Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Kitchen Sink (or "Truth, the Limits of Metaphor, and Why Art Education Is Important")

Oscar Wilde insisted there's no such thing as a moral or immoral book. "Books are well written or badly written. That is all." As usual, Oscar was right. Books, or art, can deal with evil, even repugnant subjects, but the work itself is not equivalent to the acts depicted. The work is merely a truthful / insightful depiction or it's not. That is all.

Sh*t happens. And it won't stop happening just because artists don't record/explore it. In fact, there's a good argument that the opposite is true. Recording atrocities, delving into humankind's darker thoughts and ideas and deeds, can be reparative, even healing, if done truthfully. For me the bottom line is if someone can imagine it, no matter how vile, there's no reason it cannot be subject matter for art. More touchy subjects deserve care, but the idea that any topic is taboo is infantile to me. Which isn't to say there's not art that children shouldn't be given access to only with careful parental supervision, but that thinking adults don't need the same patriarchal protections. The market itself (art viewing market, not just art buying) can take care of bad art.

I pontificate about that in response to this story from London about a prize-winning political cartoon and how it inspired an exhibition of anti-Semetic cartoons:

Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic if it uses the same kinds of images as those long used to attack Jews?

That question will be posed by an exhibition of anti-Semitic art appearing in London early next year and inspired in part by a three-year-old British political cartoon that showed a naked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby.

The exhibition, using images from a Jewish doctor's private collection, will be held at a London gallery that was fiercely criticized by Israel and Jewish groups when it gave its top annual award to the Sharon cartoon.

"What's the boundary between legitimate political criticism and racist propaganda? It is difficult to determine. But I think it's a question of using the same language," said Simon Cohen, the doctor who is putting his collection on display.

"People have been picturing Jews killing babies, eating babies for hundreds of years. They should be aware of what the significance of using anti-Semitic images is."

There is of course, in the context of what we usually discuss here, the question of whether cartoons qualify as "art," but for the purposes of this post, I"m accepting that they are, especially because the exhibition's in a gallery and the MSM is calling it an "art gallery."

Now I hope I'm not breaking all kinds of copyright laws by doing this, but here is the cartoon in question (some other blog posted it first, so sue them first). Forget that many of those outraged seem to be describing some other image (across the Internet folks are talking about the cartoon where Sharon's eating from a bowl of children...clearly they never saw the image), there's absolutely no mistaking that Brown is referencing Goya's infamous painting of Saturn devouring his children (see above).

I have two competing opinions about this. First is that Brown seems as culturally/historically illiterate as his critics in one sense. For him not to understand the impact/associations of the "blood libel" charge Jews have been combatting for centuries is just as foolish as his suggestion that critics of the cartoon need to brush up on their art history. His claims that this image should be seen only as a parody of Goya does reveal a bit of ignorance/cultural insensitivity. It's understandable why Jews see the image as revolving around a libelous stereotype. It's regrettable, but it's understandable. Brown really should have done his homework on this one.

My second sense here, however, is based on my opinions expressed in the opening paragraphs. The question of whether Sharon's eating of children (and the fools [including the MSM] suggesting the baby in the cartoon is Palestinian should actually look at the cartoon...there's no indication whatsoever of that) is a taboo subject for art or even political satire is irrelevant. Whether it's well done or poorly done is the only question of any importance to whether it's "good" or "bad." All the articles I've read on this topic will point out this or that Jewish cartoonist or jurist who "got" the parody and didn't see it as objectionable. That too is irrelevant.

I begin to get confused myself trying to sort out what I think is irrelevant about that last issue within the context of awarding art a prize, but let me try. The question for me is not whether Brown gets a pass because he's parodying an image the public should be familiar with and there wouldn't have been an uproar if we lived in more culturally literate times. The question is whether the parody is well done or poorly done. Does the association offer up an insightful critique or is it a cheap shot?

A little over a year ago or so (before the 2004 elections), Richard Serra was blasted, especially on rightwing political blogs, for his parody of the Goya (this time lampooning re-election candidate President Bush). The ad actually appeared long after Brown's cartoon, which, as noted above, was first published three years ago, but only recently won the award that led to this exhibition. Politically savvy, but seemingly somewhat culturally challenged, Andrew Sullivan (who generally I love, but who IMO really missed this one), wrote: "A NEW LOW: It seems to me that the far left could help win this election for Bush. Here's the latest obscenity. It was an ad on the back-page of the Nation this week. Do they have no shame?" Of course that was back before Sully was endorsing Kerry and many of his posts were much more pro-Bush than anything you'll find on his blog lately. (Image of Serra ad from Blogumentary.)

Where I really trip myself up here with many folks, of course, is in insisting any subject is legitimate grist for the artist's mill, so long as they deal with it truthfully. That become tricky because folks will interpret "truthfully" as "literally." Now I sincerely doubt that either Sharon or Bush has actually eaten anyone's children. So when someone charges me (and I've gone rounds and rounds about this on political blogs, see for example) of suggesting that they literally have by endorsing such art, I become so exasperated it's hard to know where to begin (do I present them with a copy of The Rule of Metaphor or something comparable or do I just write them off as hopeless?).

Any honest person will admit that it's easy to hide behind metaphor though, taking pot shots and claiming the intent was loftier than the Philistine critics are able to perceive. Then again, if the images are out there, should an artist be handcuffed by the sort of cultural illiteracy that causes people to see cheap shots where none were intended? Serra undoubtedly wasn't being as base with his critique as Sully suggested he was. It's safe to assume "the children" he saw Bush as devouring included our values and standing among the world's democracies, an interpretation subsequent posts by Sully would indicate he agrees with.

Again, I think the art viewing / consuming / promoting market will sort all this out in the end. If an artist offers up propagandist schlock, the machine will do its job and sweep it out of the system. Rightwing propaganda will be swept out more quickly than leftwing propaganda, it's true, but then the rightwing's not investing as much into supporting the arts as the leftwing is, so that's their reward.

But I realize I'm rambling now, so let me try to refocus this. Ideally, the general public would judge art in terms of its quality (does it convey its message truthfully, insightfully, poignantly?). Even if a message rattles our comfort zone, we should be able to step back and attempt to evaluate the truth of the message without calling for censorship or the artist's head on a platter. To do so, it helps if we're better educated though. Had more of Brown's audience been familiar with Goya's imagery, they might have better understood he wasn't trying to exploit the blood libel stereotype to critique Sharon's policies (it seems from his response to the uproar he too was uneducated about why they did). More of them would probably have laughed, as clearly was his intent. Sure he was being controversial, but there's clearly humor intended by parodying the Goya.

I had a studio visit yesterday with an artist whose work incoporates a good deal of humor. We discussed how "truth" always includes some element of matter how serious the subject, even if it's incredibly dark, humor exists in everything. It's the artist's task to incorporate that humor into his/her work in the quest for truth.

And, I'm rambling again.

Here's the summary: neither Brown nor Serra was being "obscene," as Sully and others have suggested, with these pieces. "Obscenity" requires a moral judgement, and art is neither moral nor immoral. It's either well done or poorly done. Judge these works by those criteria.


Anonymous Nancy said...

Is there a point at which art transcends the merely offensive to become illegal, dangerous
or life-threatening and still have aesthetic value? Can someone create a snuff film and claim it as art? Its okay if Chris Burden and Marina Abramovich injure themselves, but can an artist be a little too crazy, too over the top to call it an art form?
I have always absolutely believed that there are no bad ideas, only
bad utilizations, but it’s more complicated than that. Perhaps we are all just a little too dispassionate, a little too dead pan, a little too unwilling to intervene. Sometimes I
feel like one of the Romans at the coliseum, enjoying the spectacle of gruesome

Also, In MHO, this Anti-Semitic cartoon is puerile. C’mon, it’s ridiculous. As a Jew, I get a lot more disturbed at Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents, because it is so much more devastatingly persuasive in its ability to shape opinion. I’ll continue to look at Rubens, Giotto, et al, despite all the Anti-Semitic rhetoric of the content…..but I feel
kinda schizophrenic at times ignoring the message.

12/11/2005 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I've reserved any judgement on the quality of the Brown cartoon, Nancy...primiarly because I wanted to avoid confusing the issue. By the end of the thread I might share my opinion of it.

Is there a point at which art transcends the merely offensive to become illegal, dangerous
or life-threatening and still have aesthetic value? Can someone create a snuff film and claim it as art?

That's a very good question, IMO. I can imagine the production of the best film ever made that includes an actual murder. At that point though, I think you have two issues. The crime, which should be dealt with as any other crime, and the art work. Which will of course be soiled by the crime in most contexts and certainly understandably be objected to by decent people, but which, at some point (once all the players have passed away), might be re-evaluated as a work unto itself.

Even as I write that though, I see how lame it is.

I guess the answer is I don't know. I tend to think about it the other way around, the "In Cold Blood" approach, where the artist is describing horrendous actions but doing so exquisitely. Not where the artist is commiting a crime him/herself.

12/11/2005 06:44:00 PM  
Anonymous George said...

"What's the boundary between legitimate political criticism and racist propaganda?

Attribution? A commentary directed at a specific person (or tightly defined group) as opposed to being directed in a broad swath. Using the examples given: Serras ad (propaganda) depicts GWB as Saturn the child eater, it's both true and specific. The cartoon is more problematic, the extended detail in the background diffuses the specificity of the condemnation, at best it's walking the line.

On the other hand, the exhibition of the Anti-Jewish cartoons, refashions the context of the works in question. This does not cast any of the individual works as less racist rather it aggregates them as a way of making a point. Be offended but expose this for what it is.

Regarding Serras ad, it is propaganda, ads are propaganda. I don't think the reference to Goya really matters other than providing an art historical precedent. It doesn't matter if the viewer is aware of Goya or not, it is only tangentially humorous, the aggressiveness of the image conveys the intended message, "this president is eating your children" There are an alarming number of dead 19 year old American soldiers, that ought be enough for the neoCons who don’t count the others.

12/11/2005 07:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I see, as usual, the topic's more complicated than I had originally thought.

George is right that Serra's ad is propaganda. In that sense, perhaps Sully too was right. It's not actually asking to be judged as art, but rather as a political message. The humor I saw in it is most likely due to the fact that 1) I recognized the image, and 2) I recognized the anxiety/frustration/fear/disgust with Bush's administration that prompted the strength of the statement.

I'm still not going to assess the Brown cartoon (although I see in re-reading that I've more or less given it a pass in one sense, which I now regret), but will admit that I've been encouraged to seek out a better example for illustrating my main point here (which I still believe) about the separation of moral judgements about art's subject matter and moral judgements about the art itself.

but I feel kinda schizophrenic at times ignoring the message.

I totally get that. I recall the first time I discussed Genet's work with a fairly liberal gay man in DC who was simply horrified by it. I was shocked..."but it's so beautiful," I argued. He went on to list the very dark deeds described in "Querelle" (I think...maybe "Notre Dame des Fleurs"...can't recall...they're somewhat interchangeable at a certain point) including murder, and I realized I too am somewhat schizophrenic. I never once stopped to take any of that seriously...I never once fell into Genet's morality trap...I was too mesmerized by his poetry. I'd make a terrible criminal court judge.

12/12/2005 01:36:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

"…about the separation of moral judgements about art's subject matter and moral judgements about the art itself."

I would suggest that arts subject matter is inexorably bound with the art itself and that it cannot be disregarded. If this is the case, the subject matter becomes a qualifier when considering the 'quality' of the artwork in question. It's a gray area which to some degree may be shaded by the authors intent. works which pander to or incite a questionable moral issue might lose their status as 'art' and become something else.

Consider murder, an act generally accepted as immoral. We see movies all the time which fictionally depict murder without recoiling in indignant horror (well, most of us have been hardened to movie kills) Escalate the point of view a notch, consider a newscast with an inadvertent murder (killing…) which will usually foster an intense emotional reaction because the visual fiction is now real. Escalate again to a politically motivated beheading or a so called 'snuff film' and we are in the squeamish territory. If we are seeing the act as a media event, each case is essentially visually and symbolically equivalent yet each has a different frame of reference which mitigates and contextualizes the act.

Art is contextualization. In the case of Serra's ad, I don't believe there was any intent to incite the audience to child cannibalism, rather it was a visual metaphor of damnation. The 'intent' of the ad was to incite people to vote. As such even though the artwork was used for propaganda it remained an artwork. While extreme, it was a metaphor not a lie and I don't think it was over the top.

12/12/2005 02:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As such even though the artwork was used for propaganda it remained an artwork.

Here we disagree. Its original intent was to be used as propaganda. Had it not been, Serra would most certainly have made different choices. The resulting piece then would not have existed as "artwork" or other then without the intent to give it that purpose. In my book it then ceases being art....but we've been all over that before here.

12/12/2005 07:50:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

OK, you're right, it was late and I ended up backtracking on my original thoughts.

12/12/2005 08:30:00 AM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

The problem with Serra's propaganda (and propaganda in general) is that it is oppressive; this includes his lame 'stop bush' drawings. Although I agree with the anti-Bush message, I can't help feeling that his methods are mimicking that which he is trying to criticize (Bush's own lust for power). This makes for bad art.

While I enjoy the massive beauty of Serra's steel sculptures as much as the next gallery-goer, I've always felt that they too had an almost evil oppressiveness to them -- the threat of violence to the viewer (by crushing you to death), and constructed to be so big and powerful that no one could possibly doubt Serra's own strength and genius. More obvious, perhaps, was his conduct during the (in)famous Tilted Arc debate, where one could argue that he was trying to impose his will on the unwilling. In this way I can see a connection between his 'serious' work and his recent efforts at political propaganda.

The point is not that Serra is an 'evil' artist, or that he in any way compares to oppressive governments, but that a lust for power is always distasteful. Maybe 'fighting fire with fire' isn't such a good idea.

This quote from Orwell always gets to me, because it's so damn true:

"Liberal: a power worshipper without power."

12/12/2005 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

George writes, "Art is contextualization," and I agree. (Although I prefer the statement, "Art involves contextualization.") At any rate, even Serra's propoganda, obvious and frustrating though it may be, is an important part of the debate. Admittedly, each artist's moral compass will guide them where it may - thankfully, snuff films reside far outside the practice of most creative people - and some will transgress in the eyes of others, but the resulting debate is essential. I certainly prefer the brouhaha to the incessant, over-the-shoulder shushing offered by the politically correct karma police.

As Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet/essayist/activist puts it, "Political correctness [is] itself an immobilizing form of hysteria...[For] those of us who prefer politically incorrect discourse to politically correct incineration or other forms of complicity in our premature demise, [the] questions must be given voice." Beautiful, and true.

12/12/2005 03:49:00 PM  

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