Thursday, July 31, 2008

Grass greener but more blurry

Patch of Grass by Pants

I expected resettlement issues when I returned to live in Australia. I also anticipated that, after a period of hysteria, I would calm down and remember that it can’t be that difficult to work out how to open a bank account and get a new driver’s licence. My projections were wildly optimistic as it happens. However, one must find ways of turning mental collapse into art as it has no other practical application as far as I’m aware.

Above, my homage to Vincent Van Gogh which I will call Patch of Grass in his honour. Reading one’s beloved Guardian online is not ideal as I prefer to curl up in bed with it and an accompaniment of crumpets and honey. The laptop does not lend itself to this level of advanced cosiness. So much did I crave a Guardian perspective that I suspended disbelief for long enough to manage the horrific out-of-bed experience of the farm’s vile Macthing. I had made my own picture some weeks ago so I was delighted to find I had been channelling the great master.

A few posts ago I wrote about the row over photographer Bill Henson’s nude child photos. This rumbles incongruously on despite new things to say on the subject having been exhausted within hours of the story … er… developing. Last weekend’s Australian carried an op-ed piece by Deborah Hope on the arts and purpose, tediously rehashing John Carey’s 2005 anti-Kant rant What Good are the Arts? The book challenges the concept that works of art have the ability to connect with us cerebrally, producing a benefit to the individual and, by extension, humanity. My copy is in a crate somewhere in the industrial wastelands of outer Melbourne so I’m unable to refer to it but I seem to remember that the main target for Carey’s ire is a perceived ‘elite’ whom he fancies conspire to enchant us with the notion that it's possible to draw joy from an object which does not innately contain it. So, love of the arts is a societal construct and appreciation of them a learned response? Who knew! I remember having quite a chuckle about that great exposé at the time. The revelation didn’t stop me from retreating to a room full of Rothkos when my angst with the world bordered on unmanageable. Funny that.

Carey hilariously attacks Jeanette Winterson as one of these wicked elite who bogusly assign inappropriate magical qualities to works of art and Hope takes a swipe at her here for the speech she gave at the opening of the Sydney Writer’s Festival recently. Winterson famously had what she describes as a ‘crummy’ childhood bare of books and other earthly pleasures. She was derided as ‘a social experiment’ when she went to Oxford as a student who excelled her way out of the grimy north. Oxford is the university at which Carey is very much part of the establishment incidentally. It’s difficult to take claims that a love of the arts mutually excludes ordinary folk seriously when you’ve lived in the same city as the Tate Modern, consistently among the most popular attractions in Britain. Admittedly it’s free, awash with comfy sofas and it’s also quite easy to lose children in a Turbine Hall installation for a couple of hours while one nips into one of the chi-chi bars for a resuscitative Sauvignon Blanc. These could be contributory factors.

Despite the entreaties of academics and journalists to convince me otherwise I am sticking with the arts as my soma for the soul of choice. Sometimes the thought of Max Ernst's Celebes is the only thing that stands between me and insanity. I do find it amusing that neo-Calvinists frequently demand mainstream education make itself more inclusive by devoting itself to real-life skills like writing CVs and changing nappies at the expense of the arts. I rather like the idea that the arts could one day find their way by default into the realm of guilty pleasures. I can just imagine kids skiving off Parenting 101 to catch a matinee of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Closer to home, there are some artistic triumphs to report. Pants family member Andy Young, hugely talented jazz composer and guitarist has been nominated for an Aria Award (Australian Music Industry Awards – like a Grammy or a Brit), for Best Jazz Album for his CD Downside Up. It goes without saying that you must immediately go on-line and buy it. My old friend Katy Evans-Bush has a book of her brilliant poems out called Me and the Dead. How can you not buy a book containing a poem called As the Sun Sends the Sequins on my Handbag Scattering. Waste no time, go. While you’re about it, check out my blog pal Nasim Marie Jafry’s novel The State of Me. Your credit card never had it so good.

Finally, another little tit-bit from one’s adored and much missed Guardian. Music consumers are protesting that printed song lyrics are frequently omitted from CD packages. It’s important, apparently, to know what’s being said ... er… I guess that’s why they call it song. At the risk of descending further into fogeydom, not to mention articulating the painfully obvious, is it too much to ask singers to master the art of annunciation? I would point out that John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten could manage to make his meaning clearly understood. In fact, he even rolled his ‘Rs’ as I recall. Standards have certainly plummeted since the golden days of Never Mind the Bollocks...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Koala-la Land

Last weekend Ms O’Dyne drove Barney and me down The Great Ocean Road. I must tell you now that this is something of a misnomer. It really should be called The Tiny Treacherous Crumbling Precipice, but I don’t suppose that has quite the allure for tourists. Ms O’Dyne trained at the white knuckle school of motoring and can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch the road when there is so much magnificent scenery to look at instead. Not a great combination if coming home in one piece is important to you. The anecdote about a woman who ran off the road on her way to a Body, Mind and Spirit festival didn’t help either. While they were winching her miraculously living self to safety, the rescuers came across another vehicle containing a woman who had been dead for three weeks. No one even knew she was missing. Barney went straight to his i-Phone, logged on to BetFair and placed his entire life savings on Pascal to win.

We fetched up in Apollo Bay. Apollo wasn’t there – called to Melbourne for some kind of oracular emergency apparently. Zeus was on the rampage as the entire town, comprising four estate agents and a lamington bakery, was being battered by a Hellenic hurricane. I have crossed it off my list of possible sites for the relocated House of Pants. Barney took some talking around as the lamingtons were admittedly to die for. ‘On that road,’ I told him, ‘that might quite literally be true.’

Mercifully, on the journey back to the farm, we were mostly accompanied by a reassuring land mass on our side. I was dreaming of a large, medicinal gin and tonic as Barney screamed, ‘stop the car! Isn’t that Dr Phil?’ I will have to stop letting him watch daytime television. It is doing nothing whatever for his relationship with reality. However, there did seem to be a bear-like creature by the side of the road gnawing away at the root of .. er... a large tree rather than a pointless and irritating family dilemma which is much more Dr Phil’s usual fare. We alighted, with a sense of relief in my case, even an uncharacteristic joie de vivre, to find that the root-eating creature was, in fact a koala. Barney was delighted. I told him ‘it’s like a man – it eats, roots and leaves.’ He responded with a typically owly-cat-brained shrug. I don’t know why I bother.

We approached the koala with due caution and I produced the Kodak, thinking that Barney would be satisfied with a souvenir photograph but he insisted we offer the poor chap asylum or at the very least a nip of vodka, a smoked salmon sandwich and a bed for the night. He has much to learn about etiquette in the wild. It was apparent Barney felt a certain kinship with this koala. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘that stomach is just crying out to have a zipper down the middle.’ (Regular readers will remember that in order to overcome certain bureaucratic obstacles with regard to Barney’s immigration status, I had him fitted with a zipper so he could be classified as an interactive Bagpuss. I still dream about the peace I might this minute be enjoying if I’d let him languish in quarantine.)

Predictably, Barney and his friend, who I think may be on drugs – I haven’t seen anyone that stoned since Robert Downey Jnr dropped by to borrow a cup of crystal meth – have gone somewhat feral since our return to the farm. Two bottles of vodka are missing from the freezer and the loggers who are thoughtfully felling trees next door complained that their smoked salmon sandwiches are regularly disappearing. They’re fairly certain it’s Barney and his new mate as abusive notes are being left in place of their elevensees. The notes say things like, hands off our homes and fuck off Ikea – just leave the meatballs. As we agreed, the culprit appears to have few brains and fewer taste buds and that does sound an awful lot like Barney. You can’t protect them for ever. They’re going to make their own mistakes and Barney is, if anything, over-blessed in that department. I would ask that if you happen to be passing your freezer, would you mind awfully just having a look inside and making sure your vodka is still in there. If not, please accept my profuse apologies for half of the damages. Please consult the Australian Wildlife Service for the remainder. Much obliged.

When we first arrived in Victoria, Barney gazed out over the thick, black skies as we chugged along the Western Freeway, breathed in the marvellous industrial air and wheezed alarmingly for some considerable time. After I dosed him up on Ventolin, he recovered well enough to enjoy the thrill of endless juggernauts queuing up to force us off the road which he remarked romantically put him in mind of the movie Duel. He sighed as he noted that each and every one of these monstrous death trains carried a little number plate bearing the legend Victoria – the place to be. ‘Pants,’ he said, ‘we’ve come home at last.’ You had to be there really…

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Naked Crunch

The Water Babies - Charles Kingsley

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.

William Wordsworth

For interminable weeks Australia has been seized by the dilemma of whether or not it is acceptable to photograph naked children for the purposes of high art. The only respite for the socially conscious media watcher is to be briefly drawn into fretting about the likelihood that the world will run out of food, water and petrol before it runs out of air. So much for fruitful contemplation. I now feel compelled to contribute to this ‘debate’, and I use the term loosely as the arguments for and against so far put forward make me suspect both sides have assembled think tanks composed entirely of ornamental budgies to formulate their theses. Anyone would think this was a hard question.

A little background for those living in blissful ignorance beyond these shores. Last month an exhibition opened in Sydney of the work of renowned (here at least) photographer Bill Henson. Some, but not all, of the pieces are nude photographs of children under sixteen. These are interspersed with landscapes - a critical factor in the semantics that followed. Crucially, a photograph of a naked thirteen-year-old girl was used on the invitation and poster, rendering it the predominant image of the exhibition, not to mention drawing notoriety to the show. New South Wales police, in an ill-advised and ham-fisted raid, impounded the works, declaring they were ‘pornography’. Authorities duly judged that they were nothing of the kind and the exhibition proceeded. Since then a media battle has raged drawing in no lesser luminaries than the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (a practising Christian) in defence of the rights of children to be heard and not seen and gob-for-hire Cate Blanchett (a practising tosser) in defence of really famous people being allowed to do what they like. With the cream of the intelligentsia on the case, you’d be forgiven for thinking that at least some thought-spiking statements might result. Unfortunately not.

Those against the photos being exhibited couldn’t overcome their disgust for long enough to form a sentence. A spokesperson for some family-focused lobby group, a woman with the highly lampoonable name of Hetty (Het-up-Hetty leaps to mind), popped up every five minutes blathering about some ‘process’ that ought to be ‘gone through’ and the Prime Minister pulled yuck faces. Not what you’d call decisive action in defence of child protection. The libertine pro view is naturally premised on the right to free expression and the perceived threat to it by the imposition of censorship. Most sections of the media supported this view being, theoretically at least, in the freedom of expression business. There seemed to be a great deal of collusion in the orchestrated response between self-interested parties which suggests that everyone involved at least had some awareness that the situation was sensitive enough to require skillful management. Women artists who had photographed their own little girls naked were recruited to face down the challenge to responsible parenting and to prevent the rather uncomfortable picture of a sleazy looking, middle-aged bloke standing in front of a naked thirteen-year-old for hours on end instructing her to smile and place her limbs in certain configurations forming too fixed an image in the nation’s collective psyche.

In the latest salvo, a photograph of a naked girl aged six, taken by her artist mother, has appeared on the cover of Art Monthly, a partly government funded magazine. A cock-snooking act if ever there was one, and one that is as petulant as it is manipulative. Defiantly, the girl who is now eleven, appeared on the doorstep with her art critic father this week. He wore a clownish shirt and comic bow-tie – presumably to underscore the Bohemian and anti-corporate credentials of the family. Both were anxious that the public understand the little girl had given her ‘consent’ at the time and stands by that consent now. There is a huge question mark in my mind over how far a girl of six or eleven or even thirteen might feel at liberty to make objective choices in the face of the stated desires of parents whom she is anxious to please. I’m guessing little girls don’t normally skip into the family living room squealing, ‘I wanna be papped in the buff, Mum.’

Journalist David Marr who is usually sensible, came out with the fundamentally flawed justification that there is a tradition in art of depicting naked children that must be preserved. Sure there is. Naked children symbolise innocence. But the exploitation of that nakedness surely epitomises the converse – theft of innocence, or at the very least appropriation of it. David Marr might also like to consider that we no longer send children up chimneys and down mines with the canaries. When he talked about the history of child nakedness in art, he was drawing on a tradition that exists mostly in painting, drawing and sculpture. It’s true that a child’s identity might be revealed in any of these media. The distinction is that a photograph, by its nature, depicts a real event, i.e. that a real child stood naked in front of an adult at his or her bidding. A sculpture, painting or drawing can be reproduced from memory and is not actual proof that a real child ever performed this function. This is why men don’t wank all over The Water Babies. When police stormed the Bill Henson exhibition with a view to prosecution under arcane and complex pornography laws, they were on the wrong track. In any case, pornography laws vary from state to state. The pertinent issue is whether or not society undertakes to use the law to protect the privacy of children, not whether or not an image of a single child naked can be considered pornographic. Of course it can’t. But it is exploitation and, in the present climate of paranoia over child safety, a complete anomaly.

Even so, the main focus of child protection activity in the current social climate where no one appears to believe it’s a bad thing to commodify and fetishise children’s bodies for commercial gain, is on safeguarding the privacy of individual children and inhibiting the abilities of those who might exploit them to access their personal details – and this should include what they look like under their clothes. This is where it all gets a bit murky. Passionate art experts have lined up to explain to us plebs that it’s all a question of ‘context’. Okay, I’ll play. Apparently, if you intersperse nude photographs of children with sultry sunsets and moody trees, they become .. er.. something entirely different. As of today’s date, no one has come forward to amplify what it is exactly they do become. It's important to maintain an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.

As many of you know, Pants doesn’t normally have much patience with rules that are difficult to follow by virtue of being encumbered with lots of unqualifiable exceptions. The art world appears to be suggesting it’s okay for some people to take photos of naked children but not others. So what I’m hearing is that a prominent artist who happens to be a middle-aged bloke apparently operates with an entirely different set of motivations and values than any other man with a camera and access to naked children. Well, he might do. Who’s to say? Also, it’s apparently okay for some people in some places to view photographs of naked children and not others. That context argument again. It’s okay if it’s in an art gallery because paedophiles do not go to art galleries. Art historian Betty Churcher also helpfully explains that paedophiles don’t buy Art Monthly. Presumably she has ways of knowing this for certain. She might try phoning around some public libraries to see how many of their copies have been found in the men’s toilets with sticky pages. You think I’m kidding? Ask a librarian.

Consider the irony of parents freaking out if their children get so much as a suspicious SMS message and then blithely strolling through a gallery viewing photos of girls the same age or younger than their own children in the altogether. These might be the same parents who wouldn’t let their daughters have slutty Bratz dolls. I’m not pro-censorship but I question the frankly patrician assertion that a right exists for adults to view naked images of real, individual children. And you know I'm not in favour of extending further privileges to the already over-priveleged. It is the duty of art to challenge convention but this does not entitle artists to claim liberties that potentially threaten the liberties of others.

In this freakishly self-conscious age can anyone anticipate how the children whose images are appearing today for adult consumption, no matter what the context, might feel about it in a few years time? What if one of these girls decides she wants a public life in the future? Is it worth the risk to her self-image when there are a million other ways to symbolically represent innocence in art? How can we sanction exposure of some children's bodies to potentially a world audience on their behalf on the one hand and pixellate the faces of fully clothed others on the pretext of preserving their privacy? And, given that in most other situations, children are over-protected to the point of stifling their freedom of movement, why make this absurdly unnecessary exception for no other reason than to appease a powerful artistic lobby just because they happen to be banging the freedom of expression drum very loudly? 

In a bizarre television discussion on the public broadcaster SBS recently, remarkable for its singular inability to find anyone with anything vaguely succinct to say on the matter, a still unnamed adult woman, who’d been photographed naked as a child appeared. Her mother was asked why the family had chosen to suppress her name even now and she said they didn’t want ‘creeps’ finding out who she was. This betrayed an awareness that the images were likely to have salacious appeal to at least some. My question is how does one separate the creeps from the dotes? Instead of working ourselves into a lather trying to anticipate the predilections of paedophiles or even plain old garden variety 'creeps' why not just leave them kids alone?

There are an awful lot of questions here. Please feel free to address any or all of them. I honestly would like to have a decent exchange on this.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Is My Hem Straight?

Pants in Room 511 Hotel Ambos Mundos, Havana, Cuba

It's the tagging season again. I quite often ignore or foil attempts to tag me, partly because I carry the scars of a childhood spent being disastrously slow, but mostly because I'm just a crabby old set of discoloured Y-fronts. Now that I'm an adult (in a manner of speaking), I wield such power as I'm able to muster over my own blog to sniff at these Memes as I see fit. 

Having said all that, I have been cordially invited by my dear friend and benefactor Ms O'Dyne, to rise to a challenge once set for no lesser a literary lion than Ernest Hemingway to construct a story in six words. The honourable Hem solved the problem with indelible elegance thus,

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Before unveiling my far from comparable solution to the problem, I would like to indulge myself at your obvious expense, in a little reminiscence. Since it's also conveniently Wednesday, I offer this up as an EDW : Elegantly Dressed Words, and apologise for my outrageously unbotilicious attire, for it is indeed Pants pictured above, hovering over the great Hem's little typing contraption in room 511 at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, Cuba.

I stayed there in 2005 in Room 502, on the very floor on which literature's greatest economist resided for a number of years. I had completed the first draft of my novel The Full English when I went to Cuba with three of my lovely cousins. We couldn't believe our luck when the Ambos Mundos came up as a package option. It is a beautiful hotel and elegant in the most basic sense. It's spare and ordinary, but rather lavishly so. In fact, it was so similar to the little hotel that the Pants family ran on the Costa del Sol, which had inspired the one in The Full English, that I decided then and there that I'd give Papa a much bigger part and also that I'd name the hotel in the book Ambos Mundos.

The Full English already had two bullfighting scenes sketched into it. Not everyone who lives on the Costa del Sol ends up on intimate terms with bullfighters. Such is the luck of the Pants family. Although seemingly unable to turn around without falling over a bullfighter or two, I couldn't ever accept an invitation to attend a corrida. I reread Death in the Afternoon, a book I will admit I'd not understood until after I'd lived in Spain. Hemingway wrote about the great age of bullfighting and eighty years later, there is no one who matches Joselito or Juan Belmonde in reputation. When I wrote the bullfight scenes in The Full English, I drew some from the bragging of the matadors who stayed at our hotel and drank at the bullfighters bar next door, some from watching the corrida on television, and some from Death in the Afternoon. I was the wimp that couldn't go there but I can go here, so this my answer to the question can you write a short story in six words:

'Honey, should that mountain be there?'

I'm tagging the following bloggers because I know they'll love me for wasting their precious writing time. 

Photo by OZMICRO