There’s art and there’s sleaze

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Wednesday April 11, 2012

There’s art and there’s sleaze

Musings
By Marina Mahathir



Kuala Lumpur may not be Paris, and we may not yet be ready for fashion photographer Helmut Newton’s nudes, but to ban ballet seems a very unsophisticated thing to do.

I WAS in Paris recently and with some free time one Sunday afternoon, I decided to see an exhibition at the Grand Palais, one of the city’s many museums.

My husband had suggested I go and see the retrospective of the work of the famous fashion photographer Helmut Newton who died in 2004.

Although Newton’s job was to showcase the designs of fashion designers like Yves St Laurent, he had a very particular vision of how he presented the clothes.

Invariably, his models are beautiful, strong, even athletic, women. Not for him any coy poses, his photos show women in almost confrontational stances.

That cold spring afternoon the line to see the Newton show snaked down the street.

Young and old, Parisians and tourists shivered for up to two hours to hand over €11 (RM44) for entry to the exhibition.

Inside, they were met with a huge exhibition, dozens of photos throughout his long career as well as a video made by his wife, June.

They were also greeted with literally huge works.

Gigantic photos lined the walls of some of the exhibition rooms, almost all of them of nude women, full frontal, standing tall and proud.

Unflinching and powerful, the exhibit has generated some debate as to whether Newton was a misogynist or a feminist.

I am inclined, having viewed the entire exhibition, to think he was the latter, albeit an unconscious one.

As I toured the exhibition, I watched the crowd as much as I looked at the photographs.

People treated the show with the same respect as they would an exhibition of the Old Masters.

They knew this was art and the work of a great photographer.

They paid good money to view this.

Confronted with the nudes, nobody sniggered or threw up their hands in horror.

Nobody ran out of the room screaming in moral indignation.

I have read no reports of anyone being inspired to rape anyone after being exposed to Newton’s work. There were no protests outside the museum.

There could be several explanations for the calm Parisian reaction to Newton.

Some might say that they are so morally degenerate that they have become immune to the sight of such full frontal nudity.

On the other hand, we can also say that the French are such mature and sophisticated people that they know when something is art and, therefore, worthy of respect, and when something is sleazy and pornographic and, therefore, is not.

Those who may disapprove always have the option of saving their money and staying home.

I flew home from the cold weather in Paris to the heat of home to find myself transported to another world, not just meteorologically.

While thousands of Parisians queued to view Newton’s exhibition, back home, a troupe of classical ballet dancers, fully dressed ones, were banned from performing in Malaysia to a much smaller but also paying audience.

Kuala Lumpur may not be Paris, and we may not yet be ready for Newton’s nudes.

After all, some years ago, an exhibition of Ferdinand Botero’s fat nude sculptures was axed in case some of us got too excited by the sight of giant breasts and bums.

But still, to ban ballet seems a very unsophisticated thing to do.

After all we have dozens of little girls dressing up in tutus for their ballet lessons every weekend.

I myself did ballet as a tiny tot. I don’t think my parents were setting me up for a life of immorality when they sent me to ballet class.

But the point is really this: why should the authorities decide for us what or who we should or should not see?

Especially when we are talking about paying money to attend such shows.

By that alone, the audience is limited and, therefore, whatever alleged “immoral” impact our authorities imagine would naturally be severely curtailed.

Nobody is being forced to watch anything.

Even though the ban has subsequently been lifted, the damage has already been done.

Is it too much to ask that there be a stop to this nonsense?

We are fast gaining a reputation as a place that no artiste wants to come to. But more importantly, why should people who know nothing censor culture and the arts?

In a country where a movie about a rapist is celebrated, why do we censor dance performances, women singers and men who are simply not macho?

Which is more harmful?

Or are even our arts censors keeping one eye on the elections, and somehow imagine that ballet would be an issue we should vote on?