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category: Art,Culture

A Lack Of

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 by

When the phrase ‘pajjiz tal-Mickey Mouse’ is endlessly reiterated as being descriptive of a country’s politics and cultural output, you can easily assume that there is an inherent drawback in national consciousness and, possibly, abilities. Yet if said nation was known for its hardworking and capable population and thus no shortcomings can be attributed to technical aptitude, the fault lines appear in the ideological realm, which seizes control over one’s consciousness and confidence.

With Malta’s colonial history and the overpowering effect of Roman Catholicism on our lifestyles, it is unsurprising that our minds have been programmed to admire the ‘superior’ foreigner and to rid ourselves of any sort of vice, with the word vice encompassing behaviour no longer shunned by our western counterparts. How this has impressed itself onto the topography of artistic production, even that produced hundreds of years back, is quite a disturbing phenomenon.

Truthfully, Maltese people did not experience the brutalities colonial Africa was subjected to with regards to labour and natural resource exploitation. However, while certainly less brutal, the effects of Malta’s exploitation are as long-lasting as those felt on the continent to the south. The persistent occupation of the Maltese Islands by foreign rulers was malignant to our culture, stagnantly resulting in no contemporary creative work to define us. It suited those in charge to keep the populace materially content while intellectually (and therefore politically) callow. What of the values of personal freedom and liberty from a subtle yet present oppressor? There were moments of national uprising – the struggles against the French occupation is one example – and radical personalities such as Manwel Dimech, who demonstrated an attitude of dissent. Yet little or no art that expressed defiance to the political situation transpired. Maltese Poetry is probably most successful in conveying the sentiment of national pride to counter-attack the submissive inferiority which apprehended the Maltese sensibility.

However, in the field of visual arts, a cultural lag is explicit.  Quickly scan the history of fine art produced by Maltese artists – as much as we try to revere their work, the outcome is customarily lacking and unimaginative, a shadow of the impressionable masters from overseas. This condemnation holds truth in the perpetual upholding of Caravaggio and Mattia Preti as local artists, despite both of them being Italian.

This is not a Maltese production.
This is not a Maltese production.

Nevertheless the island did produce the noted seventeenth-century sculptor Melchiorre Cafà, an artist who truly took the bull by its horns when he left the island for Rome and successfully challenged the prestigious sculptural field monopolised by papal favourite Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This artist was trained locally and audaciously competed with foreign peers. It possibly takes a lot of courage to depart from our idyllic isles for competitive environments or, even more challenging, to present something new in the land of convention and homogenisation. This seems to be the most troublesome obstacle which has implanted a non-traversable threshold in the mind of local artists.

This is a Maltese production.
This is a Maltese production.

In early modern culture, up to and during the nineteenth century, when the Church commissioned a hefty chunk of the art produced, conditions for the fostering of critical art were quite adverse. When artists started to gain autonomy (far later than the artists on the continent), Maltese modern art was primarily concerned with formalist experimentation, aesthetics and appearances. Albeit the century being one of political, social and economic turmoil, in Malta things seemed to peacefully occur without any reaction from artists. Those who defied the predominance of the church were few, and they suffered the consequences of their choices.

Fast forward to contemporary times, when artists are independent of Church patronage, knowledge is available to all via the internet, and freedom of speech is a basic human right. The most recent exhibition I attended was supposed to feature provocative art which addressed a fundamental social issue. Only it consisted of bland photographs of transvestites with saggy body parts and a man romanticising with a dead chicken (I was of the opinion that bestiality is an unfounded concern today, absent from gender discourse). I left feeling none the wiser or engaged with the issue at hand. How this presumably challenged the perception of gender or sexual difference [the impetus for the exhibition] is unfathomable, and the difficulty of social integration was more likely reinforced than overcome. Maybe foregrounding difference was essential to the project, however difference and the intrigue with fetishistic dispositions is something that is subject to the individual, regardless of sexual orientation.

Why is it that we cannot critically challenge the conventions that subjugate society? Art isn’t solely about delving into mysterious psyches and displaying eccentricities. It plays the crucial role of observing and analysing experience, diagnosing the irrationality and injustice that exists, and the creative articulation of such. Most countries can testify to the harrowing effects of colonisation, and to the social struggles sown by state and religious ideologies. Yet Maltese artists seemingly allowed our history to unfold with innocuous lethargy. So, if we do not lack talent, what do we lack? What has restrained us from acting upon that which ensures conflict, or even worse, stagnation? It evidently has become part of Maltese culture to remain silenced, for fear of upsetting the next door neighbour. Silence, as history proves, can only result in loss, and why lose when its direct opposite is gain?

Category Art,Culture

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