Pathologies of outrage


The Rent-a-Negro web site link flew around the internet a while back, many people linking to it as a humorous site. Initially few people recognised that the site was, as well as being very funny and beautifully written, a ‘serious’ art project.

More recently, and more controversially, Tanja Ostojic’s poster of a reclining nude in blue briefs with the symbol of the European Union planted over the hidden entrance to an unknown woman’s vagina, caused outrage in Austria.

Other posters commissioned by 25PEACES were by Carlos Aires, a Spanish photographer, depicting international leaders (including the Queen of England) having sex.

What are we to make of these web sites and images? The Austrians, currently thinking hard about their relationship with Turkish immigrants and the possibility that Turkey might one day join the EU, were naturally sensitive to Ostojic’s image.

The 25PEACES commission of over a hundred works contained images that attempted to provoke debate about the relationships of global political leaders.

From this distance—and it is very difficult to judge reactions and emotions through the news and over the internet—what looks like public outrage may only be a storm in a teacup. In reports about the public outrage over art works, generated for the sake of news or not, there is almost never any real discussion of the ‘art’ in the art. Is it no longer relevant—because only ‘facts’ are reported in the news—what an artist’s other works are like?

Reporting (in Europe) about the controversy over the Ostojic image blends it seamlessly with reporting about the other posters and of people’s reactions. However, there are two facts it is useful to know…

1] The Ostojic image exactly reproduces Courbet’s famous painting in the Museé d’Orsay, ‘The Origin of the World’. The title of the reference painting, alone, should be enough to make us stop to think what might be going on here.

2] Ostojic’s art often focuses on issues where politics and women’s bodies collide. Look at this remarkable image of a woman in a camouflage burka 

To me, this is a much more powerful work than the 25PEACES commission, but I don’t expect to be bowled over by everything an artist does. Artistic works of this kind set out to dislodge our thinking from fixed positions.

Beginning with exactly the same methodology and materials, Carlos Aires’s contribution—global leaders fucking—seems thoroughly tame. Why? Possibly because the idea underpinning the images is weaker. Possibly because we sense, as viewers of the works, that Aires has strained too hard and with not enough effect after the outrage the work sought?

These are more typical Aires photographs. Confronting, in a dull way, but competently photographed and printed (on metallic paper: a trick from the advertising industry).

Part of the problem with Aires’s contribution to the 25PEACES commission may simply be that he has miscalculated the objects of his scorn. Why is Queen Elizabeth in the group at all?

The outrage over such art works is a good thing. Artists, old and new, sink or swim in the tidal flow of public perceptions. Commentators on art works behave as though this isn’t the case, and has not always been the case. The pathologies of our outrage, the process by which we become aware of what has moved us or left us cold, need to expand our peripheral vision beyond the images themselves while not losing focus on what it really is we are looking at.