Tag Archives: Society

A few thoughts on visual literacy and the usage of symbols in the visual arts.

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.

Henson's controversial picture of a teenage girl.

Bottom part edited out by original poster.

Painting by Munch of a girl sitting naked on the edge of a bed.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 [edit] sociology and cultural history 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.

Manga style image of two males kissing.

Example of typical ‘YAOI’ style manga image.

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 pears 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.

Caravaggio painting of boy playing the lute.

You know that I love you.

Camille Paglia interview with Gayme and a poem by Walt Whitman.

 

Started writing up a post on culture, gays, society and etc and realised much of what I was writing had been said already by Camille Paglia back in the nineties in an interview she gave to now banned magazine ‘Gayme’. So dumped the draft text and went looking for the interview which by some miracle I managed to find in an obscure database.

 

 

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Scanned page of Gayme Magazine with interview with Camile Paglia.

Paglia mentions Walt Whitman pointing out he would today be jailed as a sex offender. Some may remember the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ and how the teacher played by Robin Williams has the students address him as “Oh Captain My Captain”, that’s a Whitman poem.

O CAPTAIN ! M Y CAPTAIN !

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Others of Whitman and that would better illustrate the sexual preferences Paglia was referring to,

O TAN-FACED PRAIRIE-BOY

O tan-faced prairie-boy,
Before you came to camp came many a welcome gift,
Praises and presents came and nourishing food, till at last among the
recruits,
You came, taciturn, with nothing to give—we but look’d on each other,
When lo! more than all the gifts of the world you gave me.

 

W E TWO BOYS TOGETHER CLINGING

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving.
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Thoughts on NAMBLA”.

Reading a collection of essays by the American poet Allen Ginsberg I was surprised to find a previously unpublished text in which he explains why he became a member of the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).

Now, NAMBLA has had very bad press and is generally perceived as a child abuse club but the truth is a little more complex. NAMBLA was formed in the aftermath of the Boston sex scandal of 1977 in which police investigations into allegations of abuse of minors turned into a full scale witch hunt that destroyed the lives and reputations of many innocent people including alleged victims who were subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques to force them to cough up names of men who allegedly had abused them. NAMBLA was formed as a mainstream gay rights movement but one that sought to include debates surrounding the relationships that can and do occur between men and teenagers. Having previously worked as a teacher in juvenile detention centres and having managed youth programs for homeless and at risk youth I can say that these intergenerational relationships occur by far more often than the public realise and are not always abusive.

Here’s what Ginsberg had to say,

Thoughts on NAMBLA.

I became a member of NAMBLA a decade ago as a matter of civil liberties. In the early 1980s, the FBI had conducted a campaign of entrapment and “dirty tricks” against NAMBLA members just as they had against black and anti-war leaders in previous decades. In the January 17, 1983, issue Time magazine, following the FBI disinformation campaign, attacked NAMBLA as a group involved in the “systematic exploitation of the weak and immature by the powerful and disturbed.” That struck me as a fitting description of Time magazine itself. NAMBLA’s a forum for reform of those laws on youthful sexuality which members deem oppressive, a discussion society not a sex club. I joined NAMBLA in defence of free speech.

Historically, societies have taken different views of this issue and the political heat that surrounds the subject is unnatural. Demagogic reaction to NAMBLA demeans the subject as a political football. At present European nations do not share current US public sexual hysteria. Various cultures and states offer widely varying definitions of age of consent – age 15 in Czechoslovakia and some US states, 14 in Hawaii. There’s no universal consensus on “consent”. It’s a fit subject for discussion, NAMBLA provides a forum.

Most people like myself do not make carnal love to hairless boys and girls. Yet such erotic inclinations or fantasies are average and are commonly sublimated into courtly sociability. An afternoon’s walk through the Vatican Museum will attest centuries of honorific appreciation of nude youths, an acceptable pleasure in the quasi erotic contemplation of the “naked human form divine”. From Rome’s Vatican to Florence’s Uffizi galleries to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, we see statues of prepubescent Eros, pubescent Bacchus, male ephebes (naked bodies 12 to 18), the adolescent goddess Kore, nymphs, naiads, young fauns and satyrs in abundance, Laocoon and his boys with pubes exposed, wrinkled old Neptune’s loins, old hags with undraped withers and dugs, Olympian Zeus and kid Ganymede. Western civilisation prides itself on its foundation on classical Greek culture, wherein intergenerational love was a social practice praised by philosophers.

A dash of humour, common sense humanity and historical perspective would help discussion of NAMBLA’s role. Further, libertarians or anarchists may remember Blake’s warning, “One law for the Lion and the Ox is oppression.”

These considerations shouldn’t be distorted to apologise for rape and mental or physical violation of children. I respect those who want to fix a general law to prevent abuse of minors. This is a real problem though less politically demagogic than advertised by some aggressive therapists, politically correct thought police, and the obsessive senator Jesse Helms. It is NAMBLA’s mission to raise the subject, explore it, and provide a platform for debate.

Child abuse laws have been abused, especially since the Reagan-Meese commission’s predictably incompetent linkage of pornography and violence. Subsequent formation of a Justice Department child porn bureaucracy sent federal squads roaming the states teaching local police to practice prurient snooping, invasion of privacy and lawless entrapment. Often police intrusion into consensual intergenerational affections and affairs results in abuse of both parties. Police authority also has made use of mind rape of the younger person, forcing unwilling youths to fink on close friends with threats of jail or beatings. One important function of NAMBLA is to keep track of bureaucratic manipulations of adolescents by police, FBI, media, and other agencies who handle such delicate issues with a meat ax. A Witch Hunt Foiled: The FBI vs. NAMBLA provides an impressive volume of information on these outrageous police practices.

Ginsberg, Allen (1994) Published in ‘Deliberate Prose’ Selected Essays 1952 -1995 pp 170.

What I feel is missing in Ginsberg argument is the role the ‘beautiful boy’ principal played in the development of western art and culture and not just that it was the most ubiquitous representation of the human form in western art. It was the aesthetic yard stick of most of the west’s greatest achievements and in all areas. What its removal could imply for future development we can only surmise but there are already indications of what lies ahead in the dumbing down and low quality of much of today’s cultural output. That ‘human form divine’ is now all but absent.