Thursday, February 26, 2015
Friday, February 20, 2015
Exhibitionism: a quick guide for the offended
The shirt, which was produced to promote the heavy metal band Cradle of Filth and shows a nun masturbating as well as the slogan JESUS IS A CUNT, was banned from New Zealand in 2008. Canterbury museum's curators got special permission to show it - in a secluded, adults-only room - as part of an exhibition called T Shirts Unfolding. The museum wants its visitors to think about the limits to freedom of speech, and about the functions of censorship. The YMCA and co argue that the T shirt is offensive, and that museums should not display offensive objects.
I've been wondering when the organisers of the campaign against the T shirt will turn their attention to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. On its second floor, in a room dedicated to the Second World War, Auckland's museum displays two of the most offensive objects of all time - Hitler's swastika flag, and his demented book Mein Kampf. Both objects help the museum tell the story of World War Two.
But almost every object in a museum is likely to be offensive to someone, if that someone has mistaken exhibition for endorsement. Besides its swastika flag and commie newspaper, the Auckland museum displays artefacts from dozens of religions and relics from a series of wars.
On the museum's ground floor, for instance, masks and drums associated with Papuan religious rites rest a short walk from a massive and austere sculpture of Kave, a goddess from Nuku'oro atoll, a carving of the Madonna and child by an early Maori convert to Catholicism, and a Samoan-language Bible published by a Protestant church. Relics of the religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt advertise their creeds upstairs. In the room of the museum devoted to the New Zealand Wars, the Union Jack and the banners of Maori nationalist movements confront each other, as speakers play recordings of bugle calls and haka.
We can only appreciate myriad and contradictory exhibits like these if we accept that a museum is a space where different aspects of and ideas about the past are allowed to manifest themselves, and where visitors, rather than curators, have the responsibility for forming final interpretations.
When I worked at the Auckland museum the institution mounted a major show about Charles Darwin’s life and work. Darwin offended the religious views of some visitors. I remember, as well, the way that some veterans of the Vietnam War were offended by the museum’s coverage of that conflict. Those vets didn’t like the museum mentioning that the war had created considerable public debate and protest in New Zealand.
They may have been offended, and their views may have been shared by hundreds or thousands of other Aucklanders, but neither the religious folks who objected to Darwin nor the Vietnam veterans who objected to references to anti-war protests should have had the right to intervene and alter or shut down the museum’s displays. A museum’s duty is to the truth, and the truth about the past is complex, and polemicists speaking on behalf of a nebulous community have too little patience with complexity.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Public intellectuals, and other enemies of elitism
I am a public intellectual because I do intellectual work that I try to relate to public issues. I research and write about the history of culture and ideas, but I don't want my research to be of merely historical interest. If I study New Zealand's nineteenth century, it's partly because I think that the events of that time, like the attempts of New Zealand to build a Pacific empire and the wars between Pakeha and Maori, are of relevance to the twenty-first century. In the same way, if I write about a great cultural figure of the past like George Orwell, it's because I think that figure has something to tell us today.
What does the role involve?
Saturday, February 14, 2015
John Macmillan Brown's return from exile, and other fantasies
I sent this e mail to Paul Janman recently. I don't think he has time to take on the project, and I don't have the time or the expertise to develop the idea myself. I thought I'd post my e mail to Paul here, though, in case it finds a reader who is equipped with the time, expertise, and enthusiasm to retrieve John Macmillan Brown's vast and strange novels from exile in the library of obscurity...]
John Macmillan Brown was educationalist, an explicator of Shakespeare, and a scholar - a sometimes wayward scholar, it must be said - of the Pacific, who is perhaps best remembered today for being the grandfather of James K Baxter. In the first years of the twentieth century Brown published, under the pseudonym of Godfrey Sweven, two massive novels - Riallaro, the archipelago of exiles, and Limanora, the island of progress - that were intended as satires on religion and superstition and as arguments for atheism, rationalism, and science.
Influenced by Gulliver's Travels and - perhaps - by HG Wells, Brown sends the narrator of his books on a journey to an obscure region of the Pacific, where a series of bizarre societies have evolved on a series of almost perfectly isolated islands. Some of these societies are rustic and fierce; others are highly enlightened, and fitted out with supermodern technology. Readers are invited to draw conclusions about the connection between material progress and rationalism.
But the images which Brown cumbersomely assembles are often original and strange. Arguably, they express subconscious obsessions and urges that are at odds with the author's rather sterile rationalism.
Let me offer an example. In a city that Brown's narrator visits, old-fashioned religion has been replaced by a sort of theatre, in which humans can watch film-like projections that give them the same ecstatic feeling that the worship of gods might once have provided. Brown's strange theater seems to me to express a longing for religious rapture, as much as a freedom from it.
Brown's books can be seen as pioneering works of science fiction, and they also look forward to some of the work of the surrealists. It is extraordinary that a New Zealander could produce such material a century ago.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]
Sunday, February 08, 2015
Two shots from Huntly
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Expensive Movements - and expensive photographs
Thursday, January 29, 2015
From Rushdie to Catton
Like Plunkett, Farrar thinks that Catton ought not to have brought her politics to Jaipur:
We don’t tend to mind criticism at home, but we do get worked up, when people knock their country overseas...Your choice of forum to talk politics is perhaps not the best. A campaign launch is an excellent choice to talk politics. A global literary festival seems rather inappropriate for you to rage against the so called neo-liberal agenda in New Zealand...
If an All Black in 2008 had got up at an international test match and devoted his after match comments to how much he hated the nanny state policies of the then Labour Government, well they would have been criticised greatly also.
Catton became widely known in New Zealand when her novel The Luminaries was awarded the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is perhaps the most famous of all the novels to win the Booker, and there’s an interesting similarity between the responses that the young Rushdie got in the aftermath of his victory in 1981 and the criticism that Catton is copping now.
Midnight’s Children led readers through the modern history of India, and as soon as it took out the Booker Prize Rushdie was being asked for his opinion about the political situation of his homeland. Then as now, Rushdie was not afraid of offering opinions. In an impromptu speech at the dinner where the Booker was awarded, he mocked the Congress Party regime of Indira Gandhi and suggested that she and her diplomatic representatives in London should not try to associate themselves with his success.
Long before he upset Islamic fundamentalists with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had become a hate figure for the Congress Party and the Indian political establishment. Like Catton, he was condemned as a traitor, because he criticised his country's government in front of foreign audiences.
But Rushdie kept expressing his opinions, whenever he turned up to a book festival or gave an interview, for the same reason that Catton will surely keep expressing her opinions. Despite what Farrar implicitly claims, literature is not some some sort of harmless and meaningless game, like rugby or chess or marbles, that can be pursued and discussed in isolation from the rest of the world. Ever since Aristophanes attacked the political establishment of Athens and Petronious satirised Rome’s ruling class, literature has been a place where the world is examined and judged, and where ideas, including political ideas, contend and quarrel.
Eleanor Catton was invited to the Jaipur festival to discuss the long and ambitious novel she wrote about New Zealand. It is hardly surprising that the festival's organisers and audiences were interested in her opinions about New Zealand society. When he suggests that Catton should have avoided any discussion of her homeland's political and economic situation, and instead offered up some of the cliches and platitudes that dominate speeches at sports awards dinners, David Farrar shows how little he knows about literature and the men and women who produce and read literature.
New Zealand’s writers have long been critical of their society and its various governments. James K Baxter called New Zealand a ‘sick society’, and Auckland a ‘great arsehole'; RAK Mason denounced this country as a ‘far-pitched place’ where poets had a ‘perilous existence'; Frank Sargeson compared his studies of Kiwi life to reports composed for a sewage board. When they scrutinise and criticise their own society, our writers show loyalty to the critical values nurtured thousands of years ago by scribblers like Aristophanes, and their disloyalty to political elites and their shibboleths.
In 2012 Salman Rushdie was forced to cancel an appearance at the Jaipur festival after his Indian enemies once again denounced him, and eventually threatened violence if he were allowed to take the stage. It is sad that the aftermath of this year's festival has seen prominent and powerful New Zealanders aiming denunciations at one of their own writers.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]