The politics of art: Sam Mahon defends his defecating Nick Smith sculpture
Good art should provoke rather than placate writes activist artist SAM MAHON.
OPINION: "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
This quote is often, possibly incorrectly, attributed to Voltaire. But certainly he deserves the credit given his unstinting defence of the freedom of speech and his unrelenting assault by wit on the buffoonery of the French aristocracy.
Environment canterbury (Ecan) is neither French nor a buffoon, but there is something about their attempt to constrain my recent act of political satire that would have enlivened Voltaire's sense of humour.
Marcel Duchamp argues that while an artist initiates a creative act, it is completed by the interpretation and reactions of the spectator. By this reasoning you could say that my presentation to Ecan of an image of the environment minister defecating into a glass of drinking water was half the artwork.
It was completed when Ecan attempted to intercede by way of a court injunction running to 130 pages amounting to an estimated legal expense of around $30,000.
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Perhaps if the CEO, Bill Bayfield, had visited precedent he would have discovered an event in 1998 where English artist Tania Kovat exhibited her infamous Madonna in a condom at the newly opened Te Papa. The sculpture divided Wellington for a turbulent six weeks.
Apart from demonstrations in the street and various punch-ups, protest group Catholic Action petitioned the Pope to sack New Zealand's ten bishops and demanded that Cultural Affairs minister Simon Upton sack Te Papa's senior staff.
It should also be noted that a court injunction against the art work was also called for. It was denied.
The Smith injunction was arranged with extraordinary urgency. Possibly the judge had read German philosopher Theodor Adorno's comment that behind every work of art lies an uncommitted crime and felt she should move fast.
In the event no one asked for my point of view. Now that the moment has passed, for the sake of clarity, if not comedic relief, let us take a closer look at the arguments:
1. To Ngāi Tahu's complaint that my sculpture simulated a defecation on ground that had been blessed, I would say that while most first nations regard their rivers as sacred, Ngāi Tahu are as complicit as all other intensive agriculturists in our region in the degradation of our waterways, and the ordure that flows across and beneath the plains is certainly no simulation.
2. As to the sculpture contravening the Electoral Act one needs only to cast back to the Planet Key video that was blocked by the Electoral Commission in August 2014. The Court of Appeal, citing the right to freedom of expression, had the finding overturned.
3. It was also proposed that the sculpture was indecent, contravening section 124 of the Crimes Act. Yet just down the road from Ecan, Llew Summers' marvellous male nude has been, with elan, displaying its genitals to the public for two years. No complaint has been forwarded to the sculptor by the CEO of Ecan or any representative of either LINZ or Ngāi Tahu.
Furthermore, if any of the signatories of the affidavits were to wander through Vatican Square they would find themselves surrounded by all manner of sculpted genitalia. The Pope, God's earthly defender of propriety, appears unbothered by this apparent mass indecency and recent evidence suggests that various of his cardinals find them simply delightful.
The principal argument against section 124 is to prove that the work serves a public good. Well, what a wonderful time in court we would have had; half the country standing witness for the prosecution and the other for the defence.
4. Lastly, the idea that the descendants of Peter Scoular, after whom the reserve in front of Ecan is named, would be offended is immaterial. It is to say that if you held a comedy festival in Victoria Park you might offend Queen Elizabeth based on the fact that her great-greatgrandmother was not amused.
And should we ban The origin of the species from being read in Latimer Square? Should the front gardens of Wordsworth St bear nothing but hosts of golden daffodils? This game is almost endless and as frivolous, I would suggest, as the application that supports it.
But there is a separate and more general question here of whether the sculpture is a work of art.
Well, let me offer you the view of Belarusian artist and activist Ales Pushkin: "There are two types of art; official and unofficial. It's not a question of 'this is good art and that is bad art,' it's a question of complicity and conformism."
When I survey the public art of Christchurch, for the most part it conforms; it is very hard to find anything controversial. But then the majority of it is sponsored and curated from the living rooms of Fendalton for the sole purpose of decorating an otherwise bland city in a wall paper of their choosing. Even Michael Parekowhai's elegant bull and grand piano is, for me, beautiful but utterly devoid of meaning.
On the other side of the world, however, a little bronze girl suddenly appears on Wall Street face to face with the famous lowering bull of the free market. She comes without pomp, she comes without permission or the jazz of self-promotion, and yet she speaks eloquently for the disenfranchised of America. Now that, I suggest, is art, and it is art at its most articulate.
What amuses me most about this entire, brief performance is the fact that the court order was arranged in the blink of an eye. Yet in the seven years since Smith gifted Ecan to the dairy industry I cannot remember that institution acting with similar alacrity to constrain a farmer, or serve an injunction to prevent him, in effect, doing exactly what the sculpture seeks to portray.