The Secret Philistines

Australia is the most outwardly philistine of all countries; there is a deeply held contempt for all culture in Australia. Suburban Australia, where the vast apathetic majority of Australians live, is quintessentially philistine. Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy used the word ‘philistine’ to define the middle-class as ignorant, narrow-minded, devoid of culture and indifferent to art. To have wider tastes than meat pies, football and cars is considered in Australia an elitist insult to the majority.

So it is not surprising that within the minority of cultured Australians and even artists there is a trace of these philistine attitudes. Is “Cryptophilistinism”, curated by Amita Kirpalani at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, about this phenomenon?

What exactly is a crypto-philistine? Have the secret philistines of the art world taken over the art space and are the de-valuing art? Are they neo-Dada anti-art artists who, ironically don’t value art? Or, are they artists with non-artistic agendas? Perhaps it is the secret philistine in all of us that is being referred to; Kirpalani does not explain but she does give examples.

Are the social politics of Stuart Bailey assemblages more important than any artistic quality? “The Nimbin Victims”, “Shameless” and “These filthy dreamers defile the flesh” do look as ugly as improvised road signs. James Dodd’s work is similarly political and as ugly as a roadside stall with all the fluoro colours. Sarah Goffman makes art about the excess in society; her “Iso Mass Xtreme Gainer” is a minimalist circle made from wide waisted jeans. Scott Morrison celebrates the passions of the middle class, as expressed in audience shots from the Oprah Winfrey Show, in his 2003 DVD “Oprahagogo”. But it is Justin Trendall’s screen prints with the lines of influence connecting artists and thinkers that, for me, expresses the crypto-philistinism of contemporary art. The pseudo-intellectual past time of creating theoretical art family trees, as a representation of culture, is truly crypto-philistine in its indifference to the actual art and culture. And Trendall makes them look so artful.

Now that they have been named and exhibited can they really be secret philistines?

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About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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