Dark Mofo is one of a few — if not the only– arts festival in Australia that still could be considered edgy, but this year it capitulated to the mob and cancelled a piece of art that should have been defended on principle but lambasted on substance (or lack thereof).
The artwork subject to cancellation cries was by controversial Spanish performance artist Santiago Sierra who asked indigenous people to give blood so that he could spill it on the Union Jack.
This artwork was clearly designed to be a statement against colonialism but that didn’t stop it from being the subject of an outrage mob. The critics of the piece had a point when they say it is hypocrisy for Sierra to demonstrate that spilling indigenous blood in the name of imperialism was wrong by having a white man spill indigenous blood in the name of art.
Whether graphic depiction in art critiques or promotes its subject is a well-worn argument. In 2020 the Netflix Film “Cuties” triggered the same kind of argument; some argued that the scenes of child sexualisation enforced that it was negative whereas others thought it promoted child sexploitation through its depiction.
Dark Mofo had an easy way out of the controversy it found itself in. They could have neither promoted nor cancelled the art and left it up to the artist to decide whether to proceed with his work. Sierra’s project probably would have failed anyway due to a lack of supporters (or rather blood donors).
But in this age where mobs call for metaphorical blood when something offends, Dark Mofo was soon being hounded to cancel the artwork. In Dark Mofo’s first statement they claimed the mantle of free speech to defend the artwork from the baying mob… but then they capitulated.
This stance will come back to bite Dark Mofo. In one statement they damaged their reputation as defenders of controversial art, which will make edgy artists less likely to collaborate with them, and, encouraged future calls for cancellation as mobs rarely stop once they get what they want.
It is not necessary to like an artwork to defend it — and defend it I will, being the free speech supremacist that I am — but like it, I don’t. In fact, the SJW critique of this artwork doesn’t go far enough. This artwork is more than offensive and hypocritical. It is trite, disgusting and flippant.
Santiago Sierra’s art fits the ‘tear it down’ activist mould of most postmodern art. It perfectly fits the current (and predictable) art aesthetic: ugly, shocking, and explicit at its worst, and at best, banal. It is not intended to elevate but denigrate its subject.
Immersing the Union Jack in Blood is mere shock and horror. In no way does it inspire appreciation or awe of indigenous culture.
Postmodern art is so often pure drudgery, literally in the case of Sierra who made a name for himself critiquing capitalism by paying people to do useless tasks.
Whereas Tom Stoppard was a genius that could hit you with meaning after making you laugh at how farcical it all was. Today’s performance artists are carrying on the absurdist tradition but with none of the substance.
Another of Sierra’s performance pieces that received significant backlash involved turning a German synagogue into a makeshift gas chamber. Art can be both offensive and meaningful. But this is offensive and, more importantly (intentionally) banal.
Using shock value in art requires a constant ramping up or outdoing oneself. It needs to trigger major negative emotions such as disgust sensitivity. But even if it is successful at shocking its audience on first viewing, it gets boring really fast.
Art that depends on our positive emotions, our awe, love of beauty and opulence, desire to uncover the layers of meaning, stand the test of time because they keep inspiring us every time we engage with it.
If Dark Mofo wanted to be truly edgy it would challenge us in a way that is very rare in art today, by exhibiting multidimensional art that elevates and inspires.
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