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Monkey Jesus and the Politics of Value

Al Jazeera and the Restortation.

One of the most controversial installations at Hobart’s Museum of New and Old Art is Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca: the excrement machine.

When I first stuck my head in during a morning visit, it smelled vaguely of meat. Two o'clock was poop-o’clock; complete with a ta daa dish of the steaming stuff.

Cloaca was commissioned. It has its own room. Inside a gallery. Is this enough to make it art?

I was thinking about Delvoye’s work when I was reading about Monkey Jesus; trumping July’s Good Food and Wine Show/simulated oral sex story to become my favourite news item of 2012.

In case you missed it, a presumably well-meaning parishioner has had a stab at restoring a 19th century church fresco.

We’re talking Spain so the original image, surprise, surprise, was Jesus. Cecilia Gimenez’s take has been described not-so-generously as a pale bearded monkey.

In one corner we have a ruined 120-year-old fresco. In the other we have 10,000 people signing a petition to keep Monkey Jesus.

I’m slightly swayed by 81-year-old Gimenez’s moxie, but I’m loathed to pick sides.

My real interest in the story centres on questions about art. About preservation.

Once upon a time I visited Rome. A decade on and the thing that’s stuck is a single line of graffiti I spied:

Rome is not a museum.

Open to interpretation, but my reading is a revolt against manic preservation. That by keeping - and honouring - every single cultural artifact, every building, every ruin, a city doesn’t ever get to develop and never becomes anything more than a relic.

As someone who is still sickened that Melbourne’s art deco Lonsdale House was pulled down to put up a parking lot/Apple store, I’m certainly not advocating a slash and burn. But when does it stop?

Elías García Martínez’s original fresco was no masterpiece. I dare say it failed to appear on anybody’s must-eye-before-I-die bucket list.

And yet, Gimenez’s fat-brushed touch-ups have led to words like botched and bungled being bandied around. All of a sudden the art world’s big questions are being thrashed out.

The old fresco vs the postmodern “parody”.

Good art vs bad art.

Established art vs street art.

The professional vs the amateur.

Permanence vs passing.

The very best thing about art - be it a painting, a film, a book - is that two people can look at the very same thing and see something completely different. Different in terms of meaning, sure, but also different in terms of value, about whether it constitutes art and whether it deserves the status of public display.

If Martínez’s fresco was - prior to this fiasco - considered valuable, I dare say it wouldn’t have required Gimenez’s DIY efforts in the first place. Europe is full of old stuff and the money isn’t available to preserve everything. Certainly not in bankrupt Spain.

Now that the fresco has been substantially tinkered with however, suddenly value is ascribed because it’s no longer in original condition. Suddenly, people who never visited it, never spent a cent on its upkeep, never noisily lauded it, are lamenting a lost masterpiece.

Time for a Joni Mitchell interlude:

Joni Mitchell - Big Yellow Taxi

The original work now has new-found value. Most fascinating however - and perfectly reflecting the fickle nature of worth - so too does the redux.

Millions of people have now been exposed to Monkey Jesus. They’ve seen Gimenez’s work - if, like me, they’ve been thoroughly entertained by it - and 10,000 have gone so far as to sign a petition advocating its retention. Suddenly Monkey Jesus has value too.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come of this story is that a fresco we never heard of has been elevated to the lofty status of “lost gem”. Highlighting equally our love for old stuff and our obsession with fetishizing the past.

Equally exciting however, Gimenez’s reno puts on our agenda all those juicy questions about what is art, who is the artist and what’s worth valuing.

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