One of this week’s most widespread stories has been the image of editor-in-chief of fashion magazine Garage and gallery owner, Dasha Zhukova, sitting on a form of chair fashioned from a mannequin of a half-naked, bondaged black woman.
Except of course this isn’t a chair, but a piece of art by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. The image has provoked comment ranging from Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones’s defence of the work to editor of the Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, speaking on Friday’s Thought for the Day on Radio 4’s Today Programme, giving an erudite reflection on how we commonly interpret the most clearest manifestation of our very being, our bodies, as a commodity.
Crucial to our reading of the image is that Melgaard’s piece is a pastiche of Allen Jones’s 1969 art work, Chair, distinguished only by the fact that the former’s mannequin is black. Jones attempted to explicate the concept behind his original artwork on the Radio 4’s PM programme (at 26:15) on Wednesday.
Of course the reading of art is all about context and Jones described his ‘furniture’ pieces – essentially women’s bodies contorted to form chairs and tables – as a riposte to the prevailing abstract art of the time.
‘The idea was to offend the cannons of art at the time’.
Given a fairly easy ride by presenter Eddie Mair, Jones described Melgaard’s homage as ‘tacky’ and found it wanting in artistic merit on the basis that there was ‘no formal aesthetic reason’ behind its making apart from the change in ethnicity of the figure.
Allen Jones is a Royal Academician and inhabits the chronological pantheon of British artists somewhere around Pop Art and the appropriation of popular culture. Chair is an image and artwork I’ve been familiar with for around 30 years along with his garish prints of a stylised naked female form, and I have never found any ‘formal aesthetic reason’ for it. Furthermore, I have never read a robust defence of a body of work which is a blatant example of misogyny.
Melgaard’s work may indeed be, in Jones’s words, ‘in bad taste’, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that, regardless of ethnicity, the figures in both works are women and subjugated in the same fashion. The image of the hugely wealthy and priviledged Dasha Zhukova carelessly sitting on the latter version merely exacerbates and adds a further layer of degradation.
Allowing Jones the refuge of time and context fails to acknowledge that while gender mores of the 60s and 70s may have been different – a plea currently being used as a justification for sexist behaviour and abuse by many high profile figures currently on trial – it was also characterised by the women’s movement and a growing consciousness of gender politics.
It was a time when artists such as Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis and Yoko Ono were challenging the male-dominated art culture and questioning the justification of objectification of women on the grounds of the ‘aesthetic reasons’ which Jones uses to justify the dubious content of his work.
Just as the making of pornography is characterised as an ‘industry’, so artistic endeavour operates in an ‘art market’. Jones continues to exhibit his hackneyed depictions of ‘popular culture’ at the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition as an artist of ‘reputation’. If this week’s debacle does nothing else, then I hope it will draw a critical eye over the work of an artist who has enjoyed a profitable career founded on blind misogyny.