Malcolm Cook

Mario Minichiello

The Ambiguities Of Presence

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Several aspects of communication are implicit in the making of images: two of which are germane to an evaluation of works that are essentially socially orientated. A report is an account, often factual and associated with documentation. That fits early work by the artist (court room characterisations).1 The documentation is not without direction, an agenda, which may be unassumed, or be an imposed precondition. In the case of newspaper publications editorial intervention, light or heavy, has difficulty with works of art.

While not exactly twins, report and rapport 2 carry different burdens. The assumption of objectivity and distance (report) is contrasted with understanding (sympathetic or empathic) communication (rapport). The humanising appeal of the latter should not obscure the fact that it too has its agenda. The distance between the two agendas may be wide or narrow, but in the case of this creative communication and autographic image making, it is established by one person. A balance may not be struck. The report is open not only to interpretation relative to fact but also its alignment with the subliminal sensuous inflections and emphases of visual communication. Striking differences of the latter may be found by reference to Daumier's Rue Transnonain; The Third Class Railway Carriage, and Picasso's Guernica.


Emphasis and size are common factors in forms of propaganda or the expression of deeply held views. Minichiello's alignment with the examples of Robin Harris, great muralists such as Giotto and the modern commentaries of George Grosz and Die Neue Sachlichkeit, is a significant indicator. Documentary and objectivity are evoked by dispassionate black and white. In that respect a drawing may be taken as a thesis, its lines contributory 'thoughts'. Will the viewer ''buy' the idea'? Is there an awareness of the latitude of meanings attached to a figure in profile: from signifying evil in mediaeval Europe (Judas), to rendering unapproachable divinity in Pharaohnic Egypt? Writing is an art. Reading is a science.

Where there are signs there are interpretations or decodings. Not only are they common, but the incessant display of cultural constructions such as films, soaps, musics and lifestyles has created a base for appropriations and 'knowing' quotations to provide another creative feature - that of intertextuality. This is not quotation for the purpose of sermonising, but as a provision of light relief to sophisticated recipients, some of whom may be very young but very tele-wise. A double or triple layering of references may increase rather than obscure entertainment value. Whence laughter during 'slasher' movies - understood not as a measure of callousness but as a degree of gameplay, anticipation and recognition of the interaction of certain vocabularies or conventions. Another identification may be 'desensitisation'.

Those options are central to any attempt to assess the relationship of the general topic of prostitution to the graphics. Is it the generator of a serious moral crusade, or of a pretext for art making? Why, at a time when there is great freedom, or a relative 'moral laxity' in literature and visual imagery, and ease of access to it (web), should there be any purpose for a visual essay reliant on a notion of 'the forbidden', a proportion of which is neutered salacious imagery? Where, and who, is the market for the product? Does it propose or suggest in any way a solution? Is there a point of view apart from 'Been there, seen that'? What is the problem? Thirty-five pounds (via cheap fares from Hull) can place any onlooker in the Damrak - Oude Kerke area where windows frame legitimate prostitutes, much as a shop displays any other items/services for sale or hire. The sex bars are not restrained by law and nearby nationals cross borders to use the services in a lunch hour.5

There are however, almost statistical methods for assessing preferences and predominant contents. The simplest is to identify types, the number of their occurrence, their status (expressive), position (in the composition and the action). That would be to treat the images as 'real' or documentary indicators. Another is to note those which are not included, the unwitting negations of types, situations, positions and actions. A form of book-keeping arriving at separate sets of factors. Artistically the same procedure can be repeated to find echoes of earlier expressions, situations, types and characterisations. That is no less effective as evidence of original expressive content.

Clearly nothing can be determined by those methods (pace Morelli 6) but their findings may be set against a sudden rush of identification, rejection, or condemnation, any of which the body of the work could occasion. It is also subject to a third measure: that of expression and control of medium. A conscious swing from neutral but sharply delineated confrontation: Hanna with the Glass Eye; to hazy Film Chorus Line with nightclub atmospherics, and finally cryptic visions and symbolic inversions, indicates a calculated working of the material. A complete reconciliation would prove elusive.

Minichiello draws attention to a problem for the UK. It is not a secular or legal problem in Holland, apart from under-age or other specific illegal sexual relations. That results from an early application of 'the legitimating of prostitution as sex work,' recommended by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations, and indicated by Janice Raymond of the Network of East West Women in December 1998.7 Alternative solutions are in place. 8, 9

Is there a social concern being expressed? What, if any, is the recommended action? Is the social agenda alive? What are the works, or the viewers, intended to do? If the works do not initiate, do they commemorate? If they are not so engaged, are they the vehicle of a risqué illustrational 'thrill': equivalent to a sensational boost or physical provocation like bungee jumping, snowboarding, hang-gliding, or virtual reality simulations? Reflexively, the function and nature of spectatorship are called in question. Why is the spectator present? What is a spectator relationship to any aspect of the presentation?

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Malcolm Cook
Art Historian and Critic
Lives and works in Hull

September 2000

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  1. Mario Minichiello, Drawings and Prints 1996-1999, Loughborough University School of Art and Design,Leicestershire. 1999. Brief biography, p 26
  2. Rapporteur: one who prepares account of proceedings. In the same cultural linkage, rapprochement indicates 'establishment or renewal of friendly relations'. (ODWE)
  3. Since 1993 its recognition, representation, and legislation have been thoughtfully implemented. Prostitute Information Centre (PIC), Enge Kerksteeg.
  4. Holland has a society in which marriages are civic, not religious, contracts and registrations. "In the Netherlands only a civil marriage is legally valid (Art. 1:30 BW). A church ceremony alone is insufficient. A wedding in the church may not take place before the civil wedding for the Registrar. In the Netherlands the wedding usually consists of a ceremony in the town hall and in the church, although a church ceremony is becoming less common (because of the secularization in our country).' Paul Vlaardingerbroek, Associate professor in family and juvenile law at Tilburg University. [Source not earlier than 1995.]
  5. http://www.the real holland (from About.Com) Brothels legalised 1999 Prostitution in Holland (laws and prices).
  6. Morelli, Giovanni (1816-91) [Iwan Lermollieff (pseud.)] . Wollheim, R. On Art and Mind: Essays and Lectures, 'Morelli and the Origins of Scientific Connoisseurship'. Allen Lane, London, 1973.
  7. Raymond, Janice Legitimating Prostitution As Sex Work, December, 1998 p 1 The author's argument is against legalisation. It is argued to be a means of expansion of the sex industry and related to increased tax revenues.
  8. McClung, Floyd. Living on the Devil's Doorstep, The McClung Family Story. Word Publishing. UK 1988. The author is Executive Director for Youth With A Mission founded by Loren Cunningham, Hawaii (mid 1970's) as an International University of that name. He and his family began their mission (1979) and residence (1980) in the Red Light District (p.173). Chapter Twenty One gives a graphic cameo of the sex industry of the area (Oude Kerke) and the initiating of the Mission's Christian aims and practice.
  9. 'Sweden became one of the first countries to prohibit the purchase of sexual services with punishments of fines or imprisonment (Swedish Government Offices, 1998). In doing so, Sweden has declared that prostitution is not a desirable economic and labor sector.' Raymond, p 2.