'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Saturday, 30 October 2010

I used to think the problem with film critics was that they couldn't seem to enjoy the ordinary stuff that everyone else likes. Presumably they've seen it all before and after a while the same old same old doesn't quite hit the spot. Which is understandable. However, I haven't seen it all before and when I go to the movies I want to have a nice time. I want to check out of my day-to-day frustrations and be amused. I'm after the cheesy feel good flick sense that everything's somehow going to be ok. Can't I just have a fun time at the movies?

I notice now though that where art reviews are concerned I'm going the way of the erstwhile scorned film critic. I begin to get where he's coming from. Once your relationship with something gets to a certain point you start to see it differently. You begin to engage with it rather than letting it wash over you. I'm not saying one scenario is any better than the other. I'm just making the observation that that seems to be what happens.

So, Mark Kermonde, with your ridiculous comedy barnet, I apologise for my glib dismissal of your valiant efforts. And to anyone going to Tate Modern this week-end to enjoy an afternoon of escapism and Great British queuing, I apologise to you also, because part of me feels I'm being a terrible spoil sport about this whole thing. I know we all love Gauguin, I really do. But the problem I've got is that once I began to actually see these paintings it became impossible for me to go back to viewing them in that semi-somnatic numbed out kind of a way. I can't just see what I'm told to see any more.

So, as I heaved my way through the beastly gaggle of Gauguin worshipers last week, vaguely wondering when quite I'd signed up for this kind of horror, I remembered last year Tate Modern being flooded with Scotland Yard over allegations of obscenity. Pop Life was temporarily closed down and the exhibition catalogue withdrawn from sale. Eventually the offending work, Richard Prince's Spiritual America (1983) a found image of a naked ten year old Brooke Shields staring provocatively into the camera, was taken down and the exhibition was re-opened.

It wasn't a decision I agreed with particularly being as it didn't take into account the fundamentally questioning nature of Prince's work. But, be that as it may, if the rule of thumb is no images of sexualised under age girls then I'm spotting a discontinuity here. Whether one's a fan of Gauguin's work or not, the fact is that from 1891 onwards his oeuvre does include, amongst other things, images of sexualised under age girls. And several such images are currently on show at Tate Modern.

OK, so Brooke Shields is a famous American and these were unknown Polynesians. The image of Brooke Shields is photographic; these are in oils. Other than that…

But of course there is a fundamental difference. Richard Prince's work held up a found image, taken a decade earlier by one time Playboy photographer Garry Gross, with the intention of reflecting society back at itself. Prince's idea, I believe, was to show us that element of our societal whole which we don't see because firstly, it's distasteful and we don't want to see it, and secondly, we've become so used to it we aren't any longer really even able to see it without its being intentionally displaced. So in a way the work was validated by its removal. We didn't want to hear what he was telling us about ourselves.

Gauguin, on the other hand, as well as making pretty paintings out of these under-age models, had also slept with most of them. Not to mention given them syphilis so that they, like him, would eventually die a long and painful death. So one could perhaps build a case to suggest that Gauguin's work, on some levels, is actually more morally conflicted than Prince's.

I really hope I don't sound too much of a bleeding heart liberal about this, flying the flag for the put upon underdog and getting all shirty about the exoticised 'primitive' and the objectified female. That would be fairly ungroovy. It would also be ungroovy to measure work made a hundred and twenty years ago by today's politically correct yard stick. Gauguin bashing isn't my intention particularly. I'm just saying it's amazing how often we don't see the very thing we're looking at. And I'm also saying, rather snobbily I suppose, that it's quite funny watching this mass congregation of orthodox Middle England gazing up adoringly at what, in some lights, could be seen as one man's self created porn collection.

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