[Gordon Kerry: GOOD TASTE vs GREAT ART for The Australian due 9/4/07]


Upskirting’: Australian composer and linguistic purist Percy Grainger would have loved it – not the activity, of course (who does?) but the word. No acronym shoehorned into grammatical use (‘SMS me’) or Greco-Latin neologism (‘demystification’), just two honest Anglo- Norse monosyllables. What you see is what you get.

I used the word recently in a concert program about music and art in late nineteenth century Paris, but was requested to remove it to spare the sensibilities of the audience. The theme was the Moulin Rouge, the Parisian dance-hall in which a bunch of absinthe-sipping men would gather to watch a line of comely young women do a high-kicking dance called the can-can. Sounds like upskirting to me, long before the Australian Open. When Offenbach had the Olympian gods dance the can-can in his operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, Paris was both scandalised and thrilled. Talk about divine revelation.

But seriously, my point (which I doubt would have offended an audience) was and is that great art in the humanist Western tradition very often grows out of such challenges to comfortable sensibility. Some of the greatest works are in highly questionable taste.

 Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters for the Moulin Rouge are masterpieces of design, and revealed amazing technical possibilities to future painters. While Offenbach’s works were the vehicle for wit and satire, classical opera often features infidelity, cross-dressing, rape and murder. And that’s just Mozart. Add bawdry and you’ve got Shakespeare – is that really what we want our kiddies reading at school?

Looking a little further we have two counts of incest in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle, the erotised death of a young woman in practically any show by Puccini (and numerous other composers). It goes beyond opera of course. In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven literally goes from the sublime to the ridiculous by depicting a cherub in the presence of God and following it immediately a jaunty ‘Turkish’ march; Mahler, likewise, can swing between high drama and klezmer in the flick of a conductor’s baton.

In an immortal couplet, Dame Edna Everage once sang the praises of the Aussie pie: ‘As round and rich as Zara,/ As tasteful as Patrick White...’ I hope that Harold Holt’s widow, Dame Zara Bate was amused; Grainger, who applauded ‘vulgarity’ in art, would have loved it, just as he preferred the blowsy opulence of Richard Strauss to the lapidary precision of Ravel. Certainly White (who, as every publisher knows, was an Australian Nobel-winning author) fills his stories with people who belch and suck their teeth while experiencing their own little hells and occasional redemptions, but even those works of art which seem non-threatening tend to administer a mild shock.

As Francis Bacon (not the tasteful British painter, the Elizabethan one) famously noted that ‘there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion’. Jane Austen’s heroines are interesting because of their complicated relationship to social expectations; one of Henry James’ heroes does absolutely nothing with his life so as to defy (thereby fulfilling) the prophecy of a tragic end. The seemingly abstract symphonies of Haydn or Mozart are actually full of sudden emotional swings. Haydn’s tend to be funny; Mozart’s are, in Maynard Solomon’s words, ‘shockingly voluptuous’ in their depiction of grief. As Aristotle was aware, the emotional purging of catharsis can be effected by laughter as well as tears - sometimes even by both. The harpsichord’s cadenza, or lead break, in Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto may not be about anything, but its excess of spirit and amazing virtuosity make it a direct ancestor of Jimi Hendrix’ exuberant solos.

Experiencing great art in whatever medium makes our sense of things different, however briefly, but for that to happen we have to be open to the act of perception. The late Susan Sontag’s much-quoted call for an ‘erotics of art’ reminded us that too much interpretation of art can blunt our sensual experience of it. At the same time, art which is detached from its context and co-opted as a symbol of taste and refinement also loses its power to ravish or disturb. One five-star Melbourne hotel seems to have the same plangent baroque oboe concerto on a tape loop in its marbled foyer; classical music is used to accompany TV nature docos, a genre known, according to Robert Hughes, as ‘bugs f*cking to Mozart’. In both cases we’re not actually meant to hear the music; it’s just there to remind us that everything is nice.

In the late 1930s Sergei Prokofiev, a composer who had survived Stalin’s Great Terror, attempted to portray some glimmer of humanity in his ballet Romeo and Juliet, one of the western culture’s iconic tragedies. Six decades later ABC Classic FM assures us that ‘ironing is thrilling’ when you’ve got Prokofiev’s music on in the background. Concert promoters need to sell tickets and radio stations need to chase ratings, but we need to be careful not to project a level of naiveté onto the audience, misrepresent works of art and insult the creators and performers in the service of marketing.

The Catalans have a distinctive Christmas tradition. Nativity cribs include the usual suspects – Holy Family, shepherds, magi, animals – but there’s also a man, called the caganer, taking a crap in the corner of the stable. Shocking, yes; blasphemous, no. It’s a powerful image of how the Incarnation is an acceptance of humanity in its fullness; it stops the scene from turning into a kitsch fairytale.

Likewise, good art is the enemy of kitsch, offering the opportunity to explore, reflect on and play out the implications of being human in the widest sense. Shakespeare and Mozart, Austen and White (and many others) are central to our culture and value-system for precisely that reason. But we need to do the works and the artists the courtesy of giving them our attention (so turn off the iron), of making an effort to know the work’s original context, and understanding that they might just discomfort us. Only then will what we see be actually what we get.


Gordon Kerry’s tasteful opera Medea has recently been released on ABC Classics.