2018: A Year in (Offensive) Pictures

I’ve always found the idea of offensive imagery interesting.

I’m intrigued by debates over where, or whether, a line should be drawn when it comes to the ethics of producing (in some debates, looking at) visual art. I’m fascinated at how an image can be completely innocuous to one observer, but an abomination to another.

I’m also interested in how debates over offensive art can serve as barometers of the times. Some images retain their infamy for years to come, but in other cases the offense is fleeting and swiftly forgotten about. With that in mind, I decided put together a chronological ranking of twelve images that, for one reason or another, stirred up controversy in 2018…


January: Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

In late January the Manchester Art Galley removed John William Waterhouse’s 1896 oil painting Hylas and the Nymphs from display. Curator Clare Gannaway stated that the decision was influenced by the MeToo movement, and was intended “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection”. She also stated that the painting “probably will return… but hopefully contextualised quite differently”. After a seven-day absence, Hylas and the Nymphs returned to public display in early February.


February: Judith Beheading Holofernes by Kehinde Wiley

February saw the unveiling of Barack Obama’s official portrait, painted by Kehinde Wiley. Obama’s choice of artist prompted criticism from some quarters, as Wiley had previously painted two pictures each depicting a black woman with a sword in one hand and the severed head of a white woman in the other. Described by Wiley as “sort of a play on the ‘kill whitey’ thing”, the paintings re-interpret Judith’s biblical beheading of Holofernes. Some people found the racial subtext objectionable, spurring discussions about the role of provocation in art.


March: Jeremy Corbyn’s Hat on Newnsight

A March edition of the BBC’s Newsnight showed a projected image of Jeremy Corbyn against a backdrop depicting the Kremlin. The same Russian backdrop had been used previously for an image of Gavin Williamson, but certain viewers claimed that Corbyn’s image had been doctored so that his hat looked more stereotypically Russian, thereby drawing an implied relation that did not exist with the Williamson image. In fact, this was merely a distortion arising from the curved screen onto which the image was projected.


April: Roseanne’s Hitler Photoshoot

Although they were later overshadowed by the infamous tweet that got her show cancelled, these 2009 photos of Roseanne Barr sparked outrage when they resurfaced in April this year. Originally printed in the Jewish magazine Heeb, the images did a pretty good job of summing up Roseanne’s social media reputation at the time.


May: Vogue Italia‘s Gigi Hadid Cover

In May, Vogue Italia came under fire for a cover that model Gigi Hadid with skin noticeably darker than usual. Critics of the magazine alleged that the photo’s retouching amounted to blackface. Hadid apologised, saying that she had was tanned at the time of the photoshoot while distancing herself from any further retouching that the photo had undertaken without her say-so.


June: J. Scott Campbell’s Tiger Lily Pin-Up

A few years back, comic artist J. Scott Campbell and colourist Nei Ruffino put together a “FairyTale Fantasies” calendar featuring sexy pin-up re-interpretations of classic fantasy heroines;. Amongst them is Tiger Lily, the Native American girl from Peter Pan, who is shown as a bit of hot totty while tied up by pirates. The image went viral on Twitter in June this year, alongside complaints that it was racist.


July: Trump and Putin Sitting in Graffiti

I considered using the Trump blimp for July, until I decided to restrict myself to two-dimensional art. So, let us instead look at another anti-Trump image that sparked controversy that month: a piece of graffiti in Lithuania showing Trump and Putin snogging. Originally going viral in 2016, the image was the subject of a July 2018 opinion piece by the Guardian’s Lee Hurley, arguing that its joke was essentially homophobic.


August: Cosmopolitan‘s Tess Holiday Cover

August saw plus-sized model Tess Holiday become a cover star for Cosmopolitan. But while some observers praised the magazine for encouraging body positivity, others argued that the image encouraged unhealthy lifestyle choices.


September: Mark Knight’s Serena Williams cartoon

After Serena Williams argued with an umpire and smashed her racquet in frustration during her game against Naomi Osaka in September, Australia’s Herald Sun ran a cartoon by Mark Knight making fun of her. Giving Williams swollen lips and a rotund body, while an oddly white-looking Osaka stands in the background, the cartoon prompted accusations of racial stereotyping. “Is it possible to draw Serena Williams without being racist?” asked The Spectator‘s Rod Liddle.


October: Flying Dog’s Easy IPA

Flying Dog, a Maryland craft brewery whose drinks bear the distinctive art of cartoonist Ralph Steadman, made the news in October due to controversy over its Easy IPA beer in Britain. The Portman Group, which regulates the drinks industry in the UK, argued that the beer can’s depiction of an inebriated-looking porcine character encouraged irresponsible drinking.


November: the Baraboo Nazi salute photo

Wisconsin’s Baraboo High School made the news in November when a photograph showing a group of students apparently performing Nazi salutes went viral. The photographer responsible said that the gesture was merely a “hi sigh”, but student testimonies indicated that racism was part and parcel of the school’s culture.


December: the Picard facepalm

December saw Tumblr take the drastic measure of banning porn, which had previously formed a substantial portion of its content. Due to some rather questionable algorithms, a large amount of innocuous imagery was caught in the net. One casuality seems particularly poignant: the PointlessLetters Tumblr reported that it had run into trouble for its repeated use of the beloved Picard facepalm meme, the site’s algorithms apparently taking objection to the scandalous expanse of bare flesh on show courtesy of Patrick Stewart’s noggin.

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