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I paint, make collages and mixed media work. I write poetry. I reflect on the Tao.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Muse on shock

As a child, I found the thrill seeking rides at the shows quite puzzling. The result was either terror (&puke) or boredom. Either way it seemed a waste of money to me.

I was reminded of this by reading Penny Thow’s excellently descriptive article of the current exhibition Altared by Rodney Pople (Despard Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania).

(I’d like to reference the article, but I just cannot find it on The Mercury’s website (

Pople is quite open about his intention to shock the viewer. In his view, there are two kinds of painting There is the banal, mediocre and boring and then there are those that are meant to be shocking”. I guess that makes the Mona Lisa banal, mediocre and boring?

He juxtaposes images of the Catholic church with contradictory images (a zebra, a shark, naked women and explicit sex acts). “The most powerful and confronting painting in the exhibition is Pope with Altar Boy. It shows a young boy with exposed genitals standing in front of a headless pope.” For Pople, this sums up the hypocrisy of the Church.

Of course, this is shocking if you are attached to the notion of the church as a moral bastion. If you view the church as a social institution, subject like all institutions to corruption and hypocrisy, and if you have been aware of churchmen’s 2,000 plus years history of socially and religiously prohibited sexual deviance, it’s really not shocking—tragic, appalling, inhumane, but not shocking.

Indeed the juxtaposition only works because religion is seen as separate from nature and sexuality. The juxtapositions start to teeter on the comical if you view religion as a debased institutionalised form of spirituality and see no division between the sacred and nature:

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour

William Blake
Now, art has a respectable pedigree as social critique, for example, Francisco Goya’s The Shootings of May Third or Edouard Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. or Picasso’s Guernica.

A visual image may be able to make a critical point more tellingly, more shockingly than words. However, I am not convinced that painting is as an effective visual medium of social critique as are photographs. I have yet to view a painting which has the same power to shock the viewer, as the photograph of a naked screaming nine year old girl, running down a road, after a napalm bomb was dropped on her village during the Vietnam war.ị_Kim_Phúc. This image haunts me still and retains its power to shock.

Part of the difference I suspect is that news photographs, while not an objective medium, nevertheless have an aura of authenticity about them. This moment actually happened. A painting, by contrast, no matter how realistic, is always and obviously a result of artifice. “All artists are liars” Picasso reportedly said. The lie is obvious, no matter how carefully concealed.
But even if a painting could strike home with shock and make the telling point, what then? If there is nothing else, then what we have is an illustration of a socio-political criticism that could just have easily been made in words.

What sets those works by Goya, Manet and Picasso apart is that something else. They transcend their context. They move from the particular to the universal human condition. My response is neither shock nor boredom, but rather one of empathetic engagement with the inhuman horror.

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