Archive 013 (MAY - JUNE 2004)

a dusty old archive by chris lawson

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- stories this archive -

  Run! Run! Run!
  I am cabbage
  Curious royal names
  You have to know how to look
  Peter McNamara dies
  Dave Cake has a blog
  Review: 28 Days Later
  Review: Sunset and Sawdust
  Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  Review: Jennifer Government
  Abusing science goes multiplex
  Elite stupidity
  Art at war
  Felis sylvestrii vs. Andalgornis tweettius

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Run! Run! Run!

26 JUN 2004 | source Idris H. Hsi | permalink

Deb Biancotti kindly referred me to this page, which should be required reading for Hollywood scriptwriters. It is a comparison of top human speeds and common movie threats such as walking dead, bullets, Boeing 747s, and a recent favourite, high-energy explosions.


I am cabbage!

18 JUN 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Today's mail brought me the latest edition of the French SF magazine Galaxies, no. 32. "Faster, Higher, Stronger" has been translated by Lionel Davoust, and as best I can tell (being very rusty at French) the translation is of a very high standard. I am always impressed that Galaxies takes a dynamic rather than a literal approach to translation; that is, they are aiming to get the feel of the text across rather than a 1:1 mapping from English to French via the strictest possible dictionary equivalences. Jerry the Juicer, for instance, has become Jerry Dynamo in the French rather than Jerry le Juicer, which quite possibly doesn't carry the same gravitas...

I'm also pleased to see that in his introductory notes to the story, editor Stéphane Nicot has said, "Avec quatre nouvelles déjà publiées dans Galaxies, Chris Lawson est en passe de devenir l'un de nos «chouchous»!" Which means: "With four stories published in Galaxies, Chris Lawson is on the way to becoming one of our 'cabbages'!" Cabbage being a term of endearment, something like "darling" in English. Ah, the joys of translation. And to Stéphane, if you are reading this, merci très beaucoup.


Curious royal names

10 JUN 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

  • Boleslaus III the Wrymouth, King of Poland

  • Boleslaus IV the Curly, his son

  • Ethelred II the Unready, King of England

  • Constantine V Copronymus (the dung-named), Emperor of Byzantium

  • Michael III the Drunkard, Emperor of Byzantium

  • Sweyn I Forkbeard, King of Denmark

  • Sigrid the Haughty (Sigrid Storråda), Queen of Sweden, and later Queen of Denmark by remarriage

  • Rhys the Hoarse (Rhys Gryg), King of Deheubarth

  • Idwal the Bald, King of Gwynedd

  • Llywelyn the Last, King of Gwynedd

  • Tyttla son of Wuffa, King of East Anglia

  • Charles III the Simple, King of France

  • Heliogabalus the Horrible, Emperor of Rome

  • John Soft-Sword (a.k.a. John Lackland), King of England

  • Lorenzo il Magnifico, ruler of the Florentine Repubic

  • William I the Bastard, King of England

  • Harold Bluetooth (Blåtand) Gormson, King of Denmark


    You have to know how to look

    04 JUN 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    I received an email today from the Global Continental Lottery Agency telling me that my email address had been picked out for a prize of US$500,000. Imagine how lucky I felt. I hadn't even entered the lottery! Fortunately I was tipped off by the Global Continental Lottery Agency's email Who field: globalconlottery04.


    Peter McNamara dies

    03 JUN 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    On the first day of winter, Australian fan and editor Peter McNamara died at home following a protracted struggle against brain cancer.

    Mac, as he was called by intimates, and his wife Mariann were instrumental in the rise of quality Australian SF in the eighties by editing and publishing Aphelion, a magazine that pioneered the high-quality semi-prozine template that was adapted by Eidolon and Aurealis. After five issues, the economics of small press publishing made themselves clear. McNamara moved Aphelion into book publication and provided many of Australia's best writers with early publishing success. Among his many contributions to Australian science fiction was introducing Sean Williams and Shane Dix to each other as co-writers, a collaboration that has yielded ten fine novels.

    Although he was one of the first publishers to pick up a Greg Egan story, McNamara was an Egan skeptic. He found Egan's style didactic and technical. McNamara's The Wonder Years, a collection of the ten best Australian SF stories from the past decade, did not include an Egan story when most other editors would have agonised over which Egan stories to leave out to give other writers a place. He did print Egan's "The Caress" in Alien Shores, but that story is one of Egan's least technocentric stories, with a surrealist-inspired theme reflected in its style and plot. [Added 5 June: One correspondent has informed me that Greg Egan may have declined an invitation to appear in The Wonder Years.]

    Two years ago, McNamara collapsed without warning. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer that can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but only to prolong life or for symptom control. There is no cure and less than two percent of people survive three years after diagnosis. McNamara survived two years with near-constant chemotherapy. In that time he co-edited two anthologies and maintained his famous sense of humour.

    McNamara has an award named in his honour. He is survived by Mariann, Patrick, and Sonie, and a thriving Australian SF scene. He was only fifty-seven.

    More by Jonathan Strahan.


    Dave Cake has a blog

    31 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    Perth fan and all-round intellect David Cake has caught blog fever. You can see the damage here.


    Review: 28 Days Later

    30 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    OK, so you might have noticed I've been grumpy lately. I've been a little unwell and overly busy and have a ton of unwanted work to churn through. So I guess it's time to balance the ledger with a few things I've enjoyed.

    28 Days Later has one appalling scientific silliness: the virus in it incubates in a few seconds. But once you put that aside, this is a brilliant bit of film-making. It is scary without the usual walk-backwards-in-the-dark stunts. It has a brilliant establishing sequence. This film has reinvigorated low-budget horror in a way that Blair Witch Project never could. It helps enormously that the film is not stacked with the usual half-dressed nubiles. The cast includes Christopher Ecclestone and Brendan Gleeson -- two of the most intense character actors going around (check out Ecclestone in Cracker and Gleeson in The General). Highly recommended.


    Review: Sunset and Sawdust

    30 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    Joe R. Lansdale is best known in these here parts as a horror writer, but he's also highly regarded as a crime writer and has a number of prestigious awards under his belt. Sunset and Sawdust is a twisted crime novel set in East Texas during the Depression. It starts with a woman shooting her lawman husband in the head during a house-wrecker of a storm and from there it winds its way through Depression-era small town politics, sexual oppression, and Klan mentality, all told in Joe Lansdale's laconic deadpan drawl. It is funny, cruel, and has two genuinely terrifying villains. Great stuff, but not for the faint of heart.


    Review: The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

    30 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    Better than Being John Malkovich. Much better than Adaptation. For once Charlie Kaufman puts aside the self-conscious jokes and the even more self-conscious pursuit of weirdness and allows the premise to dictate the humour and the weirdness naturally. You probably already know the idea behind the film, but I'm not going to reveal anything about it anyway on the off-chance that you will still be able to go to the cinema with a blank slate. Suffice to say it is intelligent without requiring the concentration of a Memento and it has stellar performances (easily Jim Carrey's best work, and who could ask for a better cast than Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson?).


    Review: Jennifer Government

    30 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    I know nothing about Max Barry. I'm attending the Continuum convention in a couple of weeks (I was GoH last year; this time I'm going just because it's a great convention). I put forward an idea for a panel: "I am not a science fiction writer! I AM A HUMAN BEING!" The committee put me on with Max Barry. I know nothing about Max Barry. I ask the committee about him. They point out that he is one of the GoHs this time around. I am embarrassed into silence. I still know nothing about Max Barry and now I'm on a panel with him. I figure I'd better read his new novel, Jennifer Government.

    Hell's Bells. This is wonderful. When I picked it up I thought it was going to be a rather obvious satire on corporate culture. The book is festooned with quotes from the likes of Naomi Klein, and that didn't augur well. How wrong I was. Yes it's a satire. Yes it's a caricature of the world. But unlike most satires and caricatures it has a solid story and engaging characters. The corporate world is described with an eye for detail that is astonishing. Barry is clearly laying into corporate ethics, but he is smart enough to avoid the obvious. In his world, managers aren't all raving profiteers. They care for their employees and they offer them time off to deal with personal crises and other sorts of support. The managers are victims of the corporate ethos just as much as their underlings. And people care for each other. One of the most touching characters is a broker who accidentally causes the murder of a schoolgirl because he gave her some money to spend. He burns out at work and decides to kill himself not because he is a professional failure but because nothing he will ever do for the rest of his life will be as important as saving the girl, which he failed to do. In short, Barry's satire world is populated not by generic targets but by real people. And it's damn funny, too.

    John sighed. 'Jesus, Hack. You are the worst goddamn assassin I ever heard of. We wanted a nice little rampage, something we could write off as an employee going postal if the Government caught up with us. Neat and tidy. But no, you had to go and outsource.'

    Jennifer Government is a stinging satire of loyalty programs at war and extremely hostile takeovers. Buy it before it buys you.


    Abusing science goes multiplex

    29 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    Every now and then a film comes along that does not need to be seen to know it is to be avoided. The last such film was The Last Temptation of Christ, the latest in Mel Gibson's undeclared campaign to promote Opus Dei Catholicism while turning a handy profit. Anyone with any sense knew this was a film unworthy of an audience when Gibson described his own film as two hours of watching a man being tortured to death in graphic detail.

    And now The Day After Tomorrow marches into the ranks of films unworthy of an audience. The filmmaker's own descriptions make it clear that this is a steaming heap of effluage, and the steam is CGI-added. How do we know this film is crap? For a start it was made by Roland Emmerlich, the buffoon responsible for Stargate, Independence Day, and Godawful. His previous films have stood out for being built from the movie trailer up. Emmerlich films a great movie trailer and then tries to figure out how to construct a movie around it -- but he doesn't try too hard because he knows that it's the trailer that sells the tickets and once the ticket has been sold the film doesn't have to be all that good. His films are more famous for Emmerlich's clever marketing, such as debut screening sessions starting at midnight to maximise the number of first-day sessions in order to claim a first-day box office record. Which was dutifully reported by the entertainment media, thereby giving an entirely false suggestion of public approval.

    If The Day After Tomorrow has a dubious pedigree, the synopsis only confirms the worst. It is another brain-dead disaster film with a stupid plot and stupid science. What really sets TDAT apart from the usual stupid-plot, stupid-science disaster flick is the seriousness with which it takes itself. Emmerlich has reported over and over again how this an Important Film because it is about climate change. The filmmakers calculated the amount of greenhouse gases they created in the making of TDAT and planted the appropriate number of trees. They made damn sure everyone knew about it too. What they left out of their press releases was that most environmentalists consider this sort of carbon accounting to be ineffective and pretty much a strategy by rich corporations who would prefer to pay for some cheap PR than to change their polluting manufacturing practices. The other omission was the fact that the making of the film has a tiny environmental impact compared to the carbon debt accumulated by the marketing, distribution, and screening. And then there's the petrol burned by all those suburban SUVs as families drive 2 km to their nearest multiplex, and when the DVDs and videos come out, the cost of all those electron-burning widescreen TVs.

    What is extraordinary about all this is not Emmerlich's brazen marketing, but the number of reviewers who have fallen for it. Evan Williams in The Australian said, "It has a sober -- dare I say important? -- lesson for anyone who is listening. One forgive a great deal." That's right. You can make a crap film with crap science, but it deserves a four-star rating because it is about an Important Issue. The Age was even worse: it ran a two-page article this week about how TDAT was based on real science. And today it ran an editorial which deserves to become one of the all-time examples of journalistic hypocrisy:

    "Despite being a scientifically nonsensical story of climatic apocalypse (climate change isn't an overnight phenomenon), the film's message about politicians ignoring scientists' warnings is so compelling that some commentators expect it to play a part in President George Bush being defeated in the November election. That remains to be seen, but the Howard Government should change its Kyoto policy before it can be stripped of its last fig leaf of respectability."

    Frankenblog has no desire to defend Bush's rampant abuse of scientific process to deny global warming, but this is ridiculous. Why is ignoring scientists a mortal sin for politicians but perfectly acceptable for filmmakers and newspapers?


    Elite stupidity

    21 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    It is very rare to see pure unalloyed stupidity in a magazine as prestigious as The Atlantic, but this article has stupidity in spades. It is a review of a book called "Screenwriting for a Global Market" and I cannot comment on the specific references to the book itself, but I can say that David Kipen believes that the problem with Hollywood at the moment is that it is not making films for the American market. That would be why the setting of High Fidelity was moved from London to Chicago. It would explain why the British sailors who captured an Enigma machine from a Nazi U-boat were transformed into American commandos for the movie U-571. That would be why the Godzilla remake was set in New York instead of Tokyo. That would explain why Peter Jackson's The Frighteners was set in California despite being filmed in Wellington, NZ. (Jackson slipped in several sarcastic references to the American need to see itself as the centre of the universe.)

    Kipen thinks that Finding Nemo doesn't count as an American film because it is set in Australia. He even excludes Lost in Translation; the writer-director is American, the two lead characters are American, played by American actors, and yet the film is not American because it is set in a Tokyo hotel.

    Kipen thinks that nobody makes American films like Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch anymore. He seems not to have heard of American Splendor, Cold Mountain, The Cooler, House of Sand and Fog, The Human Stain, Intolerable Cruelty, The Missing, Monster, Mystic River, Seabiscuit, and Wonderland -- all released in 2003 alone.

    Kipen does think that screenwriters don't get enough credit or critical examination, and being a writer myself I am naturally inclined to agree, but that one good point can't undo the ludicruous mess that precedes it. What is the world coming to when the most insular industry on Earth is chided for not being insular enough? And how did this rubbish end up in The Atlantic?


    Art at war

    18 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    Earlier this week, the director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Gerard Vaughan told The Age newspaper, "In no way will we condone censorship, but we do need to draw the line occasionally." Vaughan also said, "As a publicly funded art gallery, we must be apolitical, but we defend our right to display work by individual artists that does have a political message."

    To paraphrase Charles Babbage, it is hard to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such statements.

    The media storm that elicited this confused response from one of Australia's most respected artistic institutions has echoed around the world -- a very rare event for Australian art, which is usually ignored internationally. And the event that triggered this worldwide torrent was an unobtrusive piece of art called Fifty Six hanging in the window of a small gallery at 24 Flinders Street, Melbourne.

    The text, in red type over a black star of David, says, "Since the creation of Israel in 1948, 200,000 Palestinians have been killed, 5,000,000 refugees have been created, 21,000 square kilometres of land has been annexed, 200,000 settlements have been created, 385 towns and villages have been destroyed, 300 billion military dollars have been spent, 100+ WMD's have been manufactured, 65 UN resolutions have been ignored."

    The blatant partisanship of the piece -- there is no mention of the deaths of Israelis at the hands of Palestinians, for instance -- was not made any more palatable by the lamentable research, most notably the claim that Israel has created 200,000 settlements when the real figure is between three and four hundred. One of the artists responsible for the work, Azlan McLennan, has claimed that Fifty Six was intended to balance what he perceived to be pro-Israel bias by the Australian federal government, and that the "200,000 settlements" figure was an error and should have read "200,000 settlers." He apologised for his mistake, but it was too late. The piece was removed after objections were raised by Jewish groups, politicians from both sides of the House, and the Melbourne City Council, which had provided the original grant for an exhibition of emerging artists.

    There are two obvious rejoinders to Azlan McLennan's rationalisations. Firstly, the acceptable response to bias isn't counter-propaganda but coherent, well-researched argument. Blaming your political foes for your own shortcomings is nothing short of childish. Secondly, how hard is it to proofread fifty-five words?

    Azlan McLennan blew away any doubts that his work was well-intentioned when he said after its removal, "One of the most common questions raised over the last 24 hours is 'what is art'? Hitler similarly held views about what constitutes degenerative art." The Third Reich defined degenerate art as works that "insult German feeling or destroy or confuse natural form, or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill." It is an easy defence for any artist with an appetite for controversy and an absence of skill to invoke the Nazis and is as overused as scientific cranks comparing themselves to Galileo. But McLennan goes beyond the standard self-serving defence. By comparing criticism of his anti-Israel agitprop to Hitler's campaign against "degenerate art," McLennan must have intended to offend to Jews.

    McLennan was right about one thing: this controversy has whipped up the usual battles. What is art? When should something be censored? In the usual course of events, these questions end up dissolving in a miasma of personal conviction and prejudice and no useful answers emerge from the noxious vapours. In this case, however, we have a rare opportunity to examine the questions in ways that can lead to actual useful conclusions. There has been a rare conjunction of events that allows us to examine the matter critically.

    Fifty Six cannot be judged on aesthetic grounds. Its physical form is nothing more than a common symbol with superimposed text. Excepting those font freaks who agonise over the pervasive influence of Helvetica, nobody is going to defend or criticise Fifty Six in terms of its beauty or its technical accomplishment. As one gallery director said, "It's no Guernica, is it?" It is, in essence, a political poster and therefore its artistic merit can only be evaluated as a political statement.

    Just up the road at the National Gallery of Victoria hangs another controversial work, Gordon Hookey's Sacred nation, scared nation, indoctrination. The text at the bottom of the painting reads, "John Howard and Australia is so far up George Dubbah Yah Bush and the USA's arse that were in the shit. Were kept in the dark in it stinks." Hookey's wall of subliterate diarrhoea has attracted frequent public criticism and requires the gallery to defend repeatedly its presence in the main collection. Unlike Fifty Six, it has never been censored, locked up, or restricted. It hangs in a major public gallery and can be viewed by anyone. There is no age restriction to protect children, and there is no admission fee.

    The absence of any aesthetic or technical aspects to Fifty Six and its proximity to another work of art that has survived despite offending many members of the public allows us to perform something close to a controlled experiment. We can ask What is Art? and Should we censor? and hope for a meaningful answer.

    What is Art?

    There are so many definitions of art that anyone with a political agenda can pick and choose to suit. The definitions tend to aggregate in two clusters. The first cluster says art is the effort to create works of aesthetic value. The second cluster says that art is a high level of skill, as in "the art of golf" or "the art of love." These two definitions overlap, of course, in that many works are both aesthetically interesting and skilfully executed.

    Censorship is as old as history. The Roman Emperor Augustus banished Ovid, thus separating him from his wife and children, for writing the Ars Amatoria. Those who want to censor art have to present a justification, even when the censor happens to be the autocratic leader of a Mediterranean-spanning empire. The most common justification is that the art to be censored is an affront to public decency, but this leads to the problem of defining public decency, which is especially difficult in a modern Western democracy where pluralism is cherished. Some censors get around this problem by denying that the work is art at all, using each definition above as it suits them.


    Abstract works such as Mark Rothko's expressionist Untitled and Piet Mondrian's neoplastic Composition with Large Blue Plane, Red, Black, Yellow, and Gray have been criticised for not being skilful or aesthetic. The accusation of poor skill is, of course, unfair. There is a great deal of skill in both paintings. Mondrian was developing abstract methods of expressing life and Rothko's knowledge of colour is legendary. The skills here are different to those required for a realist interpretation, but both artists produced strong realist works in their early careers. They did not turn to abstraction to disguise a lack of talent. As for aesthetic value, many visitors to the Texas chapel Rothko decorated describe the experience as spiritual.

    I am inclined to take the pragmatic approach and consider art to be anything that its creator says is art. This may sound facetious, but it can be put more formally: "Objects created by humans that have aesthetic value or express symbolic meaning, including drawings, paintings, and sculpture", and this definition for all practical purposes reduces to the first.

    One objection to this approach is that if anyone can call their work art, then the term is meaningless. If everything is art, then saying "this is art" is nothing more than saying "this is." My answer to that objection is that I am willing to accept a broad, inclusive definition of art. It is far better to argue about a work's quality than its right to be categorised as art. I tend to think of attempts to define a work out of the field as a lazy way of dealing with the problems of judging quality. As history shows, from art to religion to politics, attempts to define enemies out of existence lead only to schisms, orthodoxy battling heresy, and never to resolutions.


    So how does one respond to the critics who said Azlan McLennan's Fifty Six was not art but propaganda? The answer is simple: propaganda can be art, and art can be propaganda. Rosie the Riveter started out as propaganda, but it such a wonderful portrait that she has taken on a life of her own and sixty years after she encouraged women to work in factories, she is looking fresh as ever in her modern role as a feminist icon. Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia are great works of art but that does not abrogate her responsibility for turning her genius to the task of celebrating the Nazi aesthetic. We need to learn to stop saying "this is not art" and instead learn to say, "this is brilliant art applied to reprehensible propaganda" in the case of Olympia or "this is dull art applied to reprehensible propaganda" in the case of Fifty Six.

    This raises entirely new problems. What is good art as opposed to bad art? What is the difference between a good moral work and a bad one? These questions are difficult, but these are the questions we should be asking when we see a work of art. Asking whether Fifty Six is really art is not a useful question. It is a distraction. It is the sluggard's way of taking the high moral ground without making the effort to climb there.

    What should we censor?

    Censorship is one of the most contorted issues in a liberal democracy. Almost everyone agrees that some things have to be censored, such as child pornography, but there is a wide range of opinion on other material such as consensual pornography, violent imagery, sexist advertising, and snack food ads during children's television programs.

    Most gallery directors and artists declare themselves to be against censorship, but since none of them would exhibit child-porn photography, this is clearly not the whole story. In general, the arts community is opposed to censorship on the grounds of politics or public decency. The counter-censorship argument runs that it is dangerous to give governments control over the community's political discourse, and it is nearly as dangerous for the government to decide what is decent. We do not want to return to the political gags of the McCarthy era and we don't want the absurdity of banning James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence for indecency.

    I like these arguments, but the problem is that they are counter-arguments. That is, they are arguments against censorship rather than arguments for freedom of expression. By taking a simplistic anti-censorship position, the arts community has found it difficult to talk sensibly about the Fifty Six dismantling.

    Instead, I would like to reintroduce the only argument about censorship that has any weight in a liberal democracy, and that is: All citizens should enjoy the freedom to express themselves in any manner, except where that would cause demonstrable harm to other citizens.

    This line of thinking is not going to make censorship disappear as an issue, but at least it limits the debate to what causes demonstrable harm, which is what the arguments should be about in the first place. Child pornography is clearly excluded because children are harmed in the process of creating the imagery. Incitements to violence are out. Fraud and deceptive practices are out.

    Public decency is a little more complicated, but the key word is "public", not "decency." Decency is impossible to define except in terms of social norms. And social norms keep changing. And social norms are not consistent throughout society. Any attempt to create an external measure of decency is bound to fail. The best that is possible is to ask the populace what it considers to be indecent, but even this cannot solve the problem because the Censor will still have to decide at what level of prudery to draw the line. It is far better to insist that art that breaches common standards of decency is labelled with a warning and exhibited only to people who choose to view it.

    Which is what we do. We rate television programs, exclude those that show extreme violence or explicit sex, and limit implied violence and sex to adult viewing times. We allow cable TV to broadcast more explicit material because it is understood that viewers are likely to know what they are getting. In short, most Western nations employ the philosophy of public censorship with private freedom. Each country has its own interpretation of the principle, and in most there are occasional glaring inconsistencies, but this is the way the human world works. We cannot create perfect laws and perfect bureaucracies. We can only define our political principles as clearly as possible and struggle to correct bad or wasteful interpretations.

    The controlled experiment in art

    So where does this put Fifty Six and Sacred nation, scared nation, indoctrination? Exactly where they are. Fifty Six has been dismantled, hopefully never to see the light of day, and Sacred nation continues to hang in the NGV.

    Now don't get me wrong. I'm not defending Sacred nation. It's a terrible piece of work. If I had been director of the NGV when Hookey's painting was available, I would have declined to take the piece. The rejection would have been polite and couched in formal language, but privately I would have been astonished at being asked to waste a whole wall of gallery space on a trite, cartoonish, adolescent, ungrammatical outpouring of cliche, righteousness, and vilification of anyone who disagrees with the artist. It may be art, but it's no Guernica.

    Despite my low opinion of Sacred nation, it should stay where it is. It has been accepted in the NGV collection and the gallery director thinks it is worth exhibiting, however inexplicable that may be. It may be bad art, but that is only my say so, and on the key question, does it cause harm?, the answer is clearly no. It is certain to cause offence, but that is not the same thing as harm. As for public decency, the painting hangs in a major public gallery, but at least it is in a place where viewers can expect to find challenging works. If you enter a modern public gallery, you'd be a fool to expect nothing but chaste portraits and rosy landscapes.

    Fifty Six is another matter altogether. Where Sacred nation hangs inside the NGV, Fifty Six was exhibited in a window on a busy city street. Very few of the Flinders Street pedestrians chose to be presented with an anti-Israel propaganda poster. So it fails on public decency.

    It also fails on risk of harm. Hookey's Sacred nation undoubtedly insults George Bush Jr, John Howard, middle Australia, and the US and Australia in general. But it leads nowhere else. In Australia, if you see this painting and take offence, you might grumble about it or even write a letter of complaint to the gallery or the newspaper, but nobody is likely to perform acts of violence because of it.

    Fifty Six on the other hand may well contribute to the endemic violence and vilification towards Jews. I have no reason to suspect that Azlan McLennan intended his work to incite violence, but it is a real possibility. After September 11, a well-known American poet wrote that S11 was known in advance by Jews, none of whom turned up for work that day (the official death list records dozens of Jewish names, but this did nothing to stop the rumour). Egyptian television broadcast a dramatisation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And there was an upsurge of vandalism and arson directed at mosques, which was reprehensible, and at synagogues, which was reprehensible and insane. Fifty Six may never have provoked any specific incidents, but it tapped into the culture that breeds anti-Semitism.

    Inside the NGV there is a smattering of security guards. The guards are there to protect the paintings from vandalism and theft. The other place I see such a cordon of security guards, albeit much smaller, is every Saturday morning as I drive past the local synagogue. The guards are there to protect the people from arson and assault.

    · First three art photographs by Paul Harris from The Age website.

    · Further reading: "The politics of art".


    Felis sylvestrii vs. Andalgornis tweettius

    14 MAY 2004 | source Frankenblog | permalink

    Scientific American has reprinted an article from 1994 called "The Terror Birds of South America" by Larry G. Marshall. These impressive birds were taller than humans and aggressive carnivores. They were the dominant land predator of South America until 2.5 million years ago, when the Panama land bridge formed between the North and South American continents. Over this land bridge came the predators that would eventually drive the terror birds to extinction: jaguars and sabre-tooth cats. That is, the giant birds were eaten by giant cats.

    Whoever would have thought the old Warner Bros cartoons were educational?