OPINION | THE INDEFENSIBILITY OF MAGGI HAMBLING
I have previously established annoyances with Hambling. She falls into that effervescent category of artists that truly believe that their unflattering painting of Trump will sway the average red-state voter into sudden democratic enlightenment, or that world peace can be achieved from within the confines a small cigarette-sodden Mayfair gallery. Her recent contribution to the great canon of feminist art has however acted as a quiet reminder of the consequences of letting this infuriatingly smug form of artistry enter the public cultural sphere.
There is very little that I can say about the peice, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, that has not already been picked apart by Twitter activists and armchair critics. It is both aesthetically and intellectually ugly, and it doesn't take a genius to understand why so much disgust and dismay has been generated by all sides ofthe spectrum concerning its erection. It serves little for me to sit here and point out the obvious --
that, in an era where female nudity is used to sell everything from cars to hamburgers and women are forced into sex work at alarming rates, having a peice that represents one of the pioneering forces behind the opposition of this commodification as nude is bafflingly irresponsible and benighted, or that there are no representations of male pioneers with their clothes off dotted around London -- but there is something entirely different to be gained about the artist and her work by taking a look at Hamblings' responses to her critics.
Hambling has released a series of increasingly infurating statements in defence of her work. Most of them rally around the idea that she is used to controversy, and most of her critics are merely too uptight to understand the importance of her own artistic freedom. The idea that disregard for public opinion of ones' art can be powerful is not entirely invalid; the works of Keith Harring, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing -- who all overcame visceral backlash to their public work in favour of social commentary -- come to mind. It is nevertheless lazy and immature to dismiss thoughts on the matter in favour of egotistical, you-just-don't-get-it-isms. It serves even less to pretend that this statue - the result of a decade long effort that, as quite rightly pointed out by Object! member Julia Long, was called ‘Mary on the Green’ not ‘Maggi on the Green' - exists solely as a thought excercise for Art History students and Mayfair dogmatists to flex their intellectual muscles. After all, the entire point of public art, especially commerative, is to represent a historical institute or figure without the demanded weight of prior knowledge, may this be of the general artistic canon or the author themselves.
It is this focus that brings me to the following point: Maggi's defences may have worked well for a private piece, but are simply not enough to justify a public one. In perhaps one of her more infuritating comments yet, Hambling defends the statues nudity as follows: "The point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people. We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman (...) As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.” Feminists have spent decades rallying against the idea that simply because we would “like to be” something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. Many of Wollstonecraft’s contemporaries would have quite “liked” her to be a silent figure of maternalism and wifehood rather than a writer or thinker. Although these are of course not exclusive attributes, the fact that - acording to Hamblings' view of the world - many women today would “like to be” toned, sexy and nude does not justify the application of modern aethetics and morals to a figure who fought against exactly what this very concept of societal approval resulted for women. The entire point of Wollstonecraft’s career is that it actively fought against what Western Victorian society made women think they should collectively aim to achieve, both intellectually and physically.
Hambling’s claim that the sculpture is “(...) not a conventional heroic or heroinic likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s a sculpture about now, in her spirit…” is incompatible with her work at worst and insulting to her image at best. Public art deserves standards that private pieces may be forgiven from, and the artist has in fact achieved the opposite of what may have potentially ended up as a fourth-wave feminist thinkpiece: she has actively contributed to the vast and seemingly unending tradition of stripping women to their body while apparantly celebrating their mind. It is objective and historical fact that Wolstonecraft, both as a woman and as a public entity, did not existed in the same modern artistic or historical capacity that might today justify substuting the representation of literary prowess for forcing ideas of modern ideals of diserability onto a historical figure, despite the similar gender challenges that both concepts of her character faced.
Hambling has further defended her choice by claiming: “The point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people… She’s everywoman and clothes would have restricted her. Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes.” To this I say: if the very idea of clothing — yet alone historically accurate clothes — makes your statue unrelatable to your contemporaries, then you are simply a bad sculptor. If Maggi truly wanted Mary to be “now”, she would have slapped some jeans and AirPods on her (let us not forget that Wollstonecraft was rich and achieved much her prowess through her familial status and personal wealth). Clothing has been a timeless and inexorable expression of class and gender identity since in Western culture for aeons. There is nothing timeless or justifiable, however, about the continued and mind-bogglingly unoriginal use of female nudity to reinforce concepts of desirability — doubly so under the guise of empowerment.
Opposition to the statue is not born of some puritanical notion that Wollsltonecraft is somehow too pure a historical figure to be depicted or associated with nudity. On the contrary, it is a disservice to her work and philosophy to fall into the third-wave feminist trap of thinking that nudity is always empowering, in art or in life. Even when wielded by a female artist, nudity - especially that of the female figure - does not exist in a vacuum: despite what the brave white feminists of Hollywood and elite gallery owners of Mayfair may claim, for most women public and gratuitous nudity is more likely to cause trouble than liberation. To deny this for the simple excuse of displaying a desirable, “don’t-we-ALL-want-to-be-fuckable?” body is intellectually dishonest and artistically garbage. To compare Hambling to Wollstonecraft is even more so; there is nothing radical or noteworthy about reducing one of the 19th centuries greatest thinkers to a small metallic barbie for a wider public to consume.
I am not arguing that only clothed women are respectable, or indeed that women that gain cultural tracton via nudity do not deserve to be artistically commemorated. However, the fact of the matter is that Wollstonecraft did not “emerge” from the literary and intellectual chaos of her era by doing what the wealthy elite wanted her to do with her body. Yes, there are certain disconnected circles of Twitter-verified artists and activists today who believe desirable, cisnormative nudity is the pinnacle of artistic womanly achievement and representation. Yet it still seems obvious to most that Wollstonecraft’s literary and philosophical legacy is simply incompatible with modern ideologies that forgive culmanating her achievements through a small metalic barbie on top of a silver mass. To force third-wave concepts of the “empowered everywoman” on a public figure that so vividly opposed what was expected of women during her own time is so vacuous and lazy that it would put Allen Jones to shame.
I am truly delighted for Hambling, who - as a woman and as an artist - has apparantly reached a point in where nudity has been removed of context. It must be a fantastic feeling; I would love nothing more than for my clothing to be a patriarchal "restriction" getting in the way of the Good and True beauty of capital-a Art. Unfortunately, the rest of us have not quite reached a point where the existence of the Transcendal institute excuses the fact that a lack of clothing in the public eye - for women now and for women then - is probably more likely to illicit trouble than a sudden sense of liberation. I am not claiming that slapping little fig leaves over the statues breasts and vulva would suddenly solve sexism— but it would have been nice for a young girl visiting Newington Green to learn about Wolstonecraft without associating her with the lingerie model shone over Piccadilly Circus.
Image credit: Douglas Atfeild/FT, Jill Mead/The Guardian, John Opie/Dea Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images, Paul Childs/Reuters.