First, a rant. A rant that I shouldn’t be having, actually, since in the last couple of weeks of sprained-ankle-induced sloth, I have been reading all my Buddhist books and attempting to practice mindfulness. I have managed to make one biscuit seem like a four course meal. I have taken great pleasure in hanging out the clothes and washing dishes. I have been patient in phone queues. I have agreed with Sylvia Boorstein whose little book on practical Buddhism, It’s Easier Than You Think, is still, on my umpteenth reading, a joy and an inspiration. But it’s no good. I’ve been all steamed up about the Street Art issue, and after stewing as well as steaming, I dashed off a very cross letter to the local paper. That should be the end of it. Why am I still stewing?
Perhaps I’d better explain. As part of the Castlemaine Festival, some students from the secondary college have collaborated on a piece of street art – Text Alley – in our town. Some residents took offence at one of the pieces – a black reindeer with the words “Christmas is a lie” next to it – and the next thing you thing you know, shock! horror! it’s a local scandal. Not just the Castlemaine Mail, but the Midland Express (really one and the same, but the latter is more Kyneton-based. And it’s free) and the Bendigo Advertiser began huffing and puffing. A letter from an affronted local suggested it was libel (or slander, can’t remember which he said) and more seriously, “religious vilification”.
The school principal, the art teacher and the Festival representative all apologised for any offence, the artwork was altered, and the explanation given – the student intended it to be a comment on the commercialisation of Christmas. But this is not good enough. The local paper, scenting a lovely juicy controversy, has inflamed this issue and now we have graffiti on the street art, we have abuse and bad feeling, we have the social media going mad with suggestions that the student in the case be tarred and feathered and then burned at the stake (sorry – made that up) – or rather, expelled from school and the teachers dismissed. It’s hard to believe that adult people are so thin-skinned, so eager to take offence, so little inclined to think and discuss and disagree, while agreeing that we all have a right to our opinion.
Is it because the artist is a young person? Or because it’s street art? Or because it’s art? Or because it’s part of the Festival? Or because the town didn’t get the pokies venue some people wanted, and there’s an element of the community that wants to pay out on the arty-farties and blow-ins and lefties? A customer in the bookshop where I work today came in saying he’d been speaking to one of the locals, who told him that the Festival was done, over, finished. The town was sick of it. This offence was over the top. There would be no more sponsorship.
Over what? An image and some words you can interpret in a number of ways. In some ways Christmas – and by that I mean the credit-card-wipeout family get-together hell turkey-dinner celebration, and not I repeat, not the birth of Christ – is a lie. We don’t know when Christ was actually born. Our 25th December festivities are based on pagan rites, adapted and taken over by the church. And we lie about Christmas to our kids every time we say that Santa is coming and he’ll bring you some presents if you’re good. And then again, the reindeer suggests that perhaps that Northern European imagery isn’t appropriate for this country. Or perhaps the black reindeer is a naughty reindeer, and he’s telling Santa that Christmas is a lie so he doesn’t have to go out with the sleigh in the cold…
I’m upset on behalf of the young artist. How must he or she feel, being at the centre of this ridiculous controversy? I’m dismayed that a young person can’t have an opinion, that he or she can’t put an idea out there without being shot down in flames in the local press in this manner. I’m dismayed that there is no tolerance for differences of opinion. I’m sickened by the zest for hostility and anger that exists, in some parts of the community, in my small town. Oh dear. I am starting to huff and puff too. Another of Sylvia Boorstein’s books is called Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake: Practicing the Perfections of the Heart: The Buddhist Path of Kindness. Chapter 9 deals with Lovingkindness – metta in Buddhist practice – and Sylvia talks about how easy it is to think with love and kindness of the people we like. It’s much harder with those we don’t. I find I am thinking some very unkind thoughts at present. Sylvia reminds me that everything that has ever happened to us, and to our parents and their parents (let’s not even go into our past lives) leads us to be in the place where we are right now. Which may be a place of intolerance and thin-skinned anger. Or fear. Or discomfort with change. Who knows?
I’ve sent my letter. The writer John Holton http://johnholtonhereandhome.blogspot.com.au wrote a wonderful opinion piece which was published in the Bendigo Advertiser yesterday. I have done what I can. Time to stop steaming and stewing. The kerfuffle will die down. Hopefully the offended will calm and heal, and the young street artist will come out of the controversy (which would probably totally delight a mature artist!) undamaged and perhaps even stronger. And I will read more Sylvia. Perhaps we all should. http://www.sylviaboorstein.com/