The dogma of creative controversy

Vandalism in the name of art – a news headline in Pakistan – an artist’s work banned in the current Karachi biennale – art intelligentsia and drawing room conversation. – Solidarity and unity in the Pakistani art community. This initial paragraph comes as a pre-text but is actually a post-text of an essay I wrote for a personal research. Artist Adeela Suleman reflects on the power of art and the fear it can instill, in her interview response to the destruction and ban on her art. She mentions observing the day-to-day trajectory of what is being done to her installation and how she did expect media attention but not a reaction from the state – as it was not a revolt but the ‘circumstance’ she wanted to bring to attention.  Creative controversy is a global dogma since eons but between all the solidarity and controversy I see a weaker link here, in our region. As a nation we are in the preliminary era of showcasing, embracing and enabling ourselves for a biennale.  The weaker link floats within the ‘institution: Karachi biennale’ it asserts that our biennale’s management is still on its tethering stage and it will take time and commitment to build equilibrium to ensure a less vulnerable situation for the artist. The state and the public are in the same situation, the biennale or ‘art through the city’ is a new vocabulary for our society and the response cannot be designed as per expectation – in a world where abstract expressionists, Dadaists and even the Impressionists got their due share of rejection, resistance and abandonment in the first world scenario – an art installation: grave-scape in Pakistan could definitely find a friend in controversy. The disappointment is in communication – why couldn’t the institution: ‘Karachi biennale’ systemize a protocol that could defend the art or if the reaction was a shock, why did the shock arrive when the exhibition had been installed and opened for the public? Censorship could be channelized in the earlier phases. Creative controversy is dogmatic. , sometimes even contextuality can fail to understand it. These few examples from the world over reflect on the complexity of this problem.    

When I was first introduced to Paul McCarthy’s gory, animated and political art it shocked me intellectually and visually. The American president is considered the most powerful man in the world, yet this artist had outdone all levels of protocol or diplomacy by making a work that subjected the president George.W. Bush copulating with pigs. Several questions arose out of the McCarthian spirit of aesthetic and thought: are we finally living in an uncensored world? Are forms of art the answer to free speech or free will? And/or are there any boundaries, reservations and reciprocations that evoke from these independent and aggressive expressions?  Censorship which I see as a form of modern iconoclasm is a filtration, again dependent, on different ideologies and beliefs. Power politics, structures, society and people who see and believe differently cast these filters with their own individualistic methods. One questions what is it that is being controlled, is it the aftermath?

There is, in fact, virtually no evidence that fictional violence causes otherwise stable people to become violent. And if we suppressed material based on the actions of unstable people, no work of fiction or art would be safe from censorship. Serial killer Theodore Bundy collected cheerleading magazines. And the work most often cited by psychopaths as justification for their acts of violence is the Bible.

. Japanese TV and movies are famous for their extreme, graphic violence, but Japan has a very low crime rate — much lower than many societies in which television watching is relatively rare. What the studies reveal on the issue of fictional violence and real world aggression is — not much.” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2017)

Whereas it differs region to region and presumably there is a clash of civilizations in the current day and age. The celebrity journalist Sohail Waraich interviewed the notorious Pakistani sex symbol Qandeel Baluch in his renowned and coveted Urdu TV show titled “ Ek din GEO ke saath” on GEO TV, Pakistan. As a developing nation Pakistan has several other important issues to be addressed but around an hour of airtime was generously devoted to a celebrity who became a celebrity through media coverage and the age of social media, a while later the media diva was killed in the name of honor by her brother who was invisible earlier when she gained public attention. Probably there is no comparison between G.W bush not being able to raise a finger against artistic expression for the freedom of speech and Baloch being killed for honor where the ones who made her media-honorable were shocked – yet I see these parallels as the condition of the ‘world-today’ on the dogma of controversy in the name of freedom and speech. On one hand Baluch is powerless and on the other G.W.Bush. On one hand media is powerful and power pollutes, on the other Paul McCarthy, an artist.

.Interpretation is eminent and all intentions can find a newer narrative and unforeseen reaction. One questions the tenure of such freedom and the possibilities of this power. McCarthy’s so called ‘tree’ inflatable sculpture in the middle of Paris’s elegant Place Vendôme, home to the French justice ministry and the Ritz hotel was resented:

Anality is in the eye of the beholder. An inflatable sculpture by American artist Paul McCarthy has been vandalised – and the artist himself assaulted – after a flurry of outrage in Paris over a sculpture that is said to resemble a type of sex toy known, I am informed, as a butt plug.

I feel old fashioned that I had to be told that. The work is called Tree, and if I didn’t know about the accusation that it looks like a sex toy, I would probably have taken the title at face value. Well, perhaps not entirely. The chances of McCarthy erecting anything as innocent as a tree seem slight when you consider this surrealist’s oeuvre” (Jones, 2017)

The audience received it as a humiliation of Paris and it was reported that a man slapped Mccarthy thrice and ran away. The sculpture was vandalized overnight and the artist stated “I don’t want to be mixed up in this type of controversy and physical violence, or even to keep taking the risks associated with this work,” (Jones, 2017)

Art interventions or ideologies that break preconceived notions from the past have been questioned and responded to in various ways – many a times it has been extreme aggression and rejection, especially when the conversation begins. Marcel Duchamp’s Sculpture, The fountain was submitted to the society of independent artists in 1917. The society established a rule that it was open to all new forms or meanings of art, but an upside down urinal was rejected immediately, only after Duchamp revealed that it was his work, it was accepted since he had a voice in the members of the society. Acceptance to newer initiatives and forms that shock is thereby dependent on much more than the reaction itself – influence, associations and power play a pivotal role.

In many instances the context determines what is accepted and to what extent. For instance a change of location can make a difference:

. “In Lahme v. University of Southwestern Louisiana, a 1997 state case in which a sculpture bearing obscenities and racial epithets was placed on a college campus near an elementary school, the Louisiana Court of Appeals found that it was not a violation of the artist’s freedom of expression for the sculpture to be moved to a different, less-visible part of the campus, so long as the work was not completely removed. While not affording artistic expression the same protections as verbal speech, the court recognized that the right of an individual to communicate his or her point of view does not end with the spoken word.” (Newseuminstitute.org, 2017)

Richard Serra’s minimalist sculpture The Arc (1981 – 1989) a piece commissioned by the federal government was resisted to the point of removal. It obstructed the everyday lives and movement of the people who worked in its vicinity, Federal Plaza in front of the Jacob Javit’s Federal Building in Manhattan. “More than 1300 people who worked in the complex signed a petition for its removal, citing disruption to their daily lives—they now had to walk around the massive 120-foot bisector. What developed was one of the most notorious trials in the history of art law, where it was finally deemed that the work should be removed” (Eisinger, 2017)

“When artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude used 6.5 million square feet of pink polypropylene to surround eleven islands in Biscayne Bay there was great controversy, and a federal trial retorted the project. Yet “For sixteen days – June 18 through July 3, 2016 – Italy’s Lake Iseo was reimagined. 100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular floating dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes, undulated with the movement of the waves as The Floating Piers rose just above the surface of the water.”  (Christojeanneclaude.net, 2017). What couldn’t be envisioned realistically earlier found a similar manifestation ‘somewhere else’, around two decades later. Probably that is the challenge of the avant-garde and contemporary, it has to trial through time, to be heard – sometimes what may be controversial in one decade would be beautiful in the next. It can be a change of perceptions or the introduction of new technology or evolution of knowledge that extends a helping hand to the art, to make it understood, with time. 

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibited defaced Chinese artifacts in the Hirshhorn Museum for an exhibition titled “According to What?”, the art and action led to the Chinese government to ban him from leaving the country. Between Intent, change and revolution, politics of division, change, race or ethnicity: art, disciplines, bold initiatives and creativity fluctuate. The live crew record store was charged for obscenity in the 1980’s. “Although this was the first time that obscenity charges had ever been brought against song lyrics, the 2 Live Crew case focused the nation’s attention on an old question: should the government ever have the authority to dictate to its citizens what they may or may not listen to, read, or watch?” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2017)

Be it Faiz, Manto, Jalib or the Guerrilla Girls stating in an art poster, “Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum?” (1989) to social activists group Gran Fury’s 1989 campaign “Kissing Doesn’t Kill,” with the appended tagline “Greed and Indifference Do.”(Where they showed interracial couples kissing). It is on ongoing dogma of creative controversy.  

“If we Germans would admire our flag as you all do, we would be called Nazis again…I think you do have too much trouble about this flag” (Eisinger, 2017), wrote a German girl in response upon the American protests upon “Dread” Scott Tyler’s work exhibited at the Art institute of Chicago “What is the proper way to display a U.S. flag? Consisting of a photomontage of Korean students burning the flag, a guestbook, and an American flag on the floor”.

Probably the dogma rests in who, what, when and where – can be a trouble? Or be perceived as a trouble – even when it is not.

American Civil Liberties Union. (2017). Freedom of Expression in the Arts and Entertainment. [online] Available at: https://www.aclu.org/other/freedom-expression-arts-and-entertainment [Accessed15 oct. 2017].

Jones, J. (2017). Shocked by Paul McCarthy’s butt plug? You obviously haven’t seen his phallic Pinocchio. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/oct/20/paul-mccarthy-paris-tree-sculpture-butt-plug-controversy [Accessed 11 oct. 2017].

Farago, J. (2017). Paul McCarthy ‘butt plug’ sculpture in Paris provokes rightwing backlash. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/20/paul-mccarthy-butt-plug-sculpture-paris-rightwing-backlash [Accessed 8 Oct. 2017].

Newseuminstitute.org. (2017). Art Controversies | Newseum Institute. [online] Available at: http://www.newseuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/free-speech-on-public-college-campuses-overview/art-controversies/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].

Eisinger, D. (2017). The Most Controversial Art Exhibitions and Installations of All Time. [online] Complex. Available at: http://www.complex.com/style/2013/10/controversial-art-exhibitions/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].

Christojeanneclaude.net. (2017). Projects | The Floating Piers. [online] Available at: http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/the-floating-piers?view=info [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].

19 thoughts on “The dogma of creative controversy

    1. well said Haiider ! Thank You so much for your kind feedback and I couldn’t agree more – without examining the role of the artist…the idea of ‘free speech’ can float from being a blessing to a curse..

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  1. Reblogged this on sjraja and commented:

    Dear friends and readers. I will be writing regularly on all that is art …mainly from Lahore, Pakistan and otherwise if I’m traveling on this new blog that I recently made. Do follow my new blog as well and give me your feedback on this essay/ article. It’s on the recent ban on artist Adeela Suleman’s work in the Karachi Biennale in the context of creative controversies throughout the world.

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  2. Hi, Sehr.
    Art is and always has been a controversial subject. One person’s ‘Art’ is another’s ‘rubbish’.
    Many thanks for following my blog, which is appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete/

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  3. I agree with BeetleyPete: “One person’s art is another person’s rubbish.” Yes, I know he didn’t originate that quote, but he said it here. And as you said, Sehr Jalil, expressive creativity is going to be controversial. That’s the nature of art. If I like it, I can stay and enjoy. If I don’t like it, I can leave it. The choice is mine. But, when does artistic expression become destructive? I don’t know. Is it the artist that creates the malice? Or is it in the eye and mind of the beholder?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s such an important question and thank you for bringing it up. I believe.. or feel that it’s quite contextual and subjective… The malice may be somewhere between the intent, execution or response.. And in some or many cases the malice is already there before the execution.. It comes as the only form of response available.. – on another less ambiguous note.. The artist is always conscious of her/his concerns (sometimes very confrontational and controversial).. So the malice inevitably comes in the reactions.. Hope i made any sense.. And thanks again for bringing this up

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, your response made sense. I agree that when an artist’s intent is malicious, that message usually comes through. But… not always. Interpretation of art is always subjective, and the viewer often/usually imposes his/her own subjectivity into what s/he views.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This has been a very interesting discussion. As a writer, my expression of thoughts and words is pretty much mine alone. At the same time, I believe others are committed to their craft in much the same way . . . whether it is art, music, or written prose.

    Liked by 1 person

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