Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spare us from grown men and professors being “provocative"

Back in August 2007, I went to the MacGeorge Lecture as part of Melbourne University's School of Historical Studies Winter Lecture series.

Professor Donald Preziosi, Oxford University gave the lecture entitled Art, Religion, and Amnesia. His basic text was Plato's banishing of (mimetic) art from his ideal society. In effect the "ur-text" 2500 years of religious (and political) worries about the subversive ("problematising") nature of art. In seeking to understand Plato's concern—and the concerns of all those who have seen art and representation as various forms of blasphemy—Prof. Preziosi contended that there was a terror inherent in the nature of representation; that art and religion were two sides of the same phenomena, that religious fear of art was matched by artistic fear of religiosity; that art as representation encouraged thinking of otherness which exposed and undermined the artifice of religion, an artifice such that religion needed to create amnesia about its own artifice; that a sense of the spiritual and the immaterial were created out of the works of the religion rather than religion expressing any truth about putative matters spiritual and immaterial.

One of the frustrating aspects of the lecture was that when Prof. Preziosi spoke in plain English, he would tend to say some striking and thought-provoking things. As soon as he lapsed into polysyllabic academic buzz words, the intellectual quality would drop dramatically. The lecture included some backdrop images: these were not worked into the presentation much, they function more as somewhat dissonant and distracting backdrops. No doubt intentionally so, but also quite childishly so.

In fact, a certain tiresome undergraduate snootiness pervaded the entire lecture. A nose-thumbing immaturity parading as intellectual provocation. Being so busy showing how clever one was at "seeing through" things as to fail to see the things themselves precisely because of a lack of mature engagement with wider society.
Prof. Preziosi is a strong critique of art history. Particularly in response to a question, he critiqued art history as having been born in a notion of particular peoples having particular art. It is pretty easy to pick apart C19th nationalist scholarship. The sad thing was that much of what Prof. Preziosi was offering was current conventional pieties parading as scholarship sneering at preceding sets of pieties formerly paraded as scholarship. So we got the conventional sneerings at Dubya and his religiosity (supporting Dubya would have been far more provocative: but it was mostly faux provocation being offered). Religion was treated as only being fictive. As only being structures of power. (Apparently, no religion ever started out of power, nor involved genuine belief.)

The Professor's approach to representation and signification was very much a semiotic one. Which suffers from the normal problem of such critiques—being so busy analysing the utility of such things for and in power structures as to lose all sense of what such things are for in the first place. After all, they only have any utility for the powerful because they have uses and value regardless of power. Power hijacks them and their uses, it does not create such.

I was particularly unconvinced by his explanation of various forms of iconoclasm as being about a fear of representation. On the contrary, it is about the primacy of the word. It is monotheistic religions particularly focused on sacred texts—Judaism, Islam, anxieties in a literate Empire, an explosion of texual awareness under the impact of printing—which generated iconoclasm. Not some generic fear of representation and otherness. After all, the Catholic Church rejected Plato's artistic nervousness: in Pope Gregory the Great's words,
pictures are used in churches so that those who do not know their letters may be a least by looking at the walls read what they cannot read in books.
The Danish cartoon controversy provided part of the lead in to the lecture, but that example too is misleading. The use of the Danish cartoons to harden Islamic attitudes was no different from the use of The Satanic Verses to harden Islamic attitudes.

Yes, it is perfectly true that one has to have words to have religion and words are a form of representation. But one has to have words to have any society beyond the most minimal. Any notion of truth involves a notion of falsity, any notion of respect a notion of disrespect. Blasphemy is just a particular label for abhorred belief, and given that progressive academics such as Prof. Preziosi have a battery of abhorred beliefs, it is particularly silly to get snooty about blasphemy. Being racist is, after all, contemporary academic blasphemy.

It was at least cheering that the lecture proceeded without manifesting any of normal academic obssession with racism. Alas, a questioner raised the issue of an exhibition on Australian Impressionism which only had one black face. So the good professor explained how art history was inherently racist in its origins. Sigh. Modern academe—particularly with its tendency to lump tribalism, xenophobia and chauvinism under the simplistic rubric of racism—tends to be much more obsessed with race than past societies were. Confusing obsessions of the relatively recent past (say 1850 onwards, earlier in the settler societies) with quite different previous constructions of identity.

Still, there were glimmerings of some striking ideas amongst the tedious conventionality.

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