipster who kicked this particular fight off. Well him and band of greeting two year olds. Bless.

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