Trolls like to say that trolling is an art form. To troll is to be inflammatory on the internet for the sole purpose of disrupting and offending others. It’s more nuanced than it sounds. A troll must be plausible enough to be taken seriously – don’t want to give the game away – but outlandish enough to generate the desired outrage.
Trolling is not always successful.
On a Friday night less than a fortnight ago, six dancers from a company called BalletLab performed an artistic work at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art at Southbank. This involved them sitting on toilets and taking a dump.
The defecation was done in a most tasteful manner, obviously. The dancers were masked and cloaked in sheer golden garments. The toilets were transparent. Those involved emphasised how brilliant the performance was. The artist proclaimed that bowel movements were ”humanity’s most democratic act”. The centre’s director said it was bold and challenging: “It’s wonderful, powerful work.”
Nonsense. The performance, titled Goldene Bend’er, is a badly executed troll. Nothing more, nothing less.
There’s no longer anything original or particularly provocative about bowel movements presented as art. It has been 52 years since the Italian artist Piero Manzoni canned his own “Artist’s shit” – long enough for it to be considered a classic piece. And toilets featured in art earlier than that. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is four years shy of its 100th birthday.
These were genuinely important works. Artists have offered up many excrement-related performances, paintings and sculptures since. Remember that infamous painting of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung? It’s nearly 20 years old. Poo is a well-covered topic. It’s almost a cliche.
Goldene Bend’er is indulgent and mundane. It reveals that the art world is much more pious and insular than the society it is trying to “challenge”.
Decades ago this sort of stunt would have earned front pages across the country. Politicians would have condemned it. Conservatives would have thundered. Recall how angry people were when the National Gallery bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973. Recall the fury over Piss Christ in Melbourne in 1997.
But that was long ago. Think about it: six dancers did a poo in front of an audience and the only audible noise was self-congratulation. No outrage. No protests. No one cares. What is the point of shock art if it no longer shocks?
There’s nothing wrong with shock art per se. Ugliness and revulsion has always been a feature of art. Christian painters dwelt on the wounds suffered by Christ on the cross. Death was depicted as twisted skeletons. Grotesque demons and terrifying monsters populated the landscapes of hell. There’s nothing that says art has to be – or has ever been – pleasant.
The 20th century has demonstrated art can be ugly, foul, empty, disgusting, accidental, amateurish, untrained and offensive, and still be art. But surely it at least has to be creative. The only thing worse than being obscene is being boring.
The only reason such faux-radicalism survives is because we are forced to pay for it.
The dance company that performs Goldene Bend’er, BalletLab, is financially supported by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments. The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art gets its money from Victoria and the Commonwealth, too. It also receives another chunk of money from the City of Melbourne.
In its submission to Kevin Rudd’s National Cultural Policy inquiry, the centre wrote that the arts were crying out for “proper investment” – read, much more government funding.
Nonsense. Taxpayer funding protects artists from their audience. That it tends to produce more rubbish than genius is a feature, not a bug. The system is designed to favour indulgent, unpopular work over appealing work.
The first arts grant in Australia was given to a poet, Michael Massey Robinson. In 1818, he was given two cows “for his services as Poet Laureate”.
Robinson knew his market. He would write birthday odes to the King and Queen for Governor Macquarie every year.
Not much has changed. Rather than persuading consumers to pay for their work, artists only have to persuade government bureaucrats to give them a share of tax revenue.
These attempts to shock help drive the public from contemporary art – not because the art is offensive, but because it is trite. It treats the audience as the enemy.
In other words, every taxpayer-funded crap a ballet dancer takes on stage is another blow to the commercial viability of all art.
One of the maxims of the online world is don’t feed the trolls. Let’s not subsidise them either.