Category Archives: Culture Notes

Taste & Personality

Have you had key lime pie before?

Yes, but I was a different person then.

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

How does taste define personality? We want it to say something and think it says something about other people. However, we know this isn’t true, even as we try to use it on dating sites, with lists of favourite books, movies, and music.

To what extent does aesthetics influence our lives? From the moment we awake, we are concerned about our appearance, even when we are dead. We live in a world of imagination and visual appearance. We both want our tastes to define us. Wearing the t-shirt and other displays, and yet favourite books, movies, and music says almost nothing about the person. I once met someone who told me their favourite bands were ABBA and Def Leppard. 

We want to use taste displays to indicate our personality, mood and desires. We also have a taste as a personal preference. Statements of favourite books, movies and music are signals. What book would make you instantly walk away if you saw your blind date reading?

Two polarities are operating here, a complex code of interpersonal communication and personal preferences. Dressing for personal aesthetic preference, like little children, differs from dressing as part of a code. You may still have aesthetic preferences within a code, just as a writer prefers one word or phrase over another.

Recorded music that we listen to privately may differ from the music we put on for others to hear. The two polarities of personal preference and coded communication expose the polarities of private and public in art and culture. Aside from book readings, reading is private. The performing arts, before home viewing technology (videotapes, DVD, streaming), were the most public of the arts. Consequently, music changed when private listening (headphones) became standard technology in the early 1970s.

Cultural codes can be used as a language that some consider stylish, elegant, or simply functional. So a person’s fashion sense could be compared to a writer’s style. This is not about personal preferences; it is not about favourites but coded communication. My party music list differs from the music I want at my funeral. These are displays of implied character, identity and perception; dressing like a wanna-be someone else. 

How do your aesthetic choices signal your personality? Your choice of clothes is part of your preferences, but you also have a limited wardrobe. And that wardrobe will indicate much more than personality: cultural background, class, occupation, etc. These aspects of personal identity contribute to the selection process. So there is a difference between what I think is great art, my personal preferences, and my own art collection.

Taste is more about background, experiences and education than character. Yet people with the same background may very different tastes. And people with very similar character traits may have very different tastes. Even extremes, like musical anhedonia, where people get no pleasure from listening to music, don’t reveal anything about the person.

Yet taste defines personality because we, or others, want it to. The human right and desire for identity are transferred into our tastes as it is onto other aspects of our life.


Gertrude Street Cool

What do I think about Time Out naming Gertrude Street as “the second coolest street in the world”? Time Out’s opinion was based on the combination of food, fun, culture and community. I will focus on one of them — the culture.  

The magnolias were blooming as I examined the street’s current cool state. It is pleasant to walk along, although the car sewer in the middle makes crossing dangerous. However, it is absurd to say, as Time Out Melbourne editor Eliza Campbell suggests, that it hasn’t been “gentrified” like Brunswick and Smith Streets. Don’t tell me that the street hasn’t been gentrified. All those boutiques and fancy cafes are gentrification defined. The Foodworks supermarket is still there, the one ordinary shop left on the street. A new apartment block has been built where the paint and hardware shop once stood. The barbershop has closed… How when barbershops open all over Melbourne?

If you like street art and graffiti, then the lanes off Gertrude Street are well worth looking at. That hasn’t changed; it has, if anything, improved in both quality and quantity. My first blog post on this blog (back in 2008) was about Debs, Phibs and others painting one wall. 

I’ve been up and down this street many times in my life. Amongst the first was going to an opening at Max Joffe’s gallery, Melbourne Contemporary Arts Gallery (MCA), in the mid-80s. Later Joffe would be jailed for stealing paintings from Albert Tucker. It was next recommended as the best place to avoid the uncool 1988 bicentennial of the continent’s colonisation. The old post office, then the Aboriginal Health Centre, was painted with the Aboriginal flag’s red, black and yellow. In the 1990s, it was the centre of Melbourne’s heroin dealing.

Oigåll Projects

Once seven art galleries were on Gertrude Street, there are now four: Art & Collectors, Australian Printer Workshop, Oigåll Projects, and This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery.

Art & Collectors is a recently opened art dealer in upstairs rooms. Whereas the Australian Printer Workshop was established in 1981. It was showing the works by the 2020-2022 APW George Collie Memorial Award exhibition for contributions to the field of Australian Printmaking recipients Barbara Hanrahan, Deborah Klein, Hertha Kluge-Pott, and Ann Newmarch.

Oigåll Projects has a photography exhibition by Annika Kafcaloudis, “Family History”, that spilled onto the street with a large paste-up. Oigåll Projects describes itself as a “gallery and conceptual testing ground”, as well as “a love letter to her (Gertrude Street)”.

This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer had Michael Cook’s new series, “Enculturation”, a parody reversal of the stolen generation. This Is No Fantasy shows how much commercial gallery practice has changed over the decades it has been on the street, exemplified by its name and the table with chairs in its front window.

There have been many art galleries on Gertrude Street. Still, amongst all of them, 200 Gertrude Street (later Gertrude Contemporary) stood out. It was Melbourne’s first contemporary art space. Gertrude Contemporary has moved to Preston South, and Gertrude Glasshouse is a project space of Gertrude Contemporary in Collingwood; both retain the connection to the street in their name.

Maybe it is the coolest street in Melbourne (but not the coolest lane).


Religious violence against art

Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, do we need reminding that declaring that art is blasphemous directly incites violence? Blasphemy is not a metaphor and has never meant something must be tolerated within the bounds of secular law. No, declarations of blasphemy always encourage violence.

The two sixth-century Buddhas carved into the high sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan of Afghanistan were spectacular survivors from a civilisation that at long passed. They were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world; the first was 55 m, and the second was only an awesome 37 m high.

In March 2001, the Taliban government declared that they were idols, even though they had not been any Buddhists in the area for centuries. They had a plan, a budget and nothing more important to do. When rocket launchers, tank and artillery shells failed to destroy them, they had to do it the hard way, scaling the sculptures and attaching explosives. It took 25 days of work, planting explosives to demolish the statues. Anti-tank mines were laid around the feet to increase the damage the falling stone did.

Mullah Mohammed Omar stated, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.”

George Pell (aka Cardinal Pell Pot), Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (aka Archbishop of Vaucluse) and others encouraged the destruction of Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ by declaring it blasphemous. But Pell is not the only senior member of the Vatican to have encouraged the destruction of art by calling it blasphemous. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) also used the word when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. 

In 2004, Bergoglio demanded a retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari, close to end what he called a ‘blasphemous affront’. Bergoglio declared it was blasphemous because of Ferrari’s sculptures of the Virgin Mary in a blender, Jesus crucified on an American bomber, saints in frying pans and other images. Ferrari had long been critical of the Catholic church conniving with the murderous Argentina junta. 

Like Pell, Bergoglio also objected to public money being used for the exhibition in a public art gallery. Bergoglio was a tiny bit more successful than Pell. Unlike Pell, he initially got a judge to agree with him and obtained an order for the exhibition to close. However, this was overturned on appeal, and the exhibition was reopened. A mob of the faithful then destroyed several works of art at the exhibition, shouting: “Long live Christ the King!” The artist forgave Bergoglio because he got great free publicity; it is unknown if Bergoglio has forgiven Ferrari.

Forgiveness aside, the question remains should we tolerate religious organisations that call things blasphemous? My long answer is only if they tolerate the arbitrary use of violence against them. So, the short answer is no.


Fame and Misogyny

The Rolling Stones have much in common with Picasso: the artistic success and failures, longevity, fame, Midas power, merchandise deals, appropriated west African culture, misogyny… Both have their respective position cemented in the history of modern art and rock in the top five. However, like the dinosaurs, these great thunder lizards, although still fascinating, are largely irrelevant to both contemporary art and music.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon)

Throughout their lives, both were dedicated followers of the current styles. This dedication led to their initial success and explains the motivation better than any revolutionary desire on their part. Charlie Watts would have preferred to be playing jazz; Picasso might have preferred painting in an impressionist style. We will never know because what he painted and what the Stones played kept on making money. Making lots of money was the artistic vision of both Picasso and the Rolling Stones. They were artists as businessmen (Warhol was a camp parody of Picasso’s commercial success).

Following the current fashion explains Picasso’s surrealist and neo-classical period and the Stone’s expeditions into psychedelic rock, 2000 Light Years from Home, and disco, Emotional Rescue. Looking around, we could even find an equivalent in Picasso’s oeuvre. Works as political as Gimme Shelter, as mediocre as Jagger and Bowie’s cover of Dancing in the Streets (much of Picasso’s ceramics), and as regrettable as Brown Sugar.

The Stones no longer perform this racist song that revels in the rape of a teenage slave. Still, it does point to the misogyny and colonial appropriation of Africa by both the Stones and Picasso. As Dorian Lynsky, in his Guardian article “Rock’s fake rebels”, noted: “The Stones’ unpleasantness was integral to their uncanny power. In an era when many young people saw rock stars as potential heroes of the revolution, the Rolling Stones appealed to less altruistic desires: sex and money.”

Collectors like art about money and power because it reflects their fantasy of identity. In turn, their money empowers the abuse of women. Or worse, R Kelly, who was convicted for sex trafficking women and girls. Although we can separate the art from the artist’s misogyny, Shannon Lee, in Artspace, argues that we shouldn’t. We must recognise that mistaking the combination of talent and fortunate circumstances for a unique genius creates and empowers misogynistic assholes. And it is the machismo desire to dominate that drives both that most need to be re-examined.

Creativity and imagination might appear fun and attractive. Still, they are no good unless used towards creating a better world for everyone. Art can be liberating, but only when it empowers all people. However, talent and creativity can be used to oppress, terrorise and humiliate. It has been used to exploit and create hierarchies where there are none.

If there was a Picasso century, as the current NGV blockbuster exhibition title implies, it was followed by a Stones century. (Even though the two were contemporary for eleven years, Stones formed in 1962 and Picasso died in 1973.) The question is, do we want another century of artists like Picasso or the Rolling Stones? And what can we change to stop it from happening again? How do we create a world where success is not measured by macho domination?


Failure in the arts

Consider John Berger’s book Success and Failure of Picasso; you don’t have to have read it. The title is enough. Obviously, Picasso was one of the greatest artists of all time, but the failure of Picasso? Yes, the failure of Picasso, John Berger, the best art critic in my lifetime, wrote a book about the failure of Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Femme au mouchoir, 1938

All artists will be failures; some will even be magnificent failures. For more on this subject read Adam Zucker on Artfully Failing (probably the inspiration for this post). Jane O’Sullivan in Piecework has a long list of comments from contemporary artists and writers about their failures.  Or my review of “Imperfections” at Trocadero Art Space, an exhibition of imperfect paintings by some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists. 

(Of course, your art might feel like a failure. If it felt like a success, you would be so shallow. So shallow that I could not be bothered SHOUTING at you!! So to every artists who has felt a sting from my blog posts. This is like the Mafia; it is just business, it is not personal. This is just the business of an art critic. I am your drill sergeant of criticism.)

You knew this from the start, but if you hadn’t tried, you would have regretted it more. Visual arts teaches people about the learning experience of failure. It reminds us that we will all fail. It is the opposite of maths; there is no correct answer. Nothing will ever be the right answer. All there are is attempts at solutions.

(Your job as an artist is to heal the world with art, that is a success, anything less is a failure. Do I make myself clear? If not, sit down and read me all 113 pages of Donald Kuspit The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, 1993. Where he examines how great modern artists attempted to cure the world through the primordial, geometric, expressive, and even through unorthodox methods of cynicism and disenchantment.) 

If art is worth doing, then it is worth doing badly and ordinarily. If anyone can be an artist, then art must be something anyone can do, and therefore special skills are not required. If the experiment can be repeated, anyone can do it, like cutting up a newspaper article to make a poem, as the Dadaist Tristan Tzara proposed. 

(Next time your school teacher tells you to write a poem, get your scissors out. Anyone can make readymades, play some of John Cage’s compositions, and form a punk band — look up the tab charts for D, G and A chords, now go out and start a band. Not that your band is likely to be any good, but playing in a band, or doing any art, including graffiti, might be one of the best things you do in your life. It is in my personal the top 100).

Normally I wouldn’t write anything like self-help philosophy, but failure does help explain so much about contemporary art.

(Should we be giving out medals for participation? Why not? After all, the military does it all the time – service medals, campaign medals…)


Posts on prison art

Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.

I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.

The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.

Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.

In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.

Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).

Prison Art @ Pentridge

Pentridge – more on prison art

Teaching Art in Prison memories from Chris Dyson

The life and art of Ronald Bull

Confined 8 2017

Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

Confine 9 2018

No Turning Back at Deakin Downtown Gallery

Confined 10

Confined 11

Confined 12

Banj Banj/nawnta at the Counihan Gallery

Confined 13

Thelma Beeton

Art Precincts

“A media release is not a creative precinct,” said the Minister for creative industries, Martin Foley, when he announced plans to spend millions to create the Collingwood Art Precinct centred around the refurbished old Collingwood TAFE building. Arts precincts are a popular idea in urban planning. But is there anything more to a precinct than an official artwash announcement designating an area of a city and repurposing old buildings into studios or performance spaces? How sustainable are arts precincts? And what is their impact on grassroots creative precincts?

Keith Haring mural at the Collingwood arts precinct

In the past local city councils often ambitiously declared an area “an arts precinct” and hoped for the best. The City of Yarra once proclaimed the “Smith St art precinct” on one side of a block with one art gallery, a couple of designers and a community radio station.

If we were to count the Collingwood Art Precinct, then Melbourne currently has several arts precincts, the main one in Southbank centred around the NGV, State Theatre, Concert Hall, ACCA, Buxton Contemporary. Melbourne also has a Sports and Entertainment Precinct around the Tennis Centre and MCG. And there is the Brunswick Design Precinct with the TAFE design faculty and Siteworks in a converted old school building and heritage house. These different precincts raise the distinction between the arts, entertainment and design in the collective consciousness as reflected by city planners and politicians and built into the city’s structure.

The Southbank arts precinct has changed from swampland to an area for popular entertainment. Wirth’s Circus and others used to pitch their tents where the Arts Centre now stands. It was a decaying area of warehouses in the 1980s; the old police horse stables are now part of the College of the Arts, and a brewery has become the Malthouse Theatre.

Southbank only has training facilities and high-end exhibition and concert halls, cutting out the mid-level entirely. There is very little street art, no artist-run spaces, and no commercial galleries. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, full of institutions exhibiting highly finished art and expensive cafes beyond the budget of the arts and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat.

Performance artists in ACCA forecourt 2016

Compare this to grassroots locations that spontaneously emerge in the inner city. One such area is around the Brunswick Tram Depot, between Moreland Road and Albion Street. It did not occur due to media releases but available and affordable space. It is light industrial on the edge of inner-city suburbs with lots of warehouse space, some of which have been converted into artist studios and a gallery. Neon Park is the kind of high-end commercial gallery with a stall at the Melbourne International Art Fair. There is no public space, and the closest thing to a park is a planter box. Still, it does have bluestone laneways that are regularly covered in fresh graffiti. And there is live music and cheap cocktails at Red Betty’s in Houdini Lane.

In spooky synchronicity, an artist working in that area sends me this SMS message as I write this. “You should get really topical and investigate how the local council funding of studios in Moreland, such as Schoolhouse and Pentridge, have adversely impacted the homegrown grassroots economies of all the independent studios in the region.”

So much for the guff from the Minister for creative industries. The point of arts precincts does seem to be the media opportunity for the politician. Generally to announce funding to convert the old building (or build new ones) rather than to support the arts where it already exists.


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