A couple of weeks ago we heard from the Melbourne City Council that there had been a complaint about the subject matter in our artwork. The Council is obligated to reply to all complaints and so we thought it fitting to take this matter seriously. This is our statement. What might be of interest is we explain some of the symbolism in our picture and explore some of Melbourne’s beautiful monuments and public art.
A very special thanks to our good friend and fellow pavement artist: Adrien Stewart.
The following statement has been made in response to complaints of obscenity made by a member of the public re The Awakening of Pan a pavement art project currently being completed in public space in the CBD, designed by Wayne McMillan and co-created with Mark Gage.
What follows is a refutation of such allegations, an outline of context and a statement of purpose. It is addressed to whomsoever is concerned.
1. Tradition of Culture in Victoria/Melbourne as Antipodean Athens
Melbourne has always been the nation’s heart when it comes to arts. We are justly proud of our cultural heritage demonstrated during this city’s short history by the funding and development of some of the most beautiful monuments in Australia. As in the past also in the future. The Melbourne City Council’s Arts Strategy Document (2012-2013) concludes in part by asking us to conceive of this city without its art. “Imagine”, it asks us, “utilitarian cityscapes, streets without music and colour, closed theatres, rarely visited galleries, abandoned urban areas with no spark of regeneration. Without a vibrant arts scene, Melbourne simply wouldn’t be Melbourne.” We strongly agree. At the outset, the city council declares that “Creative industries make a significant contribution to the economy and Melbourne’s arts scene has been a major attraction, bringing visitors to our city and boosting our tourism ratings.”. Again we strongly agree and this is no mere opinion. We are pavement artists and interact with the public every day we work. Positive comments about our work from tourists like “The things you see in Melbourne” or “You don’t see anything like this where I come from” are an almost daily occurrence.
The Arts Strategy document continues with the enunciation of the following principles:
• Participation in, and access to the arts contributes to people’s wellbeing as well as to the social and economic health of communities.
• The arts are for everyone. Equity and social justice underpin our strategy, providing an engagement with the arts for people who may previously have felt excluded.
• Partnership and collaboration provide exponential benefits.
• Freedom of artistic expression, being courageous and pushing the boundaries are vitally important elements, when they challenge popular perceptions.
• A strong support framework for artists is essential for creating innovative and view-changing work.
Again we agree. Moreover we take it for granted that we are part of this process. The pertinent items on the above list that concern us here and now are items #2 and #4. Number #2 states that the arts are for everybody. Pavement art originated as a tribute to classical art when artists rendered works by the masters on pavement, the practise being descended from the Italian Madonnari and the Strassenmaler of Germany. We have used the same space and principles of exhibition but in order to create and display original works of art. There are artists over the world who render original images in this idiom. But the predominance of original art as such is a distinctive part of this city’s heritage going back decades. There are perhaps some who, because this work is executed on the street, refuse to regard it as ‘art’ but this is a minority view. More prevalent is the difficulty we have in explaining that we do this voluntarily, that we think it fulfilling. Often the public wants to know why our work is not in a gallery.
So much for the present and the future, let’s consider this city’s past in light of assertions from persons unknown that it is ‘obscenity not art’. If nudity is pornography then perhaps there are other works of art that may provide a basis for such objection. Our first exhibit sits near the gates of the Royal Botanical Gardens. The work is the monument to Queen Victoria commissioned soon after her death in 1901. Funded by public subscription, the sculptor was Mr James White. The monument depicts the Queen in four statues in allusion to four stages of life each of which also serve as allegorical archetypes valued by Victorian civilization. The allegory that concerns us here is “Progress”:
As can be seen the figure is bare breasted. The memorial was unveiled by Lt Governor James Madden in 1907 in the Queen Victoria gardens where it stands to this day, unfortunately vandalized. Is this art? Or were the authorities inviting lascivious passer-by to ogle the late Queen?
The second exhibit is an older work on the other side of the CBD in Carlton gardens. This is Joseph Hochgurtel’s fountain outside the Royal Exhibition building (1880):
Among the figures are several children depicted in the classical manner as an allegory for innocence. They dance aloft while the base is supported by semi-nude adult tritons (one female, with breasts exposed). Again is this an artwork commissioned to present the new city as a thriving centre of Art, Science, Commerce and Industry. Is it a beautiful part of our heritage where citizens picnic in the Spring nearby, where newlywed couples regularly take commemorative photos? Or is it, surfeit of the nudity depicted, obscene smut?
Well perhaps these works belong in the past and it is no longer appropriate to depict the human form as it was in the Victorian age. If so then the statue of Fortuna (1992) by contemporary sculptor Peter Corlett is possibly inappropriate?
These sculptures are public works of art and we discuss only three discovered in a short morning’s walk around the immediate city. We could cite John Robnson’s Pathfinder, Paul Montford’s The Water Nymph or Sir Joseph E Boehm’s Saint George and the Dragon without much further ado, we could even proceed and at length. But, well, we suppose our point has been made. Perhaps it’s fitting that we now discuss our work which has apparently been the subject of objection.
2. The Awakening of Pan
The Awakening of Pan depicts a procession through the cycle of seasons starting in Spring and ending in Winter as the traditions of the ancient Greek deity Dionysus conceived them. Historically Dionysian mysteries were rituals central to the religion of the ancient Greeks intended to produce epiphanies among the devoted calling upon the spirits of Nature. The drawing is replete with animals, plants and mythological beings evocative of the natural world correspondent with the seasons. The principle influence behind the phenomena represented is Greek mythology, the ideals of antique philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras and the artistic tradition that flows on from this primary culture most especially the work of the Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Botticelli.
So, for example, Spring is conveyed early in the picture by three figures: a woman, a centaur and a satyr. In ode to Dionysus who was the god of, among other things, wine and music, the centaur plays the lyre and the woman drinks from a rhyton (drinking horn). Spring continues to the next set of figures which includes a maenad and a mother owl. The maenad, literally ‘mad woman’, was historically a follower of Dionysus in Bacchic ritual of temporary madness and the owl, traditionally symbolic of the goddess of wisdom, Athena are juxtaposed reto represent the duality of madness and wisdom – a motif of antiquity’s belief that these two states were inherently related. Such dualities, though perhaps strange to the modern mind were standard ways of seeing the nature of existence to the ancient Greeks. Further on we see a priest (as indicated by his third eye) pointing to the sky and to the ground. This motif can be summarised philosophically thus: As above, so below. This is the prime insight of Greek philosophy, science and religion. In essence what it means is that what happens in Heaven occurs also on Earth. This perception goes back to the ancient Egyptians and persists into the monotheistic and modern ages. As further expression of this duality standing next to the priest is his polar opposite – the soldier. Below them a young satyr rides a dog whilst a Harpy, a creature with the head of a woman and the body of a bird, looks yonder to the distance.
What is going on in the distance? Three satyrs, an Aegipan (goat headed satyr) and two Ipotane (donkey satyrs) have noticed something also. These figures are somewhat menacing. One of them holds aloft the head of a civilized man on a stick. This is the symbol of strength over knowledge and, well, not in a good way. The duality persists. These creatures are natural, hence innocent, but also potentially brutal. This is also natural. The paradox has ever been cause for disquiet nevertheless it is, and has always been true.
In case this is all getting a little too weighty for the readers we’d like to remind you that the work is essentially playful. Further on a dryad (tree-nymph) sits on the grass. Her hand rests on the back of a turtle. There are three other turtles proceeding along the grass. Their eyes are red, blue, orange and purple. If you’re familiar with the franchise you might recognize these as the colours of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael. For many members of generations X and Y (including us) these cartoons were their introduction to the Renaissance artists of those names. The rat with the twig in the same group refers to their sensei Splinter. This pop-culture reference is especially popular with audiences.
To this point all the figures are looking to the distance. What is going on? The event that forms the centre of the narrative is the epiphany that the dramatis personae of the picture have been gazing toward. We see here a most strange astonishing figure. It glows gold with feet like goat hooves and wings as on an angel. At once male and female this figure emerges through a ring made by a serpent devouring its own tale.
What does it mean? This is Phanes, the supreme deity from Orphic mythology. The serpent is the Ouroboros. This ancient motif was to antiquity the symbol of the universe of death and rebirth, featured in ancient sculpture, on relief and in mosaic. Phanes is thought of being the first of the three incarnations of Dionysos and in Orphic mythology the creator of the universe. To the right of Phanes is Pan, mounted on a three headed beast that represents authority. Pan is now enlightened by Phanes about the universal All. He realizes now that All is everything and everything is All. – as above, so below. The Awakening of Pan continues through the seasons and much happens but we’ll stop here. You get the idea. This may seem mysterious and esoteric but often members of the public, especially those of Mediterranean ancestry, recognize the Ouroboros and attendant symbolism. These people are seldom scholarly types. Their recognition comes surfeit of tradition. They have learned of it from their parents.
The Awakening of Pan has initiated many a conversation. During the long time we have laboured on the work we have been engaged in discussions of art, mythology, religion, history and literature by many members of public. They come from many walks and stages of life: the well-to-do, the poor, the elderly and the young. They come from many places. From the wife of the international financier who spoke of the correlation between the colour of Pan and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam to the schoolboys who recognized in the work from the world of the Chronicles of Narnia. At no time during these conversations has the issue of obscenity ever been raised. The reason for this is simple: the work is not obscene. Rather it is a complex pictorial narrative conceived, designed and rendered as an evocation of an ancient artistic tradition that spans the centuries from the time of Pericles to the frescos of Michelangelo and beyond to the Royal Academies of the courts of St James and Versailles and down to the modern era. Does this seem something that can be reduced to mere smut?
Why this lengthy explication of our picture one may ask? We have written it simply as a rebuttal to those who regard the work as some base titillation. Certainly there have been those who have been offended, who besmirch our work as such. To be sure it is this we find offensive. But they are entitled to their views, small minority that they are. It’s just a shame that they appear to want to deny us the same entitlement.
3. The Nature of Busking
What we do is inherently democratic, founded in the principles of the marketplace, or, if you will indulge us, the Agora. Entertainers of various kinds perform on the street without any expectation of specific payment. The activity, whether a musical performance, a circle act or pavement art is provided without charge. If the public appreciate it they will donate as they think fit. If a busker is hard-working and skilled enough they can make a living. If they are not, they don’t. Simple. We rely on the goodwill of the public. If our work was offensive or otherwise cause for widespread displeasure it would not be viable. We are not creating this artwork to shock or offend people. If we did we would earn nothing. The Agora decides.
This talk of the Agora is no spurious indulgence. Our work is grounded in the traditions of Western art and philosophy originating in Athens over two and a half thousand years ago. A tradition which has been transformed and challenged, extended and modified often in succeeding centuries but which persists. For us, mythological subject matter has always been entertaining and enlightening. The street allows us the pleasure of sharing our art with others. Interesting as well is that our culture retains ideals similar to those the Greeks had over two-thousand-five-hundred years ago. It is to ancient Athens that we owe our concepts of theatre, of art, of poetry, of politics and liberty. Democracy and free speech might well have been born in Greek theatre. What better place to display our art than the place theatre began? The street.
When the design first came to mind we envisioned it as a project for Southbank specifically, since we had become very familiar with crowd down there. So to some extent our work is also a reflection of those that pass us by. Some heckle, some completely dismiss it but in our experience most are impressed. This is no mere perception. One’s perspectives cannot be quantified but donations can be counted. Again the Agora decides.
That said it can be humbling when there are people who do not like us or our artwork and they are certainly entitled to their opinion and their tastes. It’s good to know that the city council takes the peoples’ opinions seriously. Still we assert our right to produce a work of art that follows traditions that have been in our culture for thousands of years. And although we don’t believe this statement was strictly necessary we do feel that it’s imperative to answer our unnamed critics.
4. The Rules
The National Association of Visual Art’s “Art Censorship Guide” gives artists a general idea of what they can and can’t do in order to prevent facing prosecution from government or other forms of authority. If the Council has real concerns over the nature of an artwork it is highly recommended that NAVA should be approached before passing judgment on any artist in question.
NAVA’s Art Censorship Guidelines state that a publication or film is not ‘offensive’ for purpose of classification simply because it might cause offence to some adults, or some sections of the community. ‘Offensive’ material is that ‘which causes extreme outrage and disgust’, and which offends against generally accepted community standards. ‘Offensive’ does not mean ‘offensive to a majority of Australians’ – that is, the question is not whether 51% of Australians would be offended by the material if they saw it:
“The Guidelines are sensitive to the position of genuine and recognised artistic works, stating that ‘bona fide artworks which may offend some sections of the adult community may be classified ‘Unrestricted’ when authentically set in a particular historical or cultural context.’”
(p. 65; emphasis added)
The Melbourne City Council’s busking guidelines prohibit ‘ sexually explicit language or simulation of sexual acts.’ The Awakening of Pan features none of this kind of material. It is, as we think we have well demonstrated, been authentically set in a context both historical and cultural. This is axiomatic in our opinion. How it can be reasonably thought, given all this, to be obscene is beyond us. This document is not some expression of soapbox aspirations or high horse dispositions. It’s a defence made of what to us is a lot of work, a defence that itself has required much labour and this despite the fact that we already have quite enough to keep us busy.
“We don’t court controversy, but we don’t shy away from it either.” So says the MCC’s statement on Arts Policy in conclusion. Again we agree. It’s baffling that we can agree so much with official policy, can work so hard in furtherance of its goals and yet face the possibility of running aground on the basis of objections that were vanquished when this city was in its infancy.
Given the support that the public, the city council and its officials have given us over the many months we find it hard to believe that this is truly a possibility but still and again we feel the need to defend ourselves. What do we do? We make art. This is supposedly an unusual activity. That we do so on the streets of the city and the boulevard of the arts precinct may make it more so. Our work may be esoteric, full of strange and perhaps disquieting phenomena but it is work and as we make a living surfeit entirely of the public’s goodwill as freely expressed by their donations it is, in its way, pleasing enough. We are not courting controversy but we will not shy from it.
Is what we do truly art? Finally that’s not for us to decide but up to posterity. Still, it is our best attempt and all that said, finally, whatever it is or may become, it is not obscene.