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The cleverest insult?

5 Sep 10 | Re: Overstating the case

What if there’s an artist you don’t like, who you think turns out nothing but flim-flam and dross? Is it OK to belittle their work? What if the artist happens to be a woman? Is it still all right, or does that make you a woman-hater?

Allow me to introduce Bidisha, a writer who very possibly has a wide range of subject matter, but all of whose articles that I have seen happen to be about feminism. In her latest piece for the Guardian, she says this:

The cleverest, most belittling insult I ever heard against a woman was a posh man at the Tate Modern, talking about Rachel Whiteread’s Turbine Hall installation: “Yeah,” he said. “She’s fun.” Delivered with an infuriating, mocking grin.

Must have been the way he said it, I suppose. But presumably this posh man was intending to insult Whiteread, so if it’s true that, in three words and a grin, he really did manage to concoct the cleverest, most belittling insult ever heard by Bidisha, a person who, it appears, spends a large percentage of her time seeking out and noting down insults of this kind, then the only sensible response would have to be: well done, sir. (Particularly since the installation in question - the big piles of white boxes - was indeed a load of old rubbish.)

But even if you don’t think that anyone should ever be allowed to insult anyone else, and we should all go around saying things like “it’s not to my taste”, it is another step again to detect any misogyny in the remark. Yes, it was directed at a woman, in this case, but female modern artists are hardly the only ones who get called insubstantial or painted as pranksters or empty conceptualists. I would argue that the amount of flak taken by almost all modern artists is in proportion to their fame - Damian Hirst gets the most, then Tracy Emin, and so on down the scale until you get to Rachel Whiteread, who I would rank fairly near Chris Ofili. So what about the insult makes it misogynistic? Should the posh man not have used the word ‘fun’? Should he have said ‘this artist’ instead of ‘she’? Just what would it take to satisfy Bidisha that you really were insulting a woman because you didn’t like her professionally, not because you hated all women?

Reading the rest of the article, it becomes clear: it would be impossible to satisfy Bidisha of this. At the centre of her thesis, she has a point: it’s true that a lot of the words used against women have uncomfortable associations that originate from times when society was male-dominated, and I agree that we should be mindful of that and not use such terms casually. However, Bidisha overstates her case so wildly that she becomes impossible to agree with. Sometimes an insult against a woman is sexist, but sometimes it is made for another reason; to suggest otherwise implies that women can only be judged as women, and not as artists, authors, politicians or whatever independently of their gender - a sexist position itself if ever I saw one.

She ends the piece with a wish that the ninety per cent of the world’s population (approx 5.4bn people) that she thinks are woman-haters would all be wiped out by death rays. Perhaps she would say that this wish was tongue-in-cheek or hyperbole, but since she refuses to make any allowance for nuance or subtlety of meaning for any of the people she doesn’t agree with, it is hard to make a similar concession for her. The whole thing comes across as absurdly hard-line and possibly written by someone who has read about human interaction, but never experienced it for him or herself.

Would the Guardian allow a similarly nonsensical polemic on any other subject? Actually this was the G2, so probably. But it shouldn’t.

Posted by ROY O'BANNON at 15:57

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