Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Aesthetics of the Forbidden: The Photography of Thierry Kuntz

The following is a collaborative work by Donald Brackett and Thierry Kuntz. The text is by Donald Brackett and all photographs are by Thierry Kuntz.

Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies it was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term "censor" can be traced to the office established in Rome in 443 B.C.E. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded as an honourable task. We can easily explore its strange evolution throughout all the arts and culture fields in history: visual, literary, theatrical, cinematic, and political. Perhaps the first act of censorship was the ancient Greek condemnation of the philosopher Socrates, and among the most recent are the fatwas against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. In between, it seems that we have long been told by the powers that be just what we can read or watch. We will ask the simple questions: why are certain things not allowed? and who gets to decide on our behalf what is good or bad for us?

This is a contemporary exploration of the emblem, an ancient communication device which combines words and images in order to convey usually moral lessons. Perhaps the digital internet age is an ideal time to reexamine human nature, our virtues and vices, in light of how much we have changed over time since the original emblemata books of the medieval age, and -- perhaps even more importantly -- how much we haven’t really changed at all.

First developed in the 16th century, emblems consist of three parts: a symbolic picture (pictura) with a motto or title (inscriptio) and an explanatory poem or epigram (subscriptio). Emblem books proved popular for more than two hundred years and thousands were published across Europe. The purpose of the emblem is to indirectly convey moral, political or religious values in forms that need to be decoded by the viewer. The pictura often juxtapose ordinary objects in an enigmatic way so as to offer a reader the intellectual challenge of attempting to divine all the allegorical meanings. In this way, emblem books typified the extraordinary Renaissance and Baroque aesthetic in which objects were thought to contain hidden meanings and concealed links between apparently dissimilar objects were believed to exist. Emblem books exercised an enormous influence on literature and the visual arts, and therefore they have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in painting, decorative arts, literature, illustrated books, iconography, symbolism, theories of representation, social and cultural history.

Ironically, but not surprisingly perhaps, our basic situation remains the same even though it has been enhanced by highly sophisticated tools which enable us to imagine that we are all one global culture (or village) interconnected and immediately interfaced through devices which now control us as much as we use them. Do we really know who our fellow passengers are on board this big floating cultural steamship we call the digital world? The ship of fools metaphor is perhaps a very apt one. The great German artist and etching master Albrecht Dürer, a big influence on my own notion of emblematic thinking, made a masterful allegorical illustration in 1498 for the book by Sebastian Brant called Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools) which so clearly exemplified the human condition. In addition, Katherine Anne Porter, a famous American novelist who wrote a 1962 novel called Ship of Fools about Europe, which was then made into a gem of a Hollywood movie in 1965, also approached this poetic image with considerable insight and intelligence.

And they both separately and silently suggest to me that there might be yet another, more contemporary usage for this same metaphor: the digital networking platform itself. While 1933 Europe as a whole was satirized by Porter, the same motif comes to mind today again, and perhaps in an even closer and scarier resemblance to Dürer’s own original dark vision: the digital ship of fools on which we are all willing or unwilling passengers. This seems to me to be the case because the Facebook format, the LinkedIn phenomenon, and indeed the Internet, the entire social media network and even our whole digital age itself, seductively imply that we are in charge, in command, and intimately involved in the folly of “steering” this gigantic cyber-ship, when it is more likely that we are all under the influence of forces far beyond our control and in fact may only be wallowing in the illusion of freedom which is the business card, or even the engraved invitation, to that big global party known as the information age.

Perhaps what we now need is a similar system of digital emblems, an updated version of the medieval motif of the emblem which used to provide a moral lesson or ethical dilemma in the form of a visual image coupled with a text that elucidated its message. Another important question concerns overall censorship of the arts in general and visual art in particular. Who decides what is permissible to be shown on Facebook, for instance? Who decides what images violate some mysterious code of community conduct? A fine example of this question is the photographic work of a French artist named Thierry Kuntz, whose works often contain a human element of erotic nudity and sexuality, though usually within tasteful and elegant parameters.

Yet, on occasion, Facebook declares his work obscene and even blocks, removes or censors it entirely. This has provoked the artist to create a whole separate closed group called Impudences, something of a secret society for like-minded people to share similar interests. As we move farther into an almost totally virtual world, we will be encountering questions relating to freedom of expression and censorship more and more often in our cultural interactions. There will also be more and more interferences in our ability to communicate what we choose to discuss, and especially what we choose to show. The word "impudence" is an intriguing one, especially when applied to a visual artist who makes charmingly innocent and mildly erotic images: it means to show no shame for rude behaviour and even to flaunt it.

And yet, that is precisely what is called for in light of the imposition of group morals on individual self-expression. That is also why it is instructive to visit a private site such as Kuntz’s Impudences. It is a veritable celebration of the sensation of freedom in the face of overbearing censorship and sanctioned control of our communications. Some of his images lend themselves perfectly to emblemata, visual stories which can convey the essence what it is to be a person. Lessons in how to approach us if we were ever visited by an alien non-human species who wanted to know who we are, what we believe, and perhaps even how to interact with us.

We’re all in a big electronic boat sailing off towards the edge of the world, and we naturally assume our fellow digital passengers are who they claim to be. Isn’t it time we found a way to check their actual passports and boat ticket stubs before we gleefully sign up to networks bearing their names on our voyage? We need to be vigilant about which freedoms we allow the group to monitor and control, especially in the digital and virtual worlds on our doorstep. The current ascendancy of a bizarre caricature such as Donald Trump, a master manipulator of social media platforms and bender of truths digitally, is a clear indication of the dangers of the triumph of information over knowledge. We need to at least be in command of our imaginations.

Now more than ever, we might need the classical emblem format as an aesthetic compass of sorts, not to keep us on the straight and narrow the way medieval emblems did, but rather to simply maintain some semblance of wakefulness on this surreal journey. Are we not in danger of really becoming a digital ship of fools sailing blindly towards a new kind of political correctness, one which is actually worse than the one from which we imagined we had been liberated by the social media platforms we so readily embraced? Welcome to the new Middle Ages. Stultifera Navis indeed.


Gravity plus appetite equals forward motion:
We are limited to three dimensions,
with the hope of a fourth forming our future.
Our bodies are very fragile and
our existence is incredibly brief,
hence our history: colonizing the void.


Occupying the intermediate zone:
We are living radios and living clocks.
We have multiple languages saying
the same thing without realizing it.
Our skins look different but inside
we are identical, a fact we frequently forget.
Our destiny is unified in absence.


These are metaphysical mnemonics,
for knowing the situation we are in.
Our beliefs are based in large part
on misinterpreting everything that happens to us.
Our living and dying occur without the
slightest bit of certainty, apart from the fact
that soon everything must disappear before our eyes.


Essentials rest below the surface:
Remember: any attempt to explain
our basic human dilemma, of which
all art is an emblem, will inevitably
result in paradox, since paradox,
and to some extent irony, immediately
arises from attempts to express the ineffable.


Accidental destiny:
An emergency is waiting to happen.
My thirst is your thirst: my thirst first.
Procedures for a well-timed ending.
End of the world productions:
because........we cater your dreams.


Slaves of the alphabet:
a fence surrounding nothing.
Entrance to the large hours:
no east or west in dreams.
Making of virtue of necessity:
the meaning of life is that it ends.
The purpose of life is to make impermanence meaningful.


Mobile enigma.
A eulogy for our history:
Queen of the earth
we worship at your feet.
Some things are perfect the way they are.
Suddenly the search for
the miraculous comes unglued,
and we find ourselves
in love with being lost.


We have forgotten our names
on a landscape fashioned from
laughter and tears: so we wait.

The armor of our heart
is almost unimaginable.
Our animals are still
hiding deep inside of us.

Be careful of befriending us.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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