Friday, February 20, 2015

Exhibitionism: a quick guide for the offended

With the encouragement of the Young Men's Christian Association, the Taxpayers Union, and various bloggers, thousands of people have signed a petition denouncing the exhibition of an obscene T shirt at Canterbury Museum. 

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.
Museums use objects to tell true stories about society and its past. A museum doesn’t necessarily endorse the messages encoded in the objects it displays, any more than a historian necessarily endorses the events and people he or she describes in an article or book.
The T shirt is helping Canterbury museum tell a story about street art, and about censorship. Canterbury museum isn’t endorsing the meaning of the shirt any more than Auckland museum endorses Nazism by displaying a swastika.
I haven’t seen the show in Christchurch, but I’d argue that state censorship is a subject that is worthy of coverage in our museums. 
New Zealand has had a long history of state censorship of culture and of political speech. A hundred years ago Auckland cops were hunting down copies of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, on the grounds that it corrupted the public, and putting the book’s distributors in court. For decades anyone who published Marx risked time behind bars. In the 1920s Jean Devanny’s feminist novel The Butcher Shop became a bestseller and was promptly banned as offensive. During its confrontation with New Zealand's militant unions in 1951 the National government used emergency legislation to ban the leader of the opposition from radio airwaves. Right up until the 1990s, Maori sculptures displayed in museums or other public places were attacked with axes because the genitalia they showed upset religious conservatives.
We need to be aware of this historical context when we debate censorship and related issues, like state surveillance, today. I’m pleased that the Auckland museum’s permanent display on World War Two includes a section on the censorship laws introduced by the wartime Labour government, and shows a copy of an anti-war newspaper that Labour banned.
Many of the critics of Canterbury museum have argued that 'the community', that ubiquitous but mysterious entity, should be charged with deciding what New Zealand's museums exhibit. If an object is offensive to part of the community, then the object should, they suggest, serve a life sentence in a museum storage room.

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:04 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I disagree massively. You are comparing quite disparate things.

I see, for example, that this is the same kind of absolutely stupid and hurtful thing to do (no Jewish person would misinterprate why the Swastika is in the museum or Mein Kempf as historical) but this, like the arrogant "humour" of Charlie Hebdo's who in my opinion asked for it and got what they deserved, this is a provocative statement. It is attacking the heart of Christian religious beliefs as if I burst into one of your Trotskyist meetings shouting that Trotsky is a cunt or that Marx was a dirty Jew Cunt. Or if I did a statue with showing a Maori carving and a penis but labeled it "Image of Primitive Hori: Maoris are all Savage, and they are All Inferior Primitive Nigger Cunts." (Conceptual art by Dick Hazzell or someone.)

Then I could start a magazine and - maybe make A LOT OF MONEY - out of making fun of people.

A bloody good way to get on someone's side, to open negotiations (for this reason taking the piss out of political figures is counterproductive when we may need dialogue and possible resolution as in the situation of the Palestinians and the Israelis)

Well, as far as I am concerned, it is like that to Moslems when Mohammad is attacked and I say, bloody good job they took some of those arrogant bastards out, as they endanger us all at a time when terrorism, war in the Middle East, caused by invasions etc etc - you know that.

If you make fun of someone needle someone, no matter what YOU as a "liberal" sitting in a nice house and with a good income might think: they don't share your enthusiasm as they have a different view, whether you or anyone else agrees with that view.

Even to say: "Hitler was a Cunt." is quite stupid and to no purpose.

These artists are not making any useful statement of political value, they are simply insulting people. Just as Hebdo insulted Muslims.

It is like cop-baiting. Stupid, dangerous, hurtful and unwise.

We certainly need some degree of censorship. Just as we need laws. We could get rid of all laws, no speeding limit and as much as you want to drink while driving for example, and when we saw the resulting massive increase in car accidents and deaths have a good old Liberal Bourgeois laugh.

There HAS to be some censorship. We cannot allow anything to be said. That is a kind dream that a Mad Plato of his Republic might have, a kind of dream of a perfect Society. We always censor and limit what we say and are subject to natural social limitations to what we say and how we say what we say.

9:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Well, as far as I am concerned, it is like that to Moslems when Mohammad is attacked and I say, bloody good job they took some of those arrogant bastards out...

these ones got taken out for having an offensive religion

12:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ISIS bans music as offensive.

12:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Songs and music are forbidden in Islam, as they prevent one from the remembrance of God and the Koran and are a temptation and corruption of the heart,”

as a musician am I to abandon my trade for fear of offending?

12:14 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

There are really two arguments here, Richard. The first is about the way museums present objects. I don't think a museum endorses an object by exhibiting it, any more than a historian endorses and event or person by putting them in a narrative. Just as the Auckland museum doesn't endorse the swastika flag, so Canterbury museum doesn't endorse this T shirt.

The second argument harks back to the Charlie Hebdo affair, and concerns the limits of freedom of speech. I've no problem with restrictions on speech that incites hatred against a group based on their skin colour or some other characteristic innate to them. I'd support the suppression of, say, a leaflet that claimed that Africans immigrating to New Zealand had come with the aim of spreading AIDs, and needed to be killed before they could achieve their aim.

Where I disagree with you, it seems, is over speech that attacks the ideas held by a sector of society. You write that:

'this [T shirt] is a provocative statement. It is attacking the heart of Christian religious beliefs'

But I don't see what is ipso facto wrong with provocative statements against the beliefs of others. I don't know if I could last a week without making provocative statements against the beliefs of others.

And I don't know how we could stop making these statements, even if we wanted to. As someone pointed out, ISIS finds all forms of music very provocative and offensive. Merely by turning on my stereo last night and listening to Holst's Planets, then, I made a provocative statement against beliefs held sincerely by millions, and perhaps tens of millions, of Muslims.

You ask what I'd think of someone bursting into a political meeting I was attending shouting abuse against a left-wing thinker like Trotsky, or what I'd make of a statement that mocked Maori using racist language. But neither of these examples really matches the type of speech represented by the Christchurch T shirt and by the Charlie Hebdo cartoon.

If someone storms into a meeting and shouts abuse, then they are invading a private gathering and harassing the people there; by contrast, the T shirt and Charlie Hebdo are statements made available in public spaces, which members of the public could choose to accept or scorn. And if someone abuses Maori as backward horis then are not attacking ideas, as Hebdo and the T shirt were doing.

9:52 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

If we tinker with your analogies a little bit, though, they can be made to fit the cases we're discussing. If I was taking part in a rally or march in Queen Street, and some right-wingers turned up and began shouting 'Trotsky was a cunt!' or 'Marx was a cunt!' or some similar phrase, then I wouldn't want them to be arrested by the police and brought before the courts. I would accept that they were exercising, in an admittedly crude way, their right to criticise my ideas.

And if they could be arrested for shouting abuse of left-wing ideas, then presumably I might be arrested on some other occasion for shouting abuse of a right-wing idea or its political representative. I wouldn't want to be dragged into a paddy wagon for shouting 'Neo-liberal politicians are a bunch of bastards!' or - to put it more succintly - 'Key is a bastard!' outside a National Party convention.

There are conservative Pakeha - John Ansell and on Brash are good examples - who believe that the Treaty of Waitangi established the hegemony of settlers over the native people of Aotearoa, and who consider talk about partnership and about the preservation and advancement of Maori institutions and culture to be treacherous. Folks like Ansell and Brash have used billboards, newspaper advertisements and internet sites to condemn Maori tikanga as backward and dangerous and to proclaim the superiority of the culture and institutions that British brought to New Zealand. I don't seek to censor them for this stuff, because they are engaging in the criticism of ideas.

If Ansell and co began to echo some neo-Nazis, and talk about how Maori are genetically inferior to Pakeha, have genes that predispose them to violence, need to be bred out of the New Zealand population, and so on, then my opinion would change.

9:53 am  
Blogger Richard said...

No. You miss it all again. As to Charlie Hebdo they need to be shut down. Their attacks were needlessly and stupidly offensive. You have to take what you or anyone else says into context. In the light of events since, in fact since not too long after the Vietnam war, the US and others have invaded many countries and in particular the Middle East, and we had the Soviet invasion and the ongoing tragedy of Israel-Palestine. In view of this and much else it is irresponsible for a bunch of looney comic makers to be allowed to inflame the situation when countries are trying to negotiate (or at least they should be): now if you could shut down Guantanamo, the Austrialian concentration camps, and get the Israelis to allow two nations, as well as remove ALL foreign combatents and military personennel from Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places, and also if the US apologised for 9/11 and the terrible actions that have lead to their causation of the reactions (terrorism of various kinds) and also their complicity in many of these. They clearly are involved in work as agents provocateurs despite your Italian mate's apologies for them, then we might be making some progress. As it is ISIS and other groups are a kind of strange parallel to those groups that sprang up in the US in the 60s and 70s who used bombs...they have been created by us.

Now given the new spiritual-political-cultural struggle (as Marxism and Bourgoies liberalism are all clearly hopelessly defunct, its members in disarray) we are seeing young people shifting their protest to side with those who are most active against these aggressors. Many see the Muslim religion as a valid way. I can understand that.

The Left Wing has failed them (as they see it). Meanwhile, if we are to maintain any 'progress' [may be impossible] or if we want to really limit terrorism [the stated if not the real aim of the Western alliances (they seem to have had these since 1992 at least [if not 1892 or earlier] with the murderous invasion of The Middle East, the use of depleted uranium, the killings on a large scale of civilians...But let's pretend the desire to be free of terrorism (actually this might be termed another form of being a 'freedom fighter' at least these people, unlike your left wing tea swillers and boozers at their cosy cliche ridden meetings to attack targets such as Jesus Christ or John Key: ulike them they are at the business end of foreign invasions and depredations and the accompanying insults to their religion by these bastards in France.

No, you are in dream land Hamilton.

11:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Sorry for the ad hominem. You have a good Blog and make good points.

I just couldn't be bothered going more systematically through all the other points.

I know everyone is on Twitter etc and I'm on FB (but that has other purposes than a Blog) but it would be good to see more direct reponses to this (at least your post) as in the old days, rather than all those scam things that get through.

I'm also reading a book with a view to a review and it is rather a hard task, or comment on that as yet!

I do see your points. I think the issues are getting more critical, or maybe they seem that way, may not in 20 years of so... and they are more complex than we can "analyse" them here.

Of course, in an ideal world, we would like to reduce censorship and many other restrictive laws, but these issues need to be studied case by case.

The music you listened to (I love that, that is great music by Holst, one of the great things...) but we have to be wary, as we are censoring a few things, not music, and we have to ask, how useful if any, this nonsense by Hebdo is. It may be counter productive, especially if they dont listen, and a blanket attack on the Mahomet means you lose many "friends" as not all Muslims are in ISIS and so on (of course). And of course not all Arabic people have religion and there are many complex political conflicts between the various countries there as well as Israel - there is of course, quite naturally, a large disparity of interests. But for many millions there, the Moslem religion is more than a religion. It DOES, perhaps more than Christianity historically 'unifies' us (and it has a strong historical cultural importance to Europeans, and has affected our history as has the Moslem religion affected the Arabic world since about 600 AD): and with the accompanying attacks, and Guantanamo etc etc, and the bullying by the West, this Hebdo stuff (yes they attack right wingers etc) is not good. Stupid and arrogant and useless, as you know, those they are claiming to target will not listen to it or read it and these attacks will add to the felt and real hostility that helps generate such organisations as ISIS and before that the Al Qaeda (one would have to be naive to underestimate the role of the various secret services in Western nations for aiding and abetting, indirectly, these organisations: if the lessons of history are to be recalled).

It is not impossible that they provide weapons and even finance to keep it all on the boil. I am pretty sure they are involved in a big way.

12:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haitham Haddad wants a world where there is no escape from death for apostates from Islam. None at all.

Not even “private” apostates will be spared. They will be spotted when they stop praying or wearing the hijab. Execution will be their reward.

See for yourself. Here he is at a laughably named “Peace Conference” in Norway in 2013.

9:31 am  
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9:49 pm  
Anonymous t shirt printing singapore said...

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6:26 pm  

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