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Category Archives: Book Reviews

The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.

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Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.

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The Coburg Plan

The Coburg Plan is a paperback book of photographs, essays, stories, a poem, even some comments from Scott’s Instagram feed focused on the architecture of Coburg. Jessie Scott is described at the “principle artist” and it is an affordable, accessible kind of artist’s book.

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I have lived in this inner northern suburb for decades, I helped crowdfund the book and was at its launch on Saturday at the Post Office Hotel. At the launch there were speeches, a reading of the poem by Timmah Ball and the kind of gastropub food that the PO Hotel is now well known for. I can remember when the Post Office Hotel had a different reputation; it was further down the pecking order than the Moreland Hotel with its strippers and pokies. It was the kind of place where some guy would come around to your table asking for a cigarette. Now, it has changed.

The Coburg Plan is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the changes; it is a neutral look at the often anaesthetic nature of suburbia. It is an elegantly designed book with type set in Brunswick Grotesque, an easy to read san-serif font and a near perfect choice of hyper-local typeface donated by its designer, Dennis Grauel.

Kyle Weise’s essay is a good introduction to Scott’s photographs. Weise examines the history of banal suburbia in architecture and in photography; from Robert Venturi Learning from Las Vegas to David Wadleton’s photographs of Melbourne’s milk bars. It is the antithesis of the modernist architectural vision that Robin Boyd writes about in his The Australian Ugliness, but it is a feature of ordinary, banal reality.

Scott records the mundane details of suburbia in her photographs. The old houses and closed corner shops, the empty lots, a ghostsign revealed during demolition, and the construction of new units. There is the street sign dealing with the fact that there are two streets in the suburb with almost the same name Hutchinson Place and Street; Australia street names makes up in repetition what they lack in originality.

It is a Coburg ‘plan’; ‘plan’, not as in an advance arrangement, but as in a representation or artist’s impression.


Crime and the Art Market

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Riah Pryor Crime and the Art Market (Lund Humphries, 2016)

How corrupt is the art market?

Riah Pryor is an art history graduate who worked as a researcher at New Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit. Her experience should have provided more  to the reader. Instead there is a tiny dab of narrative at the start of chapters to suggest something of the author’s experience.

It is difficult to define art crimes; Pryor mentions a Nth Ireland police report where a stolen tube of paint was classed as an art theft. Pryor’s focus is on the economic side of art crimes: stolen art, illegally exported antiquities, art forgery and art fraud rather than art vandalism, art censorship and art as criminalised protests. However, in this did introduce me to other ways that art can be used in crime; one of these is ‘elegant bribery’.

‘Elegant bribery’ where an official is given a fake of little value, the official then puts the fake up for auction, where it is sold at a high price that a genuine work would attract to another member of syndicate acting as if he mistook the fake as a genuine. In this way all the transactions appear legitimate. I can only assume that elegant bribery was detected only through data matching because Pryor doesn’t give many details about this or other the crimes.

No particular crimes are looked at in any depth in the book. The lack of detail might be deliberate in order not to assist in crimes, as attested in an anecdote from an art authentication lab expert but the lack of details makes the book read like a colourless report about art crime from the perspective of law enforcement. It is as dry as a policy paper and her conclusions, although reasonable, are not particularly useful nor informative.

“There is no ‘correct’ reason to care about art crime, or at least no reason which all will agree on. However, determining why someone does or does not care is probably the most effective way to go about working with them to agree on future ways of tackling it.” (p.88)

Dividing the book into “Villains” and “Heroes” is a simplistic strategy and shows Pryor’s police mind set from time her New Scotland Yard. It also fails to work with Pryor’s own solution to get all sectors of the arts industry involved with stopping art crime for their own benefit. 

Art crime is a hot topic, at least for publishers, art historians and the general public, although not for the police who seem to prefer their criminals violent, stupid and intoxicated. Only if you are obsessed with the subject should you read Pryor’s Crime and the Art Market as it is simply the most boring book on the subject. If this has whet your appetite for more about art and crime then please read some of my other posts on the subject.

The theft of La belle Hollandaise

Forgery Trial Book

The Forgery Trial

The Case of Art Forgeries

True Crime and Art

Whaley’s Stolen Paintings


Forgery Trial Book

When the authenticity of two million dollar paintings comes into question the stage is set for a major legal battle. Were the two large paintings forgeries or were they innocent? Was it an elaborate art fraud? Or were they by the Australian superstar artist Brett Whiteley’s whose tragic death from a heroin overdose meant that he wasn’t around to dispute its authenticity.

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In her book Gabriella Coslovich takes the reader step by step through this complex case of art forgery. From the first suspicions and the police investigation, through the committal hearing in the Magistrates Court to the trial in the Supreme Court and the subsequent appeal. She interviews, or attempted to interview, everyone involved in the story from the artist’s widow Wendy Whiteley through to witnesses, millionaire victims, police and defence lawyers. Not surprisingly not everyone want to talk but surprisingly one of the defendants, Peter Gant does. Not that she was the only journalist that he talked to; Gant seemed to bask in the media attention that his trial brought.

In the book Coslovich considers the difference between the art world and the laws assessment of the authenticity of the paintings. The issue of connoisseurship, of having “a good eye” is important to the art world but provenance is also important. People repeatedly say about Gant that he had a good eye for saleable art. Was this the same as selling a fake Rolex watch? As one of the lawyers in the case posited. Or is there a difference that the law should recognise? The damage to art history is rarely considered.

By the time it got the trial in the Supreme Court Coslovich had been investigating Peter Gant’s dodgy art deals for six years, both as the arts reporter for The Age newspaper and as an independent writer. So it was not surprising that she is passionately that she wants to see a conviction. It is her depth of knowledge of the case that made her bristled with anticipation every day of the four week trial. I know because I was sitting next to her. I am referred to once in her book as “one of my fellow scribes” (p.151) discussing with her how the dock influences juries.

I think that Coslovich may have solved one piece of the puzzle with her careful analysis of the various versions of the catalogue. The difference in gallery address and the missing printer corrections are crucial details. She doesn’t make a big thing about it in the book and unfortunately her discovery comes too late.

Gabriella Coslovich Whiteley On Trial (Melbourne University Press, 2017)


Melbourne Street Art Guide

Melbourne Street Art Guide, ed. Din Heagney, Allison Fogarty and Ewan McEoin, (Thames and Hudson, 2016) Instead of writing a review of yet another unremarkable publication about Melbourne street art here are six artists who absent from the guide: Calm, DrewFunk, Ero, Ghostpatrol, Happy and Phoenix. I considered if I should ask them same set of questions that Melbourne Street Art Guide asked all the artists but really, the same set of questions?!

Calm mostly does paste-ups but does work in other media. He was included in the Hosier Lane part of Melbourne Now in 2013 so there is community recognition of his quality. See my blog post about his work.

Drew Funk was painting every legal wall that he could with landscapes and dragons, mixing the oriental, cartoons and aerosol art. He was ahead of the current mural scene by almost a decade.

DSC02068Ero is a scruffy New Zealand street artist working in the tradition of Keith Haring, painting simple images in blocky colours. He uses ordinary house paint and brushes rather than aerosol paint. He does piss in his paint cans to relieve himself and water down the paint.

Happy was active a few years ago but hasn’t done anything for many years. This is another problem of Melbourne Street Art Guide, it is more of a fashion snapshot than knowledgable critical guide. This is more or less the reason for not including Ghostpatrol even though he done more recent work than Happy. Happy mostly worked with paste-ups that made ironic comments about the street art scene but some of his sidewalk tags in line marking painting can still be seen.

Phoenix has more of a beatnik jazz style than a skater dad look than most street artists affect. A master of the photocopier Phoenix is serious community orientated man; he is one of the fellows who will stand up to be counted. The kind of man who with loan his ladder to a fellow artist before putting up his own piece. See my blog post about his recent solo exhibition.


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.


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”.


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