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August 20, 2018 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Good Taste

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes that a “novel insistence on good taste in a culture saturated with commercial incentives to lower standards of taste may be puzzling”. Sontag was writing in the context of depicting atrocity, but somehow, the dictate of “good taste” tends to prevail in our society: a video of a kidnapped journalist being executed is removed from a Boston news website, an Urban Outfitters Kent State University sweater is pulled from production.
Good taste is a strange criteria. In many ways, it feels like a performative thing. The notion of good taste shows us as proving our own moral capacity, and also attempts to establish some sort of concrete line of acceptability, where none can ever actually be found.

This idea of good taste teeters on the edge in the newly-opened Iconography of Revolt at City Gallery. Curator Robert Leonard prefaces this with a sort of disclaimer in an interview with Olivia Lacey for the gallery’s website:
“Iconography” means both the visual language used in art works and the study and interpretation of that language. I called the show Iconography of Revolt to emphasise that it isn’t simply about revolt. It’s about the way it’s pictured, about the way images work. I could have called it Picturing Revolt or Rhetoric of Revolt.”
In claiming that the iconography of revolt can be isolated from the contexts and conflicts that inform it, Leonard attempts to neutralise the imagery included in the exhibition. The Pussy Riot protest at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where all members wear balaclavas, set alongside a glass case with a series of balaclavas, is inescapably in dialogue with the Terrorist Teapot sitting in the gift store. The aesthetics employed in each of these scenarios are built of the same iconography. Yet, reducing something that is so recently part of our social conscience into aesthetics means that we are encouraged to feel nothing towards representations of injustice.
We already get it. It is not that the depoliticisation of this material is shocking, but that it is not. We got the joke a long time ago. Leonard is obviously aware of this; a clip from a Maharishi fashion show that appropriated jihadi aesthetics is another empty provocation. It is such a trendy thing to be socially aware, or to capitalise on the political/feminist movements. Fast fashion companies smear “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” across a t-shirt made by exploited women in a faraway country. It is in this zeitgeist that Iconography of Revolt was surely conceived.
The flattening effect of following an international drift is felt in the gallery space. There is an uneasy absence of revolt or resistance in the context of Aotearoa in the show. There is a scattering of New Zealand artists, but none that address content from New Zealand, and not for lack of it. In 2000, City Gallery mounted a show titled Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, in collaboration with the Parihaka Pā Trustees. There could have been an opportunity for Iconography of Revolt to remember this show, to understand the absolute necessity of resistance in this colonised land. Instead, Arwa Alneami, whose Never Never Land occupies an upstairs gallery, and SODA_JERK’s TERROR NULLIUS, playing in the auditorium space, are left to counteract the deadpan stance that Iconography of Revolt cannot shake.
Correction: Death and Desire in Salient Issue 16, was written by Nina Dyer, not myself as it was wrongly attributed to.

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