‘Racist Chair’ shows that when art goes viral it engages us all

Allen Jones, Chair 1969 Tate © Allen Jones

The media frenzy recently aroused by the “racist chair”, as it has been dubbed, took off in a way that could only have been possible in a digital age. Once the infamous photograph – of wealthy gallerist Dasha Zhukova seated on a chair supported by the folded body of a black female model – went on view, there was no going back. It was out there. No amount of apologies or cropping or attempts to delete could send it to the recycle bin. Nothing could clip its flight round the world, or diminish its pristine appearance in the media.

The internet does not do redemption, but it is a brilliant arena in which to dawdle if you are interested in art. Whereas before the net we might have travelled far to see good things or stood patiently in long queues for blockbuster exhibitions, now it requires only a few taps on a keyboard or screen to bring up great treasures from past and present cultures, near or far away.

Never has such visual wealth been so easily accessible. And every year, as more museums and public art galleries put their collections online, the quality of images seems to get better. We see more and more clearly. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes – the c.1620 version – made a strong impression on me when first seen in a black-and-white reproduction. But when viewed online in colour, you see the leaping threads of blood emerging from Holofernes throat as Judith’s sword slices into his neck. No wonder its first owner Louisa de Medici thought it too horrifying to behold and hid it away. Another 380 years had to pass before it went on public display.

The earlier version of Judith Beheading Holofernes. Wikimedia Commons

There is no doubt that the internet liberates and educates. And this capacity is ever growing. It has just been announced, for example, that the Tate Britain is to become host to after-hours robots that will allow people from around the globe to vicariously roam the gallery at night.

But this expanded visual field has also brought in its wake a paradoxical narrowing and art-world blindness. The filmic nature of these images, as they fly across the screen, can blind us to their material properties.

It is a woeful fact that this year, for the first time, a panel of Royal Academicians will arrive at its short-list for its Summer Exhibition not by the age-old tradition of vetting art while drinking mint tea out of a silver urn, but by watching the submissions march across a computer screen.

Our own easy promiscuity with online images may be one of the reasons why museums and public galleries seem unwilling to invest in research. The focus in recent years has been very much on access, social relevance and impact, rather than history and scholarship – and this change of emphasis is also reflected on the net. Instead of those fat biennial volumes published by the Tate, cataloguing in great detail every item acquired over the previous two years, we now get only a selected overview online. And when we look up individual works in the Tate collection online, we find explanatory matter that is short, slight and unsatisfactory, and sometimes weirdly subjective.

In the absence of knowledge, opinion flourishes. In the brouhaha around the “racist chair” many points of view were offered, but facts were thin on the ground, as was the back history to this chair. It is worth revisiting, for it charts certain shifts in culture, as well as changes in the way art is viewed.

The Chair

“Confronted with an erotic statement, everyone is an expert.” So Allen Jones remarked in 1981, unaware of just how prescient this remark would prove to be. Although already twelve years old when it was acquired by Tate, Jones’s Chair (the original Chair) was still, at that time, regarded as Jones’ most radical work to date.

With the acquisition of Jones’s Chair, the Tate had gained a distinct expression of a point of view, concerning art and aesthetics, that had been prevalent in the late 1960s. This in itself justified the acquisition; and supporters of “Chair” continue to this day to reiterate that it is embedded in art history.

But there were already other perspectives. In 1973 Laura Mulvey published an article in Spare Rib, aptly titled “You Don’t Know What Is Happening Do You Mr Jones?”. If he didn’t in 1973, he certainly did in 1986 when Chair was included in the Tate exhibition Forty Years of Modern Art. It attracted a letter from a part-time lecturer in art and design who found it an offence to her sex: “The obscenity of the piece shows extreme insensitivity towards women and I would like to see it removed from the exhibition.”

Apparently unrelated to this letter was the subsequent act, performed by two women, who poured paint stripper over the face, neck and shoulders of the model, causing extensive damage.

The idea of packaging a female form into the shape of chair is on one level teasing, playful, ironic and witty. But when Bjarne Melgaard, the Norwegian artist and provocateur living in New York, picked up the chair idea, the mannequin took on a different register. Now black instead of white, the figure gained greater edge.

The Chair in 2014

But this is not what really made the Chair go viral in January. It was the fact that someone was sitting on it. A young woman, wearing jeans and a freshly laundered white shirt. Everything about her seemed deliberately understated and yet perfectly pitched. She sits with one leg tucked up on the chair, her contained pose as neat as her pulled-back hair or the painted toenails on her bare foot. Behind her, three large moveable circular mirrors on stems ornament a long thin table and spin ambient light around her.

The Guardian tweets about the chair. d

Originally taken as a shot for the fashion magazine Buro 24/7, to promote Garage, the art gallery which Zhukova runs and the art magazine which she edits, the photograph looks effortlessly beautiful until, that is, the spikey heels on the upturned leather boots catch the eye, then the squished breast, the Afro shock of hair and the head which, as in Jones’s Chair, is raised from the floor, as if in pain.

And so the rage and debate about the “racist chair” began. How could it not, with a white woman seated on a black woman? Worse still, was the fact that the photo had appeared on the day that America had set aside as a national holiday in remembrance of Martin Luther King. The photo was hurriedly cropped online, but those angry offensive spike-heels remained visible. Zhukova apologised, but insisted that the photograph had been “published out of context” and is “of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics”.

“I never intended the Chair to be sat on,” remarked Allen Jones of his own Chair. But, the moment its function is activated, its tongue-in-cheek eroticism and pop-art playfulness gives way to an ugly and unacceptable form of oppression. What shocks is Zhukova’s serenity, her seeming blindness to the Chair’s imagery and the messages encoded in it.

To the Russian photographer Alexander Kargaltsev the “racist chair” seemed “an outrageous and tasteless act”. As a riposte, he photographed a naked black man sitting on a white man, and this image further extends the narrative around the “racist chair”. Kargaltsev knows what it is like to be oppressed, for he was forced to leave Russia for New York, owing to discrimination against gay men. His protest photograph is a statement about racism, xenophobia and homophobia in Russia.

Kargaltsev’s reaction. d

Nobody, it seems, sat on Allen Jones’s chair 30 years ago when it was confined to a museum and remained solely a work of art. Or if they did, the world did not find out about it. But now revived, slightly altered and sold to private collector, it helps furnish a room, the boundary between art and utility blurred.

When sat on, it becomes interactive and more disturbing. And this particular aspect of the piece was quickly discerned in the photograph of Dasha Zhukova. Once it entered social media, it was instantly beamed around the world, gaining global scope. Out there on the net it triggered not just a snigger but waves of outrage.

Although the plethora of online images may have blunted our engagement with art in some ways, there is no doubt that art going viral is a good thing. It strips away art-world blindness, challenges received opinion and lets in views and opinions from all quarters. The debate may have courted extreme views and been thin on historical awareness. But as we sift through the various incarnations of this chair, then understanding of its perverse vitality is enriched. Time may indeed be swift-footed and the web page fleeting, but context continues to matter.

But above all, the episode shows the power of imagery to reach across age, race and class, and call – not just to our political antennae or sense of taste – but to our humanity. And with the development of projects such as Tate Britain’s after-dark robots, and Google’s DevArt, art’s reach promises ever new horizons.

This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new UK Arts + Culture section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.