Melbourne’s art world exists in buildings, on the streets, in the minds, words and actions of people. And these people, however many there are, exist within architecture, in a greater geography and even seasons. Understanding the art world is important to contemporary art because much of contemporary art depends on the art world as a support, like Renaissance frescos depend on the walls of palaces and churches for support.
Melbourne’s art gallery season lasts from late February to November. It is too hot in December and January, along with the disruption of the many public holidays in these months. March and early April is busy but interrupted by Easter and ANZAC Day long weekends. The high artistic season for Melbourne is October, the first month after the football season where several arts festivals compete for the public’s attention. January is often a time for silly art news – a fried Sidney Nolan, paintings by a toddler and other stunts. In November and early December there are many end of year exhibitions by art students or commercial galleries showing collections from their stockroom.
Looking at Melbourne’s art world on a map (such as the ones in Art Almanac) it would appear that there are several clusters of galleries. Most of the galleries are in the CBD, Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond. There are a few clusters further out on High St. Armadale, Toorak Rd. and High St., Northcote (Melbourne street names make up for in repetition what they lack in originality). Beyond these inner city suburbs the spread of galleries gets thinner as you move further out from the CBD.
The major visual arts institutions of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) are located in the arts precinct along the St. Kilda Road spine.
In Flinders Lane there are many of Melbourne’s commercial galleries and rental spaces. Just off Flinders Lane there is the famous Hosier Lane with some of Melbourne’s best street art. There are also galleries associated with tertiary institutions in the CBD especially at RMIT which has strong visual arts and design programs.
Out of the CBD the greatest concentration of galleries is in Fitzroy and some of the most interesting are on Gertrude St. Most of the galleries in Collingwood are on the edge of Fitzroy on Smith St. or the small streets around Australian Galleries on Darby St. In Richmond most of the galleries are along the very short Albert St. High St., in Northcote has several rental spaces and artist run galleries in shop front spaces. And south of the Yarra the cluster of art galleries on High St in Armadale may look impressive but mostly it is the preserves of antique dealers and the blandest of art galleries. There is a slow move of galleries northwest towards Brunswick and North Melbourne due to affordable locations and access to public transport. The spread of art galleries is similar to the Melbourne’s street art with an inner city and inner suburban core that quickly diminishes in intensity and quality at the outer suburbs.
Melbourne’s art world also exists in the endless talk about art. Talk at gallery openings over glasses of wine, talk in studios over joints and still more talk. And the discussion is continued on websites on community radio, on the very occasional ABC TV show, in the free street papers, in the local art magazines. Melbourne’s public love an art scandal to talk about but the rest of the discussion is more important. And the sum of all this talk – forms and informs people’s idea of art in Melbourne.
How large the art world is a matter of philosophical debate. There is an Arthur Danto’s art world where a relatively few people carp endlessly about art (Danto, The State of the Art, New York, 1987, p.122). Or George Dickie’s more expansive art world that includes “every person who sees himself as a member of the art world is thereby a member.” (Dickie, Art and Aesthetics, Ithica, 1974, p.36). Howard S. Becker goes further than Dickie by including the gallery attendants, the art shop employees and paint manufactures, “all of the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which the world, and perhaps others as well, define as art.” (Howard S. Becker Art Worlds, Berkeley, 1982, p.34)
X – I read a quote by Claude Levi-Strauss. He said: “On the whole, an all things considered, the interview is a detestable genre to which the intellectual poverty of the ages obliges one to submit more often than one would like.” What do you think of the interview?
Y – Like all genres, the interview has its limitations – the subjective experience of the subject – and when one genre dominates a field other stories remain untold. The principle problem with the interview although it is a useful practice, is that it is only a first step in research. There is value in the original documentation but to simply transcribe the interview; to leave all analysis up to the future readers is only doing half the work.
X – Some excellent books written with the interview process; for example, Jean Stein Edie – An American Biography.
Y – Yes, but there the editing of the interviews, by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, was the key to quality. But there are so many now. The endless rambling discussion, sometimes it is not even clear who is interviewing who.
X – The genre of the interview has been a major feature of contemporary art writing for the last couple of decades.
Y – Yes, it seems that every third article in Art & Australia is an interview – actually in vol. 48/2 there were 5 interviews and 9 non-interview articles, not including the reviews and editorial. There are whole books of interviews filling my bookshelves like Pierre Cabanne’s Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Fracis Crémieux’s My Galleries and Painters Daniel-Henry Kahnwieler and much of the Re:Search series.
X – Why does the interview feature so much in writing about art when it doesn’t in other areas of writing such as science or sport’s reporting? Is it the ego of the artist, the literary genre of the artist’s biography or the nature of art itself?
Y – But then what is art but this endless discourse about art? Art is a category defined by the discussion of the category. It is, in Arthur Danto’s opinion, just a few people in a few cities endlessly carping on about art. The interview certainly gives that appearance but the conversation about art is larger than a few insiders talking. The interview panders to the idea that the art is only accessible and understandable to insiders, to people who know the artist, if not personally, then through biographies and interviews. Art becomes a game of insiders, and eavesdroppers, rather than something fills a public, or private, desire. The rise of the interview in art reflects the role of the artist from the medium of the muse to a source of inspiration.
X – And what are you going to do next?
Y – Reply to your last question. Goodbye.
Once upon a time there were three beds and each of these beds was a work of art. A young British artist was lost and looking for some art. She saw Robert Rauchenberg’s “Bed”, 1955 in any number of books about modern art. “Robert Rauchenberg’s Bed is too old, too dirty and hanging on a wall; I could never sleep in that.” She said.
Then she saw Stewart Home’s “Art Strike Bed” 1993 at “Yerself is Steam” exhibition in London, curated by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in 1995. “Stewart Home’s Art Strike Bed is too polemical, too new and too clean; I could never sleep in that.” (See Andrew Scott-Bolton’s article in 3AM Magazine “In bed with Tracey Emin and Stewart Home”)
Finally she read about J’s bed in Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) and it was just right. Danto wrote: “It would remain for our artist J to have gone the full distance, and to have exhibited his own bed as a work of art, without having to give it that last bit of vestigial paint that Rauchenberg superstitiously dripped over his bed, perhaps to make it plain that it was still an artwork. J says his bed is not an imitation of anything: it is a bed.” (p.12-13)
Now Tracey Emin’s 1999 Turner Prize-nominated installation is clearly different to both Rauchenberg and Home’s beds but in what way is it different from J’s bed? J’s bed is copyright Arthur Danto 1981.
Let’s look at the possible defence of Tracey Emin “My Bed”: such as appropriation art, spontaneous independent invention of an identical idea.
One could argue that J’s bed is fictional, as is the artist J, and that Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” is real and although an appropriation it is a clear transformation. However, Danto is not writing fiction but philosophy and in his example the alphanumeric sign “J” is not a name but symbol for a variable name e.g. J = Tracey Emin. Emin’s “My Bed” is like trying to patent an invention that had already been completely described in an engineering manual as the work of a fictional example inventor.
Tracey Emin claims that that J’s bed is her “My Bed”. J’s bed has become her bed but that is just an argument over ownership not over the meaning or transformative differences between her bed and J’s bed except the possessive. What exactly is the difference between J’s bed and Emin’s bed? J’s Bed is defined as “not an imitation of anything: it is a bed.” Emin’s bed is not appropriation art as there is no recontextualizing: J “exhibited his bed as a work of art”. Emin is only recreating J’s bed following Danto’s instructions; like a curatorial team assembling a work according the to instructions of the artist. Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” is not an interpretation of J’s bed but simply a token example of J’s bed.
It could be claimed that “My Bed” is a spontaneous independent invention by Tracey Emin as there is no evidence that she read Danto’s book. This would put her in the same position as a curmudgeonly old man who lived slightly apart the rest of his small village in the upper Amazon and when interviewed by an anthropologist about his religious beliefs turned out to be a solipsist. Being a solipsist he refused to believe that there were other people who shared his belief and maintain that he was sole inventor of the idea, but a solipsist would claim exactly that.
Arthur Danto is aware of Tracey Emin’s bed but is also aware how common theft is in the art world. Danto pointed out: “Actually, Rauschenberg stole the quilt from the laundry room at Black Mountain College. It belonged to the artist Dorothea Rickburn, who wrapped her baby in it.” And Stewart Home’s “Art Strike” is a copy of Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike 1977-1980. Nor is this the first time that an YBA has been accused of plagiarism; Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckist art group accuses Damien Hirst of over a dozen counts of plagiarism; the accusations are of varying quality. The Guardian reports that “in 2000 that Hirst agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to head off legal action for breach of copyright by the designer and makers of a £14.99 toy which bore a resemblance to his celebrated 20ft bronze sculpture, Hymn.”
And J said: “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed too and it’s me!”
Heather Betts “Raison d’être” at Lindberg Galleries is “an exploration of the trial and death of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates”. But this post is not about Heather Betts’s paintings, or the quality of her understanding of Socrates, it is just the most recent reference to Socrates that I have seen in an exhibition. And I encounter an exhibition that refers to Socrates every couple of years.
It bores and irritates me as a student of philosophy the number of artists who will refer to Plato or Socrates in their artist’s statements. (Socrates is only known from Plato’s writing, so it is hard to distinguish the views of one from the other.) It bores me – the sheer repetition and because Socratic philosophy is useless (unless you can make a career out it).
Plato’s animosity towards the arts, he would censor all art in his ideal republic, makes him a poor basis for any kind of artistic inspiration. ‘Such representations definitely harm the minds of their audiences, unless they’re inoculated against them by knowing their real nature.’ (Republic, X.1—X.8. 595a—608b covers the rejection of mimetic art.) It reminds me of this fundamentalist mullah that I saw on a YouTube video going on about how pop music is an illusion and a distraction from ‘reality’.
The repetition of Socrates and Plato irritates me because it reminds me of the poverty of philosophical education amongst artists. But enough about Socrates and Plato, more than enough has already been said. Why is it important what philosophers an artist has read and quoted in their artist statements on photocopied A4 sheets? For ideas and inspiration as artists are interpreters and communicators of current intellectual theories, creating art informed by these theories. Artists are part of chains of influence in the intellectual community, acting as communicators of philosophy, theoretical science and theology (depending on the values of the society where the artist is working).
There is not a single major philosopher who has not written about the arts, according to Arthur Danto, who has written both philosophy and art. There are other philosophers who love art and I would recommend to artists to read them rather than Plato. Why not try reading Ludwig Wittgenstein for inspiration? Or try the obscure Max Stirner who argues that making art is one the best ways of expressing your unique identity. Or even, Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art (Semiotexte, 2005).
And artists should remember that not all philosophers are dead like Socrates (to the great relief of logicians who use his mortality as an exemplary premise in syllogisms – all men are mortal, Socrates is a man therefore Socrates is mortal – but I digress). Living philosophers are more relevant than those that have been dead for millennia. Melbourne’s own major philosopher, Peter Singer writes in a clear and enjoyable manner about ethics. If you haven’t read one of Singer’s books then you should, not because you will necessarily agree with him, but because he is a good writer. And philosophy, what ever it is, is definitely a form of literature. So who was the last philosopher you have read or referred to in your art?
The Jeff Koons Handbook
Banksy, Little Diver, Melbourne
Trying to take a bash at a brief history of art post 1984 when Danto wrote his essay “The End of Art”to the present. Read Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986). The pendulum of fashion swings between decades; it is kept moving by a variety of forces from the sheer perversity of artists’ efforts to the gravity of the needs that the extremes of the fashion have ignored. It is not surprising that street art, whimsical illustrations and small collectable artwork have become the current fashion after the large institutional art of the late 1980s.
Comparing two popular artists Jeff Koons and Banksy demonstrate some of the differences between these two eras. Both Koons and Banksy are popular artists who employed a prankster personality to promote a sentimental image based art. Behind their pranks and their images both are commenting about society, its values and its morals. Yet the differences between their two decades are enormous from the New York art world of the 1980s to a British internet and street-art phenomena.
Jeff Koons – “ I want communicate to as wide a mass a possible. And the way to communicate with the public right now is through TV and advertising. The art world is not effective right now.”
Banksy – “The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”
Jeff Koons promoted himself and his identity as part of his art. The image of Jeff Koons smiling face and slicked back hair was in the media and in many of his art works. Banksy is unidentified and shadowy. Both are clearly media savvy but use the media in a very different way and have a very different media image. Koons was as accessible and exposed as his porn star wife, Ilona. Bansky replaced Koon’s brash, proud, and media friendly image with an anonymous hoodie and mystery.
Part of the difference is that the popular media has changed from mass media to the internet. Koons specialized in magazines, posters and TV documentaries. On the internet Banksy dominated exploiting the anonymity and publicity that it provided. Eventually the establishment could not ignore the extent of Banksy’s fan base and the sales figures for his art.
The art of both Banksy and Koons exists in a wide price range, from relatively inexpensive works to beyond what any of us can afford. Jeff Koons marketed to art galleries and art collectors whereas Banksy’s market was neither of these and his prices were initially significantly lower. Koons worked within the contemporary art world and created spectacular art for the major art galleries, like “Puppy”, at the Bilbao Guggenheim. Banksy gave his art to the public on the street and it was the ordinary public that started to buy his art. Now some city councils are trying to preserve what they initially thought that they didn’t want.
Due to the differences between their markets there is a difference in the content Koons and Banksy’s art. Koons’s art generated some controversy with his plagiarism/appropriation of popular images and his sexual images. Banksy is far more subversive and his art has been described as vandalism and his images attacked the image of the police, the Israeli West Bank wall and art galleries. He is the anarchist rat, the criminal artist. The irony and confidence of the late 20th century has been replaced by an increasing feeling of doom and rebellion in the first decade of the 21st century.