Jesus doesn’t sell anymore – The artist as the mirror of our souls

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(The Artist as the mirror of our souls)

They say our artists are the mirror of our souls. If thats true then the Western soul looks very toubled. If you want an insight into the soul of contemporary Western culture two of the windows you can look through are: popular television entertainment and avant- gar’de contemporary artists.

If we start with a week’s viewing of popular entertainment on commercial TV a particular metaphor comes to mind. It’s like visiting a sleazy carnival run by pimps, hucksters and snake oil salesmen!

But if we turn to our second and more interesting window a current place where we could begin is to look at the work of the Belgian neo conceptualist artist Wim Delvoye and Australian/Greek writer Christos Tsoilkas, both very current.

In Delvoye we see an example of an ironic but cynical expression of the loss of meaning in Western culture. As Delvoye says “everything in modern life is pointless” and his art expresses this feeling well. A Delvoye piece has been chosen as a permanent installation in MONA our new prestigious and popular Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. In fact from Dec 2011 to April 2012 a collection of his work has the honour of being the MONA’s first temporary exhibition. (2)

Delvoye has created, as a work of art, an elaborate machine that simulates the human digestive system and produces excrement – it’s called the “Cloaca”,from a latin word meaning sewer. Given his view that everything in modern life is pointless, the most useless thing he could create was a machine that serves no purpose but the reduction of food to waste . He also has an ‘art farm’ where he tattoos on pigs Louis Vuitton fashion designs and symbols of the great ideas of Western culture. He is saying that our culture has lost its meaning; it has become trivial and absurd. Our most highly prized consumer objects and our most precious ideas will ultimately end up in an abattoir and then we will eat and defecate them! He is in the tradition of the Dadaist’s and Marcel Duchamp famously exhibiting a urinal as a work of art at a 1917 exhibition. They anticipated, at the beginning of the 20th C., what was coming culturally for the West as it began to turn away from its spiritual roots and was overpowered by industrial consumerism.

In Christos Tsiolkas’s novel “The Slap”, (3) now made into a powerful and widely viewed TV mini-series, we see the unattractive, indeed the very unpleasant face, of a large section Australia’s new middle class . It is a brilliantly evoked, and if accurate, a deeply disturbing view. They are a generation who have experienced material prosperity but departed from many of the values of their parents and grandparents. Morally unmoored and without a bigger compass of meaning and values beyond self-interest, they present a sad picture of a mostly unpleasant selfish people struggling with personal and interpersonal dysfunction. The film begins with the illusion of community and family but apart from the elderly parents their ‘community’ has no real depth because their actual focus is self-interest, personal gratification and individual rights.

In an interesting interview with Geraldine Doogue on ABC Compass in 2011, Christos who has a Greek orthodox background, acknowledged that although he was no longer a believer he felt that the loss of Christian faith and values had greatly affected his generation. He said one of his aims was to show the high cost of this in the mostly unpleasant cast of characters he created.

As I reflect on this mirror of our souls held up to us by our artists, the moral and spiritual landscape of Western culture begins to feel like a scene from the iconic film “Blade Runner”, with its paradoxical images of high rise affluence and high tech achievement but at street level its a picture of social decay.
There is a very symbolic scene early in the film where we find ourselves in the ultra- modern pent house office of the company who makes the life like but rogue robots (Cyborgs) that the Blade Runner has been hired to find and eliminate. As we view the luxurious interior we see an Owl perched on a stand. Then the owl takes flight passing in front of the vast glass windows behind which a brilliant sun is setting.
The symbolism is deliberate. The Owl has always been seen as a symbol of wisdom. In Roman mythology he accompanies the goddess Minerva, goddess of wisdom. But it was the German philosopher Hegel who famously wrote, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”, by which he meant, that philosophy only comes to understand an historical condition as it is passing away. This image early in “Blade Runner” is telling us that the films bleak vision of the future is what the sunset of Western culture will look like. We are now living in that future.

(1) Wim Delvoye. In an interview for The Age 10/12/11. In his own work he says he uses Jesus as a subject just because he is not fashionable! “ He’s a reject. Jesus doesn’t sell anymore.”
(2) The Arts, The Age 10/12/11
(3) “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas, pub. 2008 Alan & Unwin

Peter Corney