Friday, August 31, 2007

Art and the Man

Image unrelated; included for Caturday

Stop me if you have heard this one before, but some conservative politicians and religious leaders are getting all outraged about some works of art. This time, the works of art are two unsuccessful contenders for an art prize in Australia; those outraged include the Prime Minister of Australia and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney.

Yes, of course you have heard this before. You will remember Piss Christ and Virgin in a Condom, amongst others. Every so often, an artist will make a work which comments on some aspect of Christianity and various conservatives will get in a fluster. It is a familiar pattern of stimulus-response. Sadly, it is only on these occasions that Art is noticed by the media.

What is surprising in this case is that the exhibition which is showing the offending works is not of the usual elitist, secular-humanist, liberal kind. The show is an exhibit of works submitted for the Blake Prize for Religious Art, which was set up by a Jesuit priest, a Jewish businessman and a Catholic lawyer; I wonder if they ever went to a pub together and caused an hilarious joke to happen. The prize was established to "encourage artists of disparate styles and religious allegiances to create significant works of art with religious content."

Well, now look what they have done. Prime Minister John Howard has described the two offending works as "gratuitously offensive," while Cardinal Pell thinks the prize has "probably outlived its usefulness." In all the excitement, the works which were awarded prizes, none of them offensive (or avant garde for that matter) have been overlooked.

Now, if I were an Australian Christian, I would be more offended by the insult to my religion made by the fundamentalist pastor who defended having sex with his two daughters on the grounds that he was teaching them "how to behave for their husbands when they eventually married, as dictated in scripture." I might also be angered by the self-proclaimed prophet who showed a girl letters from the Virgin Mary telling her to have sex with him. I might also feel more than a little uneasy that my Prime Minister spends so much time hanging out with Hillsong, the corporate church founded by a man who had unorthodox methods of curing homosexuality and which now is run as a successful business operation by the son who usurped him.

But then, I am neither Australian nor a Christian. I do know more than a little about Art, though, and I can recognise a pre-fabricated art scandal when I see one. Art is always a ready target for conservative outrage. Mostly, the indignation is of the "tax-payer's money" kind: the makers and curators of Art are portrayed as a pampered elite who live on the taxes paid by ordinary people who don't know much about Art but know what they don't like. The Art elite are depicted either as knaves, who try to trick the public with works that a five year-old could make, or as fools who themselves are tricked by their vanity. Every so often, however a work of art offends somebody's deeply-held beliefs, usually religious ones.

So it was with Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's own urine. It won a prize in a competition that was sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment of the Arts, the US federal body which funds artistic projects. Enter Senator Jesse Helms, who mounted a sustained campaign against the NEA. So it was too with Tania Kovat's Virgin in a Condom, which provoked that Christian gentleman Graham Capill, among others, to righteous wrath when it was exhibited at Te Papa.

As always, there are protests and demands. The politicians and religious leaders milk the issue for all the airtime they can get out of it. Their constituents are led to believe their lives are controlled by a decadent elite which scorns their values. The artists are accused of mocking religious beliefs and of opportunism, although it is the conservatives who made the works a political issue.

So it is with this affair, although with some peculiar local differences. As I noted above, these works were entered in a prize for religious art, so the charge of mocking religion hardly has any weight. Another fact which hardly can be avoided as that both works mix Christianity with Islam. Yes folks, it is the culture wars again. Not surprisingly, TBR has picked up the issue; so has columnist Andrew Bolt, who manages to throw homosexualism into the mix, before concluding that what is at stake is our Civilisation.


dad4justice said...

Its so nice that you make moral judgements about art often Paul . How interesting and normal .

Sam Finnemore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrei said...

When it comes down to it Paul, are the essential sentiments in your post radically different from those in mine.

To you did my post suggest the artworks concerned are esentially shallow and that their existence owes more to childish attention seeking than any profound insight into the human condition?

I don't think there was any railing against them on my part.

But you may have read it otherwise, after all you view the world through the lens of Fundamentalist Atheism whilst my framework is constructed around the foundation Orthodox Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Paul has always struck me as a postmodern atheist flaneur, rather than a fundamentalist.

Thinks: *foundation* Orthodox Christianity? Images of a rotund rural Russian tractor driver and ex-Olympic shotputter named Svetlana come to mind...

Craig Y

Paul said...

Why thankyou, Craig. I must use that description.

Andrei, I think our posts differ fundamentally (as it were) on the matter of intention. You think the artists were simply trying to provoke, whereas I think they were sincere.

My judgements about the works are aesthetic. My "fundamentalist atheism" is not relevant to these judgements.

Andrei said...

From your post

In all the excitement, the works which were awarded prizes, none of them offensive (or avant garde for that matter) have been overlooked.

And from mine

In particular a portrayal of Osama bin Laden as Christ and a Burqa clad Virgin Mary have attracted attention while the winner, Shirley Purdie's painting Stations of the Cross is all but ignored.

The thing is why are you in any way surprised that the provocative get the attention?

I tell my kids there are two sorts of attention - good and bad. Good is when they do something of merit - e.g high marks in a ballet exam, bad e.g. spin the cat in the washing machine.

Perhaps mediocre artists (maybe even some good ones)cannot gain "good attention" therefore resort to the "bad".

Anyway we have a very rich and long tradition of religious iconography, preserved by focusing on the substance of subject matter rather than anything else.

How does that fit with your aesthetic sense Paul?

Jake said...

But maybe the Manichean tools you use to socialise your children don't map so well onto the adult world of art. Maybe provocative art is worthy of attention because it allows us to examine our ideas and why we hold them, or it allows us to demonstrate that there is a significant portion of the population willing to get het up about some fairly weak excuses for art.

Maybe, or maybe not. I don't know, but it seems to me that, while it's okay to tell your kids about 'good' and 'bad' attention because you don't want them to flush your keys down the toilet, talking down to us like that isn't going to help us think about anything.

Paul said...

"Anyway we have a very rich and long tradition of religious iconography, preserved by focusing on the substance of subject matter rather than anything else."

I am not sure what you mean by that. Religious iconography is a fact of Art History. How should it fit with my "aesthetic sense?"

Andrei said...

You're ducking Paul.

Simple, is a Byzantine Icon of Christ Pantocrator such as this pleasing to your eye, mind and soul or not?

Paul said...

If you had said that in the first place I would have answered your question then.

The Icon is visually appealing. One does not have to hold religious views in order to appreciate religious paintings as art.

Anonymous said...

While agreeing with your overall point here Paul, there's a couple of things I take issue with.

"So it was too with Tania Kovat's Virgin in a Condom, which provoked that Christian gentleman Graham Capill, among others, to righteous wrath when it was exhibited at Te Papa."

Now I happen to think that this piece is very clever (as opposed to the Piss Christ which was mere shock for shock's sake). But this was exhibited in our national museum, "Our Place", which is quite a different issue to it being shown in a private gallery. I think that Christian groups had every right to take exception to this and also think there was a double standard involved - would Te Papa be willing to exhibit a copy of the Treaty covered in excrement?

"The artists are accused of mocking religious beliefs and of opportunism, although it is the conservatives who made the works a political issue."

I disagree, those artists with a genuine message (as distinct to attention seekers) are most certainly being political with their works. The Virgin in a Condom is a comment on the Catholic Church's role in reproductive politics (AIDS, abortion etc). And the work is supposed to be provocative - it’s supposed to make people uncomfortable, to (a degree) insult their beliefs.

It's a bit disingenuous to then turn around and wonder innocently why some conservative Christians get upset. Portraying bin Laden as Christ is deliberately political and provocative.

Anonymous said...

What I object to is the special rights that blasphemy laws potentially give to conservative Christian opponents of artistic freedom of expression, and not to other religious and philosophical groups.

Actually, I think Piss Christ was a meaningful statement, juxtaposing the quality of ascribed sanctity and the abject;
and as one Catholic said to me, the Virgin in a Condom wasn't the actual BVM per se, obviously.

And even the Maxim Institute opposes blasphemy laws...

Craig Y

Anonymous said...

As a matter of interest, Andrei, don't you think that it defeats the purpose and sanctity of iconic artwork to bless ethnic cleansing, as I believe occurred in Bosnia in the nineties...? As beautiful as they are???

Craig Y

Anonymous said...

Paul, you point out that

'The artists are accused of mocking religious beliefs and of opportunism .. '

I think the accusation could be reinterpreted as a compliment. Art, and in particular cartoons, constantly mocks.

And opportunism, taking one's opportunity, is also relevant in art. Directing art at something topical and relevant is in itself an aid to communicating some meaning.

Anonymous said...

Who needs a committee of art experts to tell you that Pavarotti's singing is beautiful? All you need is the chance to hear it, and the ability to listen.

Peter Cox said...

The question is surely not whether something is 'art or not' because really almost anything could be considered art.

The question simply is regarding the quality of the work. So, we can ask ourselves what defines quality, but at the end of the day, again, we're all going to have different ideas. Art is a series of symbols essentially - and we may all have our own understanding of the symbols depending on the experiences we've had in our lives. For example, someone referred earlier to an artist using an aborted baby in an art work. Some people may find that disgusting, some people might find it deeply moving, some disturbing. Likewise in a more tradition painting, some people may be able to appreciate the brushstrokes, religious iconography, etc and be moved or impressed by that. Others may not be interested, because they simple haven't experienced the foreknowledge that gives access to that perception/interpretation.

So where am I going with this? Simply that, different people will have different ideas of whether a particular art work has quality to them, and that it is small minded and childish to suggest that just because I find something wonderful that everyone else ought to find it wonderful too, or that something is 'not good' and everyone else ought to agree.

However, because there are some art works considered 'better' than others, 'masterpieces' etc. And I am not suggesting some postmodern confusion: that all art works are created equal, some certainly have a stronger ability to provoke feeling and new ideas in the viewer than others. And so perhaps that could be a definition of quality: the ability to provoke new feelings and ideas.