There were some interesting consequences of the play between the exhibition’s title and Harvey’s notorious painting that I would like to briefly focus on. Winnie Johnson, the mother of a twelve-year old boy who had been murdered by Myra Hindley and her partner Ian Brady, had traveled to London to protest the inclusion of the portrait in the exhibition, even though it was based on a well-known newspaper image. She refused a Royal Academy invitation to view the painting in private and preferred, instead, to picket the exhibition. She is reported to have said: “I’m not going in there. If I do I will go through that thing like a dose of salts and smash everything in front of me…. I just want to tell people, `Please do not go in and see it.’ They are kiddies’ hands on there used to make a picture of that monster.” (5) This last observation is interesting because it reveals how the public’s responses to controversial artworks are often rooted in opinions about a work’s degree of “realism.” It also demonstrates how one is often able to circumvent critical debate by actively cultivating direct emotional engagement and bonding with the work. Johnson focuses on the fact that the portrait was composed of a multitude of handprints made from a single rubber cast of a child’s hand as opposed to the fact that the painting was based on a well-known media image.

One suspects, in this connection, that one is also privy in Johnson’s choice of words, to the peculiar power of the hand – not of the artist’s hand that had manipulated the rubber cast (but this is also an action that must be taken into account), but to the power of its imprint, a copy (but, in this case, a fictional copy since the cast was not from the hand of a murdered child), to mimic the original photograph’s powerful iconic and indexical properties and thus to function as a perfect simulacrum in the manner of a death mask. The use of a cast ensured that intimacy was cleverly simulated with both the murderess and her victims. (6) But that intimacy is also registered, indeed flaunted – like the bold title that can set the stage for a brash exhibition – by using the woman’s first name as a title for the painting. It is interesting to note in light of the painting’s vandalism, that the title and imprints operate in the same way that the exhibition’s title operates. They all cultivate a particular response in a viewer which is based on their ability to short-circuit the fragile distinction between the neutral, yet subjective, operation of the senses – an operation that is habitually geared to pleasant experiences and conventional ideas of what is and is not Beautiful – and deliberate (avant-garde) strategies that are designed to produce violent emotional responses through disruptive actions on habitual perception. In addition, one suspects, in Myra’s case, that the short-circuit’s potential degree of violence is guaranteed by the handprinting which, in fact, reinstates and conflates the auras of the murderess and her victims that had effectively been eclipsed in the original mechanically reproduced halftone. Thus it is not hard to imagine – what ever the complexities of the original case (7) – that the handprints paved the way for a qualitatively different set of aesthetic responses to the painting.

Myra’s vandalism represents a perversely appropriate public response, given the painting’s mode of production and the exhibition’s title. Note, in this connection, the way that an unidentified art student who was present during the attacks on Myra has chosen to describe the resulting image: “I don’t understand why there was such an extreme reaction to it…. It’s quite good now though, she looks like she has been punched and has a bloody nose.” (8)

This playful comment hints that the vandal is also an artist in his or her own way. Hence, acts of vandalism against artworks could just as easily be attributed to a Hyde-like artistic alter ego. If so, then one should not be surprised to learn that one of Myra’s vandals was an irate artist, and yet one is still surprised by this news. Why? Perhaps because his actions, with their clear challenge to the principles of free speech, appear to originate from elsewhere and from someone else’s hand. Under the stark light of the exhibition’s title, the origins of these actions seem to stretch beyond the responsibility of any one group or individual. They seem to lead to another phantom-like figure, a generic, who animates the social in the manner of de Certeau’s anonymous “ordinary man” – that “ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets.” (9)

Here is how this figure is described by de Certeau at the beginning of his moving dedication to The Practice of Everyday Life:

In invoking here at the outset of my narratives the absent figure who provides both their beginnings and their necessity, I inquire into the desire whose impossible object he represents. What are we asking this oracle whose voice is almost indistinguishable from the rumble of history to license us, to authorize us to say, when we dedicate to him the writing that one formerly offered in praise of the gods or the inspiring muses?

Who were the organizers of “Sensation” invoking and, indeed, provoking in the staging of a public exhibition with such a title other than the ordinary person who “is the murmuring voice of societies,” who “comes before texts” and who “does not expect representations”? For de Certeau this anonymous figure “squats now at the center of our scientific stages.”

The floodlights have moved away from the actors who possess proper names and social blazons, turning first toward the chorus of secondary characters, then settling on the mass of the audience. (10)

But the exhibition did more than conjure up this figure, it released the spectre of intolerance that can also harbour in its depths. This is one of the more obvious consequences of the deliberate staging of this type of exhibition and it is a consequence that extends to the artworks only insofar as they are a part of its economy. While the Royal Academy can bask in the recognition that it did not buckle under the internal or external pressures of censorship, it cannot lose sight of the fact that it actively courted acts of intolerance through the way that it chose to frame the exhibition.

Relevant help and advice: Canvas Art Blog