Category Archives: Art History

Once there were poets

Once there were poets, not there aren’t poets now, but now it hardly matters. The decline of poetry is remarkable, in the ancient past, everything was written in verse from religious teachings to philosophical tracts. Zurich Dada was one of the points in history when you can see the shift from poetry to music and art. Another place where you can see this shift is in China; Ai Wei Wei’s father was a poet whereas his son is an artist.

Once there were great poets whose poems changed the world. The last poets who made poetry that changed the world were The Last Poets. That was back in the early 1970s – The Last Poets were the progenitors of hip-hop. Where would Leonard Cohen be today if he had remained a poet rather than a songwriter?

This is not about what is hot and what is not, nor about the qualities of poetry compared to visual arts but rather the way that a society makes a particular art form powerful. Changes in culture are not random; new cultural forms emerge as others will wither due to a multitude of influences from the technology used to the psychosocial environment. For a poetry renaissance to occur, there would have to be profound changes in the social structures.

Some people want a revival of poetry, a return to Homeric epic poetry that could be recited by heart by every educated person. Some people want a resurrection of the circus, and sure, every now and then something comes along with something that looks like it might be the next wave in poetry or circuses. However these dreams are futile optimism because of the social structures, the forces of human social dynamics (economics, transportation, architecture, communication recording technology, etc.) that gave them power are no longer in place.

The desire to preserve art forms creates anachronisms. History re-enactors are not confined to those people who dress up in Civil War or Napoleonic uniforms. Whole sections of the arts are basically re-enactors with varying degrees of authenticity. Consider the repertoire of many orchestras, ballet and opera companies. Re-enactors desperate to detach from the contemporary to devoting their time to a period of the past. In Australia, massive state subsidies preserve opera, ballet and classical music at the cost of funding to other arts.

Old cultural forms decline because they no longer fit the world. Young women today would not tolerate the cloistered conditions that the corp de ballet in the Ballet Russe or the prostitution that came before it.

New cultural forms survive because they are better adapted to the social conditions. Even under stress, like slander or censorship, some newly evolved cultural forms still manages to thrive and out-compete an older, established rival because they are a better fit for the environment.

Rather than living in denial about the passing of art forms, or providing them with artificial life support with history re-enactors. I am advocating that it would be better to examine why there are declines and revivals of art forms. There is too much faith that the art forms are eternal and too little examination of the social forces that give them power.

Once there were rock musicians; it was all over in the 1990s with the rise of the DJ and cover bands. Once there were art critics… so many of these art forms have very long tails, and there are still plenty of woodcarvers.


Guy Debord is Really Dead

Guy Debord is Really Dead by Luther Blissett (Sabotage; pamphlet edition, London 1995)

Guy Debord is dead but is he really dead? Guy Debord is considered by many to be the philosopher who articulated avant-garde art, the post-modern equivalent to what Andre Breton was to Surrealism, providing the intellectual framework for both punk and the May 1968 revolts in France.

Twenty-five years after it was published, I found the pamphlet by Luther Blissett on my bookshelf a few books along from Debord’s tract, Society of the Spectacle. A pencil mark on the cover indicates that at the time I paid $3 for it.

Is this a case of zombie situationism where dialectics demands an anti-thesis to progress? Or is this an elegy for the Bore (Debord) written shortly after his death? And what does this critique of the Debord and Situationist International mean today on the internet?

Goodreads has 21 ratings for the forty-page pamphlet averaging out at 3.86 stars. It also has one review that is a link to a WordPress blog that reproduces the entire text (the complete text is available online at multiple locations). Goodreads correctly identifies (if ‘identifies’ is the right word to use in the situation) Luther Blissett as a “multiple name”.

This open identity is more than just a pseudonym or a disguise, for multiple identities are essential to Blissett’s argument. For he, whoever he is, is critiquing the spectacle of Debord, which he calls “the Bore”, rather than the French guy who was alive between the 28 December 1931 and 30 November 1994. It condemns the Bore for becoming a conservative spectacle that denies meaning to any action. Reporting in pointless detail arguments against any dogmatic approach to situationism. The obvious problematic contradiction is that if Blissett’s argument is correct, then his text is as dead as the Bore.

Amazon’s customer reviews rate it as one star and offers it for sale at a ridiculous price. It has two “customer ratings”. One describes it as a “mean-spirited tirade” and the other “one of the worst literature on the subject”. I don’t think that either of the reviewers got the joke, prank, and punk iconoclasm.

In his introduction Stewart Home describes Guy Debord is Really Dead as “a ludic excursion” and notes the relationship between the Lettrists and the Parisian hash trade. And although it would be incorrect to summarise, Guy Debord is Really Dead as a studied parody of political history, Marxist orthodoxy and disunity, it could easily be read as one.

“Guy Debord Is Really Dead” is also a CD single by The Playwrights (Sink & Stove, release date: 2004-11-01). It has not been rated and is free to listen to on eMusic.

Stewart Home rated Blissett’s pamphlet five stars on Goodreads. (Home doesn’t list it on his three pages of books, so I am assuming that he didn’t write it, but I could be wrong.) 


Danto’s Art World (not an institution)

Arthur Danto’s art world has to be distinguished from George Dickie’s art world (‘has’ to be as in; I was compelled to make such a correction in my Master’s thesis). As Danto writes: ‘I am often credited with being the founder of the Institutional Theory, though in fact it was George Dickie whose theory it was, even if it arose in his mind though his interpretation of a sentence in my 1964 paper, “The Artworld”.’ (Arthur C. Danto “Response and Replies” Danto and his Critics ed. Mark Rollins p.203)

If an institutional theory isn’t what Danto means with his ‘art world’ why do so many people think he does? For a philosopher whose career is based on theoretical differences between visually indistinguishable things this is a rather fine distinction. And I am not the only one with this problem — “Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up?” (Carlin Romano “Looking Beyond the Visible: The Case of Arthur C. Danto” Danto and his Critics)

Not that Dickie’s art world is an elite group holding meetings in NYC, London and Milan to determine what is art; Dickie has a holistic, inclusive and sociological view as to who makes up the discourse that determines what is art. His institutional theory was probably also influenced by the paradigm shifts in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, where what is science is determined by the taxonomy created by people at the time.

There can be no definition for all art because history is not over. Over time the definition of art, and science, has changed and both Danto and Dickie’s rejects the idea that ‘art’ is a word that define a sets of things with essential features or relation to an eternal Platonic form of art. Rather it is a Wittgenstein influenced approach to the way that language is used.

Danto, who in theory does not support an institutional theory of art, writes that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes “…brings to consciousness the structures of the art which, to be sure, require a certain historical development before the metaphor is possible.” (Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace p.208) Art being things that we look at things as if they were in the art world, part of the discourse of art history. The ‘world’ in Danto’s ‘art world’ is the entire history of art rather than an institution.

Consequently the word ‘art’ is not “an honorific bestowed by discriminating citizens of the art world” (Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace p.32) but a kind of metaphor. There is no definition for art because it is like a metaphor and in that respect it is more the word ‘cool’ rather than an honorific or the taxonomies of ‘science’. There is no set of cool or art because you can’t have a set of things that a vague metaphor could apply to, nor is there an institution determining its application.


Anti-Modern Art Ideological Idiocy

It is hard to believe that the Australian Communist Party and Catholic Church in Australia in the 1950s and 60s shared a position on anything. But, as I discovered when I was searching through old newspapers, they both hated modern art.

Newcastle Sun ran the article: “Vatican Slams Modern Art” on Thursday 11 March 1954. Quoting the Vatican magazine, Faith and Art, Cardinal Celso Constantini said that abstract art “is dying out. Why should the church accept such a repulsive near-corpse?” Cardinal Constantini also declared that Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Gaugin, Roualt and Corbusier produced “blasphemous religious works.” (Chagall was Jewish and many of the other artists now have work in the Vatican Museum.)

Eleven years later, in the Tribune (the official newspaper of the Australian communist party) on Wednesday 15 December 1965, the Australian social-realist artist, Noel Counihan declared that abstract art, Pop Art and Op Art were over. According to Counihan Australian artists were “reacting against the recent spate of mediocre imitations of overseas fashions.” Aside from trend following Counihan’s main warning about abstract art was that “the newly rich achieve social status with an abstract on their walls.”

“Op Art I feel will prove the most ephemeral of the latest fashions despite its immediate appeal to novelty mined youth.” wrote the communist Counihan advocating a reactionary nationalist position.

It is probably pointless to further unpacking these two short articles to point out errors and inconsistencies. It is clear from both articles that neither had a coherent argument and were simply appealing to the predefined reactionary prejudices of their groups.

I find the confluence of prejudices expressed by these ideologically opposed groups a proof of the lack of both group’s ability to reason. The intensity of both writers commitment to their ideology reduced their ability to critically think about their subject. If both writers had put aside their ideological based, rhetorical dog whistles and actually thought, and researched abstract art, they probably could have come up with better reasons to explain their dislikes. Unfortunately these reasons may not have appealed to their readers as much as their prejudices did. These reasons may have simply exposed them for only wanting art that expressed their ideology.

Would Australian Catholics and Communists today be interested in reading warnings about zombie formalism? 


The Culture Club

Craig Schuftan’s The Culture Club explores the nexus of twentieth century ideas, art and rock’n’roll. His thesis is spelt out clearly in the conclusion of his introduction: “Far from simply functioning as a bit of arty window-dressing for dilettante Rock stars, the isms of the twentieth century have become the founding principles of Pop music in the twenty-first.”

Schuftan first presented “The Culture Club” on Triple J’s Monday morning program and the book grew out of these radio segments. (These are now available on podcasts.) So it is an introduction to a large number of important contemporary art ideas in easily digestible breakfast portions.

How the minimalist music of contemporary composer, Steve Reich and Moby’s beats are related, Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘musique concrete’ and Grandmaster Flash, the madness of Antonin Artaud and The Doors, and many other connections. Schuftan does this in a balanced way; looking at the different value of popular tastes between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, or between the energy and incoherence of madness and the meditative boredom of minimalism. Sometimes his references to rock’n’roll work like when he comparing Brian Ferry and Blondie’s cover versions to Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building with its “Chippendale” roof line. Sometimes he takes an odd turn; in the history of the cut-up from Dada to William Burroughs Schuftan then goes to Dylan, rather than, Bowie or Throbbing Gristle. Others are over played, so what if the album cover designer knows the history modern art, you expect that a trained designer would.

There is a more radical thesis that Schuftan could have pursued; not about the artists and musicians but about their audience. That the audience of avant-garde art employed in pop music is a revolutionary break from the traditional plutocratic system of art patronage. That mass market and mass production replace the unique valuable object based art with conceptual elements that can be reproduced for all. That contemporary art is not for the elites (political, financial or artistic) with time to cultivate their tastes it is accessible to everyone. Contemporary art has an audience larger than any visual art movement ever before; evidence that is contrary to the claim that post-modernism is problematic for people.

Although Schuftan is no Greil Marcus and The Culture Club is not Lipstick Traces, he is not presenting a secret history of traces but another angle on a now familiar story. My twenty-something year old self would have loved this book, I once wanted to be the heir to La Monte Young’s drone music compositions; my adult self is grumbling about having read most it before.

Craig Schuftan The Culture Club (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2007)


Bushrangers in Australian Art

During the gold rush colonial artists, including S. T. Gill, Frederick Grosse and George Lacy, were depicting bushrangers in ink sketches, watercolours and engravings. Bushrangers soon became an enduring theme in Australian art.

Patrick Marony, Death of Ben Hall, 1894

Another attempt to capture the bushranger theme was made by the artist and cartoonist, Patrick William Marony, aka Nick O’Tine. Marony was born in Curragh, Ireland in 1858 and after studying at a seminary he arrived in Australia around 1883. In 1884 he exhibited sixteen large oil paintings and a number of smaller paintings of bushrangers in the cities of Orange and Sydney.

On Thursday 29 March 1984 the National Advocate, reported on Marony’s exhibition in Orange and praised the accuracy of his landscapes, noting that Marony visited the location for the Death of Captain Starlight.

Reporting on Marony’s exhibition at the Strand Arcade in Sydney Freeman’s Journal, Saturday 30 June 1984, noted: “Apart from the technical merits of the pictures they should be of interest to Australians, as being the first attempts to show the condition of the colony during the reign of terror.”

Marony lived between the end of history paintings in oils and the beginning of cinematic versions of history. Around 1911 he wrote the story for the silent film, Ben Hall, Notorious Bush Ranger, also known as A Tale of the Australian Bush.

In 1887 William Strutt painted Bushrangers on the St Kilda Road. His large oil painting was based on a robbery that had taken place thirty-five years earlier when four men stopped, bailed-up and robbed seventeen travellers on the St Kilda to Brighton Road. Strutt’s painting is like a Charles Dickens’ novel, full of engaging characters; however his bare, flat, desert landscape looks nothing like the scrubby, rolling hills of St Kilda that existed at the time.

In 1895, Tom Roberts painted two bushranger paintings: In a corner on the Macintyre (Thunderbolt in an encounter with police at Paradise Creek) and an epic painting of a stage coach being robbed, Bailed up when he was staying at Newstead, a station near Inverell in New South Wales. Roberts was more interested in combining the romance of crime with the rugged beauty of the Australian landscape than in accurately depicting events that had taken place thirty years earlier; although the model for the stagecoach driver, ‘Silent Bob Bates’ had been held up by Captain Thunderbolt, aka Frederick Wordsworth Ward.

Marony’s transition from painting to cinema highlights the similar aesthetics of 19th century painting and 20th century movies. Marony’s “accuracy of landscape”, Strutt’s cast of characters and Robert’s romance of crime and landscape are all familiar features of movies.

Although depictions of bushrangers diminished one particular bushranger, Ned Kelly, continued to be depicted in modern, contemporary and street art in Australia; from Sidney Nolan to Adam Cullen to HaHa.

Ha Ha Ned Kelly 2017



Post-Art

What is the difference between artists and poets? What does the nuances, the trace elements, of these two different words mean for the way that culture workers understand their work? I’m not sure and I have lived in shared houses with both. I have called myself an artist and a philosopher but I draw the line at being called a ‘poet’.

Will Coles, Pussy Riot mask, Hosier Lane

A century ago I would have still been talking about poetry with the Dadaists in Berlin but by 1919 Hugo Ball had already distance himself from Dada.

“Conclusion: that the political action in Switzerland no longer makes sense, and that it is childish to insist on morality in the face of these activities. I am thoroughly cured of politics too, having already given up aestheticism. It is necessary to have a closer and more exclusive recourse on the individual basis: to live only on one’s own integrity, and to renounce completely every corporate activity.” Hugo Ball 24/5/1919

Avant-garde art, poetry, political action or social practice; the emptiness of Dadaist nihilism is such that each interpreter’s transfers their own desires and expectations on to it. From Johannes Baader, the Berlin Dadaist who in 1919 showered the inauguration of the first German Republic with his home-printed leaflets, Das grün Pferd (The Green Horse), to Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk prayer’ performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, many people have taken a creative approach to politics.

However, I have growing doubts about this whole art thing. Why would anyone want to be an artist? I admire the people who quite art: Marcel Duchamp and that minor Renaissance painter, I forget his name, who tired of all the talk about perspective gave up art to become an innkeeper. (I’d like to drink to him.)

Why should artist be regarded as some kind of panicle of human achievement? The romantic middle class self-indulgent masturbation fantasy believing that they are expressing some vital essence for the good of humanity.

Art, the great appropriator comes into the room, and tells you that your stuff is part of its grandiose definition. It is the kind of blatant theft that it would make Jeff Koons and Richard Price blush with shame that they had been so modest. It is so colonial; items of cultural and religious significance are appropriated. From prehistoric cave paintings to religious material; every artefact becomes art. Anything that fits the current idea of art becomes the property of the Republic of Art; for “Art” like “God” is eternal, universal and vaguely defined. At the very least the word ‘art’ is over extended and is a poor model for culture workers.


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