When Art Is Evil

Marcus Harvey, Myra

In the United States, when this portrait of Myra Hindley was shown, it made little stir. (See below)


That’s because she is lesser known in the US than in England, where she helped Ian Brady murder several children between 1963 and 1965. The portrait caused an uproar in England when it was exhibited at the Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy of Art in London from 8 September to 28 December 1997. The British public has hated Myra Hindley with a fixation, and she has become an iconic figure of evil in Britain. When Myra’s portrait appeared, the British public deplored it, many viewing the installation as glorifying her and commercializing the murders she committed. As one group of British mother protestors said,”They used to hang killers on the gallows. Now they hang them in the gallery,”

The artist, Marcus Harvey, denies any exploitation of Myra’s crimes for his artwork, stating: “The whole point of the painting is the photograph. That photograph. The iconic power that has come to it as a result of years of obsessive media reproduction.” But even the composition of the portrait has shock value since the printed texture of her face suggests children’s fingerprints.

Even Myra Hindley, while serving a life sentence, did not want her portrait exhibited when she learned about it. She said it was “a sole disregard not only for the emotional pain and trauma that would inevitably be experienced by the families of the Moors victims but also the families of any child victim.”  That statement might make you believe in her sincere repentance or even in her innocence.  However, tapes have revealed Myra’s complicity with Ian Brady’s crimes. The probable fact is that Myra objected to the portrait not because she regretted her crimes, but because it renewed unwanted attention to her notoriety at a time when she sought release from prison.

Those who knew Hindley believe she never really felt sorry for her crimes, but only for her imprisonment. But what of Marcus Harvey, the artist, the Royal Academy of Art, which exhibited the picture, and the speculators, including Saatchi and Frank Gallipoli, who last bought the painting for $200,000? While not murderers, these people have little conscience and few scruples, with the worst being Marcus Harvey, who used Myra’s ill-acquired fame for his own.

About kinneret

Hello, and welcome. I'm writing this blog under an alias. Why an alias? I started to write what may be described as an "American Gothic" novel (sort of Henry James/ Franz Kafka with violence) with some autobiographical details. ..when I started this blog I just decided to use the alias. This blog is about art and art history, but my interests also include literature, film analysis, psychology, forensic psychology, faerie tale analysis, cognitive therapy, cognitive linguistics, classical theater, World War II, and Russian and British history. My favorite writers include Kafka, the Brontes, and Philip K Dick. Thank you for reading this blog and I will happily reply to any comments.
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29 Responses to When Art Is Evil

  1. Ginene Nagel says:

    This is an interesting subject to me today as I think about the 13 French cartoonists who were murdered in Paris. I was thinking that if anyone working in corporate America hung one of those cartoon drawings in their offices, they would probably be dismissed, that is, fired from their jobs, because there is such a climate of “appreciation for diversity” in the American workplace.That we must have freedom of speech and freedom in art is an absolute, but should that blur our vision regarding persons who choose to make a career out of using children’s fingerprint to create an images of a child murderer or of disrespectful cartoon drawings of Mohammed, etc. These artists are like the editors of the National Enquirer Magazine…they push the limit to get noticed. This art is all about being offensive. That was their point. I would just turn my back on it. I thought it was very interesting that you brought up this subject, albeit in mid-December, before these terrible things happened. But it is a subject that no one else seems to be discussing.

    • kinneret says:

      Right. There are some differences though. Making say pornographic cartoons of any religious saint etc is disrespectful and of bad taste, but criticism is something else (eg satire about the 100 virgins of homicide bombers). There is a purpose in their speech. But in the case of Myra Hindley there does not seem to be so much in terms of criticism of its subject as just shock for its own sake. When we look at it at a distance it does not seem so awful but it would be equivalent then to art of 9/11 victims or something like that.

  2. Ginene Nagel says:

    Yes, I agree with you.

    • kinneret says:

      I am not usually too censorious of art, (though I have gotten annoyed by art exhibits at the Brooklyn museum that could really be described as pornographic since I was trying to get two little kids through the museum wing to the Tiffany stained glass and that was the only way.)

      • Ginene Nagel says:

        I agree with you. There are so many important things to say using art, that it boggles my mind sometimes, for museums to be taking up space and spending money on anything whose only voice is one of sensationalism. I ask myself if I just don’t have an appreciation of this art, but for the life of me, I can not find any message in it but “cheap shot.”Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

      • kinneret says:

        Yes…an interesting exhibit was the Young British Artists that this came from. Some of it was beautiful and some of it was thought provoking and contemplative and not just shocking. Maybe I will post more. Thank you for your comments and I’ll visit your blog! LOL it’s lonely on my site. 🙂

      • Ginene Nagel says:

        Oh, that is just because they haven’t found you! There is nothing like a shot of art to get one going in the morning. I really enjoy your blog and there are thousands that would if they knew where you were.

      • kinneret says:

        Gee, thanks so much, Ginene. I actually LOVE your blog and the whole idea of your store. We haven’t had money for years to spend on antiques but I would covet them if I could. Do you have any particular periods (of furniture etc) that you love most? But I love it all.. furniture, antique jewelry, linens…

      • Ginene Nagel says:

        I love it all, too, and I carry everything and anything from the 1950s and back. I’ve tried to stick to a certain era, like the 1920s in the past, but I can’t do it…there are so many wonderful things out there.
        Thank you so much for stopping by.

  3. Interesting thoughts. There’s a correlation of the promotion of pieces like this and the murders in Paris. Both are the results of a decadent, destructive establishment that thinks social chaos will ensure their grip on power. But independent artists are rising to oppose their nihilistic presumptions. Nice blog here!

    • kinneret says:

      Thank you. I’m not quite sure what to make of the connection or what is the correct stance on those cartoons. I’m against political correctness. On the other hand, I think artists could make effective criticism of any religion without using pornography or anything really vulgar or really slandering saints or religious figures. It’s strange this explosive conflict in France now. The French for years have had such an anti-clerical tradition. (They used to be clerical but chopped off their heads). So Islam doesn’t fit in well there.

  4. I remember the stir this picture caused when it was first exhibited. It was all over the news here in the UK, where, as you say, the Moors murders are still a national trauma. Sadly, I think you’re probably right that a lot of the YBA’s (Young British Artists) of Marcus Harvey’s generation are more interested in shock for its own sake than anything else (except making money…). I do like the work of Jeremy Deller, though, which is very politically engaged and fun (anyone who creates a blow-up bouncy version of Stonehenge is OK by me), and I like Jenny Saville, too, and Ron Mueck.

    • kinneret says:

      Thank you for the commment! Right, I don’t dislike all of the YBAs. Ron Mueck is talented though morbid (maybe I should not be calling the kettle black). Richard Billingham is my favorite of the YBAs. I don’t know, actually I don’t agree with you on the Stonehenge bounce.Stonehenge is a sacred place. IMO I am tired of artists ripping off and diminishing great works to make satirical derivative products of little value.

  5. Interesting post, I would usually be very permissive regarding controversial art as I am unsure whether art has to have a intrinsic moral purpose but I agree this is reprehensible and repugnant, aiming (and succeeding) at being scandalous for the sake of upping the potential value. I’m not a fan of the YBA though, they make me long for the sincerity of Duchamp and the innocence of Warhol, at least they had the virtue of doing what they did first.

    • kinneret says:

      Very true about the YBA. Artists trying to shock these days are pathetic. I’m surprised they haven’t tried to film ISIS executions and called it performance art.

      • Yes there is a difference between the Dada nihilistic negation which was a valid response to a pointless and inexplicable war (I have no idea why WW1 really happened) and the YBA nihilism which is a cynical commercial ploy, besides that particular envelope has already been pushed many, many times before. As Nietzsche said and he knew a thing or two about nihilism the task is too overcome nihilism

      • kinneret says:

        Right… WWI and the Vietnam War both seem especially pointless and horrible shedding of innocent blood. I think WWI was essentially about nationalism, struggles for land grabs or territorial disputes, forged alliances that increased rivalry between enemy states, militarism. Also, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of the Ottoman Empire meant that there was suddenly much more land to try to seize for world domination.

      • I know but the motivates behind ww1 are murky beyond belief…vietnam although wrong is relatively explainable

      • kinneret says:

        Right… I get that. I haven’t studied Vietnam in great length and of course the US was in the Korean War and very anti-Communist but I wonder if we had to get dragged into Indochina if not for the French and their former colony. I just see Vietnam as a huge mistake, as I see Iraq as a huge mistake now, but for different reasons.

      • Well the French were certainly partially responsible…but the americans like all imperial powers knew that revolutions cannot succeed partially…that was the reason Napoleon gave for his conquests after the French revolution and every revolution since has always had international aspirations at least at the start

  6. I wanted a reason to disagree with you because I land on the side of no censorship in the arts, meaning that all expression is allowed but not necessarily in the same place; people who own a venue or a publication have a right to refuse work that is off theme…However, I If think if the artist had really wanted to highlight this woman’s revolting crimes he would have smeared her face with blood. I don’t see a ‘suggestion’ of fingerprints. What I see is a mediocre artist turning a quick buck on children who have already been abused to death.

    • kinneret says:

      Right, and that is my objection to it. It’s not art, it’s exploitation. In a way, it’s sort of like exploitation films the bad or demeaning ones, which exploit their subjects. The human exploitation is even worse than the commercial exploitation.

      • Right…For instance I disagreed with critics who thought that Robert Mapplethorpe made ‘Piss Christ’ simply to shock.

        I’m not a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe, it’s not my aesthetic, but I understood his intention with that image.

        A Christianity that places economic dogma above the spiritual practice of compassion is the equivalent of dropping the Christ into a glass of urine.

        A Christianity that places the rich above the poor is an offense more grave than the sight of the crucifix in a glass of piss.

        It doesn’t matter if I agree. What matters is that he expressed his point and forced me to ask myself if I agreed.

    • kinneret says:

      Maybe the title of this is wrong then. Exploiters and murderers…

      • I read it because I found the title provocative. I instantly wanted to know how you defined evil in the arts and whether it would fit.

        Score on both points.

      • kinneret says:

        That is a compliment, coming from you.

      • It’s true…it worked from title to close…anyone with an open mind can see that you have provided an ullustration of the limits of moral relativism.

        We need to take the word ‘moral’ away’ from sexual hypocrites — because there is a morality but it has absolutely nothing to do with owning and controlling the sexual organs of gays and women.

      • kinneret says:

        Agree. The only thing I would say is sexually immoral is molestation of children (or exploitation of people) which can happen regardless of orientation.

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