Why Art Galleries Shouldn’t Have Trigger Warnings

Our alarm bells don’t need any more ringing

Christopher P Jones
5 min readMar 13, 2022

Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. 199 × 162.5 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Image source Wikimedia Commons

There is a painting that hangs in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris by Gustave Courbet. It’s titled L’Origine du monde (“The Origin of the World”). It shows a close-up view of a woman lying on her back with her legs spread apart.

It is, by any measure, a startling and unorthodox painting. Some may find it objectionable.

If you walked into the gallery and encountered this work of art, would you expect to be warned about it ahead of time?

What about Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (image shown above), in which the heroine has already cut through her victim’s throat and is now grabbing his hair to finish off the job?

Or what about a depiction of Christ on the Cross, his body tortured and his head bowed on the point of death?

Art is full of such gruesome, troubling and extraordinary visions. It has been for hundreds of years.

But do challenging representations like these warrant trigger warnings?

Warnings Are Growing In Prevalence

An exhibition of paintings by the British artist Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy in London in 2022) was criticised for precisely this. Signs placed at the entrance warn visitors “this exhibition contains adult content”.

One art historian was critical of the warning at the Bacon exhibition: “This trigger warning is not only over the top, but oppressive and somewhat infuriating, given current contexts. Aren’t Western audiences already desensitised to naked bodies?”

Perhaps such a warning is a useful preface for those who might not know what to expect from Francis Bacon.

Certainly, Bacon is an artist for adult sensibilities. His distinctively dark, tormented paintings, often containing twisted and bestial human forms, can have an unnerving charge.

But isn’t this exactly what we expect from art? To be challenging and stimulating, perhaps even offensive? Or are such warnings a simple mark of respect for a potentially diverse audience?

Unforeseen Barriers