Robert Nelson is grumpy

“When there bursts froth from one mansion a song of youth and originality, even though harsh and discordant, it should be received not with howls of fury but with reasonable attention and criticism.” Max Rothschild


Ronnie van Hout, You!, 2016 (at Gertrude Contemporary)

I don’t want to be one of those old critics who go on about how art has lost its path and that some boring, old artist is that last real artist. I don’t want to be Clement Greenberg, Robert Hughes, or, to be more current, Robert Nelson who this week brought out the old complaint about painting being dead.

I have lived a long time and I’ve yet to see the death of painting, although it has been talked about for longer than I have lived.

Nor do I expect to see contemporary art creating an infinite regression of self-referentiality that swallows up all meaning.

Like Nelson I had also seen Nicholas Mangan’s video of the endlessly spinning coin, Ancient Lights at Monash University Museum of Art. I agree with Nelson that it is ingenious and beautiful but where we differ is over Nelson’s conclusion that video has  replaced painting, or that this means that now “most painters lack most skills in painting”.

The critics who thought that modernism would crash like a Ponzi scheme have been exposed as simply conservative. The fact is that the apocalypse will not occur and there will never be a final revelation that modernism or contemporary art are a load of rubbish. This is because art is not like a cult or even a pseudo-science, like phrenology, it lacks the definition of such organisations, it is more nebulous, living and growing, like fungus.

I am sure based on population size that the greatest artist who ever lived is probably alive today. When you consider increased education, social mobility, women’s rights and other factors it is more than likely that this is the case. Now I can’t tell you who this artist is with the same certainty but I am certain that they are out there and I am looking for them.

I am equally sure that the worst artist who ever lived is also probably alive today but what does that prove? I am not renouncing writing bad reviews; if you see a bad exhibition then give it a bad review just don’t see it as some general example of the decline of art.

I am sure that there were awful, dross fourteenth century altar pieces and frescos because I have seen some of them. Four headless saints their necks still spurting arcs of blood bowing to the crucifixion while their heads sit on the ground in a neat arrangement around the cross. Others of it were probably painted over or replaced and thrown out, like an old TV sets.

To go from specific examples to generalisations is always a mistake but when the size of the present from which to cherry pick examples is so large compared to the smaller sample of memories of the past it is absurd to believe that you have evidence of any value.

Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man. The only problem with current music is that it isn’t loud enough. Or, maybe I now need hearing aids.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

9 responses to “Robert Nelson is grumpy

  • Phil

    Mark, there is never any regression of self-referentiality that swallows up all meaning in any of your refreshing observations. Plus ça change

  • Mark Holsworth

    Thanks Phil. I’ll keep trying to keep it fresh.

  • JDK

    Interesting thesis, thanks! I’m curious about the idea that quality (or genius?) is an automatic product of volume. I’d agree there’s likely to be more better art from more artists being active because there’s just more people to make artists and great artists. But ‘the greatest’ though? That’s ‘art as a statistical result’. But yes, we need to keep looking, certainly.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Quality art is not an automatic product of volume. However, it is an automatic product of numbers of people for if you have enough people you will statistically have a number of very smart, very talented people. This in itself is not enough to produce high quality art, these right people have to be in the right place at the right time, in touch with the right teachers etc. but this again, given numbers becomes statistically more and more likely. Given that currently the living outnumber the dead it is statistically more than likely.

    • JDK

      Well, yes, that’s what you said, I said and now you’ve said again. However none of the statistically greater number we’ve achieved of three times of posting that than once has any greater merit. Greatness is rarely seen just thanks to more availability. Most of everything is rubbish, but it doesn’t follow the pearls are in greater numbers the more shit you shovel through. There’s a better argument (I’d suggest) that great art is more often a direct by-product of other elements such as restriction (war, religion, reaction, censorship) or ‘hunger’. Well trained great numbers of artists guarantees you good, workmanlike, journeyman product, and has no causal relation to innovation which may occur within that milieu – or entirely outside it.

  • Mark Holsworth

    We are not talking about well trained artists but the likelihood of geniuses interacting with other geniuses. This is not a volume of randomly generated products but the likelihood of getting the best circumstances for great innovation out of people who are statistically the most likely to do it anyway. If great quality were a by-product of other elements then it would be possible to create circumstances where innovation and high quality work was commonly occurring in a small group of otherwise unremarkable people and that no-innovation or high quality work was occurring in a much larger group due to their circumstances.

  • JDK

    I think you’ve just argued against your initial point! I’d certainly agree that great people getting access to opportunity, tools exposure to ideas will result in more good to great art, but you can argue that geniuses transcend their limitations. (I suspect you can argue that one convincingly either way, but one definition of genius is that it is not, simply a product, but something ‘beyond’ the individual’s training or opportunity.) ‘Genius’ is, of course a very tricky thing to define, but a good definition of ‘geniuses interacting with other geniuses’ is ‘a fight’. So I am as unconvinced by the idea that genius is improved by interaction with other geniuses – although there are certainly many examples of geniuses being enabled by others of greatness. Good thinking fodder, either way!

    • Mark Holsworth

      I was thinking about the chance of getting access to a brilliant teacher, the chance of finding the brilliant collaborator, even the brilliant patron is increased. Of course, social mobility, health etc. will play a part which is why such a person would be more likely to occur now than at any other time in history. I am not entirely discounting circumstances as being contributing factors but they may just act as a focus for the area of quality and innovation; just as hunger would focus attention of innovative on food production or theft rather than art.

    • JDK

      Agreed. Just to be clear my mention of ‘hunger’ was in quotes as in hunger for escape (from circumstance) income, fame or success as well as the thing itself, however which has indeed led to great art – directly in the case of Joan Miró who created great art as the result of hallucinating from hunger.

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