Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Competing Human Rights at the Art Gallery

postcard - women - No Men Allowed - nma9234 (b&w)The Dowse Art Museum, a municipal art gallery in Wellington, New Zealand was recently the subject of a human rights complaint when it announced a “women and children only” exhibit.

The exhibit in question is a short (3 minute) documentary film called “Cinderazahd: Behind the Veil” by Qatari-American filmmaker Sophia al-Maria, and is being shown as part of the wider exhibition, “In Spite of Ourselves:  Approaching Documentary.”  The film, apparently shot on a hand-held camera, shows a group of Qatari women and children getting ready for a wedding.  Because the women are unveiled, al-Maria stipulated that the gallery could show the film only on the condition that men be prohibited from watching it.  Cam McCracken, the gallery’s director, agreed to the stipulation and has not seen the film himself.

The decision to exclude men proved controversial .  (“Dowse prepares for worst ahead of exhibit” read a headline in The Dominion Post.)  The case caught my attention because I recently read Ontario’s Policy on Competing Human Rights which is designed to offer guidance on exactly these sorts of cases.  What is to be done when one individual’s or organization’s rights conflict with – or appear to conflict with – those of another individual or organization?  While all rights are absolute and no rights are more important than others according to Ontario law, the courts have also recognized that rights may have limits in some situations where they substantially interfere with the rights of others.  The policy recommends mediation or some other form of alternative dispute resolution if parties cannot come to accommodation through other means.

New Zealand’s human rights policy also recommends mediation in the case of complaints, and a mediation was held between representatives of the gallery and Mr. Paul Young, the complainant.  The details of the mediation are confidential, so all I am able to report is that no decision was reached on the legality of the ban, and the gallery acknowledged that they should have, “worked harder to ensure accurate information about the work, its cost, content and intent, was available to the public earlier.”  (You can read their statement to the media here.)

While no one likes to be excluded, it must be admitted that being prevented from seeing a 3-minute film is a fairly minor violation of human rights on the scales of global injustice.  And I can’t imagine that the film will start a trend such that men need to fear that their access to art will be compromised.  The majority of artworld “gatekeepers” (critics, curators, gallery owners, collectors, etc.) are men and artists who want to be taken seriously will not make their work inaccessible to them.

Thinking about the controversy in New Zealand prompted me to think about some other ethical issues in the arts.  What is an artist’s responsibility to the people she depicts?  Did al-Maria inform her subjects that their wedding preparations would be the subject of a film that might be shown in an art gallery?  Did they give their permission?  Did she assure them that the film would not be seen by men, and if so, was this really something that she could guarantee?  Is there a tension between an artist offering something as a work and at the same time invoking her moral rights to exclude certain people from viewing it?

One final thought:  Displaying a work in a separate part of a gallery and restricting access to women and children is certainly one way of excluding certain viewers.  Are there less obvious ways in which viewers may be excluded by the artworld?  Do we give certain people the idea that “this is not for you” without saying so out loud?  Is the language used to discuss art exclusionary?  Some galleries (such as the Frick Collection and the Neue Galerie, both in New York City) deny access to children.  While I can see reasons for and against excluding children from art galleries, doing so makes it much more difficult for parents to visit.  High admission prices exclude those with limited disposable income.  None of these may warrant a complaint to the human rights commission, but they may be just as exclusionary as a “women only” exhibit.

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