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Daily Archives: March 6, 2008

Famous When Dead

Last night (6/6/08) I went to the end of construction and unofficial opening of the Famous When Dead, Melbourne’s newest gallery space. It was a grand affair with a huge spread of wine and nibbles, an acoustic guitarist playing in the corner and a video crew filming. I felt a bit underdressed in my Andy Warhol t-shirt and cargo pants but I this had far exceeded my expectations. There I was keeping it real with a glass of red wine and shrimp canapé.

JD Mittman is the director of Famous When Dead. J.D. Mittman has had a long involvement in Melbourne’s stencil art scene, starting with organizing the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2004. I had previously reviewed exhibitions of street art, Urban Art Agenda #1 at Shed 4 of the Docklands organised by JD Mittman. JD told me that he had taken my comments about the location and hanging of that exhibition seriously; I probably wasn’t the only one to make such comments. Famous When Dead is the result.

Famous When Dead is a street front, white-walled, converted shop gallery specializing in stencil art. The gallery is located in Victoria St. West Melbourne, a block up from the Victoria market. It has all of the components of a serious commercial gallery: two rooms, a professional hanging system, track lighting and seriously excellent art.

The art is fantastic, some of the best stencil art that I have ever seen from both local and international artists. There were familiar works by HaHa. Amid so many excellent work, the large canvas by Brisbane artist Guz, ‘Love is a four-letter word’ stood out. It wasn’t the most technically brilliant of all the art but it was the most beautiful, with a bikini clad angel amidst a pattern of roses.

To use the term ‘street art’ to describe this work appears wrong, the stencil work is so fine and the art so well presented, that it is a long way from the street. And not all the artists exhibited would call themselves street artists. I spoke to Ralf Kempken who said that he had been working with stencils long before the current fashion. But Kempken’s urban architectural theme in the Coates Building Multiplied into an endless, modernist grid did not look out of place. Many of the works had an urban theme from Joey’s Vinegar Girl to Kenji Nakayama’s Concrete Jungle. And there were the paintings of Reko Rennie-Gwybilla with their strong themes of justice for aboriginal Australia. So for reasons of technique and content I would still want to call it ‘street art’.

I hope that Famous When Dead succeeds as a stencil art gallery. There are other galleries in Melbourne specialising in, or regularly showing, stencil and street art but Famous When Dead is trying to set a higher standard in both art and gallery. I like ambition, aspiring for high quality is admirable, and that is what JD Mittman is doing with Famous When Dead.

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Unpopular Culture

Warning: may cause reader to think.

We all know, or at least, think that we know what is ‘popular culture’. Popular culture as distinct from high culture; does that the definition of popular culture implies that high culture is unpopular? Is there such a thing as ‘unpopular culture’?  If you took the warning labels seriously you would think that almost all culture is unpopular.

For example, almost all of the arts documentaries shown on the ABC and SBS about the visual arts, music or literature come with warning notices: nudity, drug references, and offensive language. Some of exhibitions that I attend come with warning labels about nudity or just things that might disturb some people.

In February of 2008 officials from the London Underground banned a poster with a 16th image of Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The image was advertising an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Officials had originally said the poster breached their guidelines, which bars ads that “depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context.” The London Underground changed their minds after MPs and other people started calling them idiots.

The Age (March 6, 2008) reports a parent’s complaint, supported by the Shadow education minister Martin Dixon, about a single word in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The novel is set reading for Year 7 at Melbourne’s Girl College. If teachers are not responsible enough to determine suitable reading for children then what qualifies other people to make that judgement?

Some of the CDs that I listen to have warning labels about “strong impact coarse language and/or themes”; we have Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife, to thank for these. Are these warning labels evidence of ‘unpopular culture’? I have a Fatboy Slim CD with a “warning: this recording contains explicit language”. The people who put the warning label there should have looked up a dictionary to find out what ‘explicit’ means but these self-righteous zombies are too self-righteous to be corrected by a dictionary. I think that they were trying to say was “this recording contains common language”.

These cultural warning labels exist because organizations have guidelines about cultural sensitivity and guidelines about suitability for juveniles. Protection from litigation is sometimes postulated, but this is dubious, as I have never heard of someone suing because they were shocked by a nude, course language or drug references. These guidelines are not based on expert opinion, such as teachers or academics, but are based on prejudices.

I don’t condone censorship in any form, including these euphemistic ‘guideless’. I don’t know of any evidence that these warnings are doing any good. But they do subtle harm, as I have shown in this entry, by prejudicial censoring, by implying danger through ‘warnings’ and by the institutional misuse of language. These institutions do not pander to my cultural sensitivity to censorship, nor to atheists desire not to be exposed their young children to images of Christian sadomasochism; the cultural sensitivities that the institutions do largely pander to are Puritanical wowser politics. The same political-religious forces that supported censorship have their opinions supported by these ‘guidelines’.


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