Category Archives: Culture Notes

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.


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.


Time Warp to Victorian

Sitting upstairs at Coco Black enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and looking out the half-circle, one-way mirrored window out to the Royal Arcade. Watching the shoppers, the group of cub scouts and the tour group. Walking tours are now a common sight in Melbourne, this one is lead by a guide with a stereotypical red umbrella, not that there weren’t walking tours of Melbourne in the nineteenth century.

Royal Arcade

At the base of the display windows in Royal Arcade the shop signs, like that of The Games Shop, are still hand painted in keeping with the late nineteenth century design of the arcade. I think about how many sign painters are still working in Melbourne.

Royal Arcade Games Shop

Time warp back to Marvellous Melbourne, through Royal Arcade and its sister, the Block Arcade, to the invention of shopping as a social experience in the nineteenth century. So much of life as we know it; a home in the suburbs, ‘childhood’, ‘domestic bliss’ and ‘the standard of living’ are nineteenth century inventions.

The Victorian legacy haunts the state of Victoria. Each generation after has created their own version of this time as they live in the houses on networks of roads that were all built in the late nineteenth century. We can’t avoid it, we have inherited a built environment like we have inherited our genes. The Victorian legacy also defines the Australian constitution and other aspects of the nomesphere, the legal construction of geography.

Not only geography but our psychology and taste are still effected by the Victorians. The next generations, the moderns, turned their back’s on their parent’s tastes, even though they had been brought up in a nineteenth century manner. For the baby boomers this meant the joyous rediscovery of all the decorative excess of their grandparent’s generation that were now readily available as heirlooms or filling second hand dealers. Nineteenth century design became part of the psychedelic aesthetic. The spiritualism of the late nineteenth century was also revived as the new age. For the Gen X, with no living connection to their nineteenth century ancestors, they are free to invent their own interpretation, steam-punk. In much the same way, and about as accurately, as the Victorians has re-invented King Arthur, Vikings and the Druids. We continue to try to live with and adapt the legacies of the late nineteenth century.

Also remembering the connections between modern art and modern shopping; Walter Benjamin on shop window displays. Almost every time I go past Aesop I have to remind myself that I’m not passing a contemporary art gallery but an up-market cosmetics shop. Their display is so elegant and minimalist. What is the difference between a shop window display and an art installation? I was not surprised when I read that there was a performance art piece at Aesop during the Melbourne Art Fair 2014.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacy of the Victorian era on Melbourne’s culture. There are so many aspects from the architecture and design of Melbourne and my own suburb of Coburg, to the current revival of the popularity of board games. I should think, research and post some more on this subject.

(For more about the Gog and Magog clock in Royal Arcade see my post on Melbourne’s novelty clocks.)


The City and the Spectacle

“It was fantastic; I didn’t see anything but the backs of people’s necks for the whole night.” A friend was telling me about his experience of Melbourne’s White Night in 2014. Many people have told me about their experiences with the crowds at White Nights. Nobody that I know will be going again.

Very early on in White Nights 2013

Very early on in White Nights 2013

I didn’t go in 2014 as the crowds in 2013 were enough for me – I don’t consider queuing for food to part of an enjoyable evening. Instead I retreated to Brunswick where I saw an excellent free gig and had some good food. I know where to find good food and music in Brunswick because I’ve lived in the area for many years. I might have viewed it differently if I was a visitor.

Mega-city Melbourne has a spectacle and events based economy that needs to attract tourists and local visitors to the centre of the city. A spectacle based economy is the post-modern version of the bread and circuses economic model for a city, drawing in the festival crowd.

People might complain about individual events nobody complains about the whole spectacle based city; after all for a post-industrial city Melbourne could have ended up like Detroit. However, as Rio and the rest of Brazil knows after the 2014 World Cup, Melbourne is learning creating a spectacle based economy has costs.

Living in a spectacle driven city where every week there is a festival or major event where a large part of the economy is driven by presenting constant spectacles to attract local, interstate and international visitors might seem great but there is a dark side to the bright lights.

Few question if being presented in a festival format is appropriate. Gina McColl in “Blockbusted” (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2013) argues that blockbuster exhibitions that: “distorting the wider role and purpose of our state-funded collecting institutions: curating, exhibiting and caring for their own archive, complete with scholarly research and conservation.”

Attracting international events costs, including bribing the members of the committee that decides where these events can be hosted, paying for the event takes away money that could be spent on the needs of local residents. The spectacular events can be alienating to residents; Melbourne’s Grand Prix attracts crowds while annoying and inconveniencing residents.

While the politicians are busy trying to attract major events they ignore the fact that Melbourne’s public transport infrastructure is insufficient for hosting spectacles. During the Melbourne Commonwealth Games workers were asked to work from home to make room on public transport for people going to the games. The central hub structure of the public transport network concentrates the crowds into a small section of the inner core of the city.

Public Event Ahead

What is the real evidence for the claim about a spectacular based economy? According to a recent an evidence review, zero (Evidence Review Sports and Culture, July 2014). I will repeat that number, in case you missed it, zero. There is no evidence to back up the claims that major sporting and artistic events contribute anything to local economy but there is still faith in Melbourne that the international reputation of the city will have some subtle unmeasured effect. However, evidence counts for little in current political debates.

How do we create diverse city, aware of the dynamic forces at work? What is the tao of urban design? Urban acupuncture projects? How does a mass spectacle benefit the residents? Not just thinking about profits for multinational construction firms but local business. What does it give to the people who use the area every day?


Meta-Aesthetics

What do we mean when we say something is beautiful? Beauty, or other similar words, describe the attraction of something. However, while there is often similarity in the appreciation of beauty some people find somethings beautiful that other people do not. Any good theory of what beauty is will have to account for both the attraction and differences in taste.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ sums up old fashioned subjectivism about aesthetics. Old fashioned subjectivism is the simplest explanation for both attraction and differences in taste. However, old-fashioned subjectivism does not allow for much discussion about differences in taste, they are simply different and discussions end there.

Furthermore we expect some consistency in taste: if you like this piece of pineapple does it imply that you like most pineapples? If taste were simply a matter of subjective it would not be surprising if someone like Abba, Motley Crew and The Beatles; I once meet a man who told me that these were his favourite bands but he was a sailor working along coast of Borneo. We also observe consistency in the tastes of others, for if taste was subjective it would make it impossible for artists, designers, chefs, cosmetologists and other professionals to work.

Old-fashioned subjectivism doesn’t really explain taste any better than it explains moral perception. Better subjectivist positions on beauty require defining competent observers.

The first alternative to consider is some kind of objectivism. After all it seems natural to assume that others will agree with what think is beautiful and it is much easier to expect consistency from objectivism. It certainly appears that there are objective qualities to beauty that could be explained by biological/genetic driven tastes.

Given that the idea of beauty may also be a product of the environment and experiences with differences in age, background and other factors explaining differences in taste. This could explain some variations in the apparent objective qualities of beauty and this is occasionally tried in the area of evolutionary aesthetics. However, what if we aren’t attracted by what is objectively determined to be beautiful, what if we finds it repulsive, at this point objectivism completely fails.

Any attempt to find a biological basis for beauty ignores that ‘beauty’ is a word from a particular culture. It is like expecting to find a genetic difference between dogs and wolves because there are different words for them.

Beauty is also a recommendation that is often presented as prescriptive; my friend Geoff is always telling me that I must watch this TV series. Also in a prescriptive is the 1001 books etc. that you must read before you die meme. Cannons are prescription, the required reading for future critical discussion. What is it to recommend art? My friend, Geoff was trying to encourage another friend, David to watch the HBO series, Deadwood. “You must see it.” David didn’t think that it was necessary and a moral or existential imperative to movie watching is very difficult point to argue. So Geoff changed his argument to “It is very worth while because of the plot, attention to historical details, etc.” David replied that there were better things to do besides watch a TV series, like looking after his young children. Do we really mean by ‘beautiful’ simply a recommendation of its aesthetic quality? Was this what Geoff was really trying to say about Deadwood?

Does the beautiful require that we are cheer squad for it? To some extent this is true; encouraging others to experience something beautiful is a natural response to eating beautiful food or hearing beautiful music. However, the idea that beauty is only a combination of endorsements, recommendations and prescriptions creates a kind of conspiracy of definition. The emperor’s new clothes, and, although this may sometimes be the case, it lacks the objective quality that we associate with beauty.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.


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