12.2.13

Brussels Spout: Children as symbols


What makes Belgium’s capital boast of a little boy urinating? The last thing you might want is a spray of piss on your face as you pose before what is considered an iconic structure in Brussels. Is it fun? Is it funny? Does it have to be?

I read about the Manneken Pis a while ago. Standing two-feet high, the sculpture of a boy urinating was created in the 15th century. It continues to be one of the most-visited sites and it is said “no metropolis boasts such a well-known fountain engaged in the same bodily function”.

It might look cute and provide a few chuckles.  I like the idea of irreverence.  Installation art has not shied away from exploiting such bodily functions.  However, I am a bid disturbed about how this image is being marketed beyond its iconoclasm.

The report states, “Even as society has lowered its tolerance for images of nude children and become hypersensitive about sanitation, the politically incorrect statue has gained stature.”

This is beyond rubbishing political correctness. Just look at the examples of how the mascot is employed in ads and logos, as well as edible products such as chocolates, fries, lollipops.

Much of the market for these comprises of children. Would it not send out a message that not only is it okay for them to perform the job in public view, but it is utterly charming to do so? Even more worrying is that you might eat them – this can have a subliminal erotic impact. There are perverts roaming the streets, and the message that might go out is: if these naked tots are sitting on shelves waiting to being taken, then it must not be such a bad thing.

There is a further reason that bothers me:

When city officials wanted to promote a job-creation plan in 2005, they used ads depicting an office full of Mannekens at computers and in meetings. Another poster showed a construction site bustling with Mannekens in hard hats.

Is this not pushing the idea of child labour? One has to only watch photographs of children carrying loads on their heads, or toiling in fields and factories, some without clothes and with distended bellies, or crapping near railway tracks or in street corners in the poorer nations to understand that this stops being sweet.

Part of the fun is 896 suits of clothing that have been officially donated to him over the centuries and which he regularly wears. Many are displayed at the city museum, including a spacesuit, an Elvis Presley sequined jumpsuit and a French military officer's uniform that passing French soldiers must salute when the Manneken dons it.

While this seems harmless, who would really get excited about the adult prototype behaviour? Being a space scientist, or a musician, or an army officer might well be later ambitions for young people. But, how different are these from Barbie and Ken in different clothes? If we have issues with Barbie’s curves, then how do we explain the innocence of a child being exploited? Since we know the symbolic nature of the hoodie, what could a teenager wearing one imitating the Manneken convey?

Back then, statues at public fountains often performed biological functions including spitting, bleeding and lactating. “Before Victorian times, people didn't have all those complexes about nudity,” according to historian Roel Jacobs.

Lactating imagery is quite profound as it is a symbol of creation and nurturing. One might say the same about bleeding, for blood is about life and death. One does not perform bleeding as a ritual, though; menstruating too is in a manner a natural way of the body cleansing itself of unused eggs. Public spitting is disgusting, but one may consider the metaphors of ‘to spit at’ or ‘spit out’. Likewise, urinating could be to ‘piss off’, ‘piss on’.  For example, there is the satirical image of the Manneken spraying Nazi occupiers.

Here, the child image is used not only to understand a violent credo, but also to fight it. It amounts to brainwashing the vulnerable. The statue cannot be seen as pure fun if it is imbued with the responsibility of being more than a national symbol.

I do not think it is only about nudity.  There is the depiction of angels and the perennial Cupid in art. And while the Victorian era did bring morals into the forefront, we have no way of gauging whether strictures or openness truly altered human bodily functions. Morality and the lack of it invariably leave people with the choice to exploit others rather than themselves.

© Farzana Versey

13 comments:

  1. Hi Farzana,

    Where Jacobs states, "Before Victorian times, people didn't have all those complexes about nudity," and, in that since Adam and Eve proverbially became conscious of their nakedness ("and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons"), people have been terribly conscious of their nudity, I suspect the historian is being careful about his language. Before Victorian times people may not have had all *those* complexes about nudity, but they were certainly not complex-free. Indeed Belgium (then Bruges, thereabouts) was at one time the top wool-trading district in Europe . . .

    That said, I take your point viz the Manneken Pis lil' darling. While people do find a certain charming innocence (innocence, perhaps, being a lack of self-consciousness -- a blithe, unpressured state of mind *before* the demands of expedient cultural conditionings are imposed -- such expediency oftentimes derived no less from subsequent industry sprung up around such cultural mores than the original social imperative -- e.g. weddings, say) in a child's attitude toward nudity, with contemporary westerners (in the U.S., at least) memorializing that condition with photos of their children (typically, in the bath; or, having escaped mama's clutches, "streaking" throughout the house, into the yard), and while, indeed, fountains commissioned by leading community lights have been artistically embellished with spouting figures of all types throughout history, one doesn't quite get a sense of innocence from the Manneken Pis. At best, its a portrayal of a typical young boy attempting to determine how far he can project a stream of urine (knees, seeming bent with exertion, would suggest as much -- and thus perhaps likewise suggesting juvenile energies better taken in hand and diverted unto more socially responsible ends); however, to me, combined with the apparent elevation of this figure overhead, his smile and hand placed on hip, doesn't so much convey exertion as it appears to aim, as you observe, Farzana, in an attempt to "piss off and/or "piss on".

    Should the piece, then, have been a subtle commentary (whether by the artist, commissioner of the work or both) on either commerce or politics, it strikes me as somewhat ironic that latter-day marketers appear oblivious to that subtlety, as you note, in having appropriated the image for certain marketing campaigns (and some may recollect a certain Coppertone advert involving a girl and a dog on the beach, an eponymous picture of innocence); and yet, I say "somewhat" ironic, in that such an appropriation may well be a conscious effort to subvert the original intention of the work -- the 'spirit' of it, perhaps -- as would also seem your observation, in part, in your essay.

    >>And while the Victorian era did bring morals into the forefront, we have no way of gauging whether strictures or openness truly altered human bodily functions.<<

    Perhaps not; though there is the suggestion that age and/or dissipate living, among certain other perhaps more environmental factors, has a way of reducing a formerly forceful stream to a trickle. :)

    Mark

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  2. a classical case of immature ejaculation in art form :)

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  3. Mark:

    I agree that there is a tendency to blame the Victorians and use it as the cut-off point for chastity.

    By 'innocence' I also meant uninitiated to the ways of the world. Therefore, if the sculptor did have a nuance to convey he was perhaps mocking at the conniving nature of adults.

    The exertion that you note, and my piss-off comment, convey a poised to shoot demeanour. As this was post-Occupation, it could be in the realm of a political statement.

    At another level we may think of it as 'child as father of man', which is in a manner of speaking rejuvenation of the rusted adult mind.

    Marketers, even if they see the subtlety, might want to use it because like war games and cartoon characters like Batman, it becomes easier to sell something that embeds itself as a conscious choice.

    In this case the trickle of thought forcefully spurts out as commerce:)

    PS: I plead guilty to 'over-seeing', as some are wont to suggest...

    ---

    RA:

    That was premature!

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  4. FV: " Morality and the lack of it invariably leave people with the choice to exploit others rather than themselves."

    FV, So you mean exploitation of others is inevitable unless one operates outside of the moral-immoral framework? Couldn't agree less. :-) Being amoral and operating with the conscience as one's guide has its own downsides, but that does not involve other people but the self.

    -Al

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  5. Farzana,

    Albeit, certainly (lest we forget vis-a-vis an acknowledged tendency to blame the Victorians), the application of morals or societal mores has tended, historically, toward a multi-tiered application, i.e. what's good for the goose has not always been seen as good for the gander and goslings, etc.

    >>By 'innocence' I also meant uninitiated to the ways of the world. Therefore, if the sculptor did have a nuance to convey he was perhaps mocking at the conniving nature of adults.<<

    Well, courtesy of Wikipedia, I was charmed by the suggestion that the sculpture had its historical antecedents in a young boy that heroically took the initiative to pee on a lit fuse belonging to a pile of explosives that threatened to bring down walls protecting the city -- thus, in a sense, I suppose, one might suggest the statue is yet fulfilling that role, now, in contemporaneous advert campaigns. Having somewhat shy kidneys myself, I've always been admiring of such heroic depictions in film (and, now, sculpture) of a protagonist, on demand, summoning up a veritable flood of urine under extraordinary circumstances to quench a fires or extinguish a lit fuses or cast aspersions upon an enemy. :)

    Perhaps the sculptor, Hieronimous Duquesnoy (or his commissioning patron), positioned the statue facing outward from the wall -- away from some ostensible explosives piled high against it -- and pissing into a font, because citizens would have been offended by a view of the youngster's backside? A "moon," as the baring of a backside has been called, throughout history as equally a crude and insulting gesture of bravado as being pissed on? The question then becomes who was Duquesnoy's audience -- whom did the sculpture celebrate? Perhaps the indefatiguable innovative spirit of the cruder and ruder classes? Mere 'immature' children, as it were, to their betters? A perspective that might suggest volumes as to these more contemporaneous advertising celebrations issuing forth from Brussels . . .

    M.

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    1. Mark:

      Now that you've given the history of the statue, we get back to some questions.

      Had the sculptor resorted to the back view, there would be no fountain. Therefore, there is commercial consideration, although such water sources were also meant for drinking.

      The backside may be offensive not only as a crude gesture, but also 'turning the back against', a form of rejection. Possibly, refusing to face the truth. In sour case, the truth was to hit where it hurts, to take aim.

      {The question then becomes who was Duquesnoy's audience -- whom did the sculpture celebrate? Perhaps the indefatiguable innovative spirit of the cruder and ruder classes? Mere 'immature' children, as it were, to their betters? A perspective that might suggest volumes as to these more contemporaneous advertising celebrations issuing forth from Brussels . . .}

      The 'cruder' classes could well be 'children' of lesser evil. The fount of knowledge arising out of curiosity.

      Perhaps, these were advertisements for self-effacement of what one was...the child leaking out.

      PS: indeed, I do wonder how people can produce bodily functions at will:-)

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  6. Mark, FV, I am pretty certain now I will not make it past the first week in a literature course, since I have been trying to understand your conversation to no avail....maybe enlightenment will strike me one day, but until then I shall continue pondering all that you two write on such things.

    cheers,
    -Al

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  7. :) Nonsense, Al. While it has been described (much as was the Pope's recent retirement announcement described) as "a bolt from the blue," it may simply be the case that your database has yet to achieve critical mass. A literature course (or several) may be just the ticket. :)

    >>Being amoral and operating with the conscience as one's guide has its own downsides, but that does not involve other people but the self.<<

    From Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To thine ownself be true" -- which, on the one hand, may advocate a certain self-absorption; but, on the other, may be counsel, rather, not to lie to oneself. The correlary is: "Thou canst not then be false to any man."

    Regards,
    Mark

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  8. Mark:"From Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To thine ownself be true" -- which, on the one hand, may advocate a certain self-absorption; but, on the other, may be counsel, rather, not to lie to oneself. The correlary is: "Thou canst not then be false to any man."

    Yes, indeed. Better to follow own counsel and make creative mistakes (and also take responsiblity for said mistakes), than to listen to bad counsel and then blame someone else.

    A lot stated in just a few words. I bet this Shakespeare chap aced all his literature courses, and is probably well established as a senior editor in some famous magazine. Just a gut feeling... :)

    -Al

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  9. Magazine . . . isn't that like an explosives store or something?  :)

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  10. Mark, yes siree...it takes a famous magazine to take a credible shot at fame, though not necessarily fortune, as it turns out. :) "Social media" is the new magazine for such shooting, they say. (I always wonder how "they" know so much!)

    -Al

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  11. Al:

    I dislike the very idea of Lit courses. So...you'll just figure us out sooner than you think!

    Shakespeare is no senior editor. He is the chap pulling out weeds in the garden.

    Re. moral/amoral framework, I was not endorsing it, but recognising it as one way of making choices. Being true to oneself does not mandate applying the same standards to others.


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  12. Farzana,

    No fountain? Well, perhaps the fount itself would not then be immediately visible; but certainly the issuing stream might be observed. And, indeed, from the standpoint that such a "fountain" is fount, stream and catchment together, should viewers nevertheless wish to observe the fount itself, all they'd have to do is stand at the catchment and sort of crane their necks a bit to the side. Kinda like some men (and boys) do whilst standing at a urinal. :)

    Still, there is the matter of the somewhat fancifully embellished "wall" atop which the cherub is poised. Certainly this wall seems important to the sculptor's desired effect -- and thus, certainly, we might suppose his subject to in fact be a depiction of Brussel's legendary diminutive saviour. And thus, if it were turned around to present the witness of 14th century city defenders (as opposed to the witness of those without, facing the wall, investing the city), I agree, the wall gets too much in the way. No fountain.

    >>Therefore, there is commercial consideration, although such water sources were also meant for drinking.<<

    Interesting. This may not be your reference, Farzana, but I have some recollection of having read somewhere that the urine of young boys (and girls) was at one time believed by to have some salubrious effect -- salubrious in the sense of youth-making, perhaps. I don't recall exactly.

    >>The backside may be offensive not only as a crude gesture, but also 'turning the back against', a form of rejection. Possibly, refusing to face the truth. In sour case, the truth was to hit where it hurts, to take aim.<<

    Like a double-entendre, perhaps?  :)

    >>The 'cruder' classes could well be 'children' of lesser evil. The fount of knowledge arising out of curiosity.<<

    Kinda like those men and boys standing at the urinal? I don't know about a 'lesser' evil -- or, rather, about some as may be 'less' curious than others. I have, however, observed younger siblings incite an elder to experiment, and thereby 'learn' -- at comparatively little to no personal cost -- from that elder sibling's mistake(s).  :)

    >>Perhaps, these were advertisements for self-effacement of what one was...the child leaking out.<<

    The boy, needing to pee, may only have scaled the wall to see what sort of loft his stream might get at height. He may have been entirely oblivious to the lit fuse below. Who's to say?  :)

    M.

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