In a morose
and provocative column for the Guardian,
Suzanne Moore has argued that the recent death of Lou Reed, the revered frontman
and wildman of the Velvet Underground, symbolises the end of avant-garde art.
Moore was one of a generation inspired, in the 1960 and ‘70s, by Reed’s droning,
gorgeous songs about heroin addiction, gender bending, mental illness, and
other subjects considered taboo by postwar Western societies. For Moore, the
Velvet Underground was a link to Dadaism, Surrealism, and the other great
avant-garde art movements of the early twentieth century. Like Tristan Tzara and
the young Picasso before him, Lou Reed rejected the values of the society
around him, and made art which celebrated an alternative set of values.
Moore can find few twenty-first century artists with Lou Reed’s subversive
qualities. Instead of wanting to shock and change the world, today’s artists
are content, she thinks, to entertain the masses and make money. Moore regards the
success of Lady Gaga, who commercialises old Velvet Underground themes like
sexual strangeness and drug use by attaching them to a disco beat and a slick
stage show, as proof that avant-garde art is dead.
Moore’s column prompted more than four hundred comments on the Guardian website. Many readers
complained that Moore had failed to acknowledge the musicians, painters, and
writers who are producing innovative work in the twenty-first century, instead
of following Lady Gaga’s lead and focusing on money-making. Such complaints are
reasonable, but they do not necessarily invalidate Moore’s argument.
there are many twenty-first century artists trying to extend the avant-garde
tradition, their work does not have the impact on our culture that the
paintings of Picasso had in the 1920s and the songs of Lou Reed had in the
1970s. The truth is that, in the Western world, at least, the avant-garde has
lost its ability to shock and excite.
art no longer moves us because art in general no longer occupies a truly
important place in our culture. It is hard, now, to remember the days when
avant-garde artists were courted by politicians – when the Russian
revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky signed a joint manifesto with Andre Breton,
the founder of Surrealism, and the poet Pablo Neruda was invited to run for the
presidency of Chile by one of the country’s largest parties. In the early 1970s,
when Lou Reed was in his decadent prime, the novelist Norman Mailer was running
for the mayoralty of New York City, relying largely on his prestige as a writer
to win votes. Where artists were once considered the critics and consciences of
Western society, they are now treated simply as workers in a sub-branch of the
avant-garde art is not dead everywhere, because not every society has followed
the path of the West by trivialising and depoliticising high culture. If
Suzanne Moore wants to meet some young artists who are following the same sort
of exhilarating and precarious path as Lou Reed, then she should come to Tonga
and drink a few cups of kava at the Seleka Club.
an outer suburb of the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, beside a particularly polluted
stretch of lagoon, the Seleka Club consists of a couple of fale built with
coconut fronds and salvaged timber. Almost every night of the week dozens of
young painters, sculptors, and musicians gather in the club to drink cup after
cup of kava and make art on a long, paint-flecked table.
Seleka Club all of the conventions of Tongan culture and society are turned
upside down. Kava, the sacred traditional drink of chiefs and priests, is
consumed from a toilet bowl; female and fakaleiti (transgender) Tongans drink beside men; a
Tongan flag vandalised with a satirical swastika hangs in the tropical air;
guests are given secret ‘Selekarian names’, based on bizarre and sometimes
blasphemous puns; and the sentimentally patriotic songs performed in more
conventional kava clubs are replaced with recordings of dubstep and death metal
tracks made by Seleka members.
When they are
not holed up in their fale, the Selekarians rumble around Tonga in a truck
covered in the same psychedelic paintings and half-silly, half-dangerous slogans
– ‘GOD DIED OF DARWIN NOT DEATH ITSELF’ is a typical Seleka phrase - as the
bus driven across America in the 1960s by Ken Kesey’s Band of Merry Pranksters.
Club is led by Tevita Latu, a young man from one of Tonga’s most respected
families. Latu’s father was the first Tongan to receive a degree in science and
a close friend of King Tupou IV, the autocratic ruler of Tonga for thirty-eight
years. In 2005, during the senile last year of Tupou IV’s reign, a general
strike shut down Tonga for five weeks, fifteen thousand people marched through
Nuku’alofa, and a protest camp was established beside the royal palace.
in this febrile atmosphere that Tevita Latu exhibited some of his first art.
Giving himself the tag Ezekiel, he covered Nuku’alofa’s walls with graffiti
criticising his old family friend and calling for radical change.
finally died in the middle of 2006; a few months later a pro-democracy rally
turned into a riot, and half of downtown Nuku’alofa burned to the ground.
Martial law was declared, and New Zealand and Australian troops and police flew
in to help Tongan security forces detain and torture hundreds of their enemies.
Tevita Latu played no part in the riot, but the day after the event he noticed
the chauffeured Rolls Royce of Tonga’s new king passing his family home with a
military escort. Rushing outside, Latu held his fist in the air and shouted
‘Reformasi!’ He was seized, taken to Nuku’alofa’s central police station, beaten,
and charged with treason. After nine days of torture Latu was released on bail;
the charge of treason was eventually dropped.
Latu remains an enemy of Tonga’s sclerotic ruling class. While Western artists are
either ignored or patronised by their society’s elite, Latu’s paintings both
fascinate and anger Tonga’s nobility, its clergy, and its business class. The
artist’s exhibition launches are crowded, disputatious affairs, where
conservative Tongans demand explanations for his vividly recondite symbols, and
ask him about his religious and political affiliations. Sometimes locals buy
Latu’s works simply for the pleasure of vandalising them.
response to Latu reflects the seriousness with which Tongans view art. The Tongan
intellectual and educator Futa Helu once said that in his country art had
traditionally been considered a means to ‘the perfection of reality’. Whether
they were poets, dancers, painters, or carvers, artists turned away from the
flux and discord of the world, and made things of harmonious beauty. Art
played, and continues to play, a crucial role in almost every Tongan social
occasion. Tongan kings and queens have always kept poets, singers, and dancers
in their courts. At weddings and funerals poems and dances express gladness or
sadness, and mourners or partiers literally wrap themselves in art, by donning mats
of beaten barkcloth that are often covered in intricate paintings.
Like the ritual
and symbolism of the Seleka Club, Tevita Latu’s art both acknowledges and
revolutionises conventional Tongan culture. Latu’s social method of work – his
paintings and drawings are made in the midst of the crowd at his club – recalls
the collectivism of barkcloth makers, carvers, and dancers, but the smoky, noisy,
mixed gender environment of Seleka mocks the taboos which have traditionally
surrounded art-making in Tonga. Latu’s works often seem designed to rescue some
memorable event – a protest, or a party, or a swim in the lagoon – from the
chaos and forgetfulness of the world, but they eschew the traditional Tongan
search for harmony and clarity in favour of expressionist brushstrokes and fragmented
perspectives. Latu often paints on barkcloth, but he prefers idiosyncratic
images to the rigorously public symbolism used by most barkcloth artists. His
works are full of Pacific imagery, but they offend cultural nationalists by putting
Melanesian sailors in Tongan vaka, and by giving Tongan men and women an eerie,
halo-like head dress borrowed from the gwion gwion style of Aboriginal
bought an untitled painting on barkcloth by Tevita Latu. The work shows two men
in pre-Christian dress standing on either side of a naked woman. Phrases of
Tongan swirl around them. With their talk of family quarrels and sleeping with
pigs most of the phrases made little sense to me, even when I knew their
English translations. When I showed Latu’s painting to one of my Tongan
students, though, he immediately recognised its allusions to the story of the
Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke.
Son is a popular topic for Tonga’s preachers, and one of the most-sung hymns in
the repertoire of the Free Wesleyan Church, the country’s dominant
denomination, retells his story. But not all of Tongans view the Prodigal Son
in the same way.
In his extended study of the role of the Free Wesleyans in Tongan society, Heneli
Niumeitolu argues that the church has distorted the story of the Prodigal Son
and many other passages in the Bible for political purposes. Niumeitolu points
that the Free Wesleyan hymn about the Prodigal Son scolds him for ‘Oe ne foki
ki ‘api kuo mole kotoa’ (‘Returning home with nothing’), and urges children to
emulate his obedient, hardworking older brother. Most Christians regard the
story of the Prodigal Son as a lesson in the importance of forgiveness and
reconciliation, but Wesleyans keen to ensure support for Tonga’s monarchy have
turned it into a lecture about the evils of rebellion and the wisdom of obeying
painting can be seen as an attack on the conservative wing of Tongan
Christianity. By depicting the son and
his father in ‘pagan’ traditional dress, Latu mocks the nineteenth century
Wesleyan missionaries who insisted that Christianity and ‘decent’ Western-style
dress are inextricably linked, as well as the Tongan faithful who still swelter
through summer services in dark suits and dresses. Latu’s Holy Land is
tropical, and his Jews are Tongans.
appearance of the Prodigal Son’s mother in Latu’s painting may seem strange,
because she does not feature in the story told by the Bible. Along with others
in the Seleka Club, though, Tevita Latu is critical of the patriarchal nature
of Tongan society. Recently a group of Selekarians protested against the
absence of women from Tonga’s parliament by producing a poster which showed a
strange dragonwoman emerging from the ocean and throwing her shadow over the
country’s largest island.
figure in Latu’s painting can be seen, then, as a feminist statement. Her
nakedness may allude to the fate of the carved females who presided over
shamanic ceremonies in the godhouses of pre-Christian Tonga. When the ancestor
of today’s king Wesleyanised Tonga in a series of wars in the second quarter of
the nineteenth century, he systematically and gleefully desecrated the
godhouses of captured villages. Pigs were loosed in the sacred enclosures
around the houses, and the carved goddesses were stripped of their barkcloth covering
and hung by their necks from the rafters of their homes.
Son’s stolid older brother, who sulked outside the family home while his
talented but erratic sibling was welcomed back with a feast, might be a hero to
the Free Wesleyan Church, but he has no role in Latu’s painting.
It is not
only the Prodigal Son’s brother, though, who is marginalised by Latu. The
painting’s text includes ‘Alua’, a word Tongans use to say goodbye when someone
is leaving them, and the Prodigal Son’s mother and father might be waving at
him. The Prodigal Son has, it seems, returned from his time with the Pharisees,
where he slept in a pig sty, but he has not been willing or able to remain
permanently in his family home. The painting shows him going out on the road
again. The conservative conclusion of the Biblical story as well as the
authoritarian propaganda of the Free Wesleyan Church are rejected, and the
Prodigal Son is shown as a free agent, neither estranged from nor entrapped by
his parents and their culture. He is as proud and as courageous as the young
man who raised a fist at Tonga’s king on the day after Nuku’alofa burned.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]