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Issue #1650      August 6, 2014

Culture & Life

Meaningless art and hysteria over dogs

It is very unfashionable these days to want art to actually mean something. Today, when people say a work of art “speaks to them”, they merely mean that it gives them a momentary frisson, not that they perceive anything deep and meaningful in it. Art is divorced from the life of the mass of the people, and realism in art is scorned as so old fashioned it’s not even worth talking about.

Meaningless art, however, doesn’t seem to work in small sizes. To impress the viewer and make up for its lack of content, art with nothing to say has perforce to grow in size often to gigantic proportions. Considering the huge prices paid for “major” artworks these days, large size at least suggests value for money.

That may sound cynical, but if we look at the $9 million being spent by the City of Sydney on proposed outdoor “artworks”, in at least some cases size does seem to be the principal consideration. Certainly they don’t seem to have anything to say so there must be some other factor to justify their huge price-tags!

And just what are those price-tags? Well, a Japanese artist is being paid $2.5 million for a 75-metre-high steel sculpture that resembles nothing so much as a wiggly line vaguely suggesting the outline of a cloud. This huge oddity is going to be erected adjacent to Sydney’s Victorian-era, crenulated, sandstone Town Hall. Harmonious? I wouldn’t have said so. But if the French government can erect a disfiguring glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, I suppose we can shove a giant piece of twisted steel opposite the Town Hall.

Meanwhile Sydney-based artist Hany Armanious is set to receive a cool $1.7 million for a giant milk-crate made of fibreglass. I kid you not. And apparently it is not a joke, either. In fact, it is actually being touted as a “sculpture”. This epitome of art-without-meaning will measure 13.5 x 15 x 15 metres and is to be erected in Belmore Park, by Central Railway Station. Well, lots of rallies and demonstrations are held in Belmore Park so I suppose a giant milk-crate might come in handy to hang banners from (or on).

Apparently, the Sydney City Council has a surplus of $600 million in the bank and is concerned that construction next year of a light rail system running along the city’s main drag, George Street, will disrupt commerce. So they have decided to install the outsize “art works” in order to bolster visitor numbers. This is a shrewd move as tourism brings in huge amounts of money into the city’s coffers, and tourists need lots of curiosities to look at or they feel their trip has been “a bore”. One can’t help wondering however just how empty-headed will visitors have to be to want to travel to Sydney to look at a giant milk crate?

If it comes to that, how uncultured do you have to be to pay good money for such a travesty and then to inflict it on the people of Sydney? What this decision has done is to hand a very convenient club to the opponents of Sydney’s otherwise progressive Lord Mayor Clover Moore, a club they have been quick to beat her over the head with. Rupert Murdoch’s popular tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, devoted the front page and two full pages inside to lampooning and lambasting the whole project.

It would be a real pity if the many good and worthwhile projects and initiatives for which Clover Moore has been responsible were to be overshadowed by ostentatious “public artworks” that have nothing to say and instead of enriching our lives merely provoke bewilderment or – worse – derision.

Still with the Telegraph, but on a different topic: Murdoch’s rag was crowing on its August 21 front page that “in a win for The Daily Telegraph Muzzle the Mutts campaign, the state government will bring in tougher dog laws to better protect the community”.

Those “tougher” dog laws include penalties of up to five years jail and fines of $77,000 for “negligent” dog owners. And that’s the whole extent of the Tele’s response to the complex problem of people living with pets in the modern urban world. Nothing about educating people about how to interact with animals, how to recognise risks, what constitutes provocative or stupid behaviour when encountering a strange dog, or anything along those lines.

People used to be closer to nature, even those living in cities. Every family had a dog. Dogs were cheap to buy (often “free to good home”) and relatively cheap to feed. Many people came from farming families, but whether they were rural or urban, they were used to living with pets, especially dogs. Having a pet dog leads to lower blood pressure and other health benefits to do with both physical and mental well-being. However, young males in particular are encouraged to think it “macho” to have a powerful fighting dog, such as a “staffie” or some variety of pig dog.

These dogs need responsible owners, educated in how to train and care for their pet. In future, dogs that “menace” people, even though they do not actually attack anyone, can result in their owners being forced to have them desexed and muzzled. But in country areas, at least, there are now many properties where flocks of sheep or goats are guarded by Maremmas or similar large breeds. These dogs live with the flock and treat intruding people with the same hostility they show towards intruding dogs or foxes. They are very effective, but people need to know how to behave around them – as they do around any dog,

Fines and jail sentences are no substitute for education, training, and understanding. Dogs have been the companions of humans since time immemorial. Our alienation from actual contact with the animal world is producing a generation who are so unfamiliar with our main companion animal that they do not know how to interact with dogs and in fact are unreasonably afraid of them.

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