Real families come in all shapes and sizes
Saturday 1 November, 2014
This is a picture of my family, taken a quarter of a century ago. My widowed mother and her three daughters. Not a man in sight, but a real family.
Real families come in infinite permutations that include stepchildren, half brothers and sisters, foster children, adopted children, divorcees and single parents. The essential elements are love and mutual support, not a predetermined quota of adult men or women.
This week Gillian Wearing unveiled her statue of a real Birmingham family: two mixed-race sisters walking - almost skipping - along hand-in-hand with their two children in between. One of the sisters is pregnant. Very pregnant.
Judging from the photographs, it is a stunning piece of work.
On Thursday, the day the bronze was to be officially unveiled, the Guardian put the pregnant sister on its front page, directing readers to the complete work inside. The fact that the women were single mothers was in the intro to the accompanying story, the background to the project was detailed, and the artist explained how the Jones sisters came to be her subjects.
Yesterday the Daily Mail made the sculpture its page three lead. It is probably fair to say that it wasn't impressed.
The article clearly involved a fair amount of work. There were comments from one of the city's MPs, a spokesman for Families Need Fathers, and "a leading researcher on family policy".
One of the sisters was also quoted, as were a clutch of anonymous former neighbours of their mother, and the sisters' grandmother. Wearing, described as "the partner of artist Michael Landy", was allowed a sentence.
The entire piece was focused on the absence of a man in the sculpture - and the assumed absence of men in the sisters' lives. At the end, there was a cross-reference to a leader, which said:
The sculpture vividly illustrates the modish view of the Left that the nuclear family is outdated. This paper believes that view is desperately, tragically wrong.
Jan Moir also offered her twopenn'th further back in a note headlined "Stop this fad for airbrushing dads". How incredibly said it was, she wrote, to see dads "pushed to the margins once more, this time by political correctness and artistic expression".
And today Amanda Platell joins the chorus in her column: "What a sad betrayal," she writes, "of the traditional values that held great communities like Birmingham together. What a triumph for the Left's determination to undermine the nuclear family that has been the bedrock of civilised society for centuries.
"And what a totem for extreme feminists who more and more argue that women don't need men at all."
It is hard to imagine a more one-sided approach; there is no deviation from the approved editorial line, no dissenting voice is allowed.
In the original news story no one from Ikon, the Birmingham arts organisation behind the project, has been quoted. Readers are not told the process by which the Jones sisters were chosen as the "real Birmingham family". Platell's column refers to a leftwing panel, but the paper does not name its members. Nor does it say that the sisters were the unanimous choice from a shortlist of four drawn from 372 families of all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds who had put themselves forward. It certainly doesn't say that there was a male majority on the panel.
The Mail says that the Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming questioned why public money was spent on such a controversial sculpture: "When the council can't afford to clear up the rubbish on the streets, £100,000 is not peanuts."
The "leading family policy researcher" is Dr Patricia Morgan, who says it was a disgrace to portray a fatherless family. "They are putting this up as some kind of ideal which people have to be like," she says. The Mail is correct in saying that Dr Morgan is regarded as an expert; she is also firmly of the Right and an outspoken opponent of gay marriage. This is not mentioned.
What is mentioned is that the Jones sisters and their brothers were brought up in a council house by their single-parent mother, and there is plenty of space for the anonymous neighbours to air their opinions on the family.
Now there's a thought: supposing the sculpture had been of one of the women and one of their brothers with the children in between. The Mail would have got its male presence and Birmingham would have got a conventional, possibly twee, "happy family" artwork. The overt image would have satisfied the paper's central complaint - but underneath would it have applauded fraternal love or worried about a sub-text of incest?
Back in the real world, yesterday's news story seems to have been based on a misconception. The intro refers to Wearing's earlier sculpture of a "typical" Italian family - mother, father, two children, pet dog. But what the paper hasn't grasped is that this commission was not about a "typical" or "ordinary" Birmingham family, as the copy asserts - and certainly not an ideal role model, as Morgan suggests - but about a "real" family.
The panel liked the sisters, their commitment to Birmingham, their commitment to each other and, above all, their commitment to their children.
Isn't that what family is about?
*While there is no man in sight in the picture at the top, there are plenty of men in my family. It just happened that the photographer thought it would be a good idea to capture the four women together. We grew up in a mum, dad, three sisters home. There have been marriages and divorces. One of us had ten children, another only one. Through the generations, there have been children born in and out of wedlock, relationships that have thrived for decades and some that have withered. It's all part of family life.
It could be said that the Mail's attitude to Gillian Wearing's sculpture was sneering - the word it used to describe the Guardian's Jonathan Jones when he questioned the way Paul Cummings's poppy installation at the Tower of London served as a memorial to the victims of World War I.
More on this in a second post on public art here.
Founder Outset Family, an art education organisation
Assistant director, Library of Birmingham
Dr Elizabeth Yardley
criminologist, Birmingham City University
Executive secretary, Birmingham Faith Leaders Group
Aston Villa FC
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