Tuesday 16 October 2018

The art of satire doesn't always go down well

Maria Herlihy

THE LAW is an ass, I once heard a solicitor argue with a strong element of tongue-in - cheek humour, while attempting to quash a public order charge which his client faced and one which carried a jail sentence. However, it was rebutted by the judge at that time who said: "The law is not an ass, but sometimes the law is assified."

Certainly elements of 'assification' came to the surface recently when two caricatures of An Taoiseach appeared in two separate art galleries. The word, caricatura from the Italian, means exaggeration by means of quite often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics.

One of the paintings depicted a nude Brian Cowen seated on a toilet and holding a toilet roll, while the second dipicted the Taoiseach holding his underwear. Certainly they were unflattering and exaggerated - but that is what caricatures have always been and even Leonardo Da Vinci started off his career dabbling in caricatures.

However, once again the nation was catapulted into the international spotlight and again for the wrong reasons as Gardai were dispatched to the offices of Today FM seeking information on the 35-year-old artist, Conor Casby, and the unauthorised hanging of the two portraits.

Mr Casby in a statement confirmed he had painted the pictures and said they were intended to be an anonymous and not-for-profit comment on the use of modern media, "rather than an attempt to use the media to comment." He said he wished to bring the project to an end, "by offering the portraits to the highest bidder" and then donating the proceeds to charity.

The radio producer, Will Hanafin, said the detective who interviewed him had said: "The powers that be wanted it done." It certainly seems that within Government circles someone sprang like a roaring tiger to have them removed. The Government has denied it had orchestrated the Garda action, and said it had been instigated by the two galleries, the National and Royal Hibernian Academy. Rarely has such alacrity been witnessed in the history of the state.

The later apology by RTE for any offence caused by its broadcasting of the images also portrayed quite a prickly relationship between the 'powers that be,' and the national broadcaster.

Satire is a common feature of democracy and, if Mr Cowen had put the pictures up for charity, then it would have surely taken the sting out of it and it would have also proved that he had more on his mind (ie a tanked economy, the upcoming emergency budget, rising unemployment, strong dissatisfaction with the health service) than two caricatures.

Mr Cowen is not the first politician, nor will he be the last to be at the receiving end of an artist's satire. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was often portrayed as a vampire as his rule encompassed Transylvania. After Ceausescu execution in 1989, the artist Dan Perjovschi drawings, which consisted of biting humour on socio-political events as well as the ruling of Ceausescu flourished. It was said after Ceausescu's execution that hundreds of people stood silently and went into various galleries with stone faces to see the caricatures. Not a sound was heard as people shuffled along from painting to painting. However, once outside and safely away from the authorities, people had to rest themselves up against walls to draw breath as tears of laughter ran down their faces.

An Taoiseach can surely sleep more peacefully at night now the offending caricatures have now been seized by Gardai. However, a quick search on Google threw up some interesting sites, with T-shirts now available of the caricatures and already some people have superimposed their own faces onto the grossly exaggerated Cowen caricature and placed it on their Facebook site.

And surely the Gardai themselves have more pressing issues at hand than raiding the offices of RTE. However, it was the investigation at the three potential offences which drew a lot of comment. The investigating officers were looking at three potential offences: Indecency, incitement to hatred and criminal damage — by way of hammering a nail into a gallery wall. Certainly the law, at times, appears to show elements of assification.