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Newsletter 363

Published November 2, 2020
But is it Art??

Nietzsche says somewhere we have not got rid of God so long as we still believe in grammar. I thought of this when reading the accounts of Melbourne performance artist, Casey Jenkins, who was given a $25,000 grant from the Australia Council, only to have it rescinded after a media storm blew up about the nature of her work.

I use the pronoun “she”, even though – judging by the articles I’ve read in the mainstream press, Jenkins prefers the Queer affectation of being referred to in the plural. If this were a poetic idea, as with Walt Whitman claiming “I contain multitudes”, I could feel more sympathetic, but when singular and plural are mixed up in this way it makes a mockery of any piece of writing that needs to distinguish an individual subject. Grammar is not, after all, a fascist imposition on our lives, it’s a tool that aids clarity of expression. It’s normative in its effects, and I’d argue much the same thing about God and about gender.

From time immemorial we have had two basic genders with seemingly endless variations of sexual preference. Being gay doesn’t mean one stops being male or female. There have always been a small number of people somewhere in between, with both male and female characteristics. These people have suffered all kinds of discrimination in the past, but in these more enlightened days they should have exactly the same rights as everybody else. This is a far cry from totally upending all ideas about gender – and indeed, biology – to rearrange our cultural norms to fit a very small minority.

As for God, even an atheist (like me, I confess), can admit that no concept has been more fundamental to the constititution of human society. Religion has imposed an order that would not have come naturally to beings engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle for existence. It has enabled us to work together towards common goals and express thoughts that transcend simple materialism. I’m not arguing that religion hasn’t been responsible for terrible crimes and bloodshed as well, or acted as an organ of oppressive social control, but on the whole there’s a strong case for God.

So when Casey Jenkins decides she should inseminate herself in the name of art, and the Australia Council believes this gesture is so exciting they assist her to the tune of $25,000, I’m left wondering exactly what she was thinking – and what the Oz Co. commitee was thinking. To be so cavalier with human life is to stretch the ethical boundaries of artistic expession to breaking point. The artist that takes life or confers life is playing God if he or she wants to call this an aesthetic act.

When the story was picked up by the tabloids, and by Murdoch TV such as Sky Channel, and the Oz Co pulled the grant, it was inevitable that commentators would see only censorship and sinister conservative forces. In fact it was an accident waiting to happen: a blatant stunt guaranteed to stir up a hostile reaction and get splashed all over the media. It’s obvious the artist wanted to get as much attention as possible from this provocative “work”. But if anyone is to blame it’s not the attention-seeking artist, or the critics that went on the attack. It’s the Oz Co committee members for not understanding the obvious implications of the project, and trying to show how cool and avant-garde they were – with taxpayers’ money.

There’s so much wrong with this story on all sides that we should think long and hard about its implications. In one package we have the cavalier attitude of the artist, the foolish trendiness of the funding body, the rapacious bloodlust of the right-wing media, and the patronising concern of the more liberal media. This is why satires on contemporary art usually fall flat: the reality is more ridiculous than most comedians could imagine.

After those reflections, the art column returns to prosaic territory with a review of the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. I’m obliged to say the Wynne was a bit better this year, but many of the usual observations still apply. Sculpture is always the poor relation, and indigenous work dominates the display. A reader sent me a interesting note about the lack of bushfire paintings, and that gave me a welcome lead-in to the article. ATT. readers: I’m always open to good suggestions!

The film column could not go past the new Borat movie, which is just as gross as its predecessor of 2006. The difference is the United States has grown even weirder over that time. Many of the scenes in the movie defy belief, as one can hardly accept that people can be so dumb or venal, even when the President is leading from the front. Whether it’s performance artists inseminating themselves or Borat getting Rudy Giuliani to embarrass himself on camera, it’s clear the world today is suffering not just from a deadly virus, but from the malaise that Žižek calls ‘a plague of fantasies’.