Thursday, 27 May 2010

Rapacious Desire

There has been a fair amount of debate about the above video on YouTube over the last week or so and the discussion has provoked me into examining a number of issues which demand further scrutiny. The video comes as a response to feminist opposition to the sex industry due to its objectification of women. The counter argument posed by this video sees such opposition as an infringement of the right to use one's body in whatever way one chooses. This is a classic "liberal" argument which, at first glance, seems both logical and fair but which ignores the fact that a lack of boundaries doesn't necessarily coincide with a reduction in potential harm. If we were free to do as we wish with our bodies, would it be acceptable to sell one of our kidneys, one of our eyes, or even something more life-threatening or to offer our bodies for others to punch and beat in return for cash? If a market exists for such things, as it undoubtedly does, then there's money to be made. But as we all know, money corrupts. People are willing to do all kinds of things for money which they would never otherwise volunteer to do. Accepted, there are many unpleasant or dangerous occupations which only money can compensate for but usually these don’t disable or degrade the people doing them and if they do, every effort is made (or should be) to minimise this risk and compensate for it.

The American philosopher Michael Sandel has some fascinating views on the subject of prostitution and commercial surrogacy which are relevant here. He argues that such practices "corrupt the good bound up with the moral meaning of the human body and sexuality". Whilst we might wish for greater clarity here, I would agree with Sandel about what he identifies as an "impoverished conception of freedom that is concerned only with individual or consumer choice in the marketplace." Sandel argues for an alternative to consumer or market freedom which he terms "civic freedom" which:

"actually encourages men and women to think of themselves first as citizens, at least for political purposes, not first as consumers… This isn't really about restricting freedom, it's about enlarging and making more demanding the understanding of what freedom is. The freedom of citizens to deliberate about the common good, not just the freedom of consumers to pursue their own self-interest unimpeded."

One of the most powerful objections against calls for the legalisation of prostitution is that it's rarely, if ever, offered willingly, but rather as a result (direct or otherwise) of poverty, drug abuse or corruption. It's certainly difficult to imagine how anything but money could compensate for such a vocation, but the important thing to recognise here is that underlying this perception is often a more pernicious and insidious “commonsense” injunction against prostitution: the view that it’s somehow unclean, dirty, filthy, seedy, sleazy, sordid, base, squalid, nasty, foul, disgusting and repulsive. If ever a list of synonyms was a clear indicator of social disapproval, this is undoubtedly it. Most of these terms are inevitably and unthinkingly directed at the workers themselves to the point where it's very difficult to determine which is actually the more degrading: the job, or society's portrayal of the people who perform it. The stigma derives from prostitution’s longstanding historical association with sexually transmitted diseases, but at another level the attitude is also perpetuated by - and intricately intertwined with - more deeply seated puritanical values about the vices of carnal acts - with all their attendant primitive urges and bodily humours. However, it's always clear when such arguments are mobilised, particularly ones which resort to yuk responses, that this is simply a shorthand for "I haven't really thought this through and I'm just accepting what I've received from popular opinion."

Putting social circumstances aside for the moment (which may appear as one abstraction too far), what’s the essential difference between “normal” sex and sex with a prostitute? Normal sex involves reciprocal sexual desire whereas prostituted sex does not. It’s this deceptively simple yet fundamental difference which has such profound repercussions for our understanding of sex and sexual relations. The reason that many people have an aversion to prostitution is not so much because it's sleazy (for some this would be one of its attractions) but rather because it’s selfish (previously I wrote "inauthentic" - see the comments). And by this I mean that the desire involved is a one way street: its not reciprocal, simply consensual. Sex and sexual desire should never have to be measured against something as prosaic as consent. Consent is a nadir not a zenith; it’s a bare minimum; the lowest possible denominator below which is nothing but rape.

I think we need to make an extremely important distinction between two radically different kinds of sexual desire: reciprocal desire and rapacious desire. Reciprocal desire gives itself actively and freely and with one condition: that this desire is shared, whereas rapacious desire is a predatory desire distinct from lust by being particularly self-serving rather than simply impassioned. Rapacious desire treats others as things; as means to an end; as objects. Rapacious desire is exactly the self-interested pursuit of consumption which Sandel spoke of above and we need to be extremely vigilant about how and why we might wish to cater to this desire.

For this reason I disagree with the “Making Sex Work” video. I realize that the situation is deeply complex with far too many conflicting agendas to cover in a blog post, but of all the current ways of dealing with this morass of opinion and argument I think the Swedish Model is by far the most rational: decriminalize prostitution and support and provide legal protection for prostitutes but criminalize the users of prostitution. Target rapacious desire.

There’s a world of difference between the freedom of expression and the freedom to be abused.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Art, Meaning and Purpose

An online article was posted last week at the following website (here) which discusses the earnings which students make after studying different subjects at university. Unsurprisingly perhaps, at the very top of the list are Law degrees followed by those in Management. At the very bottom of the list are Arts degrees.

In general, women who study at university tend to earn significantly more than their counterparts who don't go to university but male graduates from arts degrees are actually likely to earn slightly less than their peers with the same entry qualifications but who decided not to go to university.

Should art students be worried about these reported facts? If they're looking for art school to turn them into money generators then they probably should be worried, but if you were to ask any art student why they're studying, most of them will probably tell you that they're certainly not doing it as a means of becoming rich. In the following short clip, shot in 1972, of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl he addresses exactly this very point:

"Treat a man as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can be and should be." Goethe

So the point is an ontological one - so much less about money and more about “being” - it has everything to do with the aspirations of people to participate and make sense of the ambiguities of life and it seems fitting therefore that art, meaning and purpose are so clearly opposed to law, management and money.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Draw Muhammad Day

There’s a campaign currently growing on Facebook and YouTube to initiate a "Draw Muhammad Day" on the 20th May. This has formed in response to recent fundamentalist threats and the subsequent censorship of an episode of Southpark which contained a satirical depiction of the Prophet. Unfortunately, the people behind this misbegotten campaign seem to be making the error of conflating two distinct issues: free expression and the criticism of Islam. They're obviously under the impression that it makes sense to cause deliberate offence by exercising their right to free expression.

Along with the right of free expression also comes the right to deliberately offend anyone one chooses. This we call freedom. But despite such inalienable rights, most people understand that there's very little to be gained from offending people, whether or not you agree with their beliefs. If vegetarians claimed that they are offended by images of animals being tortured (as most of them are) would we feel a compulsion to exercise our right of free expression by disseminating such imagery? Unlikely, but then again vegetarians aren't making death threats are they? But let’s picture another scenario: imagine that a subsection of an ethnic minority decided to make death threats against anyone making racist comments. Would it seem appropriate to instigate a campaign of racism simply to "dilute the targets" as Molly Norris (the illustrator behind the draw Muhammad day campaign) has claimed?

If the issue at hand is infringement of free speech then I'll be one of the first at the barricades but if you wish to stoke tensions and misunderstanding by inciting ill conceived acts of provocation then count me out.

If I might mix two religious metaphors: what does it profit a man if he ignites fires on the chest of Islam?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Timeless Technology

Is there a technology more contemporary yet timeless than sheet glass or mirrors?

Friday, 7 May 2010

Privacy and Honour

I received a staff e-mail the other day on the subject of data protection which asks members of academic staff to be very careful with the personal information in their possession about students.
“Be particularly careful if you are in possession of sensitive personal data (i.e. information relating to race, political opinion, physical or mental health, religious belief, trade union membership, sexuality, criminal offences etc).”
It’s easy to see how such regulations emerge and evolve as society becomes more concerned about litigation, but despite the increasing nuances (and the possible protections these afford) there’s rarely ever an attempt made, on the part of the people handing out the “advice”, to deal with or seek to expose the complexities and contradictions which are embedded in such measures. For example, how are we to ascertain what is really meant by the word “sensitive” in this context? If someone is heterosexual, should we consider this to be sensitive information, and who decides? If someone supports the Labour Party is this any less sensitive data than if they’re an Anarchist? And what about personal information that people broadcast without even realizing that they’ve done so?

The problem with injunctions that ask us to “be careful” is that they’re often so vague that we’re forced to form our own judgements about what is or isn’t appropriate and these can sometimes lead to absurd levels of caution. In this context it’s perhaps understandable that, during discussions with students, we tend to refrain from the mention of potentially sensitive subjects because we don’t wish to be accused of a breach of any kind, but if you take this to a logical conclusion, it's not difficult to imagine a situation where we may feel compelled to say to students that we don't wish to discuss any personal subjects whatsoever, and where would that leave us, especially in fine art where personal expression is still a much vaunted practice?
Shared personal information creates a bond of trust between people, especially if they’re friends. The value and meaning of this bond is based on a two way relationship which acknowledges both the value of privacy and the possibility of betrayal. Friends are, in part, judged on their discretion and trustworthiness. But institutions also hold personal information about individuals associated with them and are consequently obliged to be extremely prudent about how they treat this information. Teachers, as representatives of institutions, also carry this burden of responsibility and it's therefore understandable that they should be very careful with any personal information in their possession. The problem which concerns me here, arises through the conflict between institutionalisation and self-regulation; between the institution's desire to meet its legal responsibilities and the integrity of its representatives. Now, you might say that there doesn't seem to be a conflict here: both parties desire confidentiality. This is quite correct, but the important aspect is not what is desired but how this aim is brought about. Just as friends are judged on their discretion, so teachers are judged on their integrity, and integrity, as we all know, is something which certainly doesn’t come as an automatic consequence of regulation. I'm far from arguing that every teacher is every student's friend but I do think it's important to recognise that the more structures put in place to regulate the behaviour of teachers, the more difficult it becomes for them to distinguish themselves by their conduct: in this case, their custodianship of other people’s personal information.
This isn’t an argument for greater recognition of teachers (though this is arguably also an area which is being eroded) but rather about principles and most especially about how these principles are inscribed and cultivated within the very fabric of the institutions which also cultivate future generations and contributors to society. Is it not ironic that the very institutions who are entrusted with the authority to bestow “honours” by the thousands to graduating students each year, think so little of the concept of honour itself and seem to have so little understanding of how it is nurtured?
Personal data is sensitive either because it can be used to discriminate against people or because it can expose emotional vulnerabilities. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should be more relaxed with personal information but I think the attempt to mitigate against abuse in this way has the unfortunate side-effect of perverting the value and authenticity of well-established social codes which, whilst they may be open to abuse, at least treat people as discerning, self-regulatory and principled beings rather than untrustworthy infants who need to be kept in line. This is one of the worst things you can do with legislation – pass it down the chain, with no invitation for discussion of how best to utilise and apply it, as if it were so much uncomplicated common sense. And this is where the subtle but important point lies: at it’s best, legislation augments social codes by enshrining them in law and ensuring that everyone has equal protection and equal opportunities for justice and fair treatment. In many ways such institutionalization is perfectly reasonable, but from another perspective there's the danger that it simply substitutes one flawed system for another: accountability stripped of understanding, conformity robbed of scrutiny and obligation devoid of trust. Personal information has become a liability for teachers – no longer is it something which creates a bond, but rather a contractual obligation reinforced by the threat of civil action.

To return to the original point, I think where we most need to be “careful” is in the use of the words we use to describe the objects of data protection. The word “personal” is misleading for the simple reason that, as a concept, it straddles both the public and private realm and is completely unaltered by the shift between them. There’s no clear emphasis or imperative about the concept of the personal to suggest that it should be maintained in its present state, whereas “Private” information on the other hand can only ever be private, by definition. So if you want to make it quite clear that something is confidential - and therefore should not be divulged - then it’s probably best to tell people that it’s private. And if you’re in any doubt about the imperative that this lends then consider for a moment the change in emphasis if you replace it with the word “secret”.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

This guy's ripping me off

Stephen Willats thought that 
Art & Language were ripping him off 

Art & Language thought that 
Joseph Kosuth was ripping them off
Joseth Kosuth thought that 
Lawrence Weiner was ripping him off 

on a recent trip to London 
Lawrence Weiner saw a show by Stephen Willats 

he said 
fuck me this guy's ripping me off
“Circle”, owada (Martin Creed)

Untitled, contact print, 1985

I spend much of my teaching life giving ideas away to students. I try to keep these ideas as rudimentary as possible because I believe it's important for students to generate their own more sophisticated solutions - after all, it's usually they who initiated the ideas in the first place. Sometimes we just need a gentle nudge to help us along our way and to allow us to discover a new perspective upon our work - so a suggestion, no matter how vague or clumsy (and mine are often both), is often helpful to clarify our direction.

This process of sharing ideas, and most especially the possession of them, is fraught with difficulty, especially for artists who work in close proximity. House-styles emerge because artists influence and inspire one another. Movements arise for the same reason, but perhaps contain a wider variety of approaches and fewer tendencies to mimic visual appearances to the detriment of content. For this reason, house-styles are viewed with suspicion whereas movements (isms) are viewed as progressive. But how can a movement really evolve without a certain beginning in a house-style? If artists are so anxious not to mimic one another how can they develop a shared vision without creating possessiveness, bitterness and suspicion?

Some years ago a student once said to me “I don’t mind people ripping me off Jim – I’ve got loads of ideas.” Of course, for some of us the process of developing ideas is a much more involved process, so to the extent that we’ve invested research, struggle and emotion in our work it can be frustrating to see other people taking what appears to be easy advantage of our hard-won effort.

Untitled, C-type print, 1986

When I was a student the artist and visiting lecturer Mari Mahr praised me on the images I was making using a Diana camera, but I was put off continuing with them because another more senior student was using the Diana too (and to me he was doing a much better job). During a later visit she asked me why I’d stopped using the Diana Camera. I said “Because so and so uses a Diana camera too” to which she replied – “That’s easy – all you have to do is make more images than him”. I did, and we soon found our own individual ways to be distinctive.

Untitled, C-type print, 1986

There's a related, but perhaps more troubling situation, where, like Capt Scott, you toil towards something only to find that it's already been discovered. The feeling of disappointment in such situations is directly proportional to the investment made. At least when you rip someone off you’re under no illusions that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants – or perhaps more accurately - on the shoulders of someone else’s giant. But ultimately the reward that comes as a result of genuine effort is yours alone, in so far as you understand how you got there and next time you'll be all the better prepared for the difficult but potentially highly rewarding journey.

Cedalion standing on the shoulders of Orion from Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun by Nicolas Poussin, 1658