Funny how visually illiterate people are becoming today but not so funny is how this increasing ignorance is facilitating can I say a renewed persecution of artists? The Bill Henson affair here in Australia is a good example – Bill, a photographer, takes a picture of a naked teenage girl and winds up having half the nation calling him a child pornographer. The then prime minister Kevin Rudd included – he said in a television interview that he found the picture revolting. In the photograph the girl is standing and covering herself with her hands. Few if any realized the photograph was in many ways a rip-off of Edvard Munch’s ‘Puberty’. Would Kevin, the bulk of the Australian media and most of the population find ‘Puberty’ revolting? Probably not because it is not realistic enough for them to read beyond it being a chick on a bed with a big splash of black paint on the wall behind her.
Later Rudd’s replacement as prime minister Julia Guillard – Kevin was ousted as a result of wanting to make the mining companies pay a realistic amount of tax – on her way to Japan declared she would raise the issue of Japan’s alleged production of child pornography. Aside from the insult to the Japanese nation she also made evident her inability to read a visual text beyond its literal meaning. She was most likely referring to YAOI, a genre of Japanese comic strip that are stories about ridiculously beautiful teenage boys in a sexual relationship with each other and handsome adult men. Often a teacher at an exclusive English boarding school or similar. What Julia missed entirely is that these stories are in Japan mostly created by women and consumed by a majority female audience. So why are Japanese girl’s comics full of boys bonking? As was the title of an essay written by professor of sociology and communications Marc McLelland (Wollongong University). The answer is symbol as in that where the image may denote a boy being seriously plugged by an adult man it connotes a relationship that in being same gender is stripped of male and female social conventions. The female reader projects herself as the boy and therefore can enjoy the fantasy of a sexual relationship which does not imply being forced by social convention to wash the guy’s smelly socks.
Aside from people in marketing and advertising who have high levels of visual literacy, today’s western artists are for the most part illiterate and rarely capable of producing a work that does anything much beyond and if the subject is an apple for example, making the statement ‘this is an apple’. Wow. Worse still is when past art forms are copied, such as expressionism, impressionism, pop or whatever, because as copies of a past artistic expression they are meaningless facsimiles, always inferior to the original no matter how expertly executed and walking around the local shopping center with a long beard and beret on the head will not transform an artist’s work from 21st century copy to 19th century original. Warhol’s tins of soup for example were entirely relevant to sixties United States. Campbell tomato soup was what a home-maker wife with the standard five kids would serve up at dinner time. The can of soup is a metonymy for middle America and its conservative values and made by a corporation and by a mechanical process as was the painting. A great work that made effective use of symbol.
Of course there are great abstract works but again there is a level of knowledge needed in that color and form are like notes and chords in music which itself is the most abstract of all the arts. I doubt a recording of a child loudly banging at random the keys of a piano would ever be top of the pops contemporary or classic.
The present day inability to read a work beyond what it denotes and in many cases the inability to create a work beyond a literal representation of the subject or a clumsy expression of an emotion allegedly felt by the artist has resulted in what Oscar Wilde in his essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ said is the worst of situations for the creative artist. That his or her work is subject to the judgment of the ignorant masses who in a democracy have the power to make a presumably educated man such as prime minister Rudd declare a picture ‘revolting’ when in fact there was nothing revolting about it to anyone visually literate. You may not like the picture and I’m not a great fan of Bill Henson’s work but just as I might find the style of a particular author wanting even if the subject of his written work is important.
There have always been taboos in art and always will be for as long as there will be people with ill-informed opinions. But there are ways around this situation and again through the usage of symbols. Take the Caravaggio below for example, what does the painting denote? A young guy playing the lute with a few decorations thrown in such as flowers, a violin and sheet music? Not much to get upset about until you read the image as it was meant to be read. The boy playing the lute is in love but his adult male lover is absent as we make out from the violin sitting unused on the table and reinforced by the closed bass part of the song the boy is singing which itself is an old Italian song ‘You know that I love you’, we can read the score. Caravaggio also says the absent adult lover is a silly bugger because the beauty of his young lover will not last as is suggested by the bunch of cut flowers. It’s a good thing the strings of the lute are not broken because that would signal the imminent death of the boy and there is possible salvation in the fruit somewhere but the peaches are beginning to spoil so the message to the man is hurry up or the little Phaedrus whose white shirt of innocence is spread open, he wants it and now, will go off and find someone else to sing to.