But the sensitive souls of the Metropolitan Police took a different view when they spotted Derrick Santini’s photograph of a naked woman being ravished by the bird.
An officer took exception as he passed the Scream gallery in Bruton Street on a bus. He alerted colleagues and two uniformed officers from Harrow arrived to demand the work be removed.
Jag Mehta, sales director at the gallery owned by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s sons Tyrone and Jamie, said: “We asked them what the problem was and they said it suggested we condoned bestiality, which they said was an arrestable offence. The show, Metamorphosis, had been running for a month and was really well received.”
The final day of the exhibition was on Saturday and the gallery was taking down the artworks when police arrived. Ms Mehta pointed out that for prim Victorians, the myth of how Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped young Leda and produced Helen of Troy, was an acceptable form of erotica. But the explanation that the picture was based on a legend that had inspired countless generations of artists failed to cut the mustard with the police, she said.
“They didn’t know anything about the myth. They stood there and didn’t leave until we took the piece down. They asked us whether we had had complaints and we said quite the contrary. Lots of people were intrigued by it.”
The issue here is self-evident. Warrantless policeman should not be roaming Britain’s streets and refusing to leave art galleries until pieces that offend their sensibilities — or, worse, pieces that they presume will offend the sensibilities of others — are removed. But more troubling is the British acquiescence. There’s a horrible, softly spoken suggestion in the gallery’s reaction that if the police had only known about the myth or realized that it was part of an exhibition, then they wouldn’t have thus reacted — as if it might be acceptable for the police to remove any art that is not based on something historical. To take this view would be to accept that free speech can exist only if employed in the service of ideas that already exist.
The most chilling part of the story, however, is the last line:
It is understood that the incident was not recorded by police as a crime.
In which case, by what authority was the painting’s removal requested?