Misunderstood Art

Polonius: (To Hamlet) What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

(Hamlet II, ii, 192-3)

Nobody mistakes a game of football for anything else; there is never the question that it might not be a game of football or that it might be about something other than football. There are rare exceptions, the 1956 Russian Hungarian Olympic Water Polo match was about more than a sport. Generally the quality of the playing is tested and the results displayed on a scoreboard. Debate about sport is possible but eventually resolvable, the best team is the one that wins the most games.

Art is not like that; nothing will ever be resolved, it can be tested but not definitively. New interpretations and assessments are always possible for art but, short of revelations of cheating, nothing reverses sports results.

With all art there is always the possibility that it will be fundamentally misunderstood, not just in meaning or quality but also in its very category. It could be interpreted in a number of ways, or in post-modern speak, there are multiple readings. It is this possibility of being misunderstood that brings a special kind of quality to art. Not that all misunderstood things are of art, nor that ambiguity should be the objective of art, but that without the possibility of being misunderstood, that ambiguous quality, that makes art more than the sum of it constituent parts.

According to Mary Douglas’s theory expounded in her book, Purity and Danger (1966) the ambiguous category of art should make it taboo, a pollution that should be expelled. Or, because it does not fit into any category, that it should be sacred. Art is seen as both sacred and a pollution in society.

This ambiguous quality means that art can be about something else. Art has a relationship to a subject that cannot be reciprocated. For example, art can be about football but football can never be about art; as football is always about football. For art is a sign and signs also have a non-reciprocal relationship with what they signify.

Humans naturally want certainty but art requires a sophisticated, civilised approach that is, in this aspect, against nature. Art requires a degree of uncertainly, ambiguity or cognitive indeterminacy; to not know if you are looking at an image or paint, a story or words, Hamlet or an actor. Art requires possibility of multiple correct readings and even misunderstanding.

The unsophisticated mistake fiction for fact: a character for a real person, an actor for the character played, etc. They are apt to mistake art as pornography, sedition, blasphemy or some other prohibited or offensive category. These are unsophisticated views because they are forgetting that art is ambiguous, that they are looking at nothing but a creation of ink, or paint, or lights on a screen.

When a government’s claims to be able to make unambiguous distinction between what is permitted and what is censored the government case will always appears unsophisticated. How an unambiguous distinction can make about ambiguous material is never explained. It is simply assumed that the government is acting in a reasonable and rational manner. That agencies like the Australian Classification Board represent community values in their decisions. That it’s arbitrary interpretations of ambiguous material are certain and definite even when they very from year to year.

Sport is uncensored and more approved of than art because sport can be legislated. It can be legislated and controlled because it is unambiguous.


Love/City II

On Friday night I went to see Love/City II: of Time and Country, an artist run festival at Testing Ground. On the train I sat next to the Doritos Space Warrior, covered in orange triangles scale armour, illuminati triangle shield and cardboard laser rifle. He said that he was on his way to a costume party. There were a lot of people in strange costumes on missions in the city that night.

Mira Oosterwegel, Negotiating Stasis at Testing Ground

Mira Oosterwegel, Negotiating Stasis at Testing Ground

Testing Ground is an empty corner lot behind the Art Centre, all around it there are multi-story apartment buildings, hotels, the new ballet school. The empty lot has several converted containers that formed the bar and the gallery. Palette islands are the main architectural form creating towers, benches and platforms. It is a bit of urban acupuncture providing a temporary fix to an urban problem area.

Three food vans were there; food vans are now typical of festivals in Melbourne. I get some samosas from the African food van; yes samosas are African, I first had samosas when I was a primary schoolboy in Kenya.

I had a drink with photographer, Fiona Blandford, who had installed a photographic series of light boxes in one of palette islands, We Are Our Landscape: Butchers Creek, East Gippsland. Little viewers provided a magified view of the small photographs, this close up examination felt like looking for evidence in crime scene photographs, which it was, in a way. Butchers Creek was named after a 1841 massacre when Angus McMillian and his men killed an unknown number of Gunaikurnai.

In the gallery there interactive digital art works, Clark Beaumont’s Waiting for Barcelona, three channel video installation and Lyndal Irons, Goodbye Oxford Tavern, a series of photographs exploring the bright lights and tired world of strippers. There was a lot of photography and projected video art work but really worked for both the space and made me think about art was the live art. On stage was In My Hetroroclitic Body doing a hardcore electro-acoustic sonic performance with great costumes.

In My Hetroroclitic Body

In My Hetroroclitic Body

Mira Oosterwegel’s Negotiating Stasis was impressive with the perspex vitrine and florescent lights. The male performer, Lachlan Tetlow-Stuart was perfectly still. He was “relaxed and comfortable” to echo John Howard’s words about his ambition for the Australian public. The performer’s head was resting on an Australian flag beach towel, with his sunglasses he was isolated from the world in the perspex box.

Fitting perfectly with the location was Amy-Jo Jory, Listening to Stones II, an extremely physical endurance performance artwork using nineteenth century cut bluestone blocks, an archetype of Melbourne’s construction and a sledgehammer. Watching Jory smashing the granite blocks I was reminded me that Melbourne’s unemployed also broke these stones for ‘sustenance’ work during the Great Depression and the precarious financial position of performance artists.

Amy-Jo Jory, Listening to Stones II at Testing Ground

Amy-Jo Jory, Listening to Stones II at Testing Ground

On the way home to Coburg on the number 19 tram I saw a mass of people on the oval in costume and waving weird weapons. Over a hundred people were in a massive melee but by the time I got off the tram and across the road the battle was over. I thought that I might see the Doritos Space Warrior but these were more conventional fantasy warriors with foam swords and shields. Every Friday night at Crawford Oval, Princes Park south in Parkville, there is Swordcraft, a live action role-playing game.


Hate Preachers and Censorship

Censorship by vandalism is unfortunately common in art galleries, public libraries and other public space. These vandals impose a ‘higher law’ on the world with violence, with hammers, knives and explosives. Recently Islamic fanatics have destroyed art and attacked artists that they call blasphemous but don’t forget that other religions have also acted in a similar violent manner.

Nicknamed ‘Pell Pot’ by ordained members of the Catholic Church in reference to the fanatical, ruthless ideologue, war criminal and former Cambodian leader, Pol Pot, Cardinal George Pell assisted in covering up the child abuse in the Catholic Church in Victoria, infamously remarking that: “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.” This is not to forget another stain against Pell’s character with his encouragement of the vandalism of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

In October 1997 there were several exhibitions by Andres Serrano planned for Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria was to show a Serrano retrospective and Serrano’s History of Sex was at the Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery. However before they opened the then, Archbishop Pell sought an injunction restraining the Gallery from exhibiting Serrano’s Piss Christ on the grounds of blasphemy. The Age falsely reported that the Victorian police vice squad had referred Serrano’s book to the Office of Film and Literature Classification after raiding the exhibition. Journalists also stalked Kirkcaldy Davies Gallery waiting for a police raid that never happened.

New York artist, Andres Serrano was raised a Catholic. Serrano created Piss Christ in 1987, it was a photograph of a plastic crucifixion submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. The large format photograph was printed in an edition of four, one retained by the artist and three others that are privately owned.

The hearing on the injection on Piss Christ was held before Justice David Harper with Cliff Pannam QC representing Archbishop Pell and well known human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside QC representing the NGV. Pannam argued that for court granting an injunction against exhibiting Piss Christ on the grounds of blasphemous libel in common law and that was also in breach of the indecency provisions of the Summary Offences Act 1988.

Justice Harper did not accept Pannam’s arguments finding that: “not only has Victoria never recognised an established church, but now s 116 of the Australian Constitution forbids the Commonwealth making any law for establishing religion.” Read more on the law of blasphemy in Australia on Find Law Australia.

When legal measures failed there were several Christian extremists willing to act where Australia law would not to protect the honour of their faith by destroying an image that the Archbishop Pell had declared was blasphemous. First John Allen Haywood took Piss Christ down from the wall and kicked it but did little damage. The following day two young men, aged 18 and 16 attacked it with a hammer. After that then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Dr Timothy Potts closed the Serrano exhibition concerned about the safety of his staff and visitors.

The Christian extremists who shut down the Serrano exhibition received very light sentences. Even though he was unrepentant, John Haywood received a suspended one-month sentence telling the media after his trial that he’d like to punch Serrano. It is not known what sentence the teenagers received. The reaction from the public, the law and media to the actions of these Christian extremists was very differently to the reaction to Muslim extremists when they take violent action against what they consider blasphemy. This is because there are no votes for Australian politicians in creating panic over Christian extremists and hate preachers like Cardinal Pell.

Piss Christ was also attacked when on exhibition in Sweden and in France, on Palm Sunday in 2011 when four Christian extremists damaged it beyond repair.


The Case of Art Forgeries

There are always crimes to spice up art history and the most intriguing, disturbing and masterful of these crimes in art forgery.

In October 2012 there was a day long symposium at the Johnston Collection: The Delicate Art of Deception – revealing fakes and forgeries: talks about fakes in early English glass, Romanian carpets, and antique furniture. Eugene Barilo von Reisberg distinguished between originals, replicas, versions, revivals, copies, reproductions, mistaken attribution and misrepresentations (fakes and forgeries) in his talk “What’s in a name?” Dr Alison Inglis gave a talk about the history of interest in fakes and forgeries.

The medieval fake relics were from a world that had faith in religious history. The idea of history was revived during the Renaissance and after the classical revival and the rest of Europe slowly followed the great man theory of history. This peaked in the nineteenth century because the combined attraction of both the contact magic of the relic of the great man and the idea of genius. However the nineteenth century was also the golden age of art forgery and subsequently the fear of forgers.

The interest in art by contemporary artists was spurred on by the glut of fakes, not that there weren’t still fakes. Progressive modern artists were then promoted to satisfy both the demands of a whig history and the collectors for whom the gloss of contact magic hadn’t worn off. Dr. Inglis noted that public interest in fakes and forgeries peaked in 2010 with multiple exhibitions of art forgeries around the world.

The modern world also has demands on art, it had to scientifically prove its authenticity, or at least documentary evidence of authenticity. Scientific analysis and micro-history are the current paradigms of art authentication. Works of art become archeological sites to be deconstructed layer by layer following Lacarod’s exchange principle that every contact leaves a trace. The problem with this paradigm is that although it is rigorously evidence based it doesn’t tell much about art, there is little poetry to the microscope.

Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett of Melbourne University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation spoke about attribution and how in a hot art market need, speed and greed allow attribution to slip. The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation provides Australia’s most scientific attribution assessments.

Fakes and forgeries reveal how the institutions, the collectors and the art experts understand, value and tell the story of history and what truths are value. In his book The Art Forger’s Handbook, the art forger, Eric Hebborn tells of two art collectors that he admired Thomas Butts and Luman Reed. Butts bought from William Blake and Reed having once acquired a forgery only bought directly from living artists.

Apart from their abuse of historical facts art forgeries appear to be a complaint of affluence. And apart from new technology and new forgers there doesn’t seem to be anything new in the discussion of fakes and forgeries: there are new scandals to talk about, like the Libertos but the old scandals, like Van Meegren are still discussed. Forgers, and their books, make such fascinating reading; Tom Keating is like a character straight out of an episode of Minder.

“When the dealer who sold Cat. 219 discovered that one of his sources, Elmyr de Hory, was a master forger, he hastened to alert all those to whom he had sold works acquired from de Hory of the situation and properly offered them their money back. Most accepted but the owners in this case (Mr. and Mrs. Patrick E. O’Rourke from Minneapolis) declined stating they bought the drawing because they loved it and not because it was a ‘Modigliani’. They still love it regardless of the author.” (Fakes and Forgeries, catalogue of exhibition at the Minneapolis Inst. Of Art. July 11- Sept. 1973 p.220)

Philosopher, Mark Sagoff makes the analogy between appreciation of art with love. “Love attaches to individuals and not simply to their qualities or to the pleasures they give. People are not interchangeable; we stand by old friends. Why? You love a particular man or woman – not just anyone who fills the bill. You cannot love a person by pretending he or she is someone else. You cannot appreciate a forgery by pretending it is a masterpiece.” (Mark Sagoff “ On Restoring and Reproducing Art” The Journal of Philosophy 75, 1978, p.453)

However, if your love turns out to be an imposter, like the recent cases of the British undercover police officer who fathered a son while in his undercover role, then that would change the relationship.


Melbourne’s Diverse Street Art

Walking around Melbourne exploring its many lanes, sometimes in the company of a notable, some would say notorious, street artist who would prefer to remain anonymous and keep his comments off the record. Thanks for the company. What follows are my photos, my comments and my opinions. The selection of photos is not my pick of the best street art that I’ve recently seen but to the diversity, both geographic, technique and materials, of Melbourne’s street art.

Deb, Uniacke Court, Melbourne

Deb, Uniacke Court, Melbourne

None of these photos are from the old locations, Hosier Lane, Centre Place, they are no longer the best place to see street art in the city. The locations for good street art have shifted in the eight years that I have been writing this blog, slowly moving north and west. In the west of the city where the street art is scare I found a whole lane, Uniacke Court, with several pieces by Deb and no-one else.

Sunfigo stickers

Sunfigo stickers

All over the city I keep on seeing more and more of the work of Sunfigo, simple and effective stickers and paste-ups but nothing to compare to Sunfigo’s Little Diver Tribute.

Anonymoose, Blender Alley

Anonymoose, Blender Alley

If you love stencils the best place to see them is Blender Alley. The reason is that the main door to Blender Studios, its roller doors were open when I was there, faces the alley and the artist’s in the studio, especially its director, Doyle, basically curate the alley.

Mutant

Mutant

I keep seeing more street art sculpture and, not just Will Coles and Junky Projects, more people are doing it. Mutant and Discarded are doing similar work casting bones and other found objects. So far I have only seen Discarded’s work online but I know that it is out there.

LaPok, Guerilla Garden Melbourne

LaPok, Guerilla Garden Melbourne

Unknown, Ilham Lane

Unknown, Ilham Lane

I’ve seen a few more artistic works of guerrilla gardening in the city and Ilham Lane in Brunswick. Also in Ilham Lane there is a piece of guerrilla geography, naming the small side bunch from Ilham Lane, Chook Lane.

Chook Lane, Brunswick

And there is still basic graffiti out there.

DSC00106


Bohemian Melbourne

Looking at the Bohemian Melbourne exhibition at the State Library of Victoria brought several ideas that I had been thinking about into sharper focus. “Artist, rebel, hippie, hipster?” reads the subtitle of the exhibition, given that I have been some kind of bohemian in Melbourne for all my adult life and that I have encountered some of the subjects of this exhibition, I have a lot of thoughts and there are several hyperlinks to previous blog post.

Vali Myers in her studio in the Nicholas Building, Liz Ham, 1997

Vali Myers in her studio in the Nicholas Building, Liz Ham, 1997

Firstly, it is not necessary to be a bohemian to be an artist and I pity to fool that thinks that it is sufficient.

Whatever a bohemian is, it is definitely a biographical genre, frequently autobiographical, and often exists in a multimedia format, even before the idea of multimedia. It is a story about a person who is outside of conventional society.

In Richard Miller’s book Bohemia, the Protculture, Then and Now (Nelson-Hall, 1977, Chicago) Miller distinguishes between the wealth and the poverty models of bohemian life exemplified by Doyenné and Murger respectively. He also distinguishes between bohemians on the basis of class background and political attitudes, something that Bohemian Melbourne neglected to emphasise, mixing and right wing bohemians, Percy Grainger being the epitome of a right wing radical. (See my post on the Grainger Museum.)

I believe that understanding bohemians would be helped with a better understanding of demographics and the sociology of different sizes of populations. For if x% of the population are bohemians and the population of a city is 100,000 will bohemian behaviour change when it is 1,000,000? Will it change again when the population reaches 5,000,000?

Bohemian Melbourne reminded me that art styles are in reality clubs, exclusive groups based not so much on a logic of stylistic similarity but membership. Melbourne’s early art history was established around clubs. Some like Buonarotti Club, The Cannibal Club, Savages Club were bohemian. Others like, Stray Leaves, the Victorian Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Art Society of Victoria were not. The first of these was the Victoria Fine Arts Society established in 1853, it last four years until 1857. In 1874 the Victorian Artists Society was established and still continues today (see my post on Zombie Artists).

Like most gangs these clubs defend their members and their territory, be that territory intellectual, as in Surrealism or geographic, as in the Cabal of Naples. Artist colonies, residences or even restaurants, like Montsalvat or Heide, can be the nexus of the group’s activities. (see my post on Montsalvat)

In part, artist clubs replaced the artists workshops, the guilds and apprenticeships in trying to answered the question of who qualifies to be a called an artist. Membership of these clubs takes various forms but it is essential that other members of the club recognise each other as members of the club. Non-members are excluded from being authentic. For example, being an Australian Aboriginal artist is not dependent on ancestry but on being recognised as Aboriginal by the local aboriginal community. Likewise, if you are not known to paint illegal pieces on buildings or trains without permission then you will not be recognised as a graffiti writer by other graffiti artists.

The reduction of clubs in society in general as an aspect of Australian society, is reflected in the art world. Sure the Contemporary Art Society of Victoria and the Victorian Artists Club still exist, like antique reminders of the past. The reduced numbers and lack of influence is one reason why there are no clearly identifiable art styles in contemporary art. (See my post Happy 70th Anniversary CAS)

The most important arts clubs that still exist in Melbourne are in the form street art crews. Street art and graffiti are movements rather than styles, a movement is where multiple similar clubs/crews/organisations/etc exist. Movements are larger than clubs and are not defined by the artists/members but by historians.

I could go on about artistic lifestyles and living a bohemian life on social security payments but I will save that for future blog posts.


What is a critic?

There is some confusion in the public and artists about the role of a critic. One confusion, that even exists amongst critics, is that they have power to influence the opinions of people. This is very unlikely, critics are amongst the most least powerful people in the art world, the music world and other areas that critics write about. (Number 9 on Hyperallergic’s 20 Most Powerless People in Art World.)

Another confusion occurs about what the critic chooses to write about. Reviewers rate and critics write. (Unlike film reviews you don’t see art reviews even with star ratings for even art reviewers like to think of themselves as art critics.) Criticism is writing about the subject and everything else. It is about thinking hard to see the connections between the subject and everything else.

Art, tv, museums, food vans are all aspects of our culture and therefore appropriate subjects for critiques. There are no-unworthy subjects for criticism, this is not to argue  for cultural relativism any more than the claim that all minds can be psychologically examined is an indication that all minds are relatively equal.

On the subject of what critics write about conservative commentators scoff at the idea of studying popular culture. The study of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is often mocked, as it is a commercial television series aimed at a youth audience. Yet it is, according to Elana Levine and Lisa Parks, “the most studied television series in the medium’s history” Undead TV, Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Parks (Duke University Press, 2007, Durham) (p.10) and point out the multiple critical issues in the series, “including the construction of a youth audience, teen stardom, generic hybridity, television narrative, media conglomeration, gender, sexual, racial and ethnic representation, and the nature of television criticism itself.” (p.11)

The critic acknowledges the appeal but doesn’t lose their analytical perspective. In Anelie Hastie’s “The Epistemological Stakes of Buffy the Vampire Slayers: Television Criticism and Marketing Demands” she argues that television criticism can attempt to resist market logics only by being fully cognisant of them. Hastie writes: “To be just another ancillary text would make scholarly studies complicit in a primarily consumerist economy rather than an epistemological one”. (p.91)

Hastie points out that “criticism does not have to exist in the same self-enclosed world of either the Buffy texts or television more broadly. In the context of Buffy’s own logic, this might mean that criticism can see alternative ‘dimensions’ to the world of Buffy as not inherently threatening.” (p.93) It is worth pointing the non-threat that critics pose to out to everyone who find critics threatening.

It is not just the role of the critic that can be confusing but who is the intended or implied reader of the critic. Critics are writing for the artist, they are not writing to change the artist, it is not personal. Critics, unlike reviewers are not advertising the product, the critic is discussing a product that the audience is already consumed. I wouldn’t be reading Undead TV if I hadn’t watched and enjoyed Buffy.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,141 other followers

%d bloggers like this: