Re-Packaging Masculinity in Tony Abbott’s Body Politic - A Painting
Sun 5th Jul 2015
For many years I was exploring the post 9/11 environment as an artist from the perspective of cultural metaphor – old Hollywood movies, medieval French epic poetry and narratives of popular fiction. It became my lens to observe the war on terror. Using historical metaphors that were relatively distant helped me to uncover the dynamics in the way the military, for instance, were projecting their romantic desires onto inanimate objects like drones. I also found humour and irony in some rather unpleasant scenarios and experiences which formed stories across many canvases.
In 2015 the industry of terrorism has moved into a new phase and the scenarios I painted – such as the militarisation of civil society - have gone mainstream. The militarisation of our law enforcement is one aspect that has struck me quite forcefully living in Melbourne and working in multicultural policy at a time when the government policies driving counter terrorism raids grow increasingly malevolent.
We now have a Prime Minister openly courting nationalism at the cost of protecting our judicial system, while a massive merger of our immigration and border protection agencies is reinventing our relationship to migrants and refugees under a Homeland Security-style surveillance force that migrants could be forgiven for mistaking as our secret police. Given that our local police now wear anonymous balaclavas as part of their suburban operations, this is not comforting.
The terrorism industry which is now firmly established, is gradually enforcing new social mores. I recently took one aspect - masculinity – and completed a painting for an exhibition held by a male only gay bar for ‘bears’ in Melbourne. Each year they request art that explores the idea of masculinity. For me it posed some challenges after the recent counter terrorism raids in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I have been working with ethnic communities at a time when these issues erupt regularly in my daily life, and I find the process of painting as usual captures issues which sit beneath my consciousness until they come out as art.
During these raids photographs of law enforcement officers with faces hidden under black balaclavas stood out loud and clear in newspapers on a daily basis. They made me revisit the concept of the masculine as it is being rewritten through counter terrorism and deradicalisation policies. These highly militarised images in our suburbs echoed recent images from France after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. To many women and gay men, these men seem really ‘hot’. As sexualised symbols of a masculinity that is both reductive and strategic – we see real damage to migrant masculinities, and Muslim men in particular, which is compounded by their popularity with larger and larger numbers of Australians.
This sexuality of terrorism is a soft power which sustains the terror industry. Politicians, extremists of all faiths, law enforcement, academics, social activists, even Hollywood script writers, all compete for this celebrity to enhance their professional pheromones and advance their career. Contemporary masculinity has a cultured and politicised element to which we are still blind. This is where I find my role as an artist creates value as art, while slow, is oddly immediate in revealing meaning in the small gestures that have become collateral damage in the rise of social media.
Speaking with Muslim men after these raids, I saw the frustration of men struggling to maintain optimism about being Australian. I felt it too. In these men’s faces was the fear of express ing a full range of masculine identities. I saw too the shadow of a new masculinity evolving in public life that cuts across barriers to groups traditionally opposed to the Alpha Male. It is almost a gender-less masculinity as our body politic undergoes a transgressive form of gender-reassignment. How we experience masculinity comes at a cost to ourselves and others. And for ‘other’ men, this complication solicits no sympathy from a Prime Minister who has more in common with Vladimir Putin in his need to prove his manhood by imitating a fantasy of an American Commander in Chief.
The militarisation of society is entering a dangerous phase. It requires our complicity through our darker desires for masculine protection. We surrender to this process when we deny the pleasures of consumption which characterise what acclaimed author Toni Morrison once described as our transition from citizen to consumer.
New recruits to these pleasures include the submissive masochism of fourth generation feminists who helped to sell 125 million copies of E.L. Jame’s Fifty Shades of Grey and the newly normative and nuptial - accredited hyper-masculine gay man who see re-packaged masculinity as a necessary defence for an impending Sharia Apocalypse.
This subversive return of the Alpha Male in public policy is carried proudly today among law enforcement and government officers, counter terrorism gurus, the military and their fetishists who sadly include white supremacists and anti-immigration groups. The complication occurs further in the scope of the re-packaged masculinity. It can be seen in international intervention when nations promote their support for women’s and LGBTQ rights or marriage equality to prove their neo-liberal credentials which, sometimes, justify their own atrocities.
The men I spoke with felt depleted and wary and were so anxious to appear reasonable and anything but extreme. It made me sad , for the toll on non-professional actors is heavy. This became the basis for my painting Among Men Only (pictured). Special ops ‘ jeanies’ ejaculate from the mouth of Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s tea pot to invite a newly arrived migrant man to Australia with the help of our special forces. Somehow they all seemed submerged beneath the ocean depths which took the passengers of SIEV X, the asylum boat that sank in 2001 killing all 353 mostly women and children on board.
As an artist I am only too aware that nothing we suppress ever goes away. It comes out creatively but for me this creativity is practical, rather than theoretical. I paint to see. As a practicing artist, no process- analytic model of creativity can substitute for lived experience. Theory does not express the look in the eyes of the men I have spoken with in Melbourne as public policy, law enforcement, government services and the media turn on them to revoke their masculinity in punishment for claiming their ethnicity or religion or, as is now a local joke, because they have long and difficult to pronounce names.
In a 2013 article in Journal of Creative Behaviour titled ‘Creative Malevolence in Terrorist Organisations’ (Paul Gill, John Horgan, Samuel T. Hunter & Lily D. Cushenbery, 2013), the authors make persuasive and at times insightful comment on the merits of migrating the theory of ‘creative malevolence’ into counter terrorism strategy. They announce with flourish the obvious fact that terrorists inhabit sometimes highly creative and innovative organisations which bureaucratic intelligence and security agencies struggle to understand and interrupt.
When I completed my painting it became apparent to me that a state-sponsored masculinity is as much a form of malevolent creativity as a “successful” terrorist organisation. Masculinity that can overcome its historical enemies to unite the community into one single prejudice: that’s what I call innovation.