There’s been all kinds of outrage in the British press this week after a man scribbled on a Mark Rothko painting in the Tate Modern in London. I thought it was a stupid, arrogant and disrespectful thing to do, but on a more personal level, the act leaves me with a writing dilemma.
My husband asked me to marry him in the Rothko room at the Tate (well, he’d already asked me on a beach in Norfolk, but with a pretend ring – the Tate was the ‘official’ proposal). We sat on a bench, possibly in front of the very same painting that has been defaced (Black on Maroon), and turned the ring this way and that to watch it sparkle under the dimmed lights. There’s a lovely peaceful calm in that room, even when it’s full of visitors. At 7.30pm on a weeknight we were almost the only people in there, so it felt very special.
When I started to plan my YA novel (before the marriage proposal), I knew that Chloe, the 15 year-old main character, would have a thing for Rothko. The opening chapter of my first draft is set in that room in the Tate, and her art project on Rothko runs through the book. A poster of Black on Maroon hangs at the end of her bed. One of the book’s themes is truth, and things not appearing at first to be what they really are. Related to that is the theme of ethnicity, and what we mean when we describe skin colour as ‘black’, or ‘brown’ or ‘white’. Chloe spends a lot of time looking at her Rothko prints and seeing new colours within them. Early on in their relationship, she describes Rothko to Asif, who has never heard of the artist:
“… he doesn’t really paint things, he paints colours. Blocks of colour. Sometimes you think it’s one colour but when you look closely you realise there’s lots of different shades; sometimes he paints two different colours on top of each other with one colour sort of running into the other. Like, the one I’ve got in front of me looks like it’s orange and yellow but it’s more than that – there’s brown in there and cream, and even some red.”
So the question is, seeing as Rothko plays a large supporting and metaphorical role in my book, do I acknowledge what has happened this week or not? If the book is ever published, it may not be in bookshops for a couple of years or more, in which case the painting will probably have been restored and the whole incident forgotten about. The young adults reading my book will have been too young to remember what happened in October 2012. On the other hand, if I ignore it, does that make my writing somehow less authentic, as someone astute (or well read on art history) might wonder why I’ve not mentioned something which could have had real significance. Maybe I could also work it into the book somehow, as another metaphor?
What do you think I should do?