Thursday 31 December 2009

On 2009 and all that

ArtKritique turns one year old today and whilst I have never been more excited about the future I can't help reflecting upon what I've learned. The blog you're reading now came about through an unformed and simmering frustration at the state of visual art and the way that people wrote about it, especially the way people wrote about it. As a modest collector and profligate reader I felt that art criticism bore such scant resemblance to how I experienced the arts, and as frustration is such a wasteful response decided to try to form an alternative that I imagined I would like to read.

There are two dominant strains of the virus: the pseudo-acedemic post structuralist theory based idea of criticism and the journalistic condescension of pleasantly rewritten press releases. It's infinitely rare for either of these schools to ever give one a sense of the visual experience of any given work or the mechanic between the visual and emotional or intellectual response. I've come to believe all the more firmly that if you're not doing either of these you're not writing about art, but using art to write about something else.
When I look to the work I responded to most strongly this year, Patricia Piccinini in Hobart, Intensely Dutch at the AGNSW, Tacita Dean at ACCA and Vernon Ah Kee all over the place, I see some common threads. It was richly layered and didn't give its secrets up easily, at the same time it needed no explanation or particular theoretical or contextual knowledge. Depth and opacity were never synonymous. In essence it was deeply human and the fact that it was quite so disparate made it all the more so. As someone who has been both voracious and discriminatory in all of my culture consumption I understand how being doctrinaire is much simpler than finding common currency and value. Our society suffers from the anxiety of quality together with the need for discrimination. We find the notion of universal values difficult and subsequently need to drop into the categorical. That's why it's easier to like sauvignon blanc and despise chardonnay, this year, than it is to find a common characteristic that we value across all wine. When that's applied to art we dismiss the old craft like ways, painting or sculpture, in favour of the abstract and conceptual. The flight from judgement is as weird as all hell, the craft or skill of an individual has almost been erased from our criteria for judging quality, in this privileging of the theoretical a self-defining supposed radical elite has removed a whole class from the potential benefits of art. That's as stupid as it is shameful.

Secret Stupid Art is based upon the admittedly banal observation that, just as empty vessels make the most noise, the works of art that claim to be the most intellectual are likely to be the dumbest. The urge to make art about art has always struck me as slightly dim, it's a bit like endlessly repeating a joke and one has to admit that Marcel Duchamp is subject to a rapidly diminishing law of returns. Conceptual art and its post-modern cousins scream as being based upon a colossal misapprehension: that art is, in and of itself, interesting. We all know that's not quite true, art is interesting because it is able to reflect, contest and explore the experience we have of being human.

Humanity is messy, complex, contradictory, brilliant and exquisite all at once and in a million different ways, that's why it's a subject that's so hard to master but so satisfying to attempt. Art is finite, academic and institutional, no wonder it's less satisfying. There is a lesson to be learnt from the cold hard formalism of Twentieth Century classical music, as composers work became more an more about the rules and history of composition thus their audiences became less and less engaged. Museum attendances suggest that the visual arts have not yet jumped this particular shark, however these also reflect a desire for a shared primary cultural experience which is different to an ideological affirmation. The ability of specific exhibitions to draw crowds still points to artists who engage in the human, the natural and the emotional as our preferred communicators.

I'm pretty firm in my belief that Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' is the single greatest artistic achievement of the Twentieth Century. A play about the inability of language to carry the totality of human meaning just screams the absolute need that, despite everything, we must continue urgently violently to attempt to communicate. There pumps the absolute heart of why art is a human necessity and why humanity is an artistic imperative.

In 2009 I loved Linda Marrinon's sculptures and their Rembrandt dots of eyes as they formed themselves out of clay and bronze, Marc Standing's terror and beauty, Christine Eid's taxi driver anthropology and Marc de Jong's acute drawings. I discovered, late as an immigrant but that's a pleasure in itself, Mickey Allen's tender vision and Les Kossatz's compassionate surrealism. I loved the way a simple mark could be spastic and eloquent all at once. I loved the things that surprised me and I loved being surprised.

In 2010 I want to be moved to tears. I want to go back to see things because I can't get them out of my head, I want to see the world anew and see something deep and hidden in myself in the work of another.

Love, peace and happiness for 2010,


  1. One of the most curious conversations I ever overheard was 20+ years ago in the bar at London's Centre for Contemporary Art. Its so long ago I've even forgotten if that was the name of the institution not having been back since!
    A young woman and man (late 20's) sat for at least an hour engaged in a fast and furious repartee on what was in and what was out at that time in London - the centre of the Universe!
    I recall feeling many things as I listened in astonishment - but most of all I felt like screaming out something akin to "get a life!"
    So...your mention of chardonnay being so right one year and so wrong the next reminded me of that ancient overheard conversation and so many others like it.
    Thank you - there's much to chew on in this post John -there are things I find you've said very eloquently that I tend to find resonance with.
    My sense is that we might benefit in this country from a more sustained effort at a truer form of conversation. I have lived in 3 states in Eastern Australia - 3 cities plus country and regional areas. Conversational exchanges varied significantly - and where-ever the focus was on deeper and more broadly accepting airing of individual thinking it was possible to hold much more dense engagement with ideas... the space was there for more diverse and stimulating dialogue.
    Maybe this is a universal experience. I was interested some time ago though to hear writer Robert Dessaix refer to what he saw as a tendency in Australia for dialogue to have in its place a kind of combative monologue rather than truer form of mutual exchange where listening and responding are featured and differences can be chewed over productively along with making ones own views known.
    A year in an MFA course in 2007 led to surprisingly few engaging exchanges
    which surprised me and left huge questions for me about how we talk with each other around Art now.
    So to read your post I am reminded of a great deal of frustration i have experienced around communication and so the point you make where you mention "waiting for Godot" speaks loud and clear to me...
    and yes- I totally believe effort must be made to attempt to communicate more friutfully and that I believe invilves risking not being in fashion, not knowing everything....whatever!
    Have you come across Theodore Zeldin on conversation John?
    Have a great 2010!
    I shall look forward to seeing where the new year takes you!

  2. Thanks Sophie,

    I think the point you make about Robert Dessaix is valid beyond Australia too.

    Public discourse is all too often simply an exchange of opposing statements. I'm sure this is compounded, if not actually caused by, the reliance upon television for dissemination of information - the very nature of the medium where where the soundbites of two opposing points of view can be edited together into counterpoint seems to make the idea of constructive conversation redundant. And given its reliance on that medium I think that explains why politics is so profoundly depressing.

    Of course THE essential ingredient in conversation is the ability to listen and I sometimes wonder too if that's a neglected skill or art. Our culture places a great emphasis upon self-expression, that's not a bad thing, however it does lead to cacophony. The inevitable result is that we have to both shout louder and make our messages simpler (back to the soundbite I suppose) complexity and contemplation don't thrive in this particular soil.

    Curiously I think that the visual arts offer the clearest account of this process in action - and, at least personally, a much needed antidote.

    Since, and I'm intentionally lose with dates here, let's say the mid-sixties we have had a number of art movements (and that number grows when you look within those movements and see how they themselves see their own doctrinal differences) many of which have borrowed heavily from post-structuralist political, psychological, literary and social theory. Almost inevitably these became enmeshed in manifestoes and membership, in allegiance and opposition, all things that run counter to any notion of conversation (either between artists, or more importantly artists and viewers). As a result so much officially sanctioned contemporary art was judged on its doctrinal purity.

    I think this led us to the 2000s which you might characterise as the era of 'the Artist's Statement'. I can't tell you quite how profoundly I hate that phrase and practice. Much post-modern art is often based upon absurd juxtapositions that are supposed to deliver a single meaning. In case we might not work out what that meaning is for ourselves we are given an artist's statement. I don't think it's unfair to say that artworks that rely on an external statement of meaning might not be entirely successful.

    Which brings me back to conversation. I think that the best art (and I think a very good example of this is the Olafur Eliasson show I've just reviewed) does engage us in a conversation. I think of my favourite Australian painting, Arthur Boyd's 'Nebuchadnezzar on fire over a waterfall' ( and it brings out my own feelings about landscape, about the Icarus symbolism and as it does it changes and I see it differently. Work that allows us that sort of space for interpretation and experience is always the most powerful.

    Conversation thrives best when we're confident and dies when we're defensive. I think art always suffers at the hands of ideology (if you think of the Baroque works of the Counter Reformation much of the greatest work is happening as artists attempt to reconcile their personal vision with a resurgent Catholicism, the out and out propaganda is often pretty dire). The trouble in the art world is that ideology makes people nervous, it's a shifting ground and I sense a fear of not being au courant. This leads to opaqueness, navel gazing, jargon, charges of being reactionary. None of which are very healthy.

    Thanks for making me think about some of this stuff Sophie, I always think of myself, intellectually at least, as a work in progress so it's brilliant to look at these things we all love in a different way.

    Cheers for now,

  3. Hi John,
    Good to read your response.
    like the line "conversation thrives best when we are confident and dies when we are defensive." That says it all for me.
    The best and most memorable conversations I have had are always the ones where I was not backed into (or withdrawing into) a defensive mode....where I could feel another's interest in hearing my thinking despite whatever differences in perception we had....and vice versa!
    Its a kind of play I think - real conversation- an alive to and fro scenario that has the almost intoxicating effect of drawing you further in - where you leave your self-consciousness far enough out of the way to get into a much more elevated engagement - (at its best!)
    After all, one may identify a feeling about something before it is evident intellectually what is perhaps not working. And I dont mean a simple emotional response - rather a persistant feeling that is causes one to seriously weigh up the entire effect and consequences of something.
    Given that a series of artworks may be born out of the most intangible and mysterious inner promptings then surely room must be given for the intellect to not always lead. Over time intellectual connections are made and of course one can set out in the studio with entirely pre-conceived plans for art works but surely respect for other ways we arrive at knowing things and generating ideas is required and indeed valuable.
    Perhaps some of the emptiness we feel viewing certain works from artists we've come to expect much from occurs when the intellectual framework is dominant and the rest is filled in with diminished artistic conviction, enthusiasm or feeling. The work may be reduced to an intellectual exercise and the absence of art may privately concern the maker who is busy feeding career requirements rather than necessarily listening to the inner voice which could be at odds with the maintaining of a career.... or this version of it. I wonder - this seems entirely possible. Its not hard to imagine one could find ones-self out on a limb having been applauded for a certain kind of work and required to keep offering it up beyond one's own desire to do so!

    I have always been fascinated to find that I can be quite engaged by an artist whose work falls outside my general preoccupations and preferences if there is a particularly engaging quality to their work and it manages to hit some core of authenticity and resonance.
    Well...this has certainly been a departure from your much more global take on contemporary art John which was definitely significant food for thought.

  4. Hi John

    It is good to read what has become of your frustration with the disparity between art experience and art criticism. Hope that more people continue to be moved and inspired by creative people's wrestling with what is to be human.