By Matthew Willis
This post is a departure from what is conventionally posted on the MOA blog but I was inspired by something I overheard today in the Galleries. I was in the lobby this afternoon switching some schedules around, chatting with the usual co-workers. Near the MOA shop and the admissions desk is a Papua New Guinea Clan pole, one of two made for MOA by Teddy Balangu in 2006, which, featured prominently on the middle of the pole, is a male figure with a visibly large phallus.
This is not the first sculpture in the museum to display such bodily organs and it won’t be the last. As I was standing there, I heard someone utter: “that is so inappropriate” was the statement. I could potentially understand someone from a non-artist, non-academic or non-MOA point of view coming from a generation other than my own or from a culture where such displays are taboo.
I was surprised when I turned around to see the utterer.
The source of this utterance was a six or seven year old boy who was in a school group visiting the museum. The small, mushroom-cut blond child did not smirk or hide giggle when he spoke but instead, seemed earnestly affected by the carving. Why the boy said, “that is so inappropriate” is of interest to me and is what I plan to explore today.
Before I became the Communications Assistant at MOA, I was a Museum Assistant, who gave regular group tours at the museum. I had the pleasure of touring visitors of different ages, backgrounds, cultures and personal interests, and I cannot remember a time when someone from one of my groups made a comparable comment to that of the blonde child. This is not to say that people were not thinking them but people tend to stay quiet unless they have a question and often when people wanted to make a comment, they would typically save them until after the tour where they could ambush me quietly in a corner of the Multiversity Gallery.
The outspokenness of the child probably came from the fact that he was exactly that—a child. When I was young, I made inappropriate comments in public because I didn’t know any better. At the dinosaur museum in Drumheller, Alberta, I was misbehaving (or so my mother tells me) and when my mother was carrying me back to the car, I shouted, “you’re not my mom!” to which the security guards gave my mother a few glances. I related personally to one of the child’s classmates was touching the clan pole (and had to be stopped by a Museum Attendant) which, to me, is a more predictable and foreseeable act from a child as the friend probably did not know any better himself.
My little blonde friend, however, did not have the same anticipated “childish” reaction. He called the carving “inappropriate” and when he said this, I start asked myself: what is “inappropriate”? How do we define it? I feel that there is a difference between inappropriateness in the everyday and in art so where is that line? What did the child find inappropriate and why?
I had a brief discussion with a co-worker about what I heard and she said that “inappropriateness” is a cultural occurrence the same way what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” is determined. I would also add it’s a situational occurrence. I laughed when a Mexican friend of mine told me that she habitually used to try and kiss people on the cheek whenever they entered a room when she first moved to Canada but quickly realized that you can’t always do that. The clash between Canadian and Mexican practices and what is culturally appropriate interacts with the situational acceptability of a kiss (entering a room versus kissing a lover in public, for example).
So perhaps this boy’s reaction was a cultural statement of “inappropriateness” regarding certain displays of sexuality. Being a child, he might not have been aware of the situational acceptability of displaying a piece in a museum of world artwork even if it is inappropriate in certain cultural contexts.
The taboo of revealing one’s genitals in public may have informed the child’s reaction as something that his parents taught him at some point (calling gentiles “privates” or another innuendo). The child learns that such a display is “inappropriate” in a public space. However, I don’t buy this argument. I can only speak for my own culture, but sex plays a large part in Western comedy. I have seen other children point and laugh at the pole’s phallic display. I’ve even had adults look at it, chuckle, and attempt to ask me an academic question about it when they really just want to hear me say something about a large wooden penis. The reason the child’s reaction is so curious is because of his age, his context (he was with friends and not with his parents) and the culture he most likely comes from (he was white and without a detectable foreign accent) did not synchronize with his reaction given the evidence of the situation.
One possible explanation is that he was being mimetic of his parents while disregarding the situational acceptability of the pole in an attempt to be more “adult-like”, something that we see children of a certain age attempt. Seeing the phallus prompted the reaction that the child thought would be most like something his parents would say in a brief moment of a desire to be more like an adult. It is impossible to know this for sure, and without getting into the un-provable psychology of the child at that moment, what is more interesting to me is why there an absence of a situational context (being in a museum) and a dominance of a cultural context (whatever the parents had taught the boy).
The conclusion I come to is that, in this case, cultural norms of acceptability superseded the situational for a moment but this was an exception to the norm: all the other children were laughing and giggling at the phallus. Perhaps the boy merely “forgot” his situational context and was left with only his cultural notion of acceptability to evaluate the pole. It reminds me of an unfortunate question asked of me once by a visitor: “so where are the shrunken heads?”. This particular visitor seemed to think that, culturally, a museum of anthropology would include “shrunken heads” and seemed to not realize his situation (MOA does not have such things). Both the child and this
unfortunate question raise a point for me I hope to leave with you: at what points do we forget to compensate with situational context and accept what we see and when do we abandon all contexts and rely only on our biased cultural compass? How does our situational context impact our perception of, especially, other cultures?