A somewhat worrying trend is emerging. You could call it a serious trend, or a trend towards seriousness. Either way this is not good, particularly in a country that is known worldwide for the natural wit and cheery banter of the natives. We’ve built a reputation on being able to laugh and poke fun at ourselves, even if it is a skill originally honed out of feelings of unworthiness. Fortunately we have used it to our advantage. Historically we have spawned wonderful satirists who possess knife edge sharp rhetoric. We have playwrights and visual artists who have lent a cheeky perspective to our social, political and religious landscapes and, no matter how bad the economy, we have relied on quirky journalists, commentators and edgy comedians to keep us all grinning through the pain. Unlike some of our Asian counterparts we are not the type to instantly take to the streets burning effigies and flags at the slightest hint of derision. Up to now we have happily allowed caricatures and cartoons that satirise everything from our politicians to our religious beliefs, knowing that while occasionally crossing taste lines, there is no real malice intended. Our sense of humour and freedom of expression are part of our culture; something we should all value greatly and seek to protect. In light of this Moobgate should send shockwaves through the nation. Not because an artist decided to poke fun at the Taoiseach, but because the powers that be took a lump hammer to swat a fruit fly instead of laughing loudly.
In case you were out of the country or missed the whole Moobgate debacle, let me quickly fill you in. An artist by the name of Conor Casby painted two slightly unflattering pictures of Taoiseach Brian Cowen. The paintings depict a naked from the waist up Mr Cowen with man boobs or ‘moobs’ (hence Moobgate.) Then in a guerrilla style art attack, he illicitly hung them in two public spaces; The National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. RTE News picked up on the prank and ran the story on television. They showed the pictures, talked to the curator of the Hibernian Academy and even got an art expert to value the paintings. (They’re worth nothing by the way!) It was a light hearted item in an otherwise dreary bulletin. The lady from the Royal Hibernian Academy stressed that it was an unorthodox and unwelcome way of submitting paintings for inclusion but, you could tell by her posture that they were relatively amused by the boldness of the artist. The story was a simple one of a talented, cheeky artist making a statement, albeit a harsh one, about our leader. It wasn’t pornographic and the style wasn’t even that graphic. All in all it should have gone relatively unnoticed. Many people didn’t even see the broadcast and thousands more missed it in the press.
The real news story is what happened after the story was broadcast. First of all the artist was quizzed by detectives and, according to one report, they “seized a number of other paintings of public figures from Mr Casby’s home but would not reveal the identity of the subjects.” (I had to re-read that report to make sure it was the Gardai in Ireland we were talking about.) They seized paintings; not guns, drugs, child pornography, racist propaganda or explosives but caricature style paintings! Surely this is far more outrageous than the original act itself. Along with the seizure the artist has also been charged with the heinous, unlawful act of ‘hammering a nail into the wall of the National Gallery’. I can hear the Queen of Hearts shouting, “Off with his head”. And you would expect such a cry if it was in Lewis Carroll’s fictional Alice in Wonderland, but it’s doesn’t seem right in the real world story of Conor Casby in Cowenland. Then 24 hours after the story had aired, RTE News had to make a public apology to the Taoiseach for running the story in the first place.
While obviously highlighting a severe lack of humour and judgement on behalf of the Taoiseach this also throws a 200 watt spotlight on the ineptitude of his PR people and advisers. Where was the wise Civil Servant to say, “Brian, laugh it off. Actually, even better, offer to buy the bloody paintings! Joke about how the current stress you are under will soon deal with those man boobs or perhaps use it to say how busy you are and you don’t have time to work out. Laugh and say he was all wrong with the Y fronts, you prefer your boys in a loser fitting garment such as cotton boxers! Say anything but, for God’s sake, don’t send in the Gardai!” Obviously the wise Civil Servant was off that day. We are all capable of over-reacting, feeling hurt and doing silly things while riding emotional waves. There is also the possibility that it isn’t Brian Cowen who is spearheading this witch hunt at all. I’d like to think that he is far too busy with his calculator trying to sort out the mess we’re in to be bothered by a few paintings and perhaps it was just some over zealous underling who got their Y fronts in a twist on the Taoiseach’s behalf. Whatever the case, a major mistake has been made. So what should they do next? If I was Brian Cowen I wouldn’t waste any time in coming out and stating that it is misguided and that the whole thing has got out of hand. He should own up to making a man boob of himself, then call off the Gardai and give Conor Casby back his confiscated paintings. Indeed someone should publish them, just to give us all a laugh, because we need it right now.
Finally, before some Cowen fan decides to berate me for even suggesting that Brian should get a sense of humour as I wouldn’t know what it feels like to be made fun of in such a way, I would like to say that I sort of do. While working at WLR Fm there were several cartoon images commissioned from the very talented pen of local artist, Nigel Pennycott. They were used for corporate Christmas cards and various print ads; seen by hundreds. Now you would assume that commissioned images would have to be flattering? Well if you find massive boobs, screaming cleavage, huge hips, large lips and wild, unkempt, big hair flattering – then, yes, they were a huge compliment. However their job wasn’t to flatter but to amuse and raise a smile by exaggeration. I also knew that other people would see them as caricatures. Was Brian Cowen afraid that we might have thought he had actually posed for the pieces?
Admittedly Mr Casby was probably having more of a laugh at Brian Cowen rather than with him and we also don’t want to start a trend of hammering illicit nails into the walls of the National Gallery, but it was all in the name of satire and it should be seen as such. We have to nip this taking ourselves so seriously in the bud immediately. Call off the Guards, Brian, and show the world that we have retained our sense of humour despite the recession and, more importantly, that we value and uphold our freedom of speech and expression.