Guest written by Anthony Adler
Let’s talk, for a while, about the farting statue.
Last month, as David Mitchell reported in his column for the Observer, a secret memo-leaker kicked up a bit of a stink. 2018 will see the 80th anniversary of that redoubtable cultural icon The Beano, and for this reason it has been suggested that the V&A’s plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David* should be fitted with a discreet little speaker, and that this speaker, quite naturally, should emit some rather indiscreet noises (though the memo does not mention any actual stink). The memo-leaker and the Daily Mail – hold your horses, folks – are outraged.
Now, all this is terribly funny – if there’s one thing funnier than farting then it must be outrage over farting – but it also raises some surprisingly delicate questions about heritage.** There are a few rather trivial considerations: is The Beano’s takeover a good fit for the V&A’s mission; is it a rather tedious gimmick; will the show engage critically rather than hagiographically with the tradition of comedy The Beano represents; will it help foster engagement and encourage new audiences (and so forth). But – and dear reader, forgive me for this – I’m rather more interested in the farting statue itself. What does it mean for a statue to fart? What are the aesthetic, the historical, the museological considerations?
I am not, I confess, an aesthete; I am not as refined as the poet who licked the marble in the British Museum to gain a true appreciation of the work. Like many other bookish philistines, my abiding first impression of statuary comes from the moment in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan breathes life back into his literally petrified subjects. Like any philistine, I’m sometimes dazzled, just as Rilke was, by the gulf between a statue’s sterile materiality and the vitality that it conveys. But what happens when we give breath – or in this case, wind – back to the statue? How is our experience of Michelangelo’s work and our engagement with it as a heritage asset transformed when David lets one rip?
It’s easy to imagine that flatulence might well distract a solemn visitor who wishes only to commune across the ages with the spirit of the Great Man’s genius; if only if it weren’t for all those pesky kids. But there’s no monopoly on modes of engagement with heritage assets, and it’s easy to see arguments for that sporadic parping opening avenues of aesthetic enquiry. It cuts entirely against the limits of material and form; it gestures to familiar conflict between ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture; it challenges percipients to consider humour as a critical category in their evaluation of the work and its display; it’s a provocative anachronism; feel free to choose your own adventure. But interactivity in museum displays is hardly new, and neither are debates about changing social norms in heritage spaces. In so far as turning an iconic statue into a wind-instrument participates in this debate, it’s not worth adding too much more hot air.
What usefully distinguishes this case from any other is the sulphuric outrage it inspires.*** Farting, after all, has a heritage of its own, and no little cultural pedigree at that. Farts are to be found in Martial, Catullus, Shakespeare and Chaucer, not to mention the works of St Augustine and Martin Luther. They were, as Valerie Allen notes, abundant in the performance culture of the Middle Ages.**** There is even evidence that the earliest joke in the historical record was a fart joke.***** Jonathan Swift, as you’d expect, wrote an entire essay on the subject, albeit under a pseudonym (Don Fartinhando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Craccow). Farting is canonical, which is to say that it is a subject with the kind of masculine classical lineage that is generally a reliable passport into the good graces of reactionary cultural gatekeepers. What’s really at stake here?
It will probably come as no surprise that this outrage isn’t really about farts at all: it’s about the battle for the soul of heritage. A fart is a symbol of temporality and entropy, of pompous certainty giving way to the unwelcome universe. ‘A fart long past,’ as Allen puts it, ‘no longer exists.’ A farting statue in the museum is a cheeky riposte to traditionalist notions of heritage as the perpetual preservation of assets with eternal human value, a refutation of any notion of fixed value untethered from social determinants, an immanent challenge to the lazy claim that a Michelangelo will speaks to everyone because the sculptor was a genius: heritage is messier and more complicated than that framing would allow.
There is, of course, no farting Michelangelo: it’s a proposal in a memo and might never happen. But there’s also no farting Michelangelo because the farts would only be fake farts – probably artificial to begin with, probably digitally reproduced – and because the V&A’s Michelangelo isn’t a real Michelangelo but a plaster reproduction. The V&A’s David was once itself an innovation, a modish and inauthentic use of new technology to encourage new and wider audiences to engage with an inaccessible asset of heritage, a crass commercial intrusion on the hallowed sanctity of the original. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t superb, and that a sound-effect will forever ruin the appreciation of it as an object. Letting the poor old thing let one out from time to time to mark The Beano’s anniversary just demonstrates how the way we display our heritage assets can itself add to the patina of meaning they develop as they pass, with us, through time. I wouldn’t be sniffy about that.
*A different David.
** I was obligated to get to them at some point, what with that being the point and purpose of this blog. Those of you reading solely for the fart-jokes should find your way to Mitchell’s far wittier column.
*** Not so much from the Mail, to which outrage is as water to a fish, but from whoever was so moved to give them access to the memo. ‘Frankly, some of the things in this memo are disgusting,’ a source tells me. ‘While it’s important to encourage children to visit, farting statues are definitely not the way to do it.’
**** As Allen points out, ‘what the Middle Ages wrestled with when people were talking about farts was this constant reminder of the needs of the body. [Farts carry] this reminder that the body behaves on its own, and there is nothing you can do about it. [Farts remind] us that our bodily freedom is limited.’
***** “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”