Tuesday, August 23, 2005

In Defence of the Dilettante

Because Ruark did a no-show on monday we were kind of STUCK with providing interesting or relevant material for Art & Mayhem on monday.

Never one to be deterred I pushed on - and Karen had the bright idea of asking me a question to get me blabbing. She mentioned the moral dillemma of her peers in the pub one night who thought art was self indulgent.

My riposte was that of "Of course art is self indulgent! so is masturbation! But look what happens when people don't masturbate? they become arseholes! So my advice is do it, do it badly, do it well, but do it often, just do it."

There's a deeper thought in there obscured beneath the guff. It's one that comes from my favourite literary lore - apparently about Isaac Babel (the Russian writer who had been a member of the Kossacs in the Red Army). He was up before the stalinist firing squad, accused of pety bourgeouse dilettantism - and is reply was "The right to write, is the right to write badly".

I feel this way about art - and 'Ian Millis" (bless his duchampian soul) brought this to my attention in his sweet little word play about bad flower paintings (see comments from previous post) by declaring the exhibition was a present for his Mum who was 80.

Mayhem the critic thought of the 80 year old I teach flower painting to on Tuesdays, and the other conservative, uptight, bourgeoise individuals entrusted to my aesthetic guidance on the other side of the bridge. I also thought of the amateur daubers and drawers I see regularly at the sketch clubs I attend or help organise each week. And I wondered how I could tell them about my writing, my critical views of art, my snide dismissals of whole streets of ernest exhibitors, in the same voice that I ask them to "put a bit of pale blue in that corner there - it will give that fold a bit more definition".

Ian Millis accused me of anonymity. HELLO! I give a radio program on 2SER Each week. My name is on the 2SER website. I am NOT anonymous. I don't stick up this blog as "Margaret Mayhew's Musings" because art and mayhem sounds more appealing - and it is NOT my personal diary. Hopefully its about more than me - and can promote some more of the art communities and activities in sydney, than my own admittedly very narrow range of interests. Writing is also a disguise in a way - I can and do project aspects of myself - and cerainly evoke a clear mood - which matches the typos, spoonerisms and the apellation of mayhem. Having a name - even a nom deplume is something which limits my critical freedom compared with those funboys at the art life. the essenc eof the flaneur is a type of insibility or unmarkedness. Which is why it wasn't done by many ladies in bustles back in the 19C - or why it ain't done by many sandwich board wearers in city streets today. Named, I become visible, and my viewing becomes marked and inflected by the look of the other in my viewing. Consequently I go out to less art openings than before. My liver is grateful.

Back to the point.

Jacques Delaruelle is apparently giving a talk on amaeturism and art at the Brandling street 30th anniversary exhibition. They've misspelt his name on the flyer - but its kinda cool (De La Rouel) and theres really cute cartoon of monkeys posing and drawing (whihc rmeinds me of another great bok called "the monkeys right to paint") The opening is on Saturday September 10th from 12pm. Manjam is on the same night. I'll post more information about both later on.

'Brandling Street' is a converted warehouse in Allen Lane in alexandria - but its near Brandling street in Erskineville - so hence the name. They have life drawing 5 days a week, and have done so since the mid 70's when they were located at the Sydney School of arts in Pitt Street (the current location of the arthouse hotel). Lots an lots of artists have attended Brandling street over the years - and it curiously arose as an institution at the peack of the life class as outre anachronism - back in the 70's - in the dim dark days of the post field abstractionist push.........

The above is a type of art mythology that I'm hearing again and again. Apparently life drawing and figurative painting became extremely daggy in the 1960's, in the wake of the US influence of abstract art, and then later influence of conceptual art, and performance art.

According to various horse-mouths - private sketch clubs have been the mainstay of much artistic activity throughout the history of sydney last century. Private sketch clubs on the north shore, in the rocks, haymarket acted as social nodes where artists of various persuasions could gather, draw and talk. In many ways they are comparable to jam sessions among musicians - bt often with more heterogeneous participants. There were sketch clubs for the contemporary art society, for graduates of Julian Ashton's, or East Sydney, and others comprising students, models and graduates of each. There were also sketch clubs of nuns, old men, younger men, bored housewives which as the bland sociological labels don't state - included ex students from the Bauhaus, or of Johannes Itten, as well as friends and associates of ex students from George Bell. Sketch clubs have acted as a broad network of contacts, and fanning infuences from various art movements form the 20th century. Skethc clubs have provided employment for models - but especially for many women artists -a form of introduction and graduated apprenticeship in the art world. Students and artists who couldn't be or wouldn't be supported by their families or art patrons - to attedn full time art school or devote themselves to full time practice, have found supportive envirnoment in which to gain some employment, and participate in networks of other arts, models, teachers.

The above may seem a tad scholastic, but I'm trying to provide some evidence for the importance of what may seem as peripheral, anachronistic or amateur activities - particularly in a cultural milleu as small as Sydney's (and the art scene here IS SMALL). Aside from life drawing as training, or life drawing as a practice, or life drawing as generation of some genuine soft porno kitsch - the importance of life drawing as a social and cultural activity has really played an important part in the development and sustenance of countless artists in sydney. I beleive it is in the act of coming together, and coming together to engage in a formalised cultural practice that generates the sense of cultural identity. The transmission of knowledge and experience and of providing opportunities for new experiences is a really amazing process to participate in. This is probably why I enjoy teaching art to people who I really don't care for otherwise - because it does create a bridge of visual communication and experience.

As for the art critic ......... maybe I'm not cut out for this? The hardest aspect of being a pen for hire - is dealing with the requests from countless artists to write catalogue essays. As far as I can see, the function of such pieces of writing is largely to provide an academicised gloss on the types of artworld marketting spin which promote art to the publics of buyers, competitions judges and occasionally viewers. My words are meant to give a critical cache to someones exhibition. The letters after my name can give the stamp of approval of said work as "ART", with a , postmodernist, queer, feminist, visually literate sensiblity. This is my ''specialised cultural product" as a critic.


I have written a couple of catalogue essays and 'glowing reviews' (wordy PR) for friends. Usually I've stated that the artists is a friend - to avoid any confusion about why I'm writing. If I like someone I WILL spend more time trying to engage with their work. I am not an austere accurate remote cultural barometer. Name me a critic who is, or was. The other thing I like to do - is to give readers a way to look into the work - and a framework for people to articulate their own responses to what they may see - on an invite or in a space. I do sincerely believe that art writing can function - not only to make up great stories about artists and their work - but to enable viewers to own, articulate and enjoy their own responses. this, for me, produces cultural and visual literacy.

In criticising work or exhibitions - the texts are a soft target. If I'm working with words and writing - then it makes sense to engage with the writing around an exhibition. Dodgy floorsheets, wanky catalogue essays, wordy and pretentious press releases indicate the lack of care that has gone into an exhibition, or the lack of awareness of and sensitivity to the role that text plays in framing and situating an exhibition within a cultural context.

Its hard and harsh to criticise the work of an artists. Any artist. I suspect Lucy wanted me on the show - to provide bloodsports - because canning some ugly or inept or kitsch work sounds funny and provides controversy, inrtigue and entertainment. These are all nice media fodder. However - bagging an exhibition or work - sets myself up as a type of tastemaker -and has the potential to be a silencing and disabling thing for audiences. (Like reading whats hot/what's not in trashy magazines). I don't think I am in any position ever to be an arbiter of fashion, especially in art. Art does have a strong link to the fashion cycle - and art styles come in and out. I like to name what is an 'style' and what may be linked to fashion. I don't think art should be separate from fashion - because it is too much fun as an aesthetic play to go all puritan and self denying about it. On the other hand - fashion is a good word to describe various waves of homogeneity and where and when they circulate, and its an enabling thing often to articualte why a piece may jar the eyes of a viewer - and it gives people mre infomration with which to articulate our own often conflicting responses.

The second dillemma or art criticism relates to artists. Artists - expecially ones that aren't so successful that they are permanently coked up to the eyeballs and wouldn't even notice - are not a fitting target for criticism. All artists live with failure on a daily basis. Art making IS about failing and failing and failing again, and continually failing and then occasionally getting it right. Sometimes its about getting it right and then failing all over the top of it. This is one of the reasons why a lot of artists are generally humble, humourous and interesting people, because living with so much failure has a great effect of self awareness and ego diminishment. On the other hand it also explains why a lot of artists are also twisted bitter individuals, or incredi bly depressed and fragile or rampant alcoholics. Living with failure is pretty demoralising too.

In Australia to be an artist means living in poverty, generally. In Australia the success of anything is judged in money (did you have a show? was it a success? did you sell? how much?). If someone does have a sell out show, they are lucky if they see half the proceeds. And this rearely exceeds the average salary of, say, a high school teacher. If you do succeed in these terms - then the pressure become to repicate oneself as a reliable and saleable successful product. Successful artists have less scope to fail - (unless they want to fail their dealer, their critics and their mum and dad) and so have less possibliities to experiement with the fun of making something half imagined. So for me to swan in and call something (and someone) patchy, half arsed, pretentious, bombastic or dodgy is problematic. I believe certain dealers (lets say all of them) do promote formulatic idenitifiably successful and quite possibly boring work. That's why I avoid discussing or mentioning most commercial galleries - and try to promote shows where viewers can be surprised and challenged a little, and I don't have to bite my tongue.

Art should be about constantly learning and discovering. This goes for an 80 year old or an 8 year old. It is probably exptemely hard for an 18 year old to do it "coz youf have ishooz". I also believe that 50 or 500 people doing BAD ART are more interesting than 5 masters doing mind blowing brilliance. Art works when it becomes, like music or fashion, something that people feel they can own and play with, rather that ossified brilliance glinting in the marble cube of the academy.


ian milliss said...

Stupid as a Duchampian.

OK I'm the one wearing egg this time but I live 150kms out of Sydney these days and 2SERs pedal powered transmitter doesn't manage to reach that far. So abject apologies for insulting you about your non existent anonymity .... and now can we have a love in?

Calling me a Duchampian hurt even more than saying my painting was ugly. Given your reference to Isaac Babel you will be amused to know that I also thought of it as a sly tribute to my real artistic hero, not Duchamp, but Vladimir Tatlin, who survived the Stalinist purges to live until 1953 by becoming a (pretty bad) flower painter. Your (excellent) posting today is fairly close in spirit to my own feeling about what I was doing, it was only a minor little shopfront show, amusing how many bytes have been spilt over it.

mayhem said...

What's wrong with Duchamp?

ian milliss said...

ohhh groan. I hope that's just a jokey rhetorical question, otherwise we could be here for thousands of words. Let's just say there is nothing wrong with Duchamp but everything wrong with Duchampians. I have no doubt that Duchamp would be very proud of the way his followers have turned out to be his biggest practical joke.