Friday, 24 October 2014

The Beautiful, Un-Pornographic, Un-Idealised, Life-Affirming Female Nude!

Aleah Chapin: Auntie (2012)
This is a painting that the prestigious, World-Renowned Art Critic Brian Sewell labelled 'repellent - a grotesgue medical record'. It's by the 28 year old American artist Aleah Chapin, and with it she won the BP Portrait Award in 2012. Clearly to some minds, a woman is no longer a human being once she is (a) over sixty years of age, and/or (b) naked. I wonder if the model herself had to suffer the hurt and indignity of hearing Sewell's words? I hope not.
I'm reminded of a few responses I had when I started posting female nudes on my Facebook timeline (looking at art has given me increasing happiness over the past year). It really got me thinking, and I realised that subject matter doesn't matter as long as it's truthful. It makes no difference whether an artist paints a landscape, a still life, a building, a village street, an animal (human or otherwise), a rich socialite or a poor labourer, a man or a woman, a person wearing clothes or a person who is naked. It's all life. Art paints life, and often finds beauty where the devourers of fashion magazines do not.
The only reason I tend to share female nudes on Facebook is purely subjective preference. As a heterosexual male, I tend to be more aware of their beauty, so they tend to move me more. Also, many of my favourite artists tended to paint female nudes rather than male. It's true that I find many of them sexy, but I don't respond to them merely with my genitals, as I might if they were porn; instead, they fill my whole body, mind and being with a kind of life-affirming joy. But I can still appreciate the beauty of male bodies, and would be interested and happy to see their portrayal in art posted on my friends' timelines.
Zinaida Serebriakova: Portrait of Ekaterina
Serebriakova, Daughter of the Artist (1928)
Truthful art is not porn (at times the division can be a little fuzzy, but then I would argue that the art in question is not being truthful in the deepest sense; instead, however talented, the artist is helping to perpetuate myths or lies about women - or indeed men!) Likewise, photoshopped fashion images are not art, because they are lying too. They are not depicting life on any level. On the other hand, I find this portrait (and a nude can still be a portrait, as my favourite artist Zinaida Serebriakova showed) touching, beautiful and true to life. It's not a lie. This woman is gorgeous and a real person, and I'm happy to display Aleah Chapin's work of art on my timeline - and on this blog. 
I'm also happy to have discovered a still living artist (20 years younger than me!) whose paintings I like. Unless my friends stop following me, of course, I think they'll be seeing more of Chapin's work on my timeline! 

Sorry if this reads like a rant, but I feel an ongoing frustration both about the degrading and damaging lies perpetrated by photoshopped nudes, as well as the attitude that regards the female nude in art as inevitably pornographic. I love art that makes me happy (hence Renoir, Sargent and Serebriakova), that makes me feel good about life. This painting does just that. 

Friday, 12 September 2014


This is different from anything I’ve posted previously on this blog. It’s edited from a Facebook status update (on 11 September) that grew and grew – surely the longest I’ve ever shared. Some may even feel that it’s incompatible with a blog that tends to reflect a Buddhist (though secular) outlook – I don’t know. I just know that I wanted to share. I’ve seen and read about so much bloodshed in the past fifteen years. Certainly, I regard the events of 11th September 2001 as a terrible atrocity. My heart tells me that, and international law tells me that. But I am tired of reading those words, ‘Never Forget’, as if the million or more deaths that followed, supposedly in response to that criminal act, are less important – less worthy of remembrance. To me, 20th March is the anniversary of a far bigger tragedy than 9/11, and an even greater crime. So I want to share the feelings, some of the thoughts behind that remembrance. I also think that these feelings spring from the same part of me that’s attracted to Buddhist ethics and practices. I kind of float in and out of Buddhism just as I float in and out of a very limited form of peace activism. But the source of both in me, the core values of justice and peace, the horror of bloodshed and inhumanity, remains constant.

TRIGGER WARNING: Although I’ve tried not to be gratuitous in describing the visceral effects of war, there may be passages that would be traumatic or harmful for some people to read. One particular sentence comes to mind. It was important to me to express, however briefly, something of the reality of war, as an antidote to the newspeak through which it is often presented. Clearly, however, I don’t want my words to hurt anyone, so it’s up to the reader’s best judgement as to whether to read further.

Thirteen years ago, when the US was attacked by mostly Saudi Arabian criminals, I tended to see war as something that happened on the news. I didn't like it, but I didn't feel very personally involved. By 2003, when mostly American criminals attacked Iraq, I was politicised - and like at least a million other people in the UK, I took to the streets.

After becoming chronically ill a year later with neuropathic pain, I spent several years campaigning against various related War in Terror issues, but mostly the war on Iraq. I had to give it up eventually because the continuing sense of horror, and the pressures I was putting on myself, became too much for me and I broke down. But for a couple of years I kept myself aware and informed, and I felt very emotionally involved. When people questioned my views I defended them, arguing often and at great length. I tried to be logical and I knew I was much more knowledgeable than I'd used to be, but the passion always came through. And of course, I got nowhere. People who believed in war continued to do so, and my mind didn't change either.

Now, and especially since Israel's latest barbaric assaults on Gaza, I feel like I can hardly be bothered to discuss it. I've seen and read about so much insanity, cruelty and horror, that I don't have much respect left for the views of people who defend, say, the Iraq War, or Israel's slaughter of the Palestinians. I even find it a bit difficult to want to stay friends with people who espouse such views. I know, of course, that they have a moral and legal right to express them, and much of my peace activism was concerned with defending the right to free speech. I know that it's a fact of life that my friends and I aren't going to agree on everything, and that in some ways this is a good thing. But increasingly, I seem to have no respect for pro-war views. I mean, for frack's sake, have people never heard of international law, or the UN Charter???

International law is meant to protect all of us from the chaos, the slaughter and the 'scourge of war'. The UN Charter permits going to war only in very rare and desperate circumstances. It's not okay, for instance, to respond to terrorist attacks by fighting a war that causes suffering and death to millions of people who had nothing to do with those attacks. That simply trashes the memory of the victims of 9/11 in the worst way imaginable. And international humanitarian law declares that in those rare circumstances where war is necessary, it's a crime to target civilians or civilian infrastructure, no matter what the reason or provocation. It is never, ever okay to not discriminate between a military enemy and innocent civilians. It is never, never, NEVER okay to murder children!

In reality, and increasingly it seems, war never follows the rules laid out in the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. It sometimes seems to have good intentions, but those are almost always based on lies, lies used to justify wars that shouldn't even be taking place. And no military, anywhere, seems to translate international humanitarian law into practice. Whole suburbs or even towns are flattened in order to kill a few terrorists. In the case of Iraq, a whole country was virtually destroyed. Large parts of Gaza look like Hiroshima after the bomb, and little Palestinian girls are decapitated (aren't we supposed to be better than ISIS?), disembowelled or, in one photograph that I can't forget, have the back half of their skulls blown off. Sometimes the military gets its man (and sometimes not), but it often takes a hundred or a thousand more people with him. Some estimates suggest that a million Iraqi people died as a direct result of the 2003 invasion. Women get killed. Old people with dementia get killed. Children get killed. Babies get killed. It's a wonder that every single person in those countries doesn't hate us. It would be understandable if they did.

I'm sick and tired of it. I'm sick of nice, sane, friendly people defending war in terms of 'security' or 'freedom'. War as it is fought today is obscene. It is streets filled with burning flesh, blood and intestines. It is real people, REAL CHILDREN, screaming in fear and pain. It is never fought with good cause, and is never conducted in as way that protects innocent people and adheres to international law. There is no such thing as a ‘surgical strike’ - the war on Gaza demonstrates that. War is terrible, unjust suffering inflicted on human beings by other human beings. It is sick and evil and it can almost never be justified. The pilots who brought down the World Trade Centre thirteen years ago were criminals, not an army! The fact that something needed to be done did not mean it was okay to invade, occupy and flatten countries. It's never remotely okay to kill children, no matter what the provocation. 

I can no longer feel bothered to argue with people. Anyone who thinks these atrocities are justified by 9/11 is either ignorant, unaware or has no moral centre left. People justify Israel's actions in the last few months even though 500 children were killed, and thousands more injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, orphaned or traumatised. I don't even want to speculate about the number of kids killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. And I am losing tolerance for people who defend these things. It’s not as if the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions aren't available online for everyone to see!

Rest in peace, all you thousands of victims of 9/11. Rest in peace, all you millions of people who suffered in the subsequent War on Terror. Slaughtered civilians everywhere, your lives are all equal, even though it is constantly implied that they aren't. Your deaths aren't 'regrettable but justified' - they are terrible, wicked crimes.

I’m aware that I need to find a calmer, more ‘Buddhist’ place in me that can respond to these matters in a more centred way. But this is how I felt on 11th September 2014. This is my 9/11 piece for this year.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Cunning Foxes and Wily Coyotes

Lately I’ve been enjoying a film and a book, very different in character yet united by a common theme. The film is the animated comedy ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, directed by Wes Anderson and based on the story by Road Dahl. The book is called ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver, and although it’s a novel it cleverly integrates a lot of science, in a way that it always remains a part of the story rather than as an ‘expository lump’. I’m not a scientist, but Kingsolver is, and in this book one of her main characters is concerned with the role of predators in ecosystems. She studies coyotes.

This character, the aptly named Deanna Wolfe, tries passionately to explain to her lover, a farmer who hunts coyotes, why predators are more important to an environment than prey animals. In an ecosystem, there are relatively few ‘top predators’, such as bears and wolves, but lots of prey animals, from deer to mice and squirrels. Shooting most or all of the local top predators can have devastating effects beyond the loss of a single noble species, because the prey animals then multiply. Squashing spiders causes flies to increase; killing foxes can cause a plague of rabbits that eat the farmer’s carrots. The increase of the top predator’s natural prey can also crowd out other species, causing their extinction. Often we cannot predict the effects of wiping out a predator population, but it will nearly always cause problems for a previously stable ecosystem.

Deanna has written a thesis which attempts to explain why the wily coyote, despite being the ‘most despised animal’ in the United States, killed in hundreds of thousands every year (a horrible statistic), actually increases in numbers when it’s hunted. Something happens to their breeding. It may be that when their population is under threat, all of the females in a pack start to breed, instead of just the alpha female. Or perhaps something hormonal causes bigger litters. Either way, the efforts of farmers to protect their lambs seems to make the problem worse. Mothers, fathers, pups are killed for nothing – except for money: the annual ‘coyote bounty’.

This got me thinking about foxes. Here in a UK, a lot of people love foxes, but a lot of people hate them. This hatred and distrust has been coded in tradition (partly through ritualistic and cruel aristocratic ‘sport’) for centuries. They kill our chickens! farmers rage. They raid our wheelie bins! townies complain. This hatred is pointless, because there’s nothing to hate; it’s just a focus for people’s frustration, a scapegoating. In a touching scene in ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, Mrs Fox (rather sexily voiced by Meryl Streep) asks her husband, “Why did you lie to me, when you promised you’d never go raiding the farmer’s birds again?” Mr Fox (a characterful George Clooney) replies regretfully that he doesn’t know. “I’m a wild animal”, is all he can say. And of course, that’s right. How can we hate an animal for doing what it can’t help? Foxes just do what they do. They can’t make a choice to do something else.

In the British countryside and towns, foxes are the top predator. They are often called pests by angry homeowners, but they are not pests. By preying on rats, mice, even insects, they help keep down pest numbers. They do us a great service. True, they also kill birds, just like our lovable moggies do. But the RSPB insists that the decline of garden birds has more to do with our own effects on the ecosystem than with predation by cats and foxes. As so often, foxes are scapegoated for our own failings. 

Going back to the fictional Deanna’s thesis, I wondered if foxes also breed differently when they’re hunted. Who knows? – it may or may not be. But when culls have been tried in the past, they’ve always failed. Killing foxes in towns costs a lot of public money (which surely we can ill afford), yet despite the killings, foxes maintain a fairly stable population. Numbers don’t increase, but they stay roughly the same. It seems that foxes from the countryside or other town areas simply move into spaces left available by cullings, glad of the opportunities provided. Foxes are a wonderfully adaptable species, and we punish them for that adaptability, viewing it suspiciously as cleverness, slyness or cunning. Once again, this is scapegoating; foxes are too like us humans, the most adaptable mammal species on the planet. And we make them pay – but for nothing, it seems, than enjoyment, sport or revenge. Yes, some predators can be wiped out, and their loss is devastating beyond their extinction as a single species. But foxes’ numbers remain the same; coyotes’ actually increase. By killing them, we cause blood and suffering, and the starvation of cubs, all for nothing.

‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ ends with the foxes and other animals, having been persecuted throughout the film by the farmers, making a new home underneath a supermarket owned by the same farmers. Adaptable to the end, they have lost their home in the hill under the beautiful tree, but have made a new life where they can raid an unlimited supply of food every night. ‘Destroy’ them in one place, and they pop up in another. Mr Fox is fantastic indeed!

There’s no question whose side the film is on. It celebrates the wit, the audacity, the adaptability, and the cunning, of the fox. As we should do. And that goes for the wily coyote as well. We may have to put up with nuisances from both species, but hating them is just silly, and we need them too.