It’s the holidays, and I’m force feeding my children cultural experiences. Today that meant a visit to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston.
A very kind guide welcomed us and told us what was on in each space. Artrage, she said, was the work of year 11 and 12 students. ‘You’ll like that,’ she said confidently to my children, and I wondered how she knew.
Turns out, they didn’t.
Some of the installations and artworks in that room were very fine – pieces experimenting with form and composition, three dimensional work with wonderful glazes, an arresting full size portrait in charcoal and watercolour, and many more than I can describe here.
There was also work that I would describe as very dark and introspective. In truth, I felt one or two pieces were self-indulgent. But perhaps that’s a purely personal response.
The piece that really disturbed me, especially when I found my ten year old son and fourteen year old daughter sitting in front of it looking aghast, was a video of a young man seated in front of a camera, covering his head and shoulders in what looked like a mix of crude oil and clay, to the point where his entire face was concealed in a disgusting black mess. Apologies to the creator of that art work if he or she is reading this. We just didn’t like it.
I know that the teenager years can be reflective and dark. I know we can’t be there at every turn to lead them through the darkness and possibly must let them experience it for themselves so that they can survive in the wider world.
But I think I believe that it’s our job as parents and educators to guide our young people through that darkness for as long as they need us to, and help them decide when they need to go deeper and think stuff through, and when they need to put it aside with will power and emotional strength.
Implicit in this would be some guidance about how dark should they go in creating a piece of art work. How introspective? And when does introspection become self-indulgence? Is the work justified? Is it a piece of accomplished self-examination which has some result? Is it rhetorical? Or is it not working? Is it just a piece of introspection which doesn’t quite achieve the greatness it purports to?
Ultimately, if a piece of art work horrifies its viewers, that should be justified.
I believe there’s a line to be drawn somewhere, and this piece, or perhaps the exhibiting of this piece, has missed it.
I can accept that this work has raised a lot of questions for me, and that in itself is not a bad thing. Perhaps that was its intention. But it also upset my children, and thus offended me.
I’ve always believed that film makers have a responsibility to make the right decisions about what they put on screens and market to us. It’s why I believe the film Seven should not have been made.
Our art, and our ideology, is created. We make it, and at some point we decide whether to make it or not. Whether it needs to be expressed. Whether it should be seen. We don’t voice all our thoughts. Maybe we shouldn’t express them as art either.
I have my doubts about whether encouraging students to create artworks which explore and express their deepest darkness is healthy for them, or for those of us who have to look at them afterwards, especially when they’re going to be thinking about it every day until the piece is complete.
Or maybe I just didn’t think this piece did it very well. Maybe the self-indulgence took over.
Some artists have been famously disturbed. Look at Van Gogh. If he’d lived today, perhaps social services, the welfare state, and health care might have changed everything for him, and perhaps he wouldn’t have created the artworks he did, if you believe that his disturbed state of mind was pivotal to what he created. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps he would have lived on to a ripe old age producing works of even more magnified genius.
Is suffering at the centre of some of our art? Maybe in some cases – Picasso’s Guernica. But it’s very difficult to pull off. If you’re not Picasso, you could end up missing the mark and just creating something that’s a bit nasty. And if you’re an art teacher, you should be bearing this in mind.
Whatever the true status of that piece of video, whether it’s art or self-indulgence, it really got to my ten year old son. As we stood before the counter in the art gallery’s café, a pink flush crept over his face, which happens when he’s overwhelmed. His eyes welled with tears and he suddenly put his arms around me. ‘I just don’t like museums, there’s something about them,’ he said.
Later, at the lunch table, he added that places like MONA, where he’s also seen some confrontational stuff, are ‘just too weird’.
His older sister agreed when asked what she made of that particular artwork. ‘I didn’t like it, I hated it,’ she said.
We ate lunch in the bright, light space of the café, surrounded by primary school children’s images of wild animals in colourful hues. It struck me that in their infancy we’re encouraging our children to explore the outer world and take delight in it, and that a few years later we’re encouraging them to look inwards and find their darker depths.
Or are they doing it spontaneously? Mine haven’t quite reached that stage yet, so perhaps I’ve got it all to come.
As it is, I’m ambiguous on whether this examination of inner darkness happens naturally or is something we nurture, and whether we should. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch Doctor Who, it was considered too scary. Instead, I was brought up on a diet of the Two Ronnies and Parkinson. I was quite happy with all of that – still am. Were my parents forcing me to live in Lala-Land? Did they prevent me from addressing fears and concepts I’d need to cope with in later life? So far I don’t think so.
Then again, I’m not very good at expressing my fears or my deepest emotions, it’s true, and I’m probably not a profound thinker. I’m still fannying about trying to create a living for myself. So maybe I didn’t go deep enough.
But at least I didn’t have the shit scared out of me during my summer holidays.
Next to the art gallery’s café, there’s another bright space with more displays of children’s art. There’s a lightbox with coloured shapes to create images from, and small easels. Both my children spontaneously sat down and spent twenty contented and probably therapeutic minutes, drawing. My son drew a honey bee with four flowers. My daughter recreated an image of an elbow joint which she painted at school. Neither of them emerged emotionally scarred.
All of this made me reflect back to the ABC Radio National Books and Arts program I caught a snippet of recently with Michael Cathcart, on what teenagers are reading, and whether it’s too dark. Do they need the presence of zombies and aliens, vampires and dystopian societies in their fictional life? There were guest interviews with parents and teenagers, and it must be said, views were mixed.
One woman was taking her daughter out of school with the intention of home schooling her, because she was sick of the depressing reading list. She gave her daughter Robyn Davidson’s books Tracks instead, an uplifting, inspirational book about a woman doing something extraordinary.
Another parent said she had read King Lear after her parents divorced and found comfort in the extremis of others, even if they were fictional.
One student said that at their age, they are thinking about dark things and confronting the world head on anyway, and to have reading material around which reflects that is helpful.
They all seem like valid views to me.
That afternoon, we went to see Paddington 2, a movie which is resolutely uplifting from start to finish, except for when he’s falsely accused of theft and imprisoned. Even then, he manages to unite his fellow prisoners over marmalade sandwiches, and many of them find they too have a recipe in them, and the place comes together over food, that universal, celebratory, ritual element that all cultures share. There was adventure, sorrow, pathos, joy, a great plot and Hugh Grant and some of the other stalwarts of British theatre giving rousing, self-deprecatory and brilliant turns. It was genius. We all three loved it, although my children were slightly embarrassed that I was the only person laughing at the ‘very nice buns’ line.
I tried to make sense of my day in the car on the way home. I could sit through Paddington again in a heartbeat and enjoy it just as much and draw as much from it. To my surprise, I decided I could also visit Artrage again, although without my children next time. It made me think. It also made me concerned, about what teenagers are thinking and experiencing, and what their parents and educators are encouraging them to think about.
I believe we should be careful what we wish for our young people. Teenage years are difficult enough. We should be careful what we encourage them to think about, what we encourage them to create in the name of art, how deeply we should encourage them to delve, what we encourage them to look at, how long we encourage them to examine it for. Delving can be allowed, wallowing no.
Ultimately, it led me to believe that some art work is just not suitable for children, as acknowledged by MONA with their recommended family route through the gallery, and that it might not necessarily be all that helpful for some adults either.
And that if you’re going to create something really confrontational, it has to be good, and it has to be about something that’s worth it.