Manchester Art Gallery (MAG), with its renowned Victorian art collection, turned traitor to the cause of art last week. It removed from display a popular Pre-Raphaelite work – John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs – because it shows naked girls seducing a naked boy. In the current climate of #MeToo hysteria, it seems that having such a painting on public view is tantamount to endorsing abuse.

The public expressed their outrage at this act of censorship in no uncertain terms, as evidenced by comments made on the MAG blog and in the gallery itself. And so MAG, to save face, quickly reversed its decision and put the painting back on display. As AC Grayling explains in the Daily Mail, this kind of puritanism can only damage the arts.

But this incident isn’t simply a matter of bad judgement on the part of MAG’s curators. After all, this was not an isolated example of censorship in the arts. Feminist and anti-racist campaigners are increasingly targeting the arts to further their causes, and arts institutions are capitulating to their demands – or, even worse, pre-empting them by engaging in self-censorship.

In December, for instance, the Royal Court theatre, a London venue famed for its commitment to freedom of expression, tried to cancel its production of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too on the grounds that it might offend victims of abuse. As with MAG, public outrage forced the Royal Court to reverse its decision.

In the US, several galleries have been targeted. In New York, two sisters started a petition demanding the Metropolitan Museum of Art remove a painting by Balthus which featured his neighbour’s daughter in an erotic pose. Elsewhere, an artist called Hannah Black sought to get a painting taken down because its white artist depicted the gory consequences of violent racism against a black boy, Emmet Till. Her letter to the Whitney Art Gallery was signed by nearly 50 people working in the arts. Across the Canadian border, in Toronto, a gallery cancelled an exhibition when the artist was accused of cultural appropriation. These are just a few of the many recent examples of censorship and self-censorship in the arts.

What these incidents suggest is that some leading figures have lost their artistic compass. When MAG said it just wanted to ‘start a conversation’ about the issues raised by Hylas and the Nymphs, it expressed an idea that is eating away at the arts: that art is valuable politically, not artistically. Read more