Ron Mueck’s show, recently on view in Melbourne is shortly to open in Brisbane. A recent advertisement prompted a revisit to some earlier unresolved thoughts.
Christopher Allen commenting in The Australian on the Ron Mueck exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, said of the show it was: ‘…..a collaboration in the insatiable voyeurism and visual bulimia of contemporary consumerism.’
This comment gave me pause, because it seemed to suggest a compact between artist and viewer, the one seeking titillation, the other creating works to feed off that desire, always with the collaboration of the curator who seeks to ramp up his door take. This is unfair to the gallery goer. It is also unfair to Mueck, whose oversize representations of the, mostly, human condition are surely not directed at the voyeur. They are in a sense, just modern representations of a nude genre dating back, as Sir Kenneth Clarke put it, “to the art form invented by Greeks in the fifth century BC”. Clarke went on to say that “the nude is not the subject of art but a form of art. Of course Clarke was of the view that “ no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling”. But surely even this does not turn us into voyeurs.
Some observation of the people passing through the Melbourne exhibition also lets Mueck off the hook. There was a high proportion of women (voyeurism being preponderantly a male thing). The works more often than not raised smiles on the faces of the viewers. These were not smiles of arousal or gratification. They were surely smiles of recognition, of understanding and of appreciation. Strangely, smiles are not generally the stuff of art appreciation (although I can’t, for the life of me, think why not). You rarely see people smiling at works in the Old Masters galleries or Impressionist shows.
Worryingly, John Macdonald, in a recent review of a Sydney show, also points to ‘our insatiable appetite for obscenity and moral debasement’. Years earlier Robert Hughes, in a critique of a show in the USA referred to Courbet’s “Sleep”: ‘two life-size lesbians entwined on a bed…that he did, on commission, for a lustful Turkish diplomat’ and goes on to express the view that at some levels it is impossible to distinguish between pornography and art. Perhaps the artist as voyeur is the real starting point. The status can then be transferred to the observer depending on how far that appetite for obscenity and debasement has progressed. But surely that puts the hapless viewer in an invidious position. The viewer attends for enlightenment, enjoyment, intellectual stimulation. Surely the prime purpose of a visit to a gallery is not voyeurism.
The critical attitude expressed by Allen and McDonald could be counterproductive. It provides the guardians of our morality with reason to act in our supposed defence. But if the pact is between say, the likes of Bill Henson and his subjects, this needs to be dealt with, if indeed it must, at that level. The gallery visitors should be left to work out on their own what responses are appropriate.
Critic Judith Flanders wrote in the Guardian newspaper last October of her disquiet, observing the Tate Modern, London’s “Pop Art” show. Big name artists were represented. In response she, when faced with the likes of a life sized sculpture of Jeff Koons having sex with an Italian porn star and other confronting images, is moved to say: ‘Was I viewer or voyeur. The graphic scenes of sex and nudity….. made me uncomfortably aware of the act of looking….’. Making the point that she had many years of viewing and critiquing nudes, rapes and violence of all sorts, ancient and modern, she still felt unprepared for the shift that made the hardened critics at the press viewing uncomfortable, and conscious that they had become the focus of attention, rather than the art. Unwilling voyeurs perhaps. Interestingly Tate Modern had had its equivalent of our Bill Henson controversy. It seems an early photographic image of a ten year old Brooke Shields had been removed from the exhibition, not because of viewer complaint but because the police obscene publications unit did not want it to ‘cause any offence to [Tait Modern’s] visitors’.
So if the critics feel uncomfortable, does this make the rest of us voyeurs? I suggest not. The compact, if there is one, is surely between the artist and the subject. The viewer may be drawn in, but we do not attend with that initial purpose. Even if the artist intends otherwise, (and Mueck surely does not) I suspect most viewers will seek out the art and not succumb to the ‘visual bulimia of contemporary consumerism’.