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Re : Ethics in Art and Debate
- To: BOOK_ARTS-L@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Subject: Re : Ethics in Art and Debate
- From: Thomas Larque <thomas_larque@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Mon, 20 Apr 1998 00:27:00 +0100
- Message-id: <199804192326.QAA11888@SUL-Server-2.Stanford.edu>
- Sender: "Book_Arts-L: On the web at http://www.dreamscape.com/pdverhey" <BOOK_ARTS-L@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Moving the discussion of Ethics in Art onto new ground. After his recent
postings, I went and took a look at Richard Minsky's homepage - which I
enjoyed very much.
Among the books which were "controversial" in one way or another I found
that the ones which most intrigued, affected and interested me were *not*
the ones which were simply shocking. The rat and goat skin book with safety
pins, or the book about "missile envy" with Reagan and Gobachev wearing
phalic missiles in their trousers caught my attention and amused me, but did
not really make me stop and think.
The ones which did exactly that were usually subtler, or more difficult to
interpret. A book about Islamic terrorism bound and decorated with the
beautiful designs of the traditional Koran binding gave a jolt, contrasting
the violence of the subject with the beauty and great humanity of the
ancient civilisation which lies behind Islamic Culture. A civilisation
which once, rightly, considered our ancestors to be barbarians - but which
now has barbaric elements of its own. I, for one, know too little about the
beautiful and civilised side of modern Islamic society. And this book
brought that home to me.
A similar - and stronger - effect came from Richard's "Reliquary for the
Ashes of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses". Again a beautiful art object,
inspired by centuries of Islamic civilisation and culture, intended -
supposedly - for a very ugly purpose. The burning of books. It set off the
same considerations and conflicts. Was this art object genuinely intended
for the destruction of books? Probably not. Would a purchaser use it to
destroy the book it contained? Probably not. But it left an element of
doubt. The subtitle of the work "The First Amendment" (the right to Free
Speech, presumably? - I'm English, so I don't have the American
constitution off by heart) seemed to support the first view, but then could
book burning - as long as it is not accompanied by any additional violence
- also be considered a form of Free Speech?
The object left me a little confused, and thinking very hard. Presumably
exactly what Richard wanted it to do.
The last item to catch my eye was a collection of books presenting
conflicting views of the Militia-movement in America. Richard placed these
books in a gun-cabinet, together with a rifle and a more than a thousand
rounds of ammunition. The covers of the books were shot through, by Richard
This time I am fairly certain (although not absolutely sure) that Richard's
view of this item is likely to be very different to mine. Since he *could*
take them to a rifle range and shoot through them, he presumably owns and
uses guns. Personally I oppose the civilian ownership of any firearms - but
then I come from a very different culture (British Policemen are still armed
principally with sticks, and have to send for special armed response units
if there is gunplay).
I could not be sure of Richard's own attitude towards guns or the American
Militias (both of which I view with extreme suspicion), but it didn't really
matter. I read the object according to my own views ... the danger and
uncontrolled nature of the Militia movement, represented by the all too
available gun, the overkill of the huge quantities of ammunition, the
leisurely destruction of knowledge (gun-shots through the book-covers) and
the use of violence to respond to rational criticism (ditto). A Militiaman
or a hobby shooter (who may be quite used to having cases with guns in the
home) might view it in a very different way.
So I would be very interested to hear Richard talk a little more about what
he actually thought about when he was making these objects, and whether he
was hoping to draw the responses that he got from me - or otherwise what he
did intend? I would also be interested to hear about the reception of these
objects when he originally displayed and sold them. I would also - of
courese - be interested to hear the reactions of other people on this list
to Richard's work.
Generally my personal response to these works reinforces my opinion that the
most effective "shock tactics", from my point of view, are not those which
completely agree with my current opinions, or those which totally reject
them, but those which fall in the weak spots where I have not fully
developed my own opinions, or when I cannot entirely decide whether the
artwork supports or assaults my own views.
Do other people respond to artwork in the same way?