Newsletter 341

Published June 8, 2020
'How do you turn this thing on?'

One of my lockdown projects has been to finish reading The Old Testament, so I felt almost personally affronted watching Donald Trump holding up a Bible (apparently upside-down), in front of St. Johns Church in Washington D.C., having just tear-gassed peaceful protesters to clear a path for his photo op. Like everyone else, I keep thinking I’m not capable of being shocked by anything new this monstrous goon can do, but this was so disgraceful I’m wondering why America’s Christians aren’t picketing the White House. How can the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for him look themselves in the mirror?

Although I have no religious faith I’m fascinated by religion as the engine that has driven so much of our history and culture. One can’t hope to understand art, for instance, while being totally ignorant of religion. Trump’s ignorance on every subject apart from himself is astonishing. Not only is he ignorant, but proudly so, which is just about the worst-case scenario for the Leader of the Free World. Given the legal opportunity to do so it’s clear that Trump would declare martial law and extend his authority indefinitely.

If the President wanted to learn about how to be a tyrant he would do well to dip into The Old Testament, as Yahweh is a shocker: aggressive, egocentric, boastful, spiteful. As yet Trump doesn’t have an obsession with having every male circumcised, or demand people be stoned to death if they work on Saturday.

To be a True Believer one has to accept a whole raft of contradictions – a skill our Prime Minister has just about perfected. As for Trump, I’d recommend Proverbs 12:15: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes”.

The art column this week is only concerned with issues of faith in relation to the Art Gallery of NSW. Now that the gallery has been able to open its doors again I was one of the first to see the shows that will tide us over the rest of the COVID-19 recovery period. The major exhibition is Some Mysterious Process, a survey of 50 years of acquisitions in the field of international contemporary art, selected by AGNSW director, Michael Brand.

These times call for a certain degree of understanding as every museum will be falling back on its permanent collection to hold the fort. However, this doesn’t mean one can look at Some Mysterious Process and not be struck by the poverty of the gallery’s holdings. For while the show may be presented with an air of pride, it might more credibly be taken as a cry for help: “This is the best we can do! Please become a donor!”

If I sound a little harsh, there are many points the review does not explore. For instance, who decided to paint the walls of the biggest gallery a shade of deep purple? (Possibly a heavy metal fan). And if somebody gives you a freestanding sculpture by Thomas Hirschhorn, (as Clinton Ng has done), why stick it in a corner, against a wall, under the staircase?

Another simple observation is that by privileging certain gifts for a survey and leaving others aside, one risks alienating donors who feel their contribution has not been appreciated. I could go on, but won’t. I try and be objective in my observations as it’s not really my job to support or condemn institutions, merely to call the shots as I see them. If one gives free rein to the critical impulse, things can appear lop-sided.

The film column looks at Mrs. America, Dahvi Waller’s nine-part series about Phyllis Schlafly, and the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution that pitted feminists against ‘family values’ activists throughout the 1970s. There are lots of question marks over this series, not least being Cate Blanchett’s authoritative but problematic portrayal of Schlafly, but I found it absolutely gripping from start to finish.

Phyllis Schlafly, who argued with her own right-wing lobby group over her support for Trump in 2016, shortly before her death, is a fascinating study given the events currently unfolding in the US. Schlafly was a believer in Realpolitik who saw Trump as the Republicans’ best chance for grabbing power, but she could not have anticipated his follies in Foreign Policy, or the descent of the nation into proto-civil war. There must be many Republicans watching their cities burn who are pondering the wisdom of the choices they have made and where it will all lead.

Here’s a concluding thought from I Kings 19:12: “…and after the fire a still small voice.”