This thing we call ‘art’

The arts? Oh, it’s just one of the boxes on the official bucket-list that must be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who you tick it with, or why

Kif Jgħid il-Malti consists of a series of 13 temporary installations depicting Maltese proverbs
Kif Jgħid il-Malti consists of a series of 13 temporary installations depicting Maltese proverbs

When Jason Micallef was appointed chair of the V18 operations, I had questioned his credentials in an article very much like this one. Leaving aside the obvious political ‘qualifications’, I didn’t (and still don’t) see any connection whatsoever between the man and the position he occupies.

As far as I can make out, Jason Micallef is no more or less qualified to co-ordinate the official V18 events and festivities than virtually anybody else in this country. Off the top of my head, I can think of literally dozens of candidates with more experience in the field than he.

In any case, that was a while ago. Meanwhile I am told that Micallef was miffed to read that article when it appeared, and interpreted it as some form of ‘personal criticism’ on my part. He will no doubt do the same with this article, too. And of course, he is entirely welcome to react however he sees fit.

But from my perspective, there is absolutely nothing ‘personal’ about that line of criticism at all. I would have said exactly the same thing about anyone else under the same circumstances (actually I have said the same about plenty of other public appointments, including at least two magistrates recently). And as it happens, I don’t harbour any ill-feeling or personal antipathy towards Jason Micallef at all.  I didn’t argue that he shouldn’t have been appointed because he is a ‘nasty so-an-so’ who did ‘this that or the other’. In fact, I am equally unaware of any issues or factors that would render him manifestly unsuitable for the job. Like I said earlier: no more OR LESS qualified than anyone else.

There: I thought I’d painstaking spell that out, because this knee-jerk ‘personal offence’ reaction is starting to get on my nerves. Not just when it comes from Jason Micallef, naturally. For one thing, I am pre-empting the offence I know he will take; and for another, he is hardly unique in this respect. It is, in fact, an incredibly widespread defence mechanism you encounter here all the time: in all spheres, and from all shades of political (and non-political) opinion.

Micallef was appointed to that role because that’s how his government views Malta’s artistic and cultural milieu

Even so, I am currently struggling – so far without success – to hit on a suitable single word to describe it. Touchiness, perhaps? But that lacks an indication of the sheer mortal nature of the offence taken. Anyway: for want of a better word, let’s call it an ‘inability to take criticism on the chin’... and admit that it stands out as one of our most defining characteristics as a nation.

In all cases – this one being no exception – it only serves to distort the issue being criticised (which in turn explains why nothing ever really changes... but let’s not run before our horse to market). Coming back to the choice of Jason Micallef as V18 chair (and again, the argument would apply to any other political appointee), the real issue is that it tells us more about the typical Maltese government’s attitude towards the arts in general, than it does about anything pertaining to Micallef himself.

The arts? Oh, it’s just one of the boxes on the official bucket-list that must be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who you tick it with, or why: so long as government is seen to be filling all the necessary positions, and so long as all the official events on the calendar take place as planned... that’s it. Mission accomplished. Now, we can all go back to all the items on the agenda that truly interest us: selling passports in Dubai, selling hospitals to dodgy investors, etc.

That is the problem, as I see it. Nothing to do with Jason Micallef per se. Only he did make it a little bit easier to illustrate, by means of his (equally touchy) reactions to two separate incidents this week. First, he took mortal offence when a group on civil society activists projected ‘protest messages’ onto the facade of Castille Palace; then he got equally cheesed off when a bunch of delinquents vandalised a newly-installed street art exhibition in Valletta.

Let’s take them one by one. The ‘protest messages’. Two were quoted in the press (there may have been others): ‘Who killed Daphne?’ and ‘House of Impunity’. Those words were projected onto the facade of the building by means of lights.

And OK, the intention behind this stunt was not exactly to contribute to the ongoing artistic endeavours marking Valletta’s ascendancy to European Capital of Culture 2018. In the words of the protestors, they wanted ‘to reinforce their call for answers and to make a point that there’s no accountability in Castille.’ Nothing to do with V18 at all, really... which makes you wonder why its chairman even felt the need to respond.

All the same, they did choose a somewhat artistic medium to get that point across. And if we extend the definition of ‘art’ – as clearly we must, judging by the artistic merits of some of the official V18 exhibits – to ‘anything that is aimed at provoking discussion or debate’... then quite frankly, those projected messages were just as expressive and visually effective than anything else on offer in Valletta right now.

Above all, they capture at least a small portion of the underlying spirit of this thing we call ‘art’: however you define it, and whether or not those messages can be included in the definition. Spontaneity. Defiance. A sense of the subversive.  A desire to break out of the mould...

Jason Micallef’s reaction? It was an ‘abuse of democracy’, a ‘vile attack’, ‘an illegal act’, a ‘humiliation of the Maltese people’, showing ‘contempt towards public monuments that reflect the accomplishments of the Maltese people over the years’. Oh, and a personal affront to everyone’s grandmother, naturally. (Can’t leave everyone’s grandmother out now, can we?)

I’d call that a teenie-weenie overreaction myself, but let’s not give any more cause for personal offence. The part that concerns me is the underlying implication. For starters, there is nothing ‘illegal’ about that particular stunt.  Unless they’ve removed the Universal Charter of Human Rights from the Maltese Constitution while I wasn’t looking, those people have every right to publicly express their sentiments, so long as they do not damage or destroy public or private property in the process.

Light projections do not damage the buildings they are projected onto. It’s not as though they carved or spray-painted those messages onto a 17th century building, you know...

And that’s before even taking the messages themselves into account: ‘Who killed Daphne?; ‘House of Impunity’. The former is a question that has been (and still is being) asked in every coffee shop, tombola club, lotto office and village square on the island... and will probably continue to be asked for generations to come. The latter is a widespread perception that is held by a great many people in this country – a lot more than the ‘dozen or so’ Micallef complained about in his tweet – and which is in any case supported by a tonne of circumstantial evidence. Neither statement is in any way objectionable or illegitimate. There is, indeed, not even the tiniest metacarpal of a little toe – still less an entire leg – for Micallef’s argument to stand on.

It is, however, the sheer extent of the offence taken that stands out more. Yet again I stress that Jason Micallef is not the only example, nor even probably the best, of this national trait of ours in action. But his wording betrays a disproportionate sense of outrage and affront. If he was a character in a Scooby Doo cartoon, he’d be grumbling about ‘those pesky kids’ who dared to use their ‘fundamental right to free speech’ (Pah!) to upstage his precious V18 applecart...

… which brings me to the other incident. Here, I’ll admit that Micallef’s reaction was altogether more understandable. Whatever you make of those... erm... sculptures that were vandalised, it is quite frankly impossible to condone such clearly delinquent and antisocial behaviour. Here, the words ‘vile attack’ are plainly applicable. (And don’t come trying to convince me that some kind of ‘grand artistic statement’ was being made. Or that the vandalism was itself some form of exercise in ‘freedom of speech’. That’s why I included the ‘damage to property’ proviso, above).

Again, however, the V18 chairman went slightly overboard. He even posted a video of the presumed vandals, and urged the public to report any suspects on the V18 Foundation’s landline. (Erm... why, exactly? So they can be arrested by the V18 police, and tried by the V18 Foundation’s private justice system?) In a sense, it is a reversal of the former scenario: before, he was angered by a spontaneous demonstration which disrupted the official V18 proceedings. Now, it’s because the official V18 proceedings themselves elicited such a hostile reaction. Not, it must be said, just from the vandals themselves... before they even laid their hands on those sculptures, they had already been brutally dismembered by an army of online critics. And Micallef’s reaction to both scenarios is... how dare they?

It becomes difficult not to see a pattern in all this. Once more, we have to extend our definition of ‘art’: or at least, to distinguish between ‘good art’- i.e., the official exhibits unveiled for us by the proper authorities, which all bear the government’s seal of approval, and which we are therefore all expected to admire and be thankful for – and ’bad art’, which accounts for pretty much anything and everything that is not included in the official V18 calendar. And of course, this is not a reflection of Micallef’s own attitude... it is, in fact, the other way around. Micallef was appointed to that role because that’s how his government views Malta’s artistic and cultural milieu. It’s a box that has to be ticked. And we’ll tick it with all the things that don’t threaten, challenge or embarrass our benevolent government in any way... then howl with displeasure when anything that doesn’t fit that description gets in the way.

Sorry, but that’s not my understanding of this thing we call ‘art’. In fact I see precious little use for ‘art’ which does not even remotely challenge the viewer’s way of thinking.  I won’t go as far as to argue (as some have done) that those vandals were expressing a legitimate anger at the sterility and triteness of what passes for State-endorsed ‘street art’ these days. But that sort of anger does exist’ and if it is not reflected in the ‘art’ we are handed down from above... you can rest assured it will find its own way to break out of the mould regardless.

Spontaneously. Defiantly. Subversively. And in all the other ways Malta’ official artistic curators would prefer this thing we call ‘art’ not to be...

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