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Warning: this article contains strong language.
Rumour has it that pint-sized yellow toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals – Minions – have been blurting out swear words at children.
Parents recently complained to the “family restaurant” that they can distinctly hear one of the Minions exclaiming “What the Fuck!”
In response to customer complaints, a McDonald’s representative insisted the toys are simply speaking Minionese, “a random combination of many languages and nonsense words and sounds”. The spokesperson apologised for:
any confusion or offence to those who may have interpreted the sounds as anything other than gibberish […] Any perceived similarities to actual English words are purely coincidental.
But what if McDonald’s were wrong, and swearing was indeed part of the Minionese vocabulary? Would parents be right to panic?
Well, not exactly.
Do swear words harm children?
According to an academic who has performed extensive research on swearing, psycholinguist Timothy Jay, children learn swear words from a very young age: around one or two. Jay’s studies of children and swearing, conducted in the United States between 1992 and 2013, have found that young children generally learn the form and content of swear words from their parents.
In the 2013 study, involving predominantly middle-class, Caucasian children aged between one and 12, Timothy Jay and Kristin Jay found that by the time the children entered school (around the age of five), they had a “fairly elaborate (42-word) taboo vocabulary”.
Yet the myth persists that children need “protection” from swear words outside the sanctuary of the home. There are even criminal laws predicated on this and other “folk-linguistic” theories on swearing.
In New South Wales, for example, it is a crime to use <a href="http://www5.austlii generic cialis express.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/soa1988189/s4a.html”>offensive language in, near, or within hearing from, a public place or school. Police commonly issue on-the-spot fines amounting to A$500 for the use of the words “fuck” or “cunt” in public.
‘Protecting’ children from swear words
Proponents of laws that censor or punish swear words have long advanced the rationale that children need “protection” from obscenities. When obscenity laws were introduced to the colonies in the mid-19th century, women and children – as beacons of purity – were considered most at risk of being polluted by the filth of swear words. Children exposed to swear words were thought to catch the habit of swearing in the same way one acquires a bad cold.
On the other hand, army camps, football matches, tennis courts, and male dressing rooms are considered places in which swearing is acceptable, or even to be expected.
These stereotypes about swearing are not unique to Australia. In the US, the use of the word “fuck” in front of children was considered at length by the US Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) in its 2004 Golden Globes decision.
The FCC had received multiple complaints about U2 singer Bono’s use of the phrase “This is really, really fucking brilliant” during a live broadcast of the 2003 Golden Globe awards ceremony. The FCC found that televising Bono’s use of the phrase “fucking brilliant” had violated broadcasting rules.
The FCC stated:
The “F-Word” is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language.
The Commissioners said that action was necessary to “safeguard the well-being of the nation’s children from the most objectionable, most offensive language”.
Myths about swearing
Alongside the idea that children can be corrupted by four-letter words, proscriptions against swearing rely on a number of “folk-linguistic” assumptions. Common theories about swearing include that:
swear words are inherently harmful or dirty
swearing is a sign of an “impoverished vocabulary”
people who swear are “lazy”
swearing is “common” or “not classy”
society must censor or punish swearing to prevent increasing use of four-letter words.
Each of these ideas has been discredited by linguists. The use of taboo words is a persistent language phenomena documented since Ancient Roman times. The correlation between the form and meaning of swear words such as “fuck” and “cunt” are arbitrary; they are not inherently sexual, harmful, or dirty.
A penchant for four-letter words is by no means indicative of an impoverished vocabulary. Just look at former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s creative use of swear words, a man noted for his extensive (albeit sometimes befuddling) vocabulary.
High taboo frequency has been positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency, and swear words are relatively common among university students, a population that generally has “higher-than-average verbal abilities which selectively qualify them for admission”.
Swear words also have documented positive uses; they can be a non-violent way of venting frustration or anger, and can express humour. Swearing can be a means by which to enhance group solidarity and even increase pain tolerance.
In short, swearing, an “intense and succinct – and sometimes very directed – emotional expression,” is an indispensable part of human language.
Let’s stop panicking about children being exposed to the occasional expletive in a shopping centre, on television, or in a fast-food restaurant.
Children will eventually and inevitably hear these words (they probably already have). And frankly, there are much more harmful problems to be concerned about than swearing.
Punishing or censoring curse words has not, and will not, eradicate these words from our vocabulary. In fact punishment tends to have the opposite effect of reinforcing the “taboo” value of swear words and thus their perceived potency.
It’s time that we all had a more “adult” conversation about the uses and abuses of swear words, that acknowledges swearing as a ubiqiutous, persistent, complex and useful part of language.
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Although things in Greece appear to have stabilised slightly after a fortnight of dramatic uncertainty, the heightened speculation on the future of Greek money that we saw at the height of the crisis is by no means irrelevant.
A BBC journalist, speaking in Athens just as the referendum results were reported, considered the whereabouts of the drachma printing presses (he needn’t have bothered: the Greek finance minister had confirmed some days earlier that they had been destroyed on Greece’s entry into the euro). Elsewhere, scenarios involving Greece printing euros independently of the European Central Bank, stamping existing euros with the word “drachma”, using IOUs, bitcoins or local currencies began to circulate.
These anxieties weren’t confined to Greece. On the day that the German parliament voted on the bailout, the light artist Oliver Bienkowski projected the message “Außer Betrieb” (out of order) on the European Central Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt. And, despite the recent settlement, these anxieties are far from consigned to history.
Fredrik Von Erichsen/EPA
At the root of the crisis lie the divisions between national economies – divisions a shared paper currency cannot paper over. A euro printed in Greece looks similar and is worth the same as a euro printed in Germany, despite the obvious differences between the economies.
Hence the crisis awakens age-old anxieties about what paper money itself means, what relations of power and trust it symbolises and what happens when they begin to break down. All the current talk of Greece’s debts conceal a more fundamental truth: paper money is itself always a debt, backed not by gold but by the future taxation that the government is able to levy.
So the questions of who owns the debts that the euro represents, and how the connection between Europe’s national taxpayers and its single currency can be forged, are clearly political and social as well as financial. They are also questions that bite uncomfortably deep into the history of the eurozone – as Thomas Piketty’s high-stakes intervention into the debate has recently highlighted.
Show me the Money, Author provided
The desperation, frustration and anger that many Greeks clearly feel regarding the nature of their euro trap – or “fiscal waterboarding” in the words of Yanis Varoufakis – can now be seen on their euros themselves due to the work of the Greek artist Stefanos. On his website, he documents his daily drawing, scanning and spending of euros. He fills the classic imposing architecture of these doctored euro notes with ghostly stick figures. Some of them are desperate: they hang, fall, bleed and lie on the Gothic buildings of Europe’s financial institutions.
In an interview for the London Review of Books, Stefanos describes how the project was initiated by news of a suicide, saying: “Whenever violence or poverty is reported, I transfer the message on the medium.” Other images from Stefanos’ archive are incredibly threatening. They speak to the other kinds of crises that Greek has faced this summer. In some examples, the figures become multitudes, surging up rather than falling from buildings, crowding through archways to enter new spaces.
Show me the Money, Author provided
These notes can clearly be placed in the much longer tradition of artists appropriating banknotes, something that is explored in an exhibition I have been involved in curating. As Stefanos understands, the everyday tenacity of paper money makes it the perfect vessel for carrying its own critique: the invisible relations that money reproduces can easily be written onto its very surface and released out into the world for people to peruse while spending.
Show me the money
Artists started to experiment with money from the time of the financial revolution in the early 18th century. Some of William Hogarth’s work, for example, tackles the threats, the decadency and the corruption, that paper money represented to him.
In 1797 the government passed the “Bank Restriction Act” which meant that the Bank of England no longer had to exchange paper money for gold. A rise in counterfeiting followed, and the government introduced draconian laws to safeguard paper money. Artists reacted to these laws by creating money themselves. In 1819 for example, George Cruikshank made what he called a “Bank Restriction Note”.
Show me the Money, Author provided
Like Stefanos some 200 years later, Cruikshank altered the traditional iconography of the note, converting it into the images of state violence (skulls, a hangman’s noose, ships for transportation) that was dealt to those who dared counterfeit paper money and disturbed the fragile social promise upon which it was based. And of course, Cruikshank’s note was itself a satirical forgery that disrupted circulation.
Similar are the pennies laboriously defaced by the Suffragettes in the early 20th century, which saw the cry “Votes for Women” being circulated on currency itself.
Or the annotations of conceptual artist Cildo Meireles, who defaced paper notes in order to condemn and question the repressive military regime in Brazil, naming those journalists who had been silenced and then killed by the state. Meireles wrote on both Brazilian and US notes. The circulation of the notes alongside one another offered its own critique of the US complicity with the regime. This is a tradition that continues in the US to this day: Occupy George saw the public ambitions of the Occupy movement being quietly transferred to the dollar:
By circulating dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics, Occupy George informs the public of America’s daunting economic disparity one bill at a time.
Show me the Money, Author provided
An artistic currency
Other artists treat the threat of money’s destruction, the end of the complex social relations that underpin paper money that are always attendant on these moments of crisis, very differently.
Some, such as Robin Bhattacharya, use it as an opportunity to produce alternative structures for money. Bhattacharya is based in Zurich, one of Europe’s most important financial centres. He has yoked together the value of art and the value of currencies by creating a currency based on his own persona:
The Robin Currency is a fully functioning currency system based on prime numbers. The coin and notes of any denomination each correspond to one prime number and are therefore unique. Other currencies such as euros, dollars and British pound can be exchanged for ROBIN™. The currency can be freely traded and the fluctuating exchange rates reflect its market value.
Show me the Money, Author provided
The value of Robin’s notes is determined by their relative scarcity or point of introduction into circulation. The currency began with 1 ROBIN™, and each new note issued since has been a prime number. So the lower the number, the more it is worth.
Faith in such an entirely self-referential system of supply and demand has to be shared between a community of believers – so, in this case, art collectors. Which gives his currency an oddly secure status:
In times of economic uncertainty, the investment in art is – while risky – one of the most recession-proof … And while other, state-supported currencies are in turmoil, the art-currency ROBIN™ might well be one of the most stable as each note is unique and therefore, in time, can only increase its value.
Perhaps, then, it is time we learn the lessons that artists have spent centuries trying to teach us: that money is a social and cultural as much as an economic concept and it is one in which all of its users need to have faith.
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ST Gill may be the quintessential Australian colonial artist, known to anyone who has been educated in Australia and seen textbooks on Australian history full of Gill illustrations of the gold rushes, yet he has never been the subject of a comprehensive retrospective exhibition. At least, not until now.
The fault, at least in part, is mine. About 25 years ago I embarked on a major ST Gill project to compile a comprehensive catalogue raisonné of his work leading to the publication of a substantial book and a large curated retrospective exhibition.
State Library of Victoria
Independent satellite Gill exhibitions are opening simultaneously at the regional galleries in the centre of Victoria’s “Gill country” at Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Geelong, while at the University of Melbourne, there is an international Gill conference plus an in-focus exhibition on Gill’s studies for the iconic Doing the Block, Great Collins Street (1880).
State Library Victoria
STG, as he was universally known, may have had to wait 135 years since his death to be comprehensively celebrated, but Victoria is now honouring him in style and the show will travel to the National Library of Australia in 2016.
So, who was Gill and why was he lionised in the 1850s, neglected later in life and subsequently relegated to art historical purgatory?
He was born in Somerset in England in 1818, where he received his early training in Devonport, Plymouth and London. The Gill family migrated to South Australia, when he was 21, arriving in the newly established colony just before Christmas in 1839.
For the next 41 years Gill, in Australia, worked at a frenetic pace, initially spending 12 years in South Australia, then four years in Victoria, much of this time on the goldfields, then seven or eight years in Sydney and then the final 16 years of his life based predominantly in Melbourne, where he died in relative poverty in 1880.
State Library Victoria
Like his contemporaries George Cruikshank and Honoré Daumier , Gill’s output was prodigious, with about 3,000 items by his hand catalogued thus far. That was in keeping with the rate of production by his contemporaries working within the tradition of democratic multiples.
Gill produced watercolours, pen and brush wash drawings, pencil drawings and sketches, lithographs, other forms of prints, and possibly daguerreotypes. He may have experimented with oils, but few or no oil paintings are extant which are indisputably by his hand.
Gill may have arrived in Australia with all of the baggage of a liberal-minded Englishman, whose father had been a Baptist minister and subsequently dissented and joined the Plymouth Brethren, but within a couple of years in the colony he was questioning the values inherited from the old country.
There is evidence in his art that he spent a considerable amount of time with Indigenous people and came to respect the way they lived within their environment. Subsequently in his work he bore witness to how Indigenous Australians had become dispossessed and exploited in their own land.
State Library Victoria
He gave the Victorian goldfields a human face and, unlike many of the other artists who showed successful diggers posed with their discovered huge nuggets, Gill more than anything else showed the experience of “being there”. When xenophobic politicians whipped up hysteria against the Chinese boat people, accusing them of stealing our gold and jobs, Gill in his art condemned racism and celebrated the hardworking Chinese miners and depicted the first Chinese takeaway restaurant in Ballarat.
Gill showed women on the goldfields, something other artists tended to shy away from. He depicted them rocking the cradle, extracting the gold, looking after the family as well as running the notorious sly grog tents.
State Library Victoria
Gill also showed the dark side of the gold rushes with the creation of an environmental wasteland stripped of flora and fauna with choked waterways.
Between August and October 1852 he produced 48 small black and white lithographs titled Sketches of the Victoria Diggings and Diggers As They Are, which were widely imitated and became some of the most famous works from colonial Australia.
In Gill’s art of the early 1850s, a new human species was given visual form, that of the Aussie digger: tough, resilient, resourceful, possessing a dry humour, one who was true to his mates, but intolerant of all forms of authority, humbug and institutionalised religion.
The visual typologies Gill developed were subsequently built upon by the artists of The Bulletin, including Phil May, and later hijacked and mythologised by the nationalist propagandists of the Great War.
State Library Victoria
It was between 1852 and 1856 that Gill reached his greatest popular acclaim, he was lionised as the Australian Cruikshank and he was mercilessly plagiarised in Europe, at times by artists of major standing, including Gustave Doré.
In Adelaide Gill worked primarily for a British audience and the illustrious James Allen took Gill’s paintings with him to England to employ as visual propaganda to accompany his lectures designed to encourage migration to the colony of South Australia. But by the time Gill was working in Victoria, his primary audience had become local and his lithographs and letterhead papers were sent abroad by those living in the Australian colonies as testimony as to what was happening in Australia.
As an artist, Gill became more accomplished as he grew older and some of the finest work dates from the final decade of his life. It was also at this time that he was marching to a different drummer to the one who commanded the attention of the small but growing Australian art audience which hankered for glowing romantic oil paintings or Barbizon-style picturesque landscapes.
Art Gallery of South Australia
Gill was a democratic socialist in his orientation, one who was increasingly critical of authority, high society and the official church. In his later years he was surrounded by a shrinking band of supporters, died in poverty and was largely forgotten.
Although the myth that he died as a hopeless alcoholic who could not hold a paintbrush has been discredited, he did suffer from neglect in his later years. The real cause of his death, as we now know from the post-mortem, was an aortic aneurysm, which was generally associated with high blood pressure and a family history of heart problems.
The claim which I make in this exhibition, as curator, is that Gill was one of the most important colonial artists of Australia. What he sought to achieve in his art was quite different from that of most of his contemporaries, including Eugene von Guérard, Nicholas Chevalier, William Strutt and Louis Buvelot.
He interrogated Australian society and its values, questioned our attitudes to our environment and created a visual tradition on which many other artists have built. In many ways he is Australia’s first painter of modern life.
Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill is at the State Library Victoria, Melbourne, from July 17. Details here.