Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Restore gay sex picture... for our children's sake

Artist Ursula Burke

Here we go again. First it was the posse of Newtownabbey councillors who were determined to block a tame and harmless comedy about the Bible.

Fortunately, that foolish decision was overturned and the play went ahead, presumably to the disappointment of anyone who thought they were going to see something truly transgressive.

But now the scene switches to Banbridge, where local councillors have taken the frighteners over a drawing by the artist Ursula Burke, part of a show which is to open today at the FE McWilliam gallery.

It's one of a series of drawings which place recognisable local images – battered police Land Rovers, youths attacking riot police – in incongruously idyllic pastoral settings.

The particular piece in question, After Frans Van Bloemen – Arcadian Landscape, includes a gay couple having sex while another person looks on .

Like much of Burke's work, it's both exquisitely delicate and sharply observational. (And perfectly familiar, come to that, to anyone who's ever taken their dog for a late-night stroll round some of our popular beauty spots and caught a glimpse of the, er, pastoral revels going on there.)

And Burke herself is an artist of some reputation, currently Northern Ireland resident artist in the British School in Rome, an opportunity which is awarded only to Northern Irish artists who are recognised both locally and internationally.

But none of this matters to the Banbridge authorities. Gay sex? No way. Not in our nice, clean, righteous and upstanding art gallery.

The official reason given for the ban on Burke's piece was that it's not suitable for children. According to a council spokesman, it was "deemed inappropriate for display to minors in a public gallery", especially one that "prides itself as a family-friendly facility and encourages visitors of all ages to visit and view the exhibitions in a welcoming and comfortable environment."

They're not restricting artistic freedom, oh no. They've had to take this action because "the council's child protection policy ... ensures that minors should not be exposed to material that may cause concern or prove upsetting to the child".

What a load of sanctimonious rubbish. This isn't about protecting children, it's about despotic local philistines wiping out anything which doesn't chime with their own repressive moral code.

Let me declare an interest here, as well as some experience. For several years, I have served as chair of the board of directors of the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast. Like the FE McWilliam, the Golden Thread also prides itself on being a family-friendly space and it takes its responsibility to its younger visitors as seriously as it take its commitment to exhibit exciting art without fear or favour.

There's a very simple answer to accommodating both those needs and galleries across the world do it all the time. If a show contains potentially challenging or explicit material, you put up a clear warning to visitors, including parents with young children, that they may wish to restrict their viewing.

Personally, I've rarely felt the need to shield my own children from anything they might see in an art gallery. To my mind, looking at and talking about surprising or shocking content is better than covering their little eyes and hustling them away.

And, besides, the vacuous, deadening and grotesque material that they come across in everyday life, in some parts of the media and especially on the internet, is what really disturbs me.

Evidently, Banbridge Council doesn't want to come across as a bunch of culchie prudes. That's why they've been careful to acknowledge that "art should sometimes be challenging to the viewer" and that they "do not endorse censorship on artistic grounds".

Maybe not on artistic grounds – whatever that means – but they sure as heck seem to endorse censorship on moral and religious grounds. Because that's exactly what the councillors are doing here, only they're hiding behind a bureaucratic smokescreen in an attempt to sound reasonable, compassionate and responsible, instead of homophobic, repressive and intolerant. It isn't working.

Some might shrug and ask: who cares? But we should all care about pernicious little interventions like this.

Once the curatorial independence of a gallery, or a theatre, is compromised, once councillors start dictating what we can or can't see, then freedom of expression itself is undermined.

It's in the interests of all of us – especially the upcoming generation – to fight it every step of the way.

For our children's sake, reinstate this offending piece of art.

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