The free Sit Down & Get Out! The trouble with “polite society” exhibition delves into the “polite literature” slogan that greets visitors to the Portico Library, bringing together contemporary artworks and research with 18th-century prints by satirist William Hogarth and books from the Library’s historic collection.
Unfamiliar to today’s readers, the phrase polite literature evokes an era in which the concept of politeness was central to culture and society.
Painted in 19th-century gold lettering above the library’s largest bookshelf, “polite literature” often raises the question from first-time Portico Library visitors “but what is polite literature”? Unfamiliar to today’s readers, the phrase polite literature evokes an era in which the concept of politeness was central to culture and society. In recent years, politeness in public, online and even among political leaders has become a topic of intense debate. While respect and care for others’ feelings have been attacked under claims of “freedom of speech”, politeness and diplomacy have also been used as a cover for defending positions of privilege.
Fifteen artists, including Gang of Five collective and young people from mental health charity 42nd Street, have considered notions of civility, etiquette and politeness today and at the time of the Portico’s establishment in 1806 — how these ideas were bound with oppressive ideologies and how they impact our wellbeing today. From the 1792 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue to Twitter storms and Billie Eilish, this exhibition looks beneath the surface of “polite society”, then and now.
Something else worth exploring Portico-wise, is the site-specific podcast series Rewriting the North, launched a few months ago by the Portico Prize. Each episode is set in a different part of the North of England and presented by a different writer with a personal connection to that place. See the Portico website for details of how to listen.