The Kitchen Sink (or "Truth, the Limits of Metaphor, and Why Art Education Is Important")
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 humor...no 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.