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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Persons of Interest – Philosophers

The first philosopher who interested me was Bertrand Russell but I was a young and foolish teenager at the time. Then, at Monash University where went on to major in philosophy, I read, was lectured by and met Peter Singer. I appreciated both of these philosophers not only for their writing which clear and often aimed at the wider public and because of their political engagement. Russell’s popular writing engaged many issues from atheism to nuclear disarmament.

Philosophers are persons of interest. I don’t want to see them as secular saints, or exemplar human beings but just people who think too much or, at least, harder than most people. Often philosopher’s theories are wrong but that is what you learn in philosophy – how you can be wrong about what you might think is right. After majoring in philosophy at Monash and doing an MA in philosophy at La Trobe I had met and read a lot of philosophers

One thing that interested me about philosophers was that most philosophers are very interested and involved in things other than philosophy, unlike many other academics. Many philosophers are interested in science or politics and some are interested in the arts. This might appear just to be a point of trivia about philosophy but it is also one of the strengths of philosophers. (This can also be one of the great strengths of art, the wide-ranging interests and involvement of artists in other things.)

As I have noted on my About page, my art criticism has been influenced by Arthur Danto. I started to read Danto in my post-graduate studies and, as with Russell and Singer, I was also impressed with Danto’s activities outside of academic philosophy. Danto has been the art critic for The Nation, print making and running a New York gallery. Danto has been associated with the institutional theory of art but that would be a kind of mistake to associate him too closely. I have to agree with Carlin Romano in “Looking Beyond the Visiable: The Case of Arthur C. Dantwo” (Danto and His Critics, ed. Mark Rollins, Blackwell Publishing, 1993). Romano argues that a second Arthur Danto exists Romano’s “Dantwo” who is identical in almost every aspect to Danto but is not a Hegelian and more pragmatic. Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up?

On a serious note, I didn’t imagine when I started writing this post that philosophers would be topical subject but with the Federal Member for Mayo, Jamie Briggs attacking the work of Professor Paul Redding’s “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian Idealism” as a waste of taxpayer’s money, I am unpleasantly not surprised. (Read more about this on Ockham’s Beard.) The Federal Member for Mayo is not a philosopher, has no serious academic qualifications and represents the anti-intellectual, anti-science, sports-obsessed, religious and conservative Australian mob.

Finally, I would like to thank John McKenzie for his PH227.04 Introduction to Aesthetics at Monash University for introducing me to a critical way of thinking about art. Ultimately it was that course that lead to me writing this blog. (Melbourne artist Julian di Martino also took McKenzie’s course – anyone else?) It was McKenzie who first put some photocopied pages of Foucault into my hand; a rare event in a department dominated by Anglo-American philosophy. And why I’m on the subject of the interests and activities of philosophers; Foucault worked as a journalist, wrote literary criticism and was involved anti-racist campaigns, anti-human rights abuses movements and the struggle for penal reform.

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From Russia with Stamps

The video shows the image of Roger Moore strangling a blond woman with her bikini top projected onto the back and thighs of a lingerie clad woman. Jenna Corcoran created the video and is tells me about her marathon of watching Bond films to find these strange misogynistic images amongst the early films; thankfully diminished by the 1970s. “Goldmember,” Jenna says and then realizing her Freudian slip, “I keep saying that.” Easy to do the Bond films are one gigantic Freudian slip, the id projected onto a giant Cinemascope screen.

On Friday night Brunswick Art Space opened two group exhibitions: “Bond Song” and “Posted from Nowhere (Or, What Have You Done For Me Philately?)” advertised the Fringe Festival Guide.

Sorocuk, Ive Sorocuk

Sorocuk, Ive Sorocuk

Dapper Ive Sorocuk, a committee member at Brunswick Art Space had art in both exhibitions and was dressed for the Bond theme. His video played with the iconic opening credits with the gun barrel viewpoint. Brunswick Art Space has several comix artists on its committee, an unusual artistic direction for Melbourne’s art run spaces.

“Bond Song” features art by Monique Barnett, The Chaotic Order, The Dark Carnival Dolls, Alister Karl, Max Piantoni, Genevieve Piko, Ive Sorocuk, and Jamie Rawls. Curator Alister Karl’s theme of the songs Bond movie franchise inspired lots of video art and even some music videos like The Chaotic Order’s take on Peter Gabriel’s song “Sledgehammer” as a Bond theme. Genevieve Piko’s video installation “The Sun Ain’t Shinning No More” showed the influenced of both Bruce Nauman’s “Good Boy Bad Boy” (1985) with the two video monitors with heads and the vacuity of the Bond movie dialogue.

(There is a sideshow or teaser for this exhibition in the window space at the Edinburgh Castle but that looks a bit weak with an awkward installation of a TV set and other bits.)

“Posted from Nowhere (Or, What Have You Done For Me Philately?)” is an exhibition of comix artist showing a series of stamps issued by the postal system from utopia/dystopia/parallel universes. Curated by comix artist, Jo Waite, the exhibition looks great. The tight theme for this exhibition is great as postage stamps are evidence of the collective consciousness, the official image of the country, some of the best of these retelling Australian history presenting alternative cultural icons. There is philatelic focused art by Neale Blanden, David Blumenstein, Bernard Caleo, Alex Clark, Maude Farrugia, Michael W. Hawkins, Greg Holfeld, Peter Jetnikoff, Mandy Ord, and Ive Sorocuk.


The Meaning of a Moustache

Facial hair is once again fashionable for young men; the two-day growth is also fashionable, except if you are in Victoria Police who are busy with a legal challenge at the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal.

For complete disclosure I have had a full beard but I’m currently clean-shaven, my father has never had a beard but my maternal grandfather was a member of Kobe Moustache Club. But I’ve always wanted to write something about the cultural of male facial hair because it is a reflection of the collective consciousness of the society.

Male facial hair fashions are not independent of other forces – politics and religion is especially evident in facial hair. There are all kinds of faith-based beliefs about beards; I’m sure that if there is a heaven that there is a hair inspection for entry, just like in prison. Beards can be indications of wisdom and rank, like a silver back gorilla.

Historically Alexander the Great appears to have started the fashion of shaving amongst European men. Beards swung in and out of fashion in the Roman Empire and then continued to be the subject of fashion for the rest of history. Legislation and rules about beards started in 1698 when Peter the Great passed legislation against beards in Russia. For Turks moustaches are an indication of conservative politics. Beards amongst Moslem men are also considered an indication of conservative religious views, likewise amongst some Christian sects.

Aside from the uniformed services early childhood educators in Australia perpetrate one of the strangest claims; that men with beards – like Santa Claus, are naturally frighten young children. And that men going into primary or preschool education were encouraged to be clean-shaven.

In a multi-cultural society beards and other types of facial hair do not have any particular meaning. Sikhs are permitted to have beards in the Victoria Police and the Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay has the opinion that beards look unprofessional on police unless it is a beard grown for religious reasons in which case it looks as professional as being clean shaven, whatever that means, if it means anything at all and isn’t Lay’s mental/legal diarrhoea. The legal fight against a stricter appearance code implemented last year goes on.

Victoria Police has many more serious problems than grooming and hair management, like racism and for them to be wasting their time with regulations about hair.  As Jesus said: “ye shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) and not “ye shall know them by their beards”.


In the Public Interest

“Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under limited and special circumstances, the use of torture. ‘I deplore brutality,’ he said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt.” (Wm. Burroughs, Naked Lunch p. 31).

The Counihan Gallery had some excellent exhibitions this year with pertinent political themes like the intervention in the Northern Territory (see my review) and the people smuggling (see my review) but “In the Public Interest” is not one of them. “In the Public Interest” is too vague and stupid; in “celebrating activism, public protest and free speech” the exhibition is pandering to political delusions that Australia is a liberal democracy with free speech and that the government tolerates political dissent and protest.

At the entrance to the Counihan Gallery there is a banner stating that the Moreland City Council welcomes “refugees and asylum seekers”. What is the word for people who want to distract attention from the malefactions through rhetoric and tokenism rather than disassociate themselves from the criminal organization abusing the human rights of refugees? Hypocrites, charlatans and frauds are too weak a collection of words to describe such despicable behaviour.

Simon Perry, 1994, Brunswick

Simon Perry, 1994, Brunswick

Across the road from the Counihan Gallery outside of the Mechanics Institute on the corner of Sydney Road and Glenlyon is a 1994 sculpture by Simon Perry. A plaque provides a strange explanation for the sculpture that appears to be a cage being veiled by a dove. The plaque reads (in part): “…to commemorate the free speech campaign of the 1930s…” Consider the definition of the verb commemorate:

1.            to honor the memory of somebody or something in a ceremony

2.            to serve as a memorial to something

Noel Counihan’s free speech campaign did not accomplished or changed anything – he didn’t have free speech, he was in a fucking cage! The sculpture honours the memory of his failed campaign for the fundamental human right of free speech. For the pedants out there who might point to a High Court decision recognizing freedom of political speech in Australia, I would reply: how has this protected the speech of Albert Langer, the editors of Rabelais (La Trobe student newspaper), Bill Henson, Paul Yore or anyone else? For freedom of speech to be effective in Australia it would have to protect the rights of people other than those in the major political parties who form government.

I want to make it clear that I regard the so-called Australian government as a criminal organization without any moral, political or legal legitimacy what so ever.

Australia is full of bigots with no regard for the human rights of the indigenous population, refugees…. basically any minority that these popularist politicians want to attack. When confronted with these facts Australian bigots will scream that others have committed more crimes than they have. They will point to China, Russia, France and the Spanish Inquisition and say: “look at them, don’t accuse us”; as if someone else committing crimes makes these shit-heads less guilty of the horrendous crimes that they are committing. In this exhibition, this exceedingly stupid attitude is represented in works by Wendy Black, Penny Byrne, Nick Devilin and William Kelly (and the curators Leon Van De Graaff and Victor Griss who choose to include those works).

The worst work in the exhibition goes to George Matoulas who has created a shallow and unpoetic painting, the visually vacuous equivalent of a poem by Rick from the Young Ones – BOMB.

There is some good art in this exhibition, both aesthetically and conceptually but given the confused and stupid politics of the exhibition’s theme I preferred seeing that art when it was in other exhibitions.


Barry Keldoulis is Fucked

Last week Geoff Newton had a small exhibition of Paul Yore’s textile work at his Melbourne gallery, Neon Parc. Yore’s work reminded me of the art of English Turner Prize-winning artist, Chris Ofili for there is the same intensity, insanity and psychedelic intensity of both of their vision complete with sequins and vibrant colours. It was a chance for Melbourne to see it before the work was due to go up to Sydney for the Sydney Contemporary, Sydney’s new international art fair.

Paul Yore, "Fountain of Knowledge", 2013

Paul Yore, “Fountain of Knowledge”, 2013

Then a few hours before its VIP preview Sydney Contemporary announced that it would not be showing Paul Yore’s work. Sydney Contemporary’s Director Barry Keldoulis made the following statement: “Sydney Contemporary supports artists and their practice, but we respect and work within the laws of the jurisdiction. Our decision with regard to the installation is a about the law of the land and they are on the wrong side of it. When we saw the work we recognised the issues and sought legal advice which confirmed the work offends various relevant provisions in the Crimes Act Legislation in NSW. We regret having had to make the decision but have no doubt it’s in the best interests of all the artists and galleries showing at Sydney Contemporary 13.”

Keldoulis’s statement is overly definite (“no doubt”, “they are on the wrong side of it”) and at the same time vague (“various relevant provisions”). It implies that nobody at Sydney Contemporary had seen Paul Yore’s work before (very unlikely) and that censorship is “in the best interests of all the artists and galleries showing” (again very unlikely). We don’t know what issues Keldoulis “recognized” and why these same issues were not recognized when Paul Yore exhibited the some of the same work at Neon Parc, Ballart Art Gallery or the Melbourne Art Fair.Paul Yore, "Fountain of Knowledge", 2013 detail

The Crimes Act in NSW does refer to “blasphemous libel” but that was last successfully prosecuted in 1871. Blasphemy is not in the Crimes Act of Victoria and this might explain why there was no police raid on Neon Parc or the Ballart Art Gallery when one of the works removed from Sydney Contemporary was exhibited there. (Not that the Victoria Police regularly attend art galleries to check – they only do that when prompted by right wing scum.) I’m sure that Paul Yore’s work “Fountain of Knowledge” could be regarded as blasphemous libel (if you wanted to) but that would need to be proven in court. Keldoulis is libellous in claiming that there is “no doubt” that Paul Yore’s art is criminal.

P.S. (20/9/13) Subsequent to publishing this blog post Keldoulis provided some degree of clarification as to what part of Crimes Act he was referring to. NSW has laws about the depiction of children. Arts Law website states: “As at 1 March 2013, genuine artistic purpose is no longer a defence to the offences of production, dissemination, and possession of material that depicts children pornographically.” Under this yet untested law “pornographically” is defined very broadly as “in a sexual context”.

P.S. (29/9/13) Keldoulis and his legal team also removed the work of Queensland artist Tyza Stewart. Do the directors of art fairs normally tour the yet to be opened fair with a barrister to check if the art is legal? Or is Australia or Keldoulis abnormal?

P.S. (2/12/15) To be fair to Keldoulis you can read his response my questions in a blog post: Censorship, Barry Keldoulis and Paul Yore. To be fair to Paul Yore in 2013 the Australian Classification Board classified Yore’s  installation, Everything is Fucked as “Classification 1, Restricted, suitable for people over the age of 18” meaning that it is definitely not as Keldoulis maintained illegal.


Flame, Remember My Name

I was going to comment that this year in street art had a bit dull… the same old same old stuff on the streets, no innovations or developments like yarn bombing or street sculpture. But then along came Doyle with his Empty Nursery Blue in Rutledge Lane. And the division between the technical and the conceptual elements in street art was brought into even sharper contrast with CDH’s article “The Commodification of Street Art” in the September issue of Art Monthly Australia and E.L.K.’s reply “The mouse that sunk the boat” on Invurt.

Mask sticker, 2009

Mask sticker, 2009

I am used the word “technical” in the last paragraph to describe the work of artists with the technical skill of stencil cutting, aerosol spray skills, etc. in contrast to the conceptual, thinking of and executing an idea. I am using ‘conceptual’ in the way that Galenson uses it, to refer to conceptual break through from collage to video art, and not to exclusively refer to works of conceptual art; David W. Galenson contrasts modern and contemporary conceptual and experimental artists in his book Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York). I’ve used the word ‘technical’, rather than ‘experimental’ because there aren’t that many experimental artists, in Galenson’s terms, on Melbourne’s streets, most are content to become technically proficient, although Slicer, Reka, Conrad Bizjak and others might count as experimental.

Aside from the conceptual versus the technical there is a contrast in the ideological purity of CDH’s position opposed to the pragmatic concerns of E.L.K. The utopian ambitions of the politics of conceptual artists have often caused them to cry: “sell out” (in various ways, like all the “expulsions” from the official Surrealist movement). This usually been countered with accusations of lack of talent or technique but this doesn’t address the real differences between the two radically different approaches to art. The conceptual artist is not interested in the technique but the politics or philosophy of artistic progress and likewise the technical artist pragmatic has little time or interest in philosophy or politics.

Specifically in reply to CDH’s article I would argue that street art is not held back or corrupted by its commodification because that was happening since the beginning of street art; Fab 5 Freddy was exhibiting in galleries in 1979, it is part of the street art system. Nor is being distorted when graffiti goes mainstream that was also happening since the beginning, appearing in pop music videos like Blondie’s “Rapture” (1981) and the 1983 PBS documentary, Style Wars, for example.

In Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt’s introductory essay “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion” the authors examine Alvin Toffler’s mainstream absorption model where “the potential disruptive energies of the subculture are controlled, and the hegemony of mass culture is continually reasserted” and provide a counter example, hip hop, where “the process of mediation and commoditization were factored in all along”. (Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, ed. Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, V&A Publisher, 2011, p.53) To put it bluntly not all subcultures have the same relationship to mass culture as hippies or punks.

Finally, I have no aesthetic or political opinion on the matter for without conceptual artists there will be little or no innovations or developments in street art but without the technical artists there wouldn’t be as large an audience or the interest. What I think is holding Melbourne’s street art back is the conservative traditionalists in street art and graffiti that believe that they can enforce their various definitions; in this respect they have a similar attitude to their traditional opponents, the police, railway security and city councillors.

Adnate & Slicer "Nothing Lasts Forever" Brunswick Station, 2012

Adnate & Slicer “Nothing Lasts Forever” Brunswick Station, 2012


Art Animal?

Is art unique to humans? Art-like activities practiced by animals other than humans include: birds and humpback whales sing, bowerbirds build displays, and chimpanzees and elephants paint. The last two chimpanzees and elephants painting, only occurs with the intervention of humans and the other activities are generally instinctual and unchanging affairs. The only changes that could occur in the instinctual art-like behaviour of animals are due to either an accidental discovery or availability of a material for production – Bowerbird’s bowers became more elaborate after blue plastic milk bottle caps were introduced.

I have been reading Stephen Davies The Artful Species (Oxford, 2012); in it Davies examines if aesthetics is an evolutionary or a cultural development. It is a very detailed examination of what might be the evolution of aesthetics, examining the evidence from biology, paelontonlogy and the various arguments around the issue. I’m not convinced, I think that aesthetics might be more of an issue of semiotics rather than evolution but I don’t want to make this a philosophy essay nor a book review (as I’m still reading Davies) and I’m not paid enough to do professional philosophy, like Davies, so I’ll just kick a few more ideas about art and animals around in this blog post.

The art-like activities of chimpanzees are introduced into the media cycle of sensationalism for reasons more of publicity and money rather than science. Theories are not proven, improved or even disproved by getting chimpanzees to paint or take photographs. There is always some zoo somewhere in the world raising money with animal painting – it is not bad zoo practice but it is not art.

(See “Chimpanzee’s Polaroids Expected to Fetch Big Money at Auction” by Allison Meier in Hyperallergic 16/5/2013 for the latest example.)

Chimpanzees appear to have aesthetic purpose in their creations, in that they show an interest in balance, composition and completion. Male chimpanzees have been recorded becoming sexual excited when painting and destroying the work on completion. Desmond Morris, who studied chimpanzee painting for many years, expresses his opinion of chimpanzee aesthetic taste succinctly: “They show compositional control, but a minimum of it; they show calligraphic development, but a minimum of it, they show aesthetic variation, but again at a minimal level.” There is the suggestion that chimpanzees are more intent in disrupting the blank space that they are presented with rather than the results, as chimpanzees are no more or less interested in their own work than paintings by anyone else.

I remember an Ivor Cutler story about listening to a thrush singing. The thrush stops to ask Ivor what he thought of the song. “Pretty good thrush music” Ivor replies, but the thrush wanted to know about the song’s chart potential. (Ivor Cutler, A Bird?)

If there were an artist that was of another species would we be able to understand or appreciate their work? Could you make a work of art that would be appreciated as aesthetically by another animal (as opposed to just appreciated for its comfort, curiosity, etc.)?


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