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Category Archives: Book Review

Examining the spirit in secular art

Robert Nelson The Spirit of Secular Art, A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Value (Monash University ePress, 2007) is an ambitious project, a complete history of western art from Ancient Greek art to the present day. Very ambitious as it requires the author to have a good knowledge of the entire history of art which Nelson does have.

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Along the way Nelson does make some interesting arguments about the architecture of frames in medieval altar pieces, progress in academic art in the nineteenth century and the limitations of symbolism compared to Freudian psychology. See Peter Steele’s review “The Material Stretched by the Spiritual” in Eureka Street Vol18 no.4

Ambitious as the project is, it is unfortunately a rather conservative project. Nelson follows the usual strata of art periods; Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. The idea of broad layers of styles defining a time, does not fully explain all of the art being created during that period nor is it a clear guide to the history of influences on artists.

The book is also a bit of a jeremiad, a general complaint about contemporary art. Nelson writes several times that contemporary artists are “sacrificing their talent”. Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and complain about the standard of art today. It is as boring and false as complaining about the youth of today ever was.

However, the real problem is art’s the sacramental roots and however much Nelson knows about the history of western art, he is not as knowledgable about the history of western religion.

Throughout his history Nelson tries to demonstrate how the sacred added an aura to art in different ways at different times. The term ‘sacred’ is a fuzzy and elastic word, even in comparison to the word ‘art’, and poorly defined terms are the downfall of many studies. For Nelson spirituality haunts art and exorcism is impossible even for secular artists. I have doubts about anything artificial having essential and eternal features as such elastic apparitions may give an object any aura you imagine.

Art’s relationship to the sacred appears to be both complex and varied, leaving many trace elements behind in the mix. Artists may be inspired, or even possessed by muses, spirits, ghosts, gods and genii. Art, particularly the abstract and mathematical nature of music, could be considered an emanation of the divine. And this is not an exhaustive list.

In Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Harmony and Cadmus, he explains, in his simple but elegant manner, the relationship between beauty and the gods. The gods appreciate beauty, music, perfumes in the same way that we do. For if they did not we would have nothing in common with the gods, there would just be an immense power imbalance.

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Medieval Graffiti

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015)

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The justification for the study not just medieval of graffiti, but all graffiti, is the same. The need to understand the ordinary people through their mark making culture and not just the official version created by the church or civil authorities. In the medieval world this includes marks by merchants, marks by stone masons, and marks by women. Although there was graffiti on all kinds of medieval buildings it is in churches where most of the medieval graffiti can still be found, there are over 5,000 inscription in Norwich Cathedral.

The book shows that the study of graffiti started in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as various antiquarians started to study the marks on the walls of their local churches. The problem with an antiquarian examination and speculation about graffiti in their local church is there isn’t enough evidence to understand the marks, or the church itself might just be an odd example. This book is based on a very broad geographic survey, conducted by teams of volunteers, of medieval graffiti in churches around England.

Medieval graffiti in churches exists in limbo, clearly tolerated, as it was not painted over, but not official. The graffiti was cut into the paint that once covered all the interior walls of pre-Reformation English churches and would have stood out as pale lines on a coloured surface. It now survives as scratches on the stone.

Predictably for there are chapters on heraldic graffiti, pictures of knights and plagues but the medieval world is a very strange place. Along with graffiti in churches medieval Christianity had strange beliefs about demons in churches, curses, witch marks and pentangles (yes, all you neo-pagans it is a Christian symbol).

Champion doesn’t think that we can understand the medieval minds that created the graffiti and is cautious about all interpretations. With chapter headings that include “Swastika and the Virgin Mary” to entice you, the cautious approach of the author is warranted. The evidence is carefully considered. Interpretations are never certain and explanation after explanation is debunked often until none are left. Even with this approach it is still a lively read, and even as Champion debunks another theory, it expands my understanding, not just of medieval graffiti, but of the rest of medieval world.

The final chapter goes from the Reformation through to the end of graffiti in churches in the late 19th Century. It is here where something familiar to contemporary graffiti writers emerges in the form of tags and RIP pieces.

The book includes a list of “Selected Sites to Visit”, giving details on the best churches in England to see medieval graffiti.

I read this as an ebook on a Kindle, it was the first time that I have read a whole book in that format. I’m not so sure how helpful having an appendix of terms is in that format.

For more on this book see Jessica Hope “Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages”.


Public Sculptures – a tourists guide

Public Sculptures in Melbourne by Gera Tonge and Stanley Hammond M.B.E. is a 24 page pamphlet printed on green A4 paper, folded to A5 size, and bound with two staples. Published around 1985 it is a fascinating time slice through the history of Melbourne’s public sculpture. Thanks to William Eicholtz for this generous little gift.

Basically the pamphlet contains two pages on “Methods and materials used in producing public sculpture”, a list of 100 sculptures, a map of their locations and biographies of  some of the sculptors. It is illustrated with black and white photographs of some of the sculptures.

As a subtitle the pamphlet declares that it was intended as “a tourists guide”. The map is divided into three locations that are suggested “as a walking guide” “which can each be explored easily on foot.”

  1. Spring Street, East Melbourne and Fitzroy Area
  2. The City, University and Exhibition Buildings Area
  3. Kings Domain, Shrine and St. Kilda Road Area

Several sculptures are no longer in their original locations, others have moved and the total number of sculptures in these areas has doubled in the thirty years since the pamphlet’s publication.

It appears to be self published. Although there is no date it is after the move the Vault to the banks of the Yarra 1983. The controversy over Vault piqued Melbourne’s interest in public sculpture and may have been an additional motivation for publication.

Stanley Hammond knew the history of sculptures in Melbourne because he had lived it most of it. Born in Trentham Stan had started off as a stone mason working on the Shrine Remembrance before becoming one of Orlando Dutton and then Paul Montford’s assistants. Hammond made many war memorials during his career, including the lions at the Boer War Memorial on St. Kilda Road. He also made the figure of John Batman near the corner of Collins and Market Streets.


Graffiti and Street Art by Anna Wacławek

All art history students would be familiar with the Thames & Hudson World of Art series. These paperback books with their black spines are authoritative accounts of various art movements, styles and histories. When Thames & Hudson launched its World of Art series in 1958 it aimed to produce low cost, high quality art books. Now with over 300 titles in the series ranging from Aboriginal Art to Internet Art it is not surprising that there is Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art (Thames & Hudson, 2011, London).

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In the book’s introduction Wacławek notes that: “a major study of graffiti and street art grounded in visual art analysis has yet to be published,” and that she intends this book to fill that gap. Most of the words about graffiti and street art have being written in sociology or criminology rather than from the discipline of visual arts. The lack of a serious book on the art of graffiti and street art is surprising given that in 1984 Thames and Hudson published the some of the first documentation of graffiti art, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art. But Subway Art, like most of the earlier books on graffiti, is a collection of photographs.

Graffiti and Street Art certainly fills that gap. After reading so many short articles and interviews with artists it was relief to read in an organised and systematic order in one book rather than gleaming the same information from diverse sources. Wacławek’s precise language can pack many ideas into a single sentence. The many photographs in the book are used as examples and each one is referred to in the text.

The first question about such a book is if graffiti writers do not consider their work art then what is point of an art book is actually an irrelevant question. Apart from some contemporary English speaking artists the same can be said about almost everyone currently called an artist. But trivial categorisation disputes aside the art of graffiti needs to be included in this book. Describing the structure of graffiti writing and the genealogy of graffiti is necessary, at the very least to distinguish it from street art.

Later the question, ‘is graffiti art?’, allows Wacławek to distinguish art history from visual culture studies. Distinguish between art history and visual culture history removes the aura of excellence around in art history and allows the examination of  popular images. This is an important distinctions not just for graffiti and street art but for any examination of popular images.

The popularity of graffiti and street art is not dismissed but examined. It is looked at in the collaboration of the public in the creation of street art. When Wacławek examines the dissemination of street art in photographs and online she raises the question: where do you see the most street art and graffiti on the streets or online?

Examining graffiti and street art from the perspective of art history is important that issues of style, subject and signature key to both art history and graffiti. Wacławek gives context to Haring and Basquiat as a sidetrack in the history of graffiti. There are also occasionally references to contemporary artists, like Andy Goldsmith, in perspective with street art

Sometimes I felt that Wacławek was being too subtle with both her arguments and the examples that accompanied them rather than doing something more obvious. Vexta and Nick Walker are the examples in the section titled “Identity Politics”. However, if the average reader can think of the more obvious arguments and examples is it necessary to writing them?

At the University of Melbourne has CCDP20001 Street Art can now be studied as part of the breadth subjects for undergraduates studying Science, Music, Commerce, Biomedicine and Arts. I am surprised that this book is not one of the prescribed texts.

The prescribed texts for the subject are:

Cubrilo, Duro et al (2010), King’s Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti – Melbourne 1983-1993 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Schacter, Rafael (ed.) (2013) The World Atlas of Graffiti and Street Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

Alison Young’s Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination.

Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art is a book that is needed by the many high school students and university students who are and will be studying graffiti and street art.

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I am not Schwitters either.

“Up the stairs he went, and once more rang Grosz’s bell. Grosz, enraged by the continual jangling, opened the door, but before he could say a word, Schwitters said “I am not Schwitters either.” (Hans Richter, Dada, art and anti-art Abrams, 1964, New York, p.145)

I am not Schwitters either so I don’t know who is Schwitters. To understand a person from only one perspective is like looking at a silhouette, there are only two diamentions. The more views, the more contradictions and a three or four dimensional character starts to take shape

Hans Richter account of Kurt Schwitters “a first class businessman, a born shop keeper” (p.149) is markedly different from that of  E.L.T Mesens, of a man travelling third class with a very small suitcase that contained nothing but a spare celluloid collar for his thick flannel shirt and bunch of his Merz publications. Kurt Schwitters is best known for his Dada collages but he should also be remembered for his great modern poetry.

Schwitters cover trial

Three Stories: Kurt Schwitters by Kurt Schwitters, Jasia Reichardt (Editor) (Tate Publishing, 2011, London) is a small 32 page hardcover book with three stories and a poem by Schwitters. There is also an introduction by the editor Jasia Reichardt and an essay about Schwitters by Mesens.

The only images in the book are a couple of small marginal illustrations that accompany “The Flat and Round Painter”. This fairy tale is an absurd allegory about why all paintings are now flat. It was written around 1941 when Schwitter’s was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

“The Idiot” was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Schwitters into English. The setting feels very Norwegian although there are no definite references to any particular location.

“The Landlady” 1945 is a short sketch of an “intelligent” landlady who would make Basil Fawlty appear reasonable.

For me the best part is his “The London Symphony” written in 1942. The realism and urbanism of this poem is truly radical as all the lines came readymade, composed from the hand painted advertising signs that Schwitters saw on the streets of London.

“Tribute to Schwitters” by E.L.T. Mesens was commissioned for ARTnews in 1958 and has been unavailable since then. There is also Ernst Schwitters reply to Mesens is a previously unpublished response by the artist’s son Ernst Schwitters and a response from Mesens. Mesens raises issue Mondrian’s attitude towards Dada and this is part of the dispute with Schwitters’s son.

Another point of difference of opinion is over the quality of Schwitter’s treatment in the English internment camp on the Isle of Man. Mesens claims that he enjoyed it but the artist’s son, Ernst Schwitters, who was in the interment camp with his father, disagrees. Although a Belgium citizen Mesens was involved and informed by the English especially Roland Penrose with whom he ran the London Gallery.


Life in the Fast Lane

“Graffiti writers don’t read. They just look at pictures.” The author told me when he dropped his book off. Film maker, musician, graft writer and now author. I first encountered “S.D. Rokkatansky” (SDR) five years ago watching his Graff Hunter videos online. At the time he was only living a few blocks away and I’m happy to call him a friend. This is his first novel but I’m not going to pull my punches with this review.

Spud Rokk Life in the Fast Lane

Road to Redemption – Life in the Fast Lane is a youth crime novel set in Melbourne in the mid 1990s. The worst thing about this novel is the title that sounds like a Christian story of hope when it isn’t and there are so many other books called Road to Redemption. I really hate the title. But that is judging the book by its cover and so is bitching about the appearance of poor copyediting and clunky book design.

Still on the subject of the book’s cover what is the parental advisory logo doing on the cover? It not a legal requirement, maybe it is a marketing code to attract the teenage readers, the very kind of readers who should read this book.

So why did this novel need to be written at all? Not just because some teenagers would buy it. Firstly, there aren’t enough low level crime novels, people are always writing about murders and major crimes as if those crimes happen everyday. Shoplifting, tagging, selling weed, stealing cars, breaking and entering happen everyday and these are the crimes that the central characters are committing. There aren’t enough novels written about doing graffiti (why I paid my money for the Pozible campaign). There aren’t enough novels about living in Melbourne’s outer suburbs and the war on teenagers has been a continuing feature of society for decades.

Graffiti writers are prone to boasts and exaggerations about their deeds but the story didn’t strike me as false (or redemptive). The story was more Ancient Greek with nemesis punching the protagonist Tommy hard in the solar plexus for his over-reaching hubris.

SDR was in that scene in the 1990s doing graffiti and probably other shit so there are good details about the formulas for ink markers, the popular brand clothes, the brands of perfume and dog food but I wanted more descriptions.

I also wanted more descriptions of the characters because it was hard to keep the relationships between all the characters in mind, they needed more of a backstory or an explanation and not expect the reader to work so hard. Tommy is a bit too much, it was hard to keep him in focus with his diverse activities: rapping, graffiti, cars…

Too often characters have their “mouth agape” as if they are all a bunch of slack jawed yokels. SDR is nowhere near as good a writer as Irvine Welsh and SDR’s novel is written in the third person rather than Welsh’s superb first person stream of consciousness. But it did remind me of Welsh’s drugsploitation novels, the narrative alternating between the group of young men and young women. The young women are a lot more serious than the young men. The seriousness of the young women is contrasted to the young men who regard life a series of drinks, drugs and other escapades.

S.D. Rokkatansky Road to Redemption – Life in the Fast Lane (Carry Case Publishing, 2015, Australia) soft cover, 286 pages.


Banksy’s Favourite Criminologist

Going paintspotting with Alison Young around Melbourne suburbs of Brunswick and Parhran is like going for a walk with any other enthusiastic, informed observer of street art and graffiti. Walking around, looking down lanes, camera ready trying to see the splash of aerosol spray paint, the paste-up or, even, street art sculpture.

Except that Alison Young is not just another fan of Melbourne’s street art but the Professor of Criminology at the University of Melbourne and is Banksy’s “favourite criminologist in the world”. (And how many criminologists does Banksy know?)

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Alison Young’s Street Art, Public City – Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination is an academic book, full of citations and an extensive bibliography but don’t panic. The academic nature of this should not put off interested readers, as it is well written and does not require a background in criminology or sociology to understand. The book comfortable ranges in styles from the personal narrative to post-modern philosophy.

Street Art, Public City is not solely focused on the laws that prohibit street art and graffiti or the way that they are enforced. Although there is some old-school criminology in Chapter 5 where Young examines aspects of law enforcement: the appellate process on sentences for graffiti, the lack of distinction in the law between vandalism and graffiti and the political use of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s much referred to “broken window” hypothesis. Young avoids technical language using “the legislated city” instead of ‘nomosphere’ to describe the intersection of law and urban space, while including such technical language in the footnotes.

Street Art, Public City presents a broad view of street art and the city, examining the way that we imagine the city, the issue of public and private space, the multiple uses and versions the city. This is informed by Young’s own exploration of street art in Melbourne, New York, Berlin, London and other cities and her many conversations with street artists. Previously Young, in collaboration with the artists, Ghostpatrol and Miso, wrote Street Studio – the place of street art in Melbourne (Thames & Hudson, 2010) that features interviews with Neils Oeltjen (aka Nails), Tom Civil, Tai Snaith, Ghostpatrol, Ash Keating, Al Stark, Miso, Twoone, Mic Porter, and the Everfresh Crew.

Street Art, Public City is focused on the situation that the art is presented, the affect on both the artist and the viewer. The focus on the situational aspect makes Young’s approach, including her explorations of cities, almost Situationalist especially considering her conclusion of learning to live with the paradoxes that street art generates. The actual street art is not really discussed in the same depth. That said the influence of the art galleries and the art market are examined in some detail.

After so many books on street art that are basically eye candy, picture books with more photographs than words it is a relief to actually read a book about street art. There are fifteen colour photos at the front and a few more black and white photos scattered in the book’s six chapters. Photographs of street art only tell part of the story as there are aspects of street art that cannot be captured in a photograph. Photographs cannot show the duration, very important with ephemeral street art, nor the motivation of the artist and the reaction of the public. Photographs do not explanation the situation and it is the public situation where street art is created and displayed. Street Art, Public City gives the reader more to consider about street art and the city than simply more images.

Alison Young, Street Art, Public City – Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination (Routledge, 2014)


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