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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Disturbing Art

This weekend was filled with disturbing art.  The Pacific-McGeorge faculty often gets together to see new “arty” films, and this time around, we saw “The Last King of Scotland,” which takes as its subject the brutal regime of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.  It has powerful performances, and the movie was both intense and thought-provoking.  But it wasn’t a feel-good football flick, that’s for sure.

Saturday afternoon included a visit to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum.  Let me confess.  I’m not an expert on art at all.  But, as a general matter, I like modern art, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Tate Modern when I was in London a couple years ago.  The parts of it I like are those that are quirky, intellectually engaging, whimsical, colorful or surreal.  Although there were moments in the museum where I felt those strands pulling at me, there was also just a lot of disturbing artwork.  A painting that was made of dung.  An idyllic forest scene interrupted by some rotting meat. Since these items/photos were interspersed randomly in the collection, and I didn't know the museum, I couldn't really avoid being disturbed.

And then today, seeing the Irving Norman exhibition at Sacramento’s Crocker Museum, I also had a visceral reaction.  Norman’s work is futuristic, violent, and intensely political all at the same time.  His human figures are disfigured clones.  The people in his work are often in intense pain, and everyone is enslaved to the military-industrial complex.  

What have I learned from this?  I know the point of some art is to "shake you up".  To some degree, I think this is a good thing.  And yet it seems to me that we often expend a good deal of time, effort, and energy not to be disturbed (in so many ways we crave the right to be left alone).  And, if Cass Sunstein’s conception of the “daily me” were a true vision of the future, mine would probably only have one disturbing arty experience per weekend.  I did learn one other thing: the presence of good company eases one’s ability to think through why and how your worldview has been “disturbed” and to put things into perspective.

I haven’t yet decided how I’ll cap off the weekend, but some ideas are re-watching Fargo and Pulp Fiction, thinking about U.S. torture policy, or re-reading the Maus comic books, while listening to last year’s Nine Inch Nails CD.

Posted by Miriam Cherry on October 22, 2006 at 08:11 PM in Culture | Permalink


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Not allergic to bee stings. Else I suspect I wouldn't have been blogging about it! ;)

Posted by: Miriam Cherry | Oct 23, 2006 12:01:54 PM


I trust you're not allergic to bee stings! Back in my college days I worked part-time for an apiarist and lost all fear of bees (although I wouldn't disturb an Africanized colony), indeed, I began to marvel at these tiny creatures. There's nothing quite like fresh honey from a beehive, and when you learn how absolutely critical they are in the pollination of many crops, you appreciate them all the more (that's where the money is for beekeepers). We used to travel out to the desert and spend the night under the stars (first time, in fact, it could be said I truly saw the stars) before rising early to tend the hives. 'All things bright and beautiful...all creatures great and small.' [we've happily deleted the last verse:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly
And ordered their estate.]

One time while transporting a truck load of 'honey boxes' to the 'honey house' (where we processed the honey) several boxes came loose while entering a gas station and a small panic set in amongst everyone in sight as some of the bees started swarming (a tort case in the making). But as it turned out, no one was stung.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 23, 2006 8:46:32 AM

Patrick: That's deep!

I ended the weekend in suitably disturbing fashion - getting stung by a bee in the park. Nature is red in tooth in claw....

Posted by: Miriam Cherry | Oct 23, 2006 1:47:56 AM


[The Tigers leading by 3 in the 7th inning, I'm free to take a moment away from the game.]

This made me think once more of Iris Murdoch's discussion of the views of Plato and Freud on art. Her treatment in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) is not to be missed. As she notes, apart from his genuflection toward art in general, and with good reason, 'Freud finds...many damaging things to say about art. His thesis, variously expressed, is that art is the fantasy life of the artist stimulating the fantasy life of the client, with the factitious "work of art" lying "overlooked" between them as a sort of disguised bribe. Art is a magic which excites the magical propensities of those who enjoy it: a case of what Freud called in Totem and Taboo "the omnipotence of thought," an illusion characteristic of all neurotics. (We may all be supposed to be partly neurotic, or neurotic sometimes.) As he explains elsewhere...we would normally be repelled by the private fantasies of another person, but the artist persuades us to accept his by disguising them cleverly, and by offering us formal and aesthetic pleasures which incite us to release, upon our side, a play of personal fantasy normally inhibited.' In this case, clearly, there is not even the pretense of a 'clever disguise,' and as a consequence, we are readily and rightly repulsed. As Murdoch proceeds to explain, 'It begins to look as if, where the art object is a mechanical stimilus to personal fantasy, pornography is the end point. All art aspires to the condition of pornography? It may be true that more does than meets the eye.'

In the Freudian critique, art's license lends itself to this sort of pornographic production. Again, Murdoch: 'Art (on such a view of it) is not the imaginative creation of unified public objects or limited wholes for edifying contemplation, with mystical analogies; it is the egotistically motivated production of maimed pseudo-objects which are licenses for the private concluding processes of personal fantasy.' Freud knew his Plato (a fact often forgotten), and Murdoch ably and succinctly describes the Platonic attitude toward art: 'Plato is a great artist attacking what he sees as bad and dangerous in art. His writings are apt today. Popular literature and film argue the dullness of the good, the charm of the bad. [....] However, if it is to enlighten us, Plato's attack on art must be seen in the context of his whole moral philosophy. Life is a spiritual pilgrimage inspired by the disturbing magnetism of truth, involving ipso facto a purification of energy and desire in the light of a vision of what is good. The good and just life is thus a process of clarification, a movement toward selfless lucidity, guided by ideas of perfection which are objects of love. Platonic morality is not coldly intellectual, it involves the whole man and attaches value to the most "concrete" of everyday preoccupations and acts. It concerns the continuous detail of human activity, wherein we discriminate between appearance and reality, good and bad, true and false, and check or strengthen our desires.'

Lest I be labeled a 'moralizer' (a tag I could live with), permit me to concur with Anne Sheppard's conclusion that 'the effect of works of art on values and attitudes is often subtle, indirect, and only appreciated with hindsight.' Nonetheless, and with Murdoch, she does 'not deny that art has some part to play in inculcating values and attitudes, for it can influence the terms in which we see life.' This is a recognition of the important fact that 'art does have a certain moral value.' All the same, 'It is no use pretending that art can change the world directly or can automatically transform our characters. Art can have a moral influence by giving us imaginative insight into other people and by inculcating values and attitudes, often in subtle and indirect ways. Just because the effect of art on our values and attitudes is subtle and indirect it is easy not to be aware of it. We can become aware of it if we study works of art with some care and if we reflect on our aesthetic experience.'

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 22, 2006 10:37:38 PM

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