Surrealism will make America great again

I was intrigued and then dismayed and then intrigued again after I read this week that 'surreal' had been named Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year. It's a word associated with the early 20th century intellectual movement that gave artistic expression to Freud's theory of the unconscious.

It turned out that the popularity was more about finding a word - any word - to describe the astonishing nature of Donald Trump's election win in November. 'Surreal', it seems, has been hijacked as a stronger alternative to words such as 'bizarre' or 'oddball' that were considered inadequate to describe the unprecedented nature of the Trump victory.

Salvador Dali The Melting Watch 1954

It's true that it has tended to be used in a grasping or dismissive manner that diminishes the precision of the original meaning. That was the source of my dismay. Also it is obviously a publicity stunt by the American dictionary company, based on nothing more than statistics of the volume of word lookups on its website.

But I was curious to explore further and went to The Conversation, where I found an excellent explainer article. It was from February and predated the spikes in lookups for 'surreal' on the dictionary website.

The article depicts surrealism as a 'revolution of the mind' that freed the mind from rational and utilitarian values and constraints, in favour of the 'transformative possibilities of the imagination'. It has surrealism 'reconciling the contradictory states of dream and reality into a more potent form of reality'.

This does ring true for me, and indeed it is very exciting. It could be used to introduce compassion into Australia's asylum seeker policy. But I am more disturbed that it is being exploited to affirm the Trump victory as a good thing.

According to the new logic, America and the world are freed from the odious system that Clinton represented and have entered an imaginative transformation that will reconcile the dream of 'making America great again' with the fearful reality of a civilisation that lost the War Against Terror instigated by Trumps opponents. That is surreal.

Learning about public nudity from other cultures

Australia's major state art galleries have blockbuster exhibitions for the summer holiday season. In November I saw the David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria. Yesterday I went to 'Nude: Art from the Tate Collection' at the Art Gallery of NSW.

I'd found the Hockney quite mesmerising, as I did the Tatsuo Miyajima at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney last month. But there were no surprises at the 'Nude' exhibition. It was as if the Tate had tagged their nude paintings and sent them to Australia, and they were exhibited in chronological order.

Pierre Bonnards Nude in the Bath 1925 left and Barkley L Hendricks Family Jules NNN No Naked Niggahs 1974 right

Although it was predictable, I had quite an enjoyable afternoon. The two works I liked best were Pierre Bonnard's 'Nude in the Bath' 1925 (left), and Barkley L. Hendricks 'Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs)' 1974 (right). Unlike the exhibition as a whole, these works challenge our conventional attitudes to nudity - the Bonnard depicts a cropped woman who was not a beauty while the African American man in the Hendricks is.

I'd been intending to visit the exhibition since it opened six weeks ago and was reminded to do so when I read a news story in the Huffington Post on Saturday morning. It was about resisting the overturning of conventional attitudes towards nudity. It featured the comments of a Queensland father who was angered after spotting nudists having sex on a beach.

He could have been a One Nation voter who doesn't like foreign cultures influencing ours. He made the interesting point that nudity in Australia 'promotes promiscuity', while in Europe it is 'part of the culture'. I agree with his analysis but I disagree with his insistence that we should resist change.

In a conversation I had last week, I was recalling how I was very fearful of nudity as an eight year old, much more so that the other boys in my class at school. Before my class went swimming at the local pool, I remember asking my mother to write to the teacher to say I couldn't go swimming. I was afraid of being nude or semi-nude in front of my classmates in the change shed. Thankfully she said no.

Now I am thoroughly unselfconscious when it comes to nudity. When I go to Japan and Korea, I seek out the traditional community baths (sento and onsen in Japan and jjimjilbang in Korea), because they are very relaxing and an easy way to experience the cultures away from other tourists.

Please Enjoy Sento poster from Japanese sento

After attending 'Nude' yesterday, I was thinking that the very idea of gathering together the Tate's nude artworks for an exhibition reflects the old Australian and Anglo Saxon attitude of nudity as exotic and not part of normal everyday life such as it is with Japanese and Koreans routinely going to wash and relax in the local community bathhouse.

From my experience of normalised nudity in Japan and Korea, I would suggest to the Queensland father that it is the Australian attitude of nudity as exotic or 'other' that promotes promiscuity, and not nudity per se.

Music theatre's happiness pill

On Saturday evening I went to a musical, Nick Enright's Summer Rain at the New Theatre in Newtown. It's about a travelling family tent show and drought breaking rains breathing new life into a depressed NSW country town in 1945.

Lots of song and dance and emotion, with a little intrigue and enmity. I rarely go to musicals. I'm lucky enough to have a reality that I don't feel the need to escape from. But I'm very pleased I went, and so is the friend whom I dragged along.

A musical is a happiness pill, and happiness is something that none of us can get enough of. It's about the quality of our life.

New Theatre Summer Rain

The New Theatre is a small theatre and we were in the second row. At times the members of the cast would gaze into my eyes as they sang their melodies. They were hard at work attempting to instil in me a transfer of pathos and happiness and hope for a brighter future.

On Sunday morning I had in my consciousness the afterglow of the harmonies of the beautiful singing and the positive energy radiating from the expressive faces and gestures. I picked up the Sunday paper to find columnist Peter FitzSimons congratulating Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews for his push to legalise euthanasia in the new year.

I'm usually a supporter of progressive law reform, but euthanasia is a notable exception. My view might change if I or somebody close to me arrives in a place of utter physical and mental debilitation. But for now, what prevails is my strong and possibly fundamentalist religious belief that it is God that is the giver and taker of life, not our parliamentarians.

Of course I don't seek to impose my religious belief on others. But I fear that the utilitarian views of the majority will be imposed on me when the legal right to die becomes the (unlegislated) duty to die.

What I mean is that I can see that the time will come when the usefulness of my life is exhausted according to the measure of some form of economic rationalism. It's a form of eugenics. There will be a subtle moral pressure for me to take a pill to end my life, not unlike the moral imperative to offer our seat on the bus to a fellow passenger who needs it more than we do.

I would prefer to take a happiness pill, and to receive the community's moral support in my choice to do this.

Euthanasia advocates maintain there is absolutely no logical progression from the right to die to the duty to die. They are right. But what concerns me is the utilitarian moral duty to die, and that this will prevail against my own values concerning the beginning and end of life.

I may be naive in thinking that I will never get to the point at which I will want to choose to end my life. But I think it is also naive to assume that legal approval for 'voluntary' euthanasia will include the community's moral approval of the voluntary aspect of the legislation.

Flirting with numbers at the MCA

Yesterday I visited the Tatsuo Miyajima exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney. Miyajima is a Japanese contemporary artist who uses LED counters in the Buddhist inspired sculptures that have evolved from his early performance art.

I was instantly drawn to take selfies with my phone, and from watching the video and reading the notes on his website, it seems that kind of interactivity with the viewer is exactly what the artist intended. Indeed the MCA exhibition is titled 'Connect with Everything'. Conversely a lack of such connection would, in his words, 'terminate art eventually'.

He told the Saturday Paper that 'the whole point of art is to reach an audience, so hopefully it will go out into the world and meet someone and they will respond'.

Selfies at Tatsuo Miyajima Connect With Everything exhibition MCA Sydney

That's why I was amused to see one of the attendants dutifully chastise another visitor for touching one of the artworks. The visitor was obviously drawn to touch the artwork in the way Miyajima's sculptures had me taking selfies.

I'm certain the artist would have given his blessing to the touch, as the wear and tear of public touch is part of art existing in the 'real world' rather than the isolation of the 'art world' that the performance artist sculptor shuns.

Those who had a traumatic relationship with maths during their childhood could find the exhibition distressing. That may have been the case with the friends of a friend who reported that they did not like the exhibition. Perhaps they kept their distance from the works and did not feel moved to interact in the way that I - or the chastised toucher - did.

I too had a troubled relationship with maths when I was young, but I feel that I experienced a degree of healing at the MCA yesterday, as if the artist was reaching out to me with Buddhist compassion. Miyajima said in the Saturday Paper interview that he traces his interest in art to childhood illnesses that left him hospitalised for months. The LED numbers represent human beings - it is 'playful technology and big, bright lights [that] are accessible to everyone'.

David Hockney's celebration of eccentricity

Yesterday I went to the David Hockney 'Current' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I don't often go to these blockbuster events but I had a free afternoon in Melbourne and I was interested in going to the gallery, as I had not been there for so many years. 

I found it unexpectedly entertaining, a bit like the Grayson Perry exhibition I visited at the MCA in Sydney at the beginning of the year. It has something to do with the quality of eccentricity, which is often associated with the British. It's strange that eccentricity thrives in a culture that is also known for being mannered and repressed, the opposite end of the scale from the spontaneity of the Latin cultures. 

On the one hand, I don't warm to his vocal advocacy of smokers' rights, which he mentions in interviews and features in quite a number of his whimsical works. It seems like the railing against political correctness that you get from Senator David Leyonhjelm or from the opinion and letter writers in The Australian newspaper. At the same time, he is determined to push the boundaries of his medium, in terms of both aesthetic theory and in using the iPad or a video camera for most of his recent works.

What I found particularly fascinating was his rejection of the 'single-point perspective' in the creation of images, in favour of his own way of doing what amounts to 3D. Increasingly, a single image doesn't do the job for him. He has quite a number of stitched together composite works, some of which are displayed using banks of video monitors. Others are stitched together photographic prints. Initially you think that the stitching together is done poorly, but then you realise that it's intentional and purposeful.

That is his serious work, though there is a playfulness in it. I also enjoyed the whimsy and humour in the large number of paintings and iPad slide shows. He also provides something of a role model for those of us who are growing old in that he doesn't seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of him.