Michael Flatley, of Riverdance fame, has a new career as an artist, and it is giving me considerable entertainment. According to the Irish Times, Mr Flatley “creates his paintings by dancing on canvases (strips of marley – a type of linoleum floor covering used on stage by dancers)”.  We learn that “At least 12 of the paintings sold, for an average price of £52,000 (€74,000). Negotiations are continuing regarding further sales”.

You couldn’t make it up.  Truly, life is imitating art – in this case the amusing 1960 film “The Rebel”, starring the late comedian Tony Hancock.  To quote from Wikipedia:

Hancock plays a downtrodden London office clerk who gives up his office job to pursue full-time his vocation as an artist. Single mindedly, and with an enthusiasm far exceeding any artistic talent (his ‘art’ has a ‘childlike’ quality – to put it mildly), he sets to work on his masterpiece Aphrodite at the Waterhole, moving to  Paris where he expects his genius will be appreciated….. The film explores existentialist themes by mocking Parisian intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the English middle class…. The film also includes scenes parodying modern art. The scene showing Hancock splashing paint onto a canvas and riding a bike over it is a lampoon of the work of Action Painter, William Green while the childlike paintings of Hancock, referred to as the ‘infantile school’ or the ‘shapeist school’ parody the naïve style.

Alternatively, I hope Mr Flatley, with his “art”,  is having a good old-fashioned piss-take – otherwise known as “mocking … intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the … middle class”.  Good for him if that is the case.

Surely he doesn’t actually believe his offerings are worth €50-100,000? No, it is no doubt a wonderful leg-pull on his part, at the expense of those blinded by fame into laying out large sums of money on unattractive and random smears of paint.  This must be the case, as Mr Flatley is a clever fellow.  Maybe he has even seen “the Rebel” and is carrying out his own experiment, testing the limits of art buyers’ gullibility!

Or perhaps he has seen the wonderful recent Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza), in which a young child creates highly-prized “art” by having a temper tantrum and flinging paint at a large canvas (YouTube link here). Yes, that must be the case……

[More on the madness of modern/conceptual art here, here, here and here].

I recently finished reading Jonathan Meades’ memoir of his early life An Encyclopaedia of Myself.  Some may find his style and vocabulary challenging, but he is always fascinating and often hilarious.  I felt I should share his views on religion, of which the following passage is a useful example.
The majority of Anglican clergy, certainly of Salisbury Cathedral’s clergy, were not susceptible to dilute modernism. The Close was a bastion of unchallenged dogma, ritual, philistinism, unquestioning belief. The manipulator of millions of minds Joseph Goebbels wrote: ‘It is almost immaterial what we believe in so long as we believe in something.’  Time and again, those with this promiscuous capacity for credulousness are shown to be those with the equal capacity to promote and sanction atrocities. We repeatedly witness the migration of believers — ‘spiritual persons’ — from one cult to the next; a religion is merely a heavily armed cult. Believing in something all too evidently means believing in anything. Why should Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims — especially Muslims — be treated with anything other than the contemptuous toleration that is visited on flat-earthers and ufologists? Believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of garden and you are deemed fit for the bin, for the Old Manor. Believe in parthenogenesis and ascension and you are deemed fit to govern the country, run the BBC, command UK Landforces etc.  The notion that these people might be mentally ill is quite overlooked: quis custodiet and all that.

I see that the Austrian parliament has passed reforms to the country’s century-old ‘Law on Islam’.  Amongst other provisions, the new law bans foreign funding for Islamic organisations.  Muslim groups say the ban on foreign funding is unfair as international support is still permitted for the Christian and Jewish faiths.  They are right, but only up to a point.

I find it unacceptable that any religion should be allowed to accept funding from external sources, just as most countries prohibit political funding from outside the jurisdiction.  If such funding is going to be allowed, then at least it should be excluded from the general tax exemption from which most religions benefit.

But where I would absolutely draw the line is where religions or religious lobby groups obtain direct or indirect funding from foreign governments, or foreign-government-sponsored entities.  Clearly in these situations the line between religion and politics has been crossed.  And this is where the Austrians have got it right: Islam is noteworthy for the fact that states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar give generous financial support to Islam (or particular strains of Islam) across the globe.  And unfortunately the type of Islam they are promoting is one where there is no separation between Church and State, and where the dictates of the Koran and the hadiths are considered to be justification for horrific crimes.

I would like to see a law in Ireland which (a) prohibits religions and religious organisations from receiving funding from foreign governments and (b) removes tax-exempt status from funding received from all non-residents, private or governmental.  This would incidentally stop any funding of the Catholic Church or Catholic organisations by the Vatican, as the latter claims to be a State, but this is something with which I could live …..

 

We have heard a lot in Ireland recently about politicians and their consciences.  Famously, Lucinda Creighton broke with Fine Gael as she wouldn’t follow the party whip and support the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill last year.  She asserted the need to follow her conscience, which apparently was telling her that the Catholic Church’s hard-line position on abortion had to be followed.  Many people’s reaction to stances such as that of Lucinda is to say something like: “I don’t necessarily agree with the views of Mr/Ms X, but I admire him/her for taking a stand on a matter of conscience”.

But this is a superficial analysis.  Because the essence of Lucinda’s stance is to deny all Irish women the very thing she insists on having herself, namely freedom of conscience on the issue of abortion.  And abortion is a matter of conscience.  It’s not like murder or theft or arson, matters on which there is a consensus in all civilised societies, regardless of religious beliefs, and against which we properly (and indeed necessarily) legislate.

Lucinda obviously believes that her conscience must be given greater weight than those of hundreds of thousands of women in Ireland who believe that women should be allowed have an abortion in Ireland, whether because of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, because of a pregnancy arising from rape, or for any other reason that their conscience permits.

As Gene Kerrigan has so aptly written,

It’s possible to have a personal position against abortion – which means you will not have an abortion; you hold that abortion is wrong. And at the same time to have a political position – which is that every woman should have the right to make that choice based on her conscience. Not yours or mine.   Otherwise, you’re saying no one has a right to do anything except what my conscience allows….

…There are women who just don’t – for reasons that are not your business or mine – wish to go through with a pregnancy they never wanted.  We may disagree with them, but we do not have a right to speak for their conscience.

Imagine it was the other way around – that people who are in conscience opposed to abortion were required to undergo abortions, because – for instance – the state imposed a policy on the number of children allowable.

Lucinda exiled herself from Fine Gael as she wanted to retain the status quo for our ultra-punitive abortion laws instead of making the marginal relaxation which the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill involved.  Following your conscience cannot be a “get-out clause” for doing bad things or (and this is key) for refusing similar latitude to other people whose reasoned and informed consciences tell them something completely different.

Dr Ryan Walter, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, wrote a fascinating article (“Conscience votes corrupt our political system”) on the relationship between politics and public representatives’ consciences.  It was in the context of proposed same-sex-marriage legislation, but it is relevant in this debate.

“Many politicians appreciate the freedom for debate and personal reflection that comes with conscience votes, but this is exactly why they are so dangerous. For conscience votes have the potential to undermine one of the defining principles of secular liberal democracy: the separation of religion and politics….

…We know from empirical research that politicians will tend to hold a mix of these views [on how best to represent their constituents and to serve the public interest], but the point to underline is that all these visions of politics require the politician to fulfil their public office rather than pursue private interests. This includes personal moral and religious interests. We are perfectly comfortable calling politicians corrupt when they steal from the public purse, but we are inconsistent when we do not decry injecting personal religious belief into legislation that will govern the lives of all Australians, regardless of faith.

…. [Conscience] tells us only to look inside ourselves but not what we’ll find there, which could be all sorts of things: university-student ideologies, religious convictions, moral visions. It is the role of political parties and the ritual of parliamentary process to discipline these private enthusiasms by subjecting them to the duties invested in the public office of a politician.”

Ask your actual or potential public representatives this question: “Do you believe that Ireland should be a secular democracy and that we should separate religion and politics?”  If they say no, well at least you know where they stand, and you should commend their honesty.  If they say yes, then tell them that you expect them to act accordingly when performing their duties as a legislator, and not to vote according to their “conscience” where that conscience is informed by religious views that are not universally accepted.

As Bertrand Russell said, “…the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented Hell.”

 

Art vs religion

12 January, 2015

Clive James’s review of John Bayley’s collected book reviews , which was included in “The Revolt of the Pendulum”, has this:-

He just doesn’t think that art and religion make a good match, especially if the religion is an adopted one, as in the case of Waugh – and the case of Graham Greene, by whom he is enthralled even less.  Without precisely calling those two eminent Catholic converts perpetrators of a put-up job, he makes it clear that he thinks their religiosity detracts from their scope of vision rather than adding to it. …..

A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist’s attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved. Bayley is at his very best when he is pushing his insistence that the mundane is sublime enough. (‘Boots and shoes’, ‘the detail and the dailiness’: the phrases keep on coming.) He is surely right. Art, by making bearable sense of the world, is out after religion’s job, which is probably why no religion in its fundamentalist phase has ever liked it. Art is its own ideal state, which is probably why Plato didn’t like it either.

Famously, Islam prohibits the depiction of human and animal forms in art.  The Taliban even went to the trouble of destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But strict Protestantism used to be none too keen on depictions of God and the saints.  I heard a historian claim recently that 99% of all religious artworks were destroyed in England during the Reformation.

Below is a quote from Bobby Kennedy on what Gross National Product means and what it does not mean. 

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Fantastic rhetoric, for sure, equal to anything JFK (or his speechwriter) ever produced.

But to add a corrective balance to RFK’s outpouring, look at what Eduardo Porter, in “The Price of Everything“, has to say.  If you are a romantic type, look away now.

Porter quotes Kennedy but goes on to add:

“Yet despite its growing popularity, the belief that money has little or nothing to do with happiness is misleading. Like Schopenhauer’s musings and Mariana’s troubles, the sweeping rhetoric about the emptiness of material wealth supports a dubious proposition that the pursuit of economic progress is somehow a waste of time because it does not deliver what is most important in life. Despite the scepticism about run-of-the-mill economic growth, despite the angry denunciations of materialism, it is usually better to have a big gross domestic product than a small one. Just ask one of the more than 3 billion people – half the world’s population – how happy they are making do with less than $2.50 a day.

In fact, surveys find that richer people tend to be happier than poorer people. That’s because money provides many of the things that improve people’s lot. Richer countries are generally healthier and have lower child mortality and higher life expectancy. They tend to have cleaner environments, and their citizens often have more education and less physically demanding and more interesting jobs.  Richer people usually have more leisure time, travel more, and have more money to enjoy the arts. Money helps people overcome constraints and take control over their lives.  Whatever Kennedy said, gross national product does allow for the health of our kids.

Researchers in Britain found that an extra 125,000 a year increased people’s sense of satisfaction with their lives by one point on a scale of one to seven. A study in Australia pored through surveys to understand how people’s feelings of happiness responded to life’s events. It found that a windfall of $16,500 to $24,500 provided more or less the same boost to happiness as getting married.”

And that’s presumably Australian Dollars.  So getting married is only worth €15,000 in happiness terms. Clearly something wrong with that analysis!

 

If you were a senior politician in this decidedly unpopular Government and wanted to promote yourself through the medium of a laudatory and unchallenging newspaper profile, preferably one that takes up almost two whole pages in a weekend edition (which more people have time to read), how would you fancy your chances of achieving same?  Well you might reasonably think that the probability ranked somewhere alongside the chances of winning the Lotto jackpot, even if you have a fleet of handlers and spin-doctors who are paid handsomely to promote your merits on a daily basis.  After all, our newspapers are usually wall-to-wall with caustic and unflattering articles about politicians of all parties, particularly the current Government parties, it would seem.

But there is one class of politician, and one particular newspaper, to which this does not seem to apply.  They are, respectively, well-educated women and The Irish Times.

On Saturday 1st November, the wimmin who pull most of the strings in our Paper of Record excelled themselves by according our new Minister for Justice a lavish and soft profile on the lead page (and most of the second page) of its Weekend Review section.  You will get a flavour from the heading “Minister with a Mission to Deliver”, and even more so from the sub-heading “Practical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is showing she has a flair for the feasible”.  Enough to make even a politician blush, I would have thought.

The writer, Kathy Sheridan, also makes sure to provide space in the article to promote Ms Fitzgerald’s suitability as our next Taoiseach:

She could yet make it to Taoiseach. Does she want it? “I’ve had a chequered political career, so I don’t even go there,” she says.  True. But surely she would say yes, if offered?  “There’s no question of the Taoiseach going anywhere.”   But supposing it opened up? “You’d have to examine the circumstances . . . I don’t think a woman should say no to anything.” So she would take it? “Of course,” she says, with some exasperation.

I can picture other senior Government members, and potential successors to Enda Kenny, gnashing their teeth and shaking their head in disbelief as they read the article.  But there’s more:

Many doubted her ability for justice – why is not clear, since she had been a resounding success elsewhere. In a glowing reference, Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos Ireland, said she had “worked tirelessly” as minister for children. “She wasn’t afraid to listen, learn and debate with those working directly with children . . . Her commitment to the role is evident from her long list of achievements, accomplished in an impressively short tenure.”

Now Ms Fitzgerald is probably one of our more capable politicians, despite her less than stellar electoral record, but it’s a bit tiresome to have to continually witness the gender bias of the Irish Times, particularly in its coverage of politics (see here for another example).

And even she, as Minister for Children for the past 3 years, might have been slightly embarrassed by the proximity in the Weekend Review of another article, this one about child poverty, which starts with the words “Before the recession, Unicef ranked the State as one of the 10 best places to be a child.  Now it is one of the worst, ranked 37 out of 41 countries.”  No mention of that in Kathy Sheridan’s article.

Ms Fitzgerald, a former head of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, can be confident that the sisterhood, and particularly its many representatives in the Irish Times, will be looking after her interests in the months and years ahead.

 

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