Thursday, 17 December 2015

Anachronism and Political Correctness

A political thought can be politically correct only if it is scientifically painstaking

Michel Foucault


All kinds of things can be anachronistic: a person, clothes, language, behaviour … Sometimes it is not intended; sometimes it is wilful.

Mostly, we think something is anachronistic when it is the past appearing in the present. In England, a man who goes to work in the city of London carrying a briefcase and rolled umbrella and wearing a black bowler hat is an anachronism. It is anachronistic to call a radio a wireless and to write “Roumania” instead of “Romania”. It is anachronistic if a man when introduced to a woman, bows, take her hand, kisses it and says Enchant√© . 

Anachronism is about a fairly distant past intruding on the present: it is not just a matter of not being quite au courant or dans la vente – up to date with things or in fashion. It is about bringing what is clearly past into the present.

That phrase can serve to introduce the idea that anachronism works both ways, both when we bring the past into the present and when we lay the present over the past.

When the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recently went through the computerised list of the paintings it owns and changed their titles to eliminate words like “Negro” or “Mohamedan” [ see yesterday’s Blog ] the results are sometimes anachronistic. But not always.

If the Rijksmuseum provided a title for an untitled work (or a work whose title had been lost) a hundred years ago, it is not anachronistic to retitle it – it is just the Rijksmuseum updating its labelling to be more appropriate to the world its visitors inhabit. The label is not part of the painting and never was. It is part of the history of the Rijksmuseum.  Changing it is probably no more tendentious than changing the spelling of “Roumania” to “Romania”. There is nothing wrong with changing a title from “Charabanc Outing” to “Coach Outing” if you judge that many of your visitors will no longer know the meaning of the word “charabanc” [ the French char √† bancs became English charabanc the term (once) popularly used for coaches which (once) took you on trips to the seaside. My relatives sixty years ago pronounced it sharrabang and I still do. There is a nice Wikipedia entry].

But if an artist a hundred years ago titled their work “Portrait of a Mohamedan”, at the time a straightforward and non-derogatory title for a portrait of a follower of the Prophet, it would be anachronistic to whitewash the artist’s title and change it to “Portrait of a follower of Islam” or “Portrait of a Muslim” or – which seems to have happened in some cases at the Rijksmuseum – “Portrait of a Man in an armchair”. 

The last would  clearly be whitewash, designed to obscure the past and block any access to understanding it. It reduces the sum total of information available about the artist’s relation to their work. It also ignores what may have been the sitter's relation to the work. And, finally, it treats visitors to the gallery as children who need a Nanny.


You shouldn’t do any of those things, certainly not if you are a historian or guardian of an historical heritage. You cannot settle these things using a Political Correctness app. on your computer. You have to look at each case - each painting - individually and strike a balance between, on the one hand, maximising the information you make available about the past and, on the other, making something accessible to people in the present. There will be difficult cases. The Rijksmuseum seems to have treated them all as an administrative task.

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