This week cups of tea have featured in many of the public discussions about art in the media. Painter, Juan Ford advised the public to have “a nice cup of tea” and calm down about the Sam Leach painting that won the Wynne Prize for landscapes (Gabriella Coslovich “Genius of Copycat?” The Age 15/4/10). And Melbourne Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle described Carl Mitchael von Hausswolff’s Red Fragments as “not my cup of tea” (MX 15/4/10). So what is it with all this talk of tea and art?
I like a good cup of tea, black; I consider myself a connoisseur of tea. No milk, no sugar (except with chai), preferably a Ceylon tea in the morning and Chinese teas later in the day. No Earl Grey tea, please but I am particularly partial to the smoke flavour of Lapsang Souchong. Tea is both relaxing and mildly stimulating drink – a good metaphor for art.
Art doesn’t do much really, very mild effects on the body, like a laugh or cry, is about the most that you can expect from it. Tea doesn’t do that much either; there isn’t that much caffeine in it. But both are pleasant catalysts for social interaction.
The controversy approach of the mainstream media is shallow winner and loser approach whereas a good conversation about art can have a win win situation. If the person who noticed the resemblance between Sam Leech’s Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos and the 17th Century Adam Pynacker’s Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore had simply pointed this out, rather than trying to generate a controversy, I would have thought that they were at least as clever and knowledgeable about art history as Sam Leech. Trying to make this a controversy makes the person look like an idiot with an agenda.
A better approach was Lord Mayor Robert Doyle smoothly handled the media’s attempt at controversy over Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s Red Fragments. He opened up the discussion and acknowledged that art can be challenging, creating a win win outcome. I assume from his statement that Mayor Doyle does find some art his “a cup tea”.
I do not think that art is controversial not compared to the serious crimes committed by institutions, church and state, held sacred in our society – don’t get me started on what I regard as real controversies. Controversies are a debate about winners and losers, heroes and villains, and they reduce interest in the subtle qualities of the topic. And this is a serious deficit when discussing art.
To imagine that art is controversial and shocking is so 20th Century. From Marcel Duchamp to Tracey Emin, artists have been systematically breaking imaginary rules, making rude jokes and turning things upside down – shocking! This approach perceives a controversy as the validation of the quality of the art; to do this Mark Kostabi sold the idea of his controversy to 60 Minutes. Art as controversy plays to the most grandiose and paranoid of fantasies of both artists and public. They all need a good cup of tea, even if they will insist on drinking it from Méret Oppenheim’s fur lined teacup just to be controversial.
Would anyone like another cup of tea? I’m going to put the jug on.