“The Art of Australia” is a three-part series television documentary by ABC presented by Edmund Capon. Part one, “Strangers In A Strange Land”, was a disappointing start presenting the same old story of 19th Century Australian colonial art. The couple of references to some contemporary art in an attempt to freshen this stale history didn’t help or hinder. There was too much about landscape art emphasizing the traditional view of Australian art as all about the landscape. Capon’s narrative is full of too much hyperbole, clichéd metaphors (describing Australia as “coming of age” as if a country is a person with a body, heart and head) and contradictions.
Australia can’t be defined as Capon tries as “a unique and diverse culture” because one (unique) cannot be many (diverse). The assumption of the documentary is that Australia has an Australia art, when in the 19th Century the British and Australian art world was basically the same. Capon only examines the art of Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania as if the history of the SE corner of Australia is representative of the rest of Australia. How art and artists helped to shape Australia’s national identity is assumed rather than demonstrated; if art in anyway shaped Australia’s national identity it played a very minor role.
Capon avoids saying anything negative; he avoids the using the word ‘genocide’ to describe the attempted extermination of Tasmanian aboriginals and he avoids the mentioning the Australian banking crisis of 1893.
To describe the Heidelberg School as painting “Australia as it was” ignores the fact that Tom Roberts painted the romanticism of the manual shearing technology in 1890 when mechanical shearing had already been superseded in 1888 with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine. Although Roberts rebelled against Eugene Von Guérard at the National Gallery Art School he apparently absorbed romanticism from his former teacher. Capon’s description of Robert’s Shearing the Rams as an “icon” is made apparently oblivious to the religious meaning of the word.
Edmund Capon was Director of the Art Gallery of NSW and his expertise is in Chinese art. Capon needs a spanking as an embarrassing punishment for his sloppy thinking in this glib and very ordinary history of art in Australia.
Two and a half stars.
I am acquainted with Doyle – he is a “friend” on Facebook (whatever that means). “Just call me Doyle,” he said when I first met him in 2008 and he was indispensable in organizing the Melbourne Stencil Festival but for two years – he didn’t know my name and was calling me “punk”. I didn’t care; Doyle calls everyone “punk”. A man about Melbourne’s art world, Doyle is the initiator and director of Dark Horse Experiment (formerly Michael Koro Galleries) and Blender studios in the building behind it, Melbourne Street tours and the Napier Crew. I’ve seen a couple of exhibitions of Doyles paintings, they are good paintings, combining fine art and street art techniques. (See my 2009 blog entry about Doyle’s paintings.)
Doyle – suburban house stencil – Fitzroy
When Doyle told me that he was going to be the subject of a reality TV I felt that this was typical the way that the world was going. (Would the ABC really sink so low? Yes, easily, I thought.) I saw the documentary crew following him around at an exhibition opening at Blender and rough cuts on his computer. It didn’t sound like a good idea, – Doyle as a representative artist in a reality TV show sounded like a horrible idea. (I could think of worse, like Kevin Rudd curating the Australia’s pavilion at the Venice Biannual, but I had to put my imagination into gear, whereas, Doyle is all too real.) He comes across as a wide boy, a bit dodgy, always talking in self-obsessed but engaging manner – “we are going to open a gallery and sell all this shit to big end of town.”
Then I heard that the director, Jacob Oberman was exposing Doyle’s idea of an artist who wants a reality TV show about him, I felt relieved. I was felt more relieved when I found out it was a two-part half-hour documentary. And after seeing the first part tonight on the ABC’s Artscape I was glad that there is a documentary that accurately captures the scene. The meat on the bone of the documentary is the art and the artists at Blender studios; the parts about Doyle and Pia Suksodsai’s relationship are a bit of a distraction and as shallow as suburbia.
Maybe Doyle still believes that it is a reality TV show; Doyle claimed on Facebook that it is “an art work in the medium of television by Adrian Doyle” and that it is “created by Adrian Doyle, Jacob Oberman, Piya Suksodsai,
Renegade Films, and ABC”.
“You’re making a documentary; we’re making a reality TV show.” Doyle says to the camera. I know which one I’d prefer to watch. (For those of you who want the reality TV version since the filming of the documentary Doyle has become engaged to Pia Suksodsai.)
There is an ugly glut of gushing praise in the art world. Wonderful, amazing, fabulous, great, fantastic, must see … gushing praise is just so much balderdash, soap bubbles of words that don’t tell you anything. Turn the flow of praise down and find something else to say about art.
In the past the partisan politics of the modern art world attracted many defenders convinced that appreciate progressive art was the same as supporting progressive politics. A small, marginal cultural practice might need a gushing review from an insider to promote it but Melbourne’s contemporary visual arts scene is neither small nor marginal. It can stand on its own merits and doesn’t need a constant flow of gushing praise to sustain it.
The arts media is seen as a free promotional forum whose role is to attract a larger audience for an event. These gushing comments are poncy (“poncy” as in pandering, procurering and pimping) praising all the artists and every exhibition or event. There is even a Melbourne blog called Art Pimp by Din Heagney, artistic director of Platform Artists Group (2006-2010). But all this pimping isn’t going to improve the quality of the art.
There is a lot of gushing in the Australian art media because too many the writers and presenters can’t say anything else due to massive conflicts of interests. Andy Dinan who presents “Gallery Girl” on Channel 31 is the director of Mars Gallery. This conflict of interest that is left unmentioned on the show, even when Andy Dinan reports on her own gallery. “Gallery Girl” is not community television but a half hour advertisement for some of Melbourne’s commercial galleries. There are so few independent critics who can comment without conflicts of interests that it goes unmentioned in the arts media. Even the ABC’s “Art Nation”, the national broadcaster’s visual arts show is full of gushing; one of their commentators, Reko Rennie’s artistic career influences what he has to say about art.
When was the last time that you read a negative review of a contemporary art exhibition? When was the last time that you read that a notable artist was under performing or that an exhibition wasn’t worth a look? These kinds of comments are common in film and book reviews, even from sports commentators but they are rare in the visual arts. One of the reasons for this blog is to improve the quality of critical discussion in Melbourne’s visual arts not to gush.