Tag Archives: politics

Mixed Messages @ Counihan Gallery

I often find sociological exhibitions in art galleries to be out of context and poor art but Phuong Ngo’s exhibition “My Dad the People Smuggler” at the Counihan Gallery is long overdue and worth a visit.

Currently in Australia the two major political parties compete to demonise ‘people smugglers’, the people who assist refugees to get to places of refuge, and to abuse those seeking refuge. The Australian government’s deliberately cruel, degrading and illegal policies on refugees (piracy is still a crime even if carried out by the Navy) have been going on for decades now.

But back in the early 1980s in Australian policy towards ‘people smugglers’ was very different. Although Australia has long had an immigration policy that expressed racist xenophobia, the results of the Vietnam War lead to a brief period when refugees were welcome in Australia. It was during this period that Phuong Ngo’s father assisted others to leave Vietnam and arrived in Australia. The evidence that such things happened is in photographs and videos, including his father’s talking about his experience in people smuggling.

Not that I expect that this exhibition will have any effect on Australia’s current policy on refugees; it is safely in an art gallery and will just contribute to the mixed messages that exist in our society.

Michelle Hamer’s exhibition of small tapestries “I send mixed messages” is in Gallery One of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. The mixed messages are everywhere, as the Situationists loved to point out, the billboards, signs, stencils and tags all contradict each other. “Stop the madness,” reads a stop sign (stop me if you have seen this before). Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was the inappropriate translation of art to the wrong media; I wouldn’t say that Hamer’s work is kitsch but I don’t know if the media is appropriate. As tapestries, the focus and much of the detail of the original photographs has been lost. I last saw Hamer’s work at Bus in 2010 but the work seems very familiar as there are a lot of artists creating needlework tapestry of urban scenes in recent years including Catherine Tipping, who will be having an exhibition of tapestries at Tinning Street Presents… later this month.


Off The Wall

On Tuesday the 23rd of October I went to Off The Wall – Graffiti Management Forum at Fitzroy Town Hall. The City of Yarra employed Capire Consulting Group to review their graffiti management. Most of the people at the forum were from various city councils around Melbourne but there also were a few other interested people, including street artists, CDH and Makatron.

The review was focused on prevention and removal of graffiti. There was no idea about what the implementation of a graffiti management policy would actually look like on the street. The review did not have a cost benefit analysis; the cost of the current graffiti management policy compared to the financial benefits to City of Yarra in terms of visitor numbers or businesses that are based on graffiti scene.

The review appeared to be based on a naïve belief held by many people in local government that a distinction can be made between good and bad graffiti, between street art and tagging. This distinction is a faith-based policy that ignored so many facts: tagging has been around for millennia, there is no way to stop tagging, even if you have a police state equivalent to Nazi occupied Europe (see my post on WWII Graffiti) as the chances of being caught are so remote that a tagger would have to be persistent, pervasive or simply unlucky to be caught tagging. Tagging is a kind of visual urban noise, complaining about it in the inner city is like complaining about the noise of the traffic or light pollution. It is not a serious issue, there are no health and safety issues regarding tagging, unlike other urban problems like feral pigeons and fly tipping. (See my post on Coooburg)

Apart from studied ignorance (faith) there is no basis for the distinction between street art and tagging – I have asked Capire Consulting for the bibliography of their review but I have not had any response yet. Co-incidentally the following day I was sent a copy of The Bureau Magazine (thanks to its editor, Matt Derody) I will now quote from the start of the very first article that I read (even a non-systematic approach to the literature quickly quashes the distinction).

“There is no doubt that Australian society suffers a peculiar form of bipolar disorder when it comes to graffiti and street art. Rabidly opposed on the one hand and warmly encouraged on the other. It’s easy and comfortable to deploy timeworn distinctions that allow us to interpret the paradox and get on with our revulsion/appreciation agendas. The most popular is an aesthetic assessment of the art/vandalism in question. An ‘artistic piece of street art is fine (legal or illegal), a tag is ugly and blight on society. However, graffers think that tags, throw ups, burners, pieces and murals as parts of a whole – you can’t have one without the other.” (Andrew Imrie, “Graff vs Street Art…Neither or Both?” The Bureau Magazine Sept. 2012)

After the presentation CDH asked how the government can make a positive contribution to street art and reiterated points that he made in his Trojan Petition about neglected walls indicating tacit consent to being painted.

Makatron (in the red hoodie) conducts a tour of Fitzroy graffiti

Finally, after the forum Makatron lead a small tour of Fitzroy’s graffiti scene. Before he started the tour Makatron acknowledge the traditional aboriginal owners of the land –a subtle point about the hypocrisy of Australian governments demanding respect of property rights on stolen land.

In other local council news Melbourne’s Mayor Robert Doyle has made the installation of CCTV cameras in Hosier/Rutledge Lane part of his election platform against the advice of residents, the community and all the evidence. (See my posts CCTV or not CCTV Act 1 and 2.)


Is there art without politics?

Ai Weiwei comments (The Guardian Weekly 21/09/12 p.37) on “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery, London and he asks: “How can you have contemporary art that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing issues?”

I frequently find myself asking this question looking at contemporary art in Melbourne that stands for nothing but superficial gestures and thinking similar thoughts to Ai Weiwei but about Australian art rather than Chinese.

Although Australian art is heavily influenced by contemporary western cultures, it rejects the essential human values that underpin it. The Australian Government claims to the rule of law, respect for international laws and human rights but have so often excepted themselves from any obligations in various circumstances that nobody understands what this means anymore. In Australia you have a right not be discriminated against on the basis of your race except if you are an aborigine living in the Northern Territory. You have the right to claim asylum except if you come by boat. I could go on and on about the exceptions that the Australian Government has granted itself and then another tract about the exceptions that have been granted to allied governments.

Ai Weiwei offers a solution at the end of his comment. “What’s needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.”

Politics may not be something that an artist chooses but a position that is thrust upon them because their art does stand for something. Bill Henson has become the spokesman for artistic freedom because of the government campaign against him, not because of any overt political content in his work, but the content that government wanted to repress, a discussion that it did not want opened.

Sydney-based artist, Stephen Copland suggested to me that perhaps the political art should be judged from the archaeology of the stratigraphy of exhibitions (and the art exhibited) within the artist’s career rather than individual works of art. In this way the seriousness and depth of the artist’s political interest can best be judged. In a broader survey many artists would mark out the stratigraphy of the burning political issues in the layers of art works.

There are still plenty of largely uncensored platforms in Australia and Australian art is not under as many restrictions as art in China; the ALP did give the Australian Classification Board the power to censor art exhibitions after the Bill Henson furore.  But this freedom counts for nothing if nobody is saying anything or making superficial gestures. So many good artists remaining silent… I see so many exhibitions that are studiously saying nothing.

Sometimes it looks like all that many contemporary artists are trying to achieve is to fill a gallery space and I don’t mean completely fill up a gallery space, like the “New York Earth Room” (1977) by Walter De Maria. I mean just scale up a simple drawing so that it fills a wall or projecting a looping video onto a wall. As if filling up a gallery was an end in itself. Not that this should be taken as a complaint against all contemporary art installations as a whole, it is not about skill or technique or lack of them. There are boring exhibitions of highly competent paintings and the work of skilled crafters. Almost every week I see exhibitions that are a bit of a bore.

And the artist’s comment on this whole empty process appears to be bored and empty. Sometimes it appears that contemporary artists have done post-graduate studies in grant and application writing. This involves the composition of studied art world patois involved in over complication and indulging in obfuscation. “The exhibited works appear as chapters severed from their context” – that’s a nice way of say it is an incoherent exhibition. “Post-planning” – they are making it up as they go along. “Leading artist” – who is being lead? (For more on this art speak see Hyperallergic’s “How to Talk about Art” column.)

Why do we put up with these solipsistic, self-absorbed creations that contribute nothing to the wider cultural discourse of politics or life or anything of than other contemporary art? Who is responsible, who is to blame for this awful boring art? Let me say this first off, it is not all the artist’s fault; they are too obvious and too easy to blame. Nor is it entirely the fault of their teachers, the curators, gallery and arts grants boards. It is also the fault of the critics and art reviewers – it is my fault.

I should have slammed the artist’s work from the moment my fingers touched the keyboard. I should have dismantled their flimsy ideas and dammed their pretentious self-indulgent attempts at art. Perhaps I should have howled at the other critic’s praise for these artists. The fact is there aren’t really that many arts writers, even including bloggers, in Melbourne to complain about. We are living in a time when people in all seriousness praise the arts coverage in MX, the free paper distributed on the trains, over any other newspaper in Melbourne simply because they print more pictures.

I am not expecting that art will change that many minds or that art should be judged by its political efficacy or position. In 2010 Marcus Westbury asks “Does Political Art Work?” with the danger preaching to the choir or the tabloid frenzy the sidetrack issue. I’m not expecting art to work in politics all I’m asking is for the artists to make art that stands for something important. (The artists don’t have stand for political office, like Carl Scrase or Van Rudd.)

I am expecting that “art needs to stand for something.”


Fashion & Dictators

Art and fashion follow the money but are the taste of the powerful and wealthy as dubious as their ethics? When French Elle magazine vote the wife of the Syrian leader, Asma al-Assad, “the most stylish woman in world politics”, they not only displayed political naiveté but a serious lack of taste. French Elle was not alone Paris Match and American Vogue also lavished praise on the dictator’s wife. (For more see Angelique Chrisafis “The first ladies of oppression” The Guardian.) Don’t these people remember Naomi Campbell’s testimony in 2010 about receiving diamonds from convicted war criminal Robert Taylor? Don’t these people remember that Imelda Marcos had 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags and 1,000 – 3,000 pairs of shoes?

The high end of couture fashion is dependent on selling products to people, many of whom have obviously acquired their wealth dishonestly, at prices that no honest person could afford. Yet these labels are never held in anyway responsible – sure a few portrait painters might fall with a dictator – no fashion house suffers. The high fashion labels keep on racking in the money from the corrupt without any implications on their character or taste.

Entertain the thought that fashion is not superficial, that it is actually the most deep and important of all cultural signifiers. We identify ourselves through our fashion, and now more than ever, it is now not just a sign of class, profession and status but of identity. This is more than just about the money – it is a question about taste. The taste for high-end fashion and for corruption and blood are obviously linked but almost never discussed. Who wants to dress like the wife of a dictator, or like a dictator? Why are their politics but not their taste in clothes questioned?

It is horrible to think of Bashar al-Assad dancing around to “I’m too sexy for my shirt” by Right Said Fred (leaked information reveals that he downloaded it from Itunes this year). He must be ignorant of how camp the song is, simply a vain and brutal criminal in an expensive shirt.


Street Art & Anarchy

“Anarchy is chaos. Chaos is the principle of continual creation. And Chaos never died.” Hakim Bey, 1987

Various artists, Hosier Lane

The streets are chaotic image of the mass of humans and a few other animals that manage to survive in such a hostile environment. The idea of a well-ordered tidy street is the image of a dystopic totalitarian state; disguising them as a garden city or behind historic facades only hides the fact. There are always back alleys, service lanes, the backs of signs; and as the philosopher, Max Stirner points out kids love getting behind things and seeing their backsides. The street is a media that the authorities cannot censor; it can never be controlled completely, stickers, dead drops and all kinds of uncontrolled communication (see my posts on Political Graffiti and Graffiti in WWII).

Graffiti gives courage to those who agree with the opinions that they are not alone while demonstrating to the authorities that their view is not universally accepted. Graffiti is about non-violent propaganda by deed, as much as, it is propaganda images and propaganda is so much more effective with cool images. As Sydney street artist Jumbo said: “sometimes the message is just in the action.” (“Vandals or Vanguards?” at RMIT 26/9/11) Graffiti, like the punk bands, says if they can do that then what can I do?

Maybe I should write an addendum about graffiti to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (Penguin,1989). Marcus brilliantly traces an element of anarchy from medieval Anabaptists through the Dadaists, the Situationalists and on to the punks. But do we really need the repetition of Situationalist slogans almost half a century after they were first written on the streets of Paris? Do we even need another slogan or a manifesto or Hakim Bey’s invocations to poetic terrorism to spell out what is written on the wall? Do we need to spell it out blockbuster style or is it enough to bring beauty to an abandoned place?

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

“Culture and the state – one should not deceive oneself over this – are antagonists: the ‘cultural state’ is merely a modern idea. The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.” Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols

From the deliberate actions of culture-jammers and slogan writers, to the basic anti-police and anti-authoritarian attitude of all graffiti writers, graffiti is political. And graffiti is political because it is repressed, because the government attempts to control chaos. For if you act like someone is your enemy then they will become your enemy.

There is a lot of hostility to street art because it is chaos (I choose to embrace the chaos). I catch the train and there is a wanted poster for some guy for doing a tag. There is a flier in my letterbox from a politician boasting about how they cleaned up a small patch of graffiti and replaced it with clunky but colourful painting by school children. The approval of a politician makes the illegal legitimate. It is hard to write about Melbourne’s street art without talking about the influence of the law; what is a legal piece and what is not, the council’s rules and where they are ignored, overlooked or unenforceable. For an opposing view on “Graffiti and Anarchy” read Tom McLaughlin’s blog. In response to Tom teenage boys drawing phalli are part of the anarchy and chaos of human life and I would only criticize the culture where this is the best that teenage boys can graffiti.

There are plenty of self-aware anarchists doing street art in Melbourne but flying the flag for anarchy is rarely a very useful activity. Walking through Melbourne I was handed a flier in the street by veteran anarchist, Dr. Joseph Toscano calling for a new people’s bank. It was a very old school demonstration out the front of a corporate headquarters that had ripped off some small time investors. Toscano talking with a megaphone to small a group of people, other people were handing out leaflets. It made the evening news that night.

I’ve said enough for now – I welcome your thoughts on anarchy and graffiti.


Democracy in Art

A century ago Appolinaire wrote about some of Duchamp’s early paintings; “he will reunite art with the people”. The remark was more critical rhetoric by Appolinaire than analysis, as there was no reason to believe the Duchamp’s early cubist paintings was any more or less democratic. Prior to the 20th century art was not democratic it was purely plutocratic, a pursuit for the rich and powerful. Appolinaire was right that art in the 20th century would become more democratic, but I don’t think Duchamp was the artist to do this.

I’ve been thinking about is democracy in art. No, I’m not talking about voting, or people’s choice art prizes. And I’m not thinking about an ideal socialist man who works in a factory in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and writes art criticism in the evening – that will just end in knitting circles. I’ve been thinking about democratic art that is by the people and for the people, as opposed to being by a particular caste/class to another caste/class. Not an abstract “people” that is discussed in political circles, nor people whose public role (be it king or art curator) has diminished their individual taste with organisational responsibility, just individual people.

From the people does not mean that democratic art has to be created by amateur artists in community groups. From the people means that artists do not have to come from a particular group, class or caste. Warhol and Basquiat were both from disadvantaged backgrounds and received their art education at public expense.

Democratic art is promoted peer to peer rather than by academic or royal approval. In the past popular arts had a bad rap from critics and it was probably justified if you consider a life limited to listening to the top ten songs. In the past the limit of the media and this limited audience forced popular arts into a lowest common denominator position, with the occasional rare exception. The limited numbers available for an audience in all but the largest of ancient cities meant that all popular art forms had to cater to the lowest common denominator otherwise they wouldn’t get an audience. Now 1% of a population can be a huge audience. This has changed the arts from what most people would like or should like, to a world where individual preferences are tolerated.

Being able to tolerate your neighbour’s terrible taste is another part of democratic art. In a democracy just as you tolerate right of others to express their stupid political opinions, their blasphemous religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) and, along with this their taste. Taste, although apparently superficial, is part of politics, religion and culture.

The democratisation of art in the 20th century followed the triumph of the bourgeois in the 19th century. It required both changes in technology and the distribution of art. Technology has been responsible for the democratisation of art – it is no longer mob rule. Shakespeare had to keep both the groundlings and the lords happy. Not anymore. From a room of ones own to headphones; the changes to technology that have lead to a horizontal market for taste, instead of a vertical, hierarchical determination. The vertical market sells exclusively to the hierarchy of institutions and collections. The horizontal democratic model sells to anyone who wants to buy at a price that they can afford. This requires cultural products that come in multiple editions to be sold in large numbers.

Democratic art is not completely level, some people have more money to buy art and some people have more time to post images and comments on the internet. Appreciation of art will always remain an elite activity; the refinement of taste will be a pursuit that not all will choose. But there can be many elites; the elites of speed metal, of classical ballet, of contemporary art or graffiti. The diversity in contemporary art is a feature of its democratisation. Now being an elite is open to everyone but it is a pursuit that only a few will have the time, will and inclination to do. What mean by this democratic elite is a meritocracy the 1% of people who put the time in to contribute seriously to a culture, who aren’t prepared to simply swell a scene in the chorus or to be a spectator.


State Galleries & Politics

State galleries, like the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria, my local state gallery) or the Louvre, or even the Milwaukee Art Museum are a symbol of the power and cultural sophistication of the state. They are the symbolic cultural treasury of the state. How the state gallery represents art history and the culture of the country is a political issue. The history of how and from whom the collection is acquired is also a matter of state politics. How the gallery represent the state – how the NGV represents Australian art, especially contemporary art and aboriginal art is a political issue. Who and what is exhibited or not exhibited is also a political issue. And how the state gallery tells art history is another political issues as is all history. The politics of these galleries is so obvious that Hyperallergic ridicules Dan Keegan, the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, who claimed that museums should be apolitical.

Sydney artist Stephen Copland wrote: “My early series was about identity through the prism of inherited objects and became political as soon as I stepped down on the ground in Cuba. This meant the exhibition could not be shown in USA.”

To dismiss any romantic notions about politics in art start with a look at the structure of art world’s major institutions; the state and national galleries and other government funded art galleries. The politics of all these institutions is rarely dramatic or even obvious but they are entwined in the larger state politics. The various state galleries represent the state as an expression of the state’s collective consciousness. And every exhibition is a media opportunity for the state politicians.

For a mundane example of the politics of these state galleries look at the NGV’s “European Masters” in 2010 on the surface there is little that would be considered. The media kits for the exhibition contained pages of comments from the then Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, and his Minister for the Arts, Peter Batchelor and the then Victorian Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Tim Holding. Tim Holding estimates that the “Winter Masterpiece” exhibitions inject more that $14 million per year into Victoria’s economy. A minimum of 200,000 visitors is anticipated for these blockbuster exhibitions that fill the temporary exhibition galleries at the NGV (that is the MCG filled to capacity twice, for all the Melbournians who like the localized sports standard). When you can regularly attract that many people and communicate with them you have political power.

State art gallery funding and the media opportunities for politicians affect the arts and the artists. Earlier this year The Age published Gabriella Coslovich’s article “Gallery fights ‘moribund’ tag” and it got a lot of people talking. Under discussion was the quantity of contemporary art in the (NGV) collection. It is important to be aware of and to discuss the politics of state galleries collections rather than ignore them or focus on dramatic controversies.


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