Art for art’s sake, a slogan translated from the French “l’art pour l’art” and was apparently coined sometime in the early 19th century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin. The phrase vaguely expresses the belief held by many writers and artists, especially those associated with Aestheticism, that art needs no justificationand that it needs to serve no political, didactic, or any other social end.
Someone is kicking up a stink about another artist’s freedom of expression. The painting creating a new flurry of provocation is called “Christian Flautists Outside St Patrick’s” and was the last painting of Irish artist Joseph McWilliams, who died recently. The Royal Ulster Academy are under fire from the Orange Order for displaying this perceived infamy. They have been forced to remind the public that the purpose of art can sometimes be to rattle the cages and not simply to provide decoration for chocolate boxes ,children’s clothing or making “nice” pictures to go with all the other furnishings. The artist expressed himself as he saw fit and possibly enjoyed the idea of one last, beyond the grave, chuckle at the madness of life in Norneverland. Someone enjoyed his work enough to front some £16,000 to purchase it. The painting depicts one of Norneverland’s curiously Toytown -dressed marching bands ,walking in a continuous circle as they played what has become known in certain circles as “The Famine Song”, in front of a Roman Catholic church. The intent was not the glorify the church or the church-goers, but rather to stamp an insulting doggerel of sound over the inner proceedings as a dog or a cat might piss over another cat or dog’s markings. The old folk tune, previously performed by various artists such as the Beach Boys as “The Sloop John B”, has been more recently conflated to include disparaging references of a somewhat anti-Irish intent. The painting, obviously being a three -dimensional artifact depicting a two -dimensional scenario, cannot stretch to a fourth dimension and provide a soundtrack and a temporal commentary to the depicted events, but the brouhaha is actually more concerned with the depiction in a small, few inches of canvas and some tiny figures, seemingly garbed as Ku Klux Klansmen , apparently wearing Orange Order sashes or other paraphenalia. I assumed that the Klan had their own specific sashes, of course, and there may even be a few Klansmen with Orange Order membership .Who knows? It is ,after all ,a worldwide fellowship of protestantism which shares some of the same anti-everything- else but white protestanism , beliefs.In that sense you might think the two organisations are possibly entwined in a vague world -diaspora . The”Klansmen” blurrily depicted in the painting’s corner appear to be sporting a somewhat truncated mini-dress version of the Klan’s usually more modest head-to-toe, all-covering , hooded burqa …more of a cinched meal-bag in fact. You would have to look hard to be offended , in any case.
In none of this was the quality of the artwork ever mentioned.It seems to be faithfully based on photographic references to the events, painted with architectural exactitude and movement….except for that little snicker in the corner which juxtaposes with the otherwise seemingly benign endeavour and jollity of the bandsmen. I’m sure they are now poring over their captured images and comparing notes.
Artists will always offend someone, should that be with the confounding conceptialism , its abstraction or even the quality of a painting’s application .In many cases cartoonists are employed specifically to do that very thing.It may be their own, or their editor’s vision that is being depicted, but someone like our own Ian Knox or Gerald Scarfe have their own ideas to kick about.Ralph Steadman once famously depicted Spiro Agnew as Richard Nixon’s glorious ,naked arse.
I left Belfast and Norneverland for Leeds Art College some forty three years ago in 1972. I’d had enough of the bombing , bullets and aggravated paranoia of the place .It was a bloody living nightmare and I had a chance to escape it. That didn’t mean I left my mind behind entirely .One of the paintings that popped out of my imagination in that first year was a four foot square pop-art canvas of benignly smiling gollywogs bearing rifles. It was a curiously odd, painted cartoon of a thing, that ended its life abandoned in a darkened Leeds basement some time later. In fact I still remember loading the unwieldy thing onto a Leeds corporation bus to transport it from the studio to that very tiny little basement flat. These days “gollywogs” are suspect. They are politically incorrect. They are seen now as a thowback to minstelry and racism. That was not how they appeared to most of the public back then.They disported on the label of your Robinson’s Breakfast Marmalade as you buttered your toast. They were seen as childrens’ blue-suited, tail-coated , stuffed toys..every bit as companionable as the cuddly Roosevelt “Teddy Bear”. Robinsons produced beautifully crafted little enamel badges of “Golly” performing all kinds of business which you buy in exchange for jam jar labels. Golly playing cricket , golf or tennis….golly as a policeman or riding a scooter. I had some of these .I had golly playing a little guitar pinned in my jacket lapel. Robinsons even made little ceramic “Golly” figurines for collectors.
To depict my gollys with rifles or machine guns seemed to me to be making a vague statement of some sort.What was my twenty year old self trying to say? Well…that’s a hard one to remember all these years later …it may have been something to do with a loss of innocence or a loss of childhood. I was wasn’t remotely racist so I may have been saying something about the racism that was inherent in this benign little figurine ; it’s history of a childhood character hanging on to a litany of racial and racist stereotypes…all mixed in with a statement of sorts about the nature of the civil disturbance I’d left momentarily back in Norneverland..The painting is long gone and remains only as a memory in an old studio photograph.
You could say that Picasso’s “Guernica” could cause some great upset to militarists the world over for its depiction of the butchery and savagery that their chosen career engenders. Art is always going to cause upset to someone , should it be the naked depiction of the human body to the more modestly inclined , or the performance of a piece of theatre on a stage that upsets their well-embedded thought processes.
What was Joseph McWilliams trying to say in his painting ?Well , if you left out the little Ku Klux Klan figures, it would simply look like a jolly day out for a band of merry little figures locked in a hamster-wheel of motion , possibly playing “Christian” music in front of some impressive building .That’s how it might be interpreted in another fifty years time, save for one little telling detail.Those little smudged figures in the corner are the key to another more complicated story entirely.