It has been a whole forty-six years since the release of Kubrick’s sensationally violent film, A Clock Orange, which was based upon Burgess’ novel of the same name. The tale is dystopic, ultra-violent, deeply psychological, traumatic and full of ethically question propositions. The film; however, took it that one step further, choosing to emphasis the film’s explicit elements, those being, the gory and horrifying scenes of rape, nudity and violence, all among peculiar environments, classic music, and naked clothes-models. Such descriptions by critics include ‘disturbing and thought-provoking’,‘disorientating but human’, and the workings of a ‘bad pornographer’. Kubrick himself has received a myriad of death threats and hate mail after a group of boys, seemingly inspired by the film, beat an elderly man to death in the street.
There are many texts, paintings and films like this one have been the subject of criticism and controversy. The very reason I chose to comment upon A Clockwork Orange– apart from it being one of my favourite books – is because I wish to talk about a few, more recent, example of controversial art in the political sphere, and in particular, what we should and should not enshrine within the domain of the public eye.
One of the most prominent contemporary examples of this comes from the Manchester Art Gallery, in the form of Waterhouse’s famous classical painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, which the gallery removed to provoke a discussion about representation of women within the arts – not an act of censorship as some people would have you believe. Clearly artwork of all kinds, and that includes A Clockwork Orange, will have some kind of cultural effect upon those that consume it, the argument here being that some sexualised depictions of women are more objectification than they are an appreciation for the mythic subject of the painting. Just as in my last article, when we spoke about the ethical consideration of art, the conversation we should be having here is whythis may be considered bad because of the artist’s intention, or its social effect. For those that would support both Waterhouse and Kubrick, there is nothing in the ethical consideration of these works that can devalue them as art. They are both works that should judge, in their eyes, by formal quality alone.
But is it always going to be possible for them to do that? To the case of moral autonomism, I would raise another painting, that of Thérèse Dreaming, painted by Balthus and exhibited in New York’s Met Museum. The painting, which I will not show here on the basis of my own opinion, depicts an intentionally prepubescent girl laying backwards with her underwear showing. Despite sustained criticism, the museum refused to remove the piece, but can it be entirely right in this? Would such a painting be shown if it were instead photographic? And could we show it when listening to such critics as Viveros-Fauné, who asserts that ‘today, there is no question that Balthus was a paedophile’. Can this painting truly be separated from its morality when it can be argued to be the sexual fantasizing of a paedophile? I would say, certainly not, for the pure lack of morality on display makes any formal criticism of the painting impossible, and at once, disturbing. In the same way that it is difficult to get through Nabokov’s Lolita and appreciate its descriptive language, so is it difficult to appreciate brush strokes used to exhibit the desires of perversion.
As you may have noticed, or not, if you have never read my articles before, this was something already posted to CUB before the beginning of this column. Today I have reworked it a little, made it better, and reposted it with the hope that it may be considered in line with my last post on the ethics of aesthetic consideration. I hope you wish to discuss, and if you do, do so below!