The announcement that we are going to have a referendum on EU membership if the Conservatives win the next General Election might seem to have little connection with today’s photograph. The group of local councillors and arts administrators selecting the Autumn Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in 1938 is not exactly an image that has the serious implications of a plebiscite on Europe but there are similarities. Back then, the question of what was considered fit for our eyes and minds was heavily vetted not just in the case of the art on public gallery walls but also in the cinema, theatre and literature. Not only the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was involved but also the Board of Film Censors and, along the line, the local authority Watch Committee. If they objected to anything on the grounds of public taste, be it violence, nudity or whatever, they could put a banning order preventing public exhibition or sale (in the case of books). In other words, they did not trust the public to make up their own minds about what to see or read. Even as late as the 1980s, the BBC was banning the playing of records such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax amongst other records (with the inevitable result that it went to Number One).
The cries of anguish over the Referendum are of the same ilk – a refusal to believe that the British public can think for themselves. The committee of suited, mainly old and overwhelmingly male, Councillors might have made bold choices for all I know but it exudes the complacency of a paternalistic clique determining taste as they thought fit. Well, that is one way of looking at the photograph.