With public discourse so debased, the joke is on us


OPINION:CONOR CASBY, the artist claiming responsibility for the notorious nude paintings of the Taoiseach hung for a “joke” in the National Gallery and RHA, has said that he wants to let the paintings “speak for themselves”, writes JOHN WATERS

He did not intimate what he thinks they might be saying. That the artist has an infantile obsession with toilet humour? That he nurtures some deep animus towards politicians?

That he cannot draw?

The only amusing thing here is Casby’s deluded belief that he has something to say. His response is typical of a public discourse almost fatally degraded by internet auto-eroticism and an obsession with what is called “comedy”. His works are crude, unfunny, vindictive, without intrinsic content and wholly lacking in artistic merit.

They would never have been heard of had the national broadcaster not misplaced its editorial instincts and, faced with an alternative between soberly reporting a minor crime and engaging in a snide attack on the Taoiseach, chose the latter.

This episode, which continues to be misused by a media increasingly debased in its desire to pursue popular opinion to the gutter and below, comprised four separate elements.

First there was the execution of these grotesque, bad paintings. There is nothing exceptionable in this, since schoolboys have been making similar sketches on their copybooks for as long as copybooks have existed. In a balanced culture, Casby (a teacher!) would never have been heard of.

The second phase involved a breach of security at a national institution.

The third stage involved the news division at the national broadcaster choosing to ignore this element in favour of an, at best, thoughtless exercise in humiliating the Taoiseach and bringing his office into public contempt. RTÉ has rightly issued an official apology for this breach of its public duty.

The fourth stage is the aftermath, with some media people determined to wring every last snigger out of these distasteful daubs and suggesting that anyone who objects has no “sense of humour”.

On his radio show, Pat Kenny implied that RTÉ should not have apologised for reporting the story as it did. If someone produced a similar portrait of himself, he would buy it and hang in in his toilet, so that visitors there could get “a bit of a laugh”.

The difference between himself and Brian Cowen, he asserted, was that he, Pat Kenny, has “a sense of humour”.

Well, no. One difference is that Brian Cowen is Taoiseach and Pat Kenny is not. A second is that these paintings were not hung in the toilet of a private house, but placed in two prestigious galleries, without permission.

The idea that everything exists to be laughed at is now almost unchallengeable.

The internet has reduced public debate to the level of a drunken argument, in which no holds are barred, in which deeply unpleasant people get to voice their ignorant opinions in the ugliest terms, in the name of “free speech”. The idea that we all need “a laugh” has allowed the “joke” to become elevated beyond everything. Nobody may object if others have declared something “funny”.

What is so important about people being enabled to indulge themselves in nervous spasms triggered by, for example, cultural incongruities, that all other criteria – good taste, decency, human dignity – must be jettisoned? Much of what is now called humour is bullying, picking on an individual or group for a cheap guffaw. Anyone who doesn’t think this hilarious has “no sense of humour” – than which no more serious indictment is possible.

In his 2004 book What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics, author John Lloyd cited David Steel, the former leader of the British Liberal Party, in his belief that his portrayal in the sketches on Spitting Imagedestroyed the chances of the then alliance between his party and the Social Democrats replacing the Labour Party as the main party of opposition. Spitting Imageinvariably showed Steel as the fawning puppet of SDP leader David Owen.

Elaborating on the power of such crude stereotypes, Lloyd wrote: “Once again, choices made by electors were being very substantially altered by media; and because of the nature of the culture which assumed a right to intrude ever more decisively into what had been forbidden territory, not only was nothing being done about it, no serious questions were even being asked about it. Politicians became, in a variety of ways, more and more scorned, and could barely object. The media would not allow it, it had been defined as a joke, millions of people liked it . . . and thus its effects – whatever they are – cannot sensibly be discussed.”

It may seem excessive to credit the squalid affair of the Casby paintings with representing a threat to democracy, but undoubtedly such vacuous interventions are becoming increasingly the norm in a culture valuing far above ideas a propensity for “the craic”.

Intrinsically devoid of intellectual content, they nevertheless cumulatively contribute to a climate in which public discourse is cheapened and debased, rendering it less likely that people of intelligence and sensitivity will participate. What kind of society do we expect such a culture to conceive?