Can we ever moralise about art? Yves Klein’s 1960 film ‘Anthropometry of the Blue Era’ shows a bourgeois audience happily paying to watch naked women slather themselves in blue paint and roll on a canvas in the name of art. This film, part of the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition ‘A Big Splash’, is a distressing example of the pleasure we take in watching the exploitation of others. It was only later when I realised that seeing the film made me just as culpable of voyeurism, and, seemingly, in no place to judge.
In art, we now consider the depiction of abhorrent behaviour not just acceptable, but intriguing. It is a subversive way of accessing a certain state of mind. We thrive on the discomfort we take from seeing distressing images and distance ourselves from the negative implications of our reactions by asserting that the art is fictive. It is when art and life become intertwined that this relationship becomes more complex. This tension is exploited by Francois Ozon in his film, Dans la Maison, which confuses the boundaries between fiction and reality. The main characters are put at a similar distance from the action as the audience. Looking on, they become so obsessed with the story, that they stop caring about whether it is real or fictitious. The film exemplifies the closeness between life and art, exposing how we constantly rely on subjectivity to create an idea of truth, which Ozon emphasises in one scene which is ‘rewritten’ three times in quick succession.
This is one way of exposing how we unconsciously treat other people as literary constructs governed by our own projections. The internet allows us to ‘stalk’ every aspect of someone’s life from afar. We constantly form our opinions about someone before we even meet them.
Art helps us understand aspects of our lives, but it is important that a distance is maintained between fantasy and reality. The Tate recently removed Graham Ovenden’s artwork from public view, after he was charged with acts of indecency. This has provoked a debate between art critics. Should it be the Tate’s role to censor art on the basis of the morality of the artist? The conviction of Ovendon may make his paintings of naked young girls rather sinister, but does it mean that they lose their artistic merit? We watch Woody Allen movies and appreciate their genius in full knowledge of the fact that he married the daughter he adopted, despite being thirty seven years older than her. Should our attitude to art be any different?
The difference is that Ovenden’s work is now considered so alarming because it apparently acts as a sanctified presentation and justification of his misdeeds in life through art. In the case of Ovenden, declaring the work as ‘fictive’ does not hold; his observation of young girls, no matter how skilled his artwork is, is too evocative of his crimes to allow for any appreciation of artistic merit.
Even though we should not base our moral judgement of art explicitly on the morals that we apply to life, we should remain conscious of them, and aware of any irreconcilable contradictions.