The U.K. is in a bit of an uproar over art this week. To encourage tourism to London for the next Olympics, in 2012, the Brits produced a video that was screened recently in Beijing. In a montage of images of London’s cultural scene, someone decided to include a brief glimpse of Marcus Harvey’s huge portrait of Myra Hindley, one half of the couple behind the Moors Murders. Over a period of two years starting in July 1963 she and her boyfriend Ian Brady kidnapped, tortured and killed five children. In the ’90s Harvey made a portrait of Hindley, based on an old photograph, that was composed of hundreds of children’s hand prints. A few days ago the offices of London’s Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Gordon Brown both denounced the inclusion of that image in the video and asked for it to be clipped.
Most Britons first saw the picture when it appeared as part of “Sensation”, the 1997 museum show drawn from Charles Saatchi’s collection that also included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and various other Young British Artists. (Well, they were young at the time.) When “Sensation” came to the Brooklyn Museum two years later it was Chris Ofili’s portrait-with-elephant-dung of the Virgin Mary that created a backlash. But in Britain, where the Moors Murders were still famous, an enduring fixture of pop culture, it was Myra. The mother of one of Hindley’s victims actually picketed the London version of the show. While it was on display the painting was vandalized and had to be withdrawn for cleaning. When it returned a few days later it was behind a plexiglass shield and guarded by security.
I saw Myra when “Sensation” came to Brooklyn and again a few years later at Saatchi’s Gallery in London. I expected to hate it, in part because the sensation quotient of Saatchi’s collection in those days was the most tiresome thing about it, and also because the hand print technique was such a blatant rip off of Chuck Close’s thumb print portraits. But it affected me differently when I finally stood before it. You recognized the hand prints right away as one of the earliest magical signs, the marks that appear in the Paleolithic cave paintings. The blurred image of Hindley was like some anonymous and imponderable face of evil that the hands were trying in vain to appease. It didn’t seem to be about the Moors Murders so much as the universal human need to fend off darkness. (Did I mention that it’s about twelve feet tall?)
Marcus Harvey’s motives in making the picture may have been cynical ones — it was guaranteed to get media attention — but sometimes even cynical art can work, and Myra had a power that wasn’t just the power to shock. Can any of this be experienced when you simply catch a glimpse of the painting in a video meant to drum up tourism? Of course not. Used that way it’s reduced back to its base level power to titillate, a shorthand way to say “Visit swinging London where we make groovy shock art!”
The worst thing about that video isn’t that it validated Myra. The worst thing is that it devalued it.