In May 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced it would arbitrarily change the name of one of Canada’s most famous paintings because the dated terminology in its name was deemed unsavoury for modern audiences.
Emily Carr’s 1929 painting Indian Church was renamed Church at Yuquot Village, with a note describing the change on its descriptive plaque being made because of the term “Indian”, was an outdated and incorrect term for First Nations people in North America.
This incident taken alone may appear to be a singular instance of hypersensitivity.
It is actually part of an international trend of museums and art galleries revising titles, descriptions, and works to omit their original characteristics when they include outdated or now-inappropriate terminology.
The revisions are almost universally made behind-the-scenes with little information made public until they’ve been completed.
This article will describe the origin of that phenomenon, applying the term “historical cleansing” to describe its methods and impacts, and will situate the Carr painting’s case.
It will conclude with a warning of potential impacts, the direst of which is introducing a culture of censorship of artists – society’s most eloquent critics.
The Rijksmuseum and the origin of historical cleansing in art galleries
There is a precedent for the Indian Church incident set in the Netherlands. The Rijksmuseum, the historic national museum of the Netherlands, is home to numerous masterpieces from Dutch and foreign artists including Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Peter Paul Rubens.
Its collection is partially contextualized by its history as a national treasure of the Kingdom of Holland in a romantic-era Europe contested by colonial powers.
In December 2015, news emerged that a project entitled “Adjustment of Colonial Terminology” would be affected.
The result of the project, involving all 12 curators of the museum’s history department, would be the removal of offensive language from digital titles and descriptions of artworks[i]
The announcement (originally reported by a local Dutch newspaper), as well as subsequent dialogue, is uniformly documented in numerous sources, but the Rijksmuseum’s website’s “Press” section contains no announcement despite a press conference being held at the museum.
The announcement came a month after the initiation of the project and it appeared to have been conceptualized some time prior.
Precisely what guidelines were developed or implemented to determine what language, words, or phrasing would be targeted is unclear.
The new speech parameters appear to be the domain of the dozen responsible curators.
The resulting dialogue about the “adjustment” can be paraphrased as: proponents for the project applauding as it is high time to remove offensive and/or Eurocentric terms; and, opponents raising concerns of censorship and historical revisionism.
Naturally, individual arguments may be more specific and complex.
Proponents of the project may be well-intentioned in wanting to see offensive words removed from public view, but they fail to understand that the nature of the entire Rijksmuseum is inherently Eurocentric and colonial.
Like all museums, galleries, and architecture, the Rijksmuseum is intended to serve as a symbol of the great cultural achievements of the Netherlands, and its history as a global power.
That does not propagate colonialism unless patrons are entirely uninformed of their national or shared human histories.
It is safe to assume that patrons of an art gallery or museum are likely to have basic knowledge of their history.
Opponents of the project dismiss it as political correctness at the minimum and more significantly sound the alarm for censorship.
Removing contextual information from the title or description of a painting fundamentally alters the interaction a viewer has with the piece: without words as an anchor to the artist’s intent, the viewer is left with innumerable options for interpretation.
While that may be desirable in some cases like modern-era art, it is certainly not in Romantic-era paintings, which were the primary targets of the historical cleansing campaign.
Most news articles on the project included a picture of Simon Maris’ Young Negro-Girl, re-titled as Young Girl Holding a Fan.
The painting is a portrait of a young dark-skinned girl wearing a dress and hat and holding a fan. Of course, the word “negro” is abhorrent, but universal adoption of the historically cleansed title instantly removes all connotation of racial or class divides present at the time it was painted.
It precludes the viewer from asking important questions such as, “what made this girl so unique that Maris was inspired to cross the divide to immortalize her”?
Simply by changing a few words on a placard, a valuable part of the explorative experience of art is lost.
Canadian post-colonialism and forsaking Emily Carr
That the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) would adopt the Rijksmuseum’s historical cleansing practices is not totally surprising. Canada’s current media and political climate are one of faux self-admonishment for the suffering of indigenous people at present and in the past.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, mandated to facilitate acknowledgement of harm done by the Indian Residential Schools, issued calls to action to amend the relationship between Canada and its indigenous citizens in 2012. Of the 94 calls to action issued, only one, calling for Canada to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty of indigenous lands”[ii], has been popularly implemented.
It manifests itself as a “land acknowledgement”, a practice in which an officiant opens a public gathering by acknowledging that those gathered are standing on the “traditional lands” of the indigenous tribe that historically occupied that area.
Some variants include thanking current members of the tribe – almost never represented – for allowing visitors to attend or sharing the land solely on the basis of their racial identity.
Despite delegitimizing extraordinary national accomplishments and predicating most public matters with mandatory collective shaming, the practice has spread aggressively.
Prior to performances by the National Ballet of Canada, a recording of artistic director and famed Canadian dancer Karen Kain delivers a land acknowledgement message, despite there being no political activity or need to racially divide patrons at all.
When I’ve heard the message delivered in the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, it’s been met with palpably awkward silence.
While this practice picks up momentum in the public sphere, 76 long-term boil water advisories remain in effect on native reserves as of the end of May 2018, with a goal of lifting them by March 2021 at a cost of over CAD$172 million.[iii]
Clearly, there is no urgent political or public will to provide an equitable quality of life to Canada’s indigenous people, and there is certainly no intention to repatriate land to them.
Post-colonial culture in Canada is nominal only.
Having considered the Rijksmuseum historical cleansing project and the fashionable self-denigration trend in Canada, we find ourselves at the intersection at which the AGO presumably recently found itself when it arbitrarily renamed formative Canadian painter Emily Carr’s Indian Church to Church at Yuquot Village.
The painting was created on Vancouver Island and was prized by the painter, as well as by contemporaries like Lawren Harris (her mentor, and likely the most famous Canadian painter) and subsequent art historians.
Carr was noted for her relationship with native tribes and people. Most of her subject matter includes their areas of residence, environs, and their cultural symbols such as their totem poles.
She was evidently appreciative and admiring of their culture and space.
Still, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, Georgiana Uhlyarik, has decided the term “Indian” is part of the “hurtful and painful” terminology that she and indigenous art curator Wanda Nanibush will work together to historically cleanse as part of their “nation to nation” artistic approach in the new Canadian and Indigenous Art Department.[iv]
Their undertaking coincides with the re-naming of the J.S. McLean Centre for Indigenous and Canadian Art. The new centre and department opened unabashedly on July 1st, 2018.
The department’s name alone inadvertently re-marginalizes indigenous Canadians, separating their contributions from those of their peers of British and other lineages.
Visitors to the gallery will find throughout it numerous painting descriptors prefixed with indigenous languages ahead of English and French texts, which are the two official languages of the Province of Ontario.
To posit that indigenous populations in southern Ontario are remotely populous enough to warrant comparable service to official language populations is incorrect.
Sadly, their languages are fading away; accordingly, the curators should consider that many indigenous people cannot read their own culture’s language or the anglicized phonetic texts that represent them in the gallery.
A number of paintings are also appended with descriptions of our shameful colonial past, in case we’d forgotten since the last painting or placard.
Art galleries and museums are the stewards of culture.
They are expected to contain occasionally controversial and critical material, and it is not wrong to criticize Canada’s past transgressions with its indigenous peoples.
Concurrently, citizens and art lovers need to understand their collective history as a matter of civic duty and of engaged patronage.
In order to fully represent the social and political histories of the cultures they purvey, galleries and museums should endeavour to be objective or narrate only the artistic merit of their pieces, not to erase history to protect modern fragility.
The works of art will influence much more than any hundred-word text of postmodernist jargon.
Removing the original words and phrases tied to the pieces’ identities and over-editorializing threatens access to the context of each piece, without which we cannot fully understand their places in our collective consciousness.
Their value and messages will independently evolve as our societal values change, reflecting their time as valuable relics of what was once considered appropriate, beautiful, complimentary, or desirable.
By removing “harmful language” and editorializing artist’s work, curators unintentionally denigrate their own effort to acknowledge past wrongs.
We are left with an easily digestible product that is sanctioned and approved for consumption by controlling elitists but has no real cultural value or truth – only a new speech that will dissolve in further inevitable edits and revisions.
The razing of culture
The immediate outcome of cleansing speech from art is obvious censorship. Ideas, sentiments, speech, or expression that is forbidden by an authority because it is in opposition to the dogma or priorities of that authority is being censored.
It must be referred to by name or censorship will begin to take root not only in arts but in our culture and our history.
If a more abstract medium such as painting is moderated excessively, one can reasonably expect that a more resolute medium such as speech will eventually be even more aggressively policed.
They should think of the historical cleansing of art as cutting down free speech at the knees.
The AGO has instituted a program based on extremist identity politics that threatens fundamental freedoms and principles.
There is no healthy way to proceed with this program. Much like the Rijksmuseum, the AGO does not appear to have any guidelines for editing or editorializing, leaving decisions to the whims of radicals in curator positions, and their staff who are presumably sympathetic.
Unless the gallery’s leadership or approach is overhauled, the only foreseeable result of their censorship endeavor is increasing constraint of acceptable sentiments and speech.
It’s not even clear what ideology is driving art censorship (“extreme leftism” is a strong but unconfirmed contender) and what ideas might be next for cleansing.
The phenomenon is unpredictable. Opponents to this practice could likely expect to be met with criticisms of bigotry, nationalism, alt-right associations, etc.; further, one could expect that works even tangentially related to those sentiments will be next for cleansing.
Even if the descriptors of art are egregiously offensive enough to cause discomfort, we should still preserve the artist’s right to offend.
Their contributions are vital to a free and open society.
The western standard of being inoffensive is curiously not applied to foreign artists: Pussy Riot, Ai Wei Wei, and especially Charlie Hebdo come to mind.
Admittedly, the former two artists campaign against autocracies, but the latter is a pronounced example of silencing artists to placate those they might offend.
The French satirical magazine was the target of a spree shooting in January 2015 that left 12of its staff dead and 11 injured.
The attack was vengeance for depicting Muhammad, a cardinal offence to many Muslims, especially radicals.
It is improbable that violence would erupt at the AGO overuse of the term “Indian”, but a culture in which art is allowed to be edited or prohibited to prevent offence installs the conditions that could escalate to overt repression.
It is the duty of public and cultural institutions to reject historical cleansing and censorship and to embrace secularism and plurality – including views and practices they find uncomfortable.
They must objectively and comprehensively represent all of our culture and history, whether desirable or not, in the manner in which it occurred.
If they do not fulfil that duty, we risk degrading cultural and historical context and forsaking the astounding social progress we’ve made, and the that still to come.
Once again, progressivism hinders unity and progress in a dangerous and subtle way.
[i] Nina Siegal, “Rijksmuseum removing racially charged terms from artwork’s titles and descriptions”, ArtsBeat, 10 December 2015, https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/rijksmuseum-removing-racially-charged-terms-from-artworks-titles-and-descriptions/
[iii] Indigenous Services Canada, “May 2018 update on long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserve”, Indigenous Services Canada, 04 June 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/indigenous-services-canada/news/2018/06/may-2018-update-on-long-term-drinking-water-advisories-on-public-systems-on-reserve.html
[iv] The Canadian Press, “Renaming of Emily Carr painting spurs debate about reconciliation in art”, CBC News, 23 May 2018, http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/renaming-emily-carr-painting-reconciliation-art-church-1.4674175