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Should artworks with offensive names get an update?

Very few artists give their works names. When a painter has just put the last touch to a masterpiece, she does not stand back and wonder what to call it. Titles are almost always given later by the public, writers, art historians or museums. They don’t necessarily have any connection with the artist’s intentions.

This is why I can’t join the chorus of disapproval criticising Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for changing titles in its collection that it deems “offensive”. The museum is removing words such as “negro” and “Mohammedan” and replacing them with more neutral descriptions. Thus a painting by Simon Maris once called Young Negro Girl has become Young Girl Holding a Fan.

It is just one of 132 paintings whose caption have had the word “negro” removed. Another work by Margaretha van Raephorst that was described as depicting “a negro servant” is now said to portray “a young black servant”.

Images of black people are very common in Dutch paintings of the 17th-century Golden Age. One example is a 1687 work by Michiel van Musscher which features a “negro” servant (slave is probably more accurate) and is currently awaiting a new title. But the museum is also wondering what to do with other terms now judged offensive, such as “Eskimo”. And what about all those paintings of “dwarves”?

It’s political correctness gone mad. The angry old men of art history have been summoned from their pre-Christmas port to splutter that we have every right to refer to Muslims by an archaic Victorian word if we like. As for “negro”, it’s history: “Why are these curators messing with our old names for people of colour?”

Even Sir Nicholas Serota has weighed in to say Tate has no intention of going down this trendy road. But I disagree with Serota. The Rijksmuseum is right. Amsterdam’s great art gallery, the home of Rembrandt’s Night Watch (he never called it that, by the way) is not betraying history. It is simply making a reasonable, rational change to titles that are, and always have been, shifting and contingent.

Naive about art history
It is the Rijksmuseum’s critics who are being naive about art history. They apparently share the popular misconception that paintings have names given by the artist that tell us something important about the work.

Most of the time, they are not meaningful; they are simply nicknames. The title Las Meninas – “The Maids of Honour” – tells us absolutely nothing about Velazquez’s complex masterpiece, in which the court of Spain is portrayed with such grave unease. We call Michelangelo’s David by a name his contemporaries would not have recognised – they simply called it “the Giant”.

Literary works have titles that are inseparable from what they are. It doesn’t matter how offensive modern tastes may find a name like The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ – that’s what Joseph Conrad called his story, and we’re stuck with it. But the meanings of visual art inhere in how they look, not what they happen to be called. If an old-fashioned title gets in the way for modern audiences, it can and should be changed.

The portrait by Maris is a case in point. This work by a minor modern artist is scarcely one of the greatest works in the Rijksmuseum. But look closer. Stripped of its old name Young Negro Girl, it seems a sensitive portrait. The new name allows its humanity and lack of prejudice to be seen – and makes it more accessible, to more people, from more places.

Besides, anyone who is nostalgic about the word “negro” really is on the wrong side of history. – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015

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