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Art as Sacred Cow

Art as Sacred Cow
  • On January 31, 2009

Art is a fragile adolescent creature in Australia. It is constantly threatened with extinction, its habitat polluted by grandstanding politicians and the censorship of those ordinary citizens who, as Hitler once opined, enjoy a ‘healthy taste of art’.

But psychotherapist Renate Ogilvie questions if art should therefore be turned into a Sacred Cow, exempt from cultural analysis.

Why is it that we bemoan the ghastly sexualisation of children and adolescents in our late capitalist culture, but piously draw the curtain on art? Is this a fallback to the 19th century, where closet gays would hang up the celebrated S&M image of St Sebastian, bound and pierced by arrows, on the pretence that this was simply an artistic image?

Surely we accept that there has always been a knowingness about art, an ambivalence of artistic and aesthetic meaning blended with a much more robust message. So why not look at the latter without tying ourselves up in knots, no pun intended, as we feel duty bound to stem the philistine hordes.

Art is about a personal response to reality being filtered through a particularly consciousness. Bellmer’s dolls don’t make me feel particularly uplifted, while Anselm Kiefer moves me, and some of Bonnard’s sumptuous post-coital interiors, well, please me.

I find Henson’s images of adolescents disturbing, and interestingly, so do most of my female friends. Rightly or wrongly, we sense a male predatory gaze – not just his, but also of those who will pay for his images. That is a personal response to Henson’s art which does not need to be justified.

The question is: should Messrs Plod arrive and close the exhibition down because some of us feels this way, and should a judge be asked to evaluate artistic merit? That is even more disturbing. It brings back iconic images of the Monty Python judge in red underpants being whipped in the interval of an obscenity trial, and Richard Neville standing up in his crocheted vest in court, defending himself against a barbaric prison sentence.

The Buddha teaches us that all cognised objects are experienced individually, that there is no absolute, only relative reality, and that we are constantly deluded in our interpretation of it. It makes judgment of any kind extremely problematical.

While some see sex as a relatively harmless pursuit – perhaps a Swedish model of physical exercise, others experience it as a deadly serious pursuit, with an emphasis on deadly. One things is certain: we are all fascinated by it, and there is a vague consensus that not absolutely everything goes. Or does it?

Stifled by the prudery of the 50’s, my generation of baby boomers were tempted to think why not? And so we inadvertently opened the floodgates. Our sexual revolution was being warmly welcomed and exploited by liberal capitalism, and now we find ourselves uncomfortably in the middle of being new conservatives on the one hand, while at the same time still fighting the old censorship battles on the other, as the waves of hardcore and child pornography close over our heads.

We are living in times of over stimulation. Our restless monkey mind wants to be distracted and entertained: ever more extreme reality shows, hardcore porn, excesses of food, drink, drugs. The result is saturation, exhaustion, cynicism, despair. Our art reflects that, either consciously as a message, or implicitly by the extreme images it produces.

If we worry about our own mind, we should be even more concerned about the minds of our children. They need to be protected as much as possible, not from their fathers taking pictures of them at the beach, but from the leering Medusa gaze of capitalism which turns everything into money, art included.

Renate Ogilvie is a psychotherapist and teacher of Buddhist philosophy.

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