Category Archives: Culture Notes

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.


Final Post for 2014

This is my final post for another year. May I wish Happy 10th Anniversary to Richard Watt’s SmartArts on 3RRR, the Melbourne Prize, Blindside, Brunswick Arts Space and Trouble Magazine; all of which have made an impact on Melbourne’s art scene in their first decade. Another milestone worth recording is that John Buckley Gallery closed at the end of this year.

Melbourne Art Fair 2014 at the Exhibition Building

Melbourne Art Fair 2014 at the Exhibition Building

Thank you to everyone around the world who has read and has subscribed to this blog. It has been a strange year for me as one of the least powerful people in the art world, an online art critic, an independent writer and researcher, a blogger. I have been trying to be more professional about this doing freelance writing for a number of publications. I have my ABN (Australian Business Number) number now. (See my About page for links to most of these publications and also a few of my oil paintings).

I have spent a lot of time in 2014 in the Melbourne’s Magistrates Court covering the Paul Yore case. I have been out of my depth and out of my areas of expertise but it was important to report on the events. (See my post Are You Experienced?) Although Yore was found not guilty and police were ordered to pay all legal costs it left me with this feeling of dread that this will repeat as Australian culture refuses to learn. That case along with so many other aspects of Australian culture, racism, crimes against humanity, lack of human rights, all make me pessimistic about the future.

Sally Field

Sally Fields installation at the Conspirators

It seemed as if some of the major themes of the year was exhibitions titled Wunderkammer and doing art with the idea of taxidermy. Amongst my favourite exhibition this year were the Conspirators curated by Carmen Reid, Performprint by Joel Gailer and Michael Meneghetti at the Meat Market, and In Your Dreams, curated by Edwina Bartlem and Victor Griss at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.

For a summary of Melbourne’s street art in 2014 see my previous post.

DSCF0396

I would like to take a break, have some more time for reading, my own painting and just relax in the summer heat but as I contemplate a break I start to receive the first invites for exhibitions in the new year. Unlike previous years many Melbourne galleries aren’t closed for all of January, there is an opening at Kings ARI on the 9th of January. So I hesitate to forecast how long this break will be.

I am looking forward to 2015 as my book on Melbourne’s Sculptures is now planned to be released in April.

Cheers,

Mark

William Eicholtz, Courage, 2014

William Eicholtz, Courage, 2014


Readymade in 3 Minutes

I guess that Alan Adler retired this year. Alan Adler was the man who ran the photo booth business in Melbourne for forty years. His analogue black and white photo booths are no longer at Flinders Street Station.

Photobooth

In September 1925 in New York City on Broadway Anatol Josepho opened the first photo booth machine. (Näkki Goranin American Photo Booth (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008, New York). The photo booth was a common modern experience that inspired many people in the pre-digital world to play with portraying their identity.

My own relationship with photo booth goes back more than forty years. I was just two when I had my first photo taken in one. My parents took me to a department store in Canada and inside the automatic glass doors, next to the gum ball machines was a photo booth. It made a profound impression on my young mind. I thought: “Modern.  Everything done by machine.”

Since 1984 I have been working on a project using photo booth machines, documenting my life with a strip or two of black and white photos every year. It started fooling around in London; the machines were everywhere because a weekly tube pass required a photograph.

Mark Holsworth, 1984, London

Mark Holsworth, 1984, London

I was aware of the history of art and photo booths: the Surrealists, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol.

Francis Bacon’s photo booth photos are reproduced in David Sylvester Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962-1979 (Oxford, 1980) (p.42).

In 1990 Warhol exhibited several hundred photo booth photos at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York. In a review of the exhibition Hilton Als wrote, “What these photographs do suggest is what gesticulating – smiling and relaxing – into the void looks like.” (Artforum March 1990)

Louis Nowra “Grins to silent screams: the influence of photo booths” Art and Australia V44 #1 2006

HatBagUmbrellaMark, 1991

I delighted the strip format, like a comic book panels, in the limitations and the errors made by the mechanical processing. What you can and can’t control. Curtain or no curtain? How do you dress and position your body with in the confines of the small booth.

The photo booth photo is always taken on the way to or from somewhere, it is a pause on a journey. You step out of the public space into a private booth, draw the curtain, insert your coins and pose for the photo before stepping out into public again to await the finished results three minutes later. I went to the photo booths at Flinders and Spencer Street Railway Stations to take photos on the way to friends, to Geelong, Bendigo.

1997

Now my project has come to its natural, or rather, technological end.

Lindy Percival reported on Adler and his photo booth machines two years ago in The Age.  Local artist Marty Damhuis has a blog, flyingtale about his photo booth work; I wish that I’d seen his and Nadine Allen exhibition of photo booth photos at Platform in August 2009. See photobooth.net for more about photo booths including some of the artists who have used them.

P.S. Actually the remaining black and white photo booth has simply moved a few metres further along Flinders Street station near the entrance to Platform 1.

Interior of Photo Booth at Flinders Street.

Interior of Photo Booth at Flinders Street.


Free Books

The little Free Library in Coburg is along the Upfield bike track between Reynard Street and Moreland Station. It is a very well done; a neat little red school house style with a pitched roof and glass doors

.Little Free Library

The setting is completed with a matching red seat, a sign and a small garden, wedged in between a fence and the bicycle track. Guerrilla street architecture is practical way to help the whole community; public seating may be a useful as free books.

The sign reads: Little Free Library – Borrow, donate or exchange – Have fun – In memory of David J. Cumming – “Uncle Dicky”

I’ve no idea who David J. Cumming was but the little library is fun tribute to his memory.

little free Library

The collective noun for books is a ‘library’ and, although the Little Free Library is not a circulating library that circulates its collection by lending books, nor a research library that holds a collection, it is still a library. It is a street distribution/exchange library, that informally distributes books between people privately without records. Imagine encountering a free library a couple hundred of years ago, or in a totalitarian regime, an anarchic intellectual paradise.

It is an interesting cultural note that books are becoming increasingly difficult to sell new or old. New forms of book swapping are emerging: Book Crossing, Book Mooch and Little Free Libraries. http://www.bookcrossing.com http://bookmooch.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_swapping

According to Little Free Library Map there are also ones in Seddon, Kingsville and Hawthorn, and Thornbury. I didn’t find the one that was, according to the map, on Kendall Street in Thornbury near the Merri Creek. I wasn’t surprised, I’m sure that some come and go without being recorded, like many things on the street. http://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/


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