I stumbled across this over at Law & Liberty from Theodore Dalyrimple, one of my favorite commenters, and found it through-provoking indeed: See Beauty, Not Offense. Excerpt:
The Art Newspaper recently ran an article with the title “What should we do about paintings with racist titles?” As an example, it gave the Portrait of a Negress by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, painted in 1800 and owned by the Louvre.
The portrait is a splendid one by a female artist, of an elegantly seated black woman in a snowy white turban and gown, semi-naked from the waist up. It is obvious, at least to me, that we are intended to admire her beauty, as indeed we do. There is no doubting, either, the intelligence of her gaze: the artist could hardly have made it plainer.
There doesn’t seem to me anything that is intrinsically demeaning in the title. The term negress was not, in and of itself, an insulting or demeaning one at the time. Art galleries are full of portraits that do not name their subjects but merely refer to some general characteristic or other such as youth, age, country of origin, occupation, and so forth. This does not demean or dehumanise the subject, and no sensible person would take such a title to mean that the characteristic chosen for it—peasant, servant, soldier, or whatever—is supposed to define him or her completely. Portraiture is not caricature, and the anonymity of a sitter implies no disrespect, let alone contempt or hatred.
Note that the painting in question was produced in 1800, at which time the term “negress” was not an insult or a pejorative; it was, in the parlance of the day, merely descriptive, nothing more. But here’s the interesting bit:
As I usually do at such exhibitions, I read the book afterwards in which visitors leave their comments. I remember one page in particular, written by two women, both of whom described themselves as black. The first wrote that she considered the exhibition a disgraceful exercise in racial stereotyping that should not have been permitted, while the second wrote that she was grateful to God that he had allowed her to live long enough to see an exhibition that showed black people in all their beauty.
These two women had seen exactly the same pictures considered as purely physical objects, of course, but their responses to them were diametrically and dramatically opposite. My sympathies were much more with the second than with the first comment: it seemed to me that all the painters exhibited in their work either a sympathy or respect for their subjects. They were largely free of any suggestion that the subjects were lesser human beings than the artists themselves, with the possible exception of certain paintings in which the slaves were pictured as helpless if terribly suffering victims. Indeed, many of the pictures were clearly admiring of their subjects.
Frankly it sounds as though the exhibit was a beautiful one, and anyone who takes pleasure in art should have enjoyed it. And I suspect that Mr. Dalyrimple is correct later on, when he presumes that at least a generation separates the two women who signed the book; the younger, likely, being the one that decried the exhibit as racist. As he presumes:
My guess was that the women were of two generations deeply separated by their sensibilities. My surmise was that the woman who thanked God that He had allowed her to live long enough to see such an exhibition was at least one generation older, possibly two, than the woman who thought the exhibition deeply racist.
And that says a lot about what’s happening in society right now: The hyper-sensitivity, the overwhelming focus on superficial issues like race, which is largely a cultural construct; it certainly has little basis in biology, when humans have considerably less genetic variability than most large mammals.
For that (presumably) younger woman, the only thing I can bring myself to feel is pity: Pity that she has been so misinformed, so abused by an educational system and culture that places such emphasis on something as trivial as melanin content, that this is the only lens through which she can view a beautiful and historic exhibit of art. That’s just sad.