Tag Archives: democracy

Democracy in Art

A century ago Appolinaire wrote about some of Duchamp’s early paintings; “he will reunite art with the people”. The remark was more critical rhetoric by Appolinaire than analysis, as there was no reason to believe the Duchamp’s early cubist paintings was any more or less democratic. Prior to the 20th century art was not democratic it was purely plutocratic, a pursuit for the rich and powerful. Appolinaire was right that art in the 20th century would become more democratic, but I don’t think Duchamp was the artist to do this.

I’ve been thinking about is democracy in art. No, I’m not talking about voting, or people’s choice art prizes. And I’m not thinking about an ideal socialist man who works in a factory in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and writes art criticism in the evening – that will just end in knitting circles. I’ve been thinking about democratic art that is by the people and for the people, as opposed to being by a particular caste/class to another caste/class. Not an abstract “people” that is discussed in political circles, nor people whose public role (be it king or art curator) has diminished their individual taste with organisational responsibility, just individual people.

From the people does not mean that democratic art has to be created by amateur artists in community groups. From the people means that artists do not have to come from a particular group, class or caste. Warhol and Basquiat were both from disadvantaged backgrounds and received their art education at public expense.

Democratic art is promoted peer to peer rather than by academic or royal approval. In the past popular arts had a bad rap from critics and it was probably justified if you consider a life limited to listening to the top ten songs. In the past the limit of the media and this limited audience forced popular arts into a lowest common denominator position, with the occasional rare exception. The limited numbers available for an audience in all but the largest of ancient cities meant that all popular art forms had to cater to the lowest common denominator otherwise they wouldn’t get an audience. Now 1% of a population can be a huge audience. This has changed the arts from what most people would like or should like, to a world where individual preferences are tolerated.

Being able to tolerate your neighbour’s terrible taste is another part of democratic art. In a democracy just as you tolerate right of others to express their stupid political opinions, their blasphemous religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) and, along with this their taste. Taste, although apparently superficial, is part of politics, religion and culture.

The democratisation of art in the 20th century followed the triumph of the bourgeois in the 19th century. It required both changes in technology and the distribution of art. Technology has been responsible for the democratisation of art – it is no longer mob rule. Shakespeare had to keep both the groundlings and the lords happy. Not anymore. From a room of ones own to headphones; the changes to technology that have lead to a horizontal market for taste, instead of a vertical, hierarchical determination. The vertical market sells exclusively to the hierarchy of institutions and collections. The horizontal democratic model sells to anyone who wants to buy at a price that they can afford. This requires cultural products that come in multiple editions to be sold in large numbers.

Democratic art is not completely level, some people have more money to buy art and some people have more time to post images and comments on the internet. Appreciation of art will always remain an elite activity; the refinement of taste will be a pursuit that not all will choose. But there can be many elites; the elites of speed metal, of classical ballet, of contemporary art or graffiti. The diversity in contemporary art is a feature of its democratisation. Now being an elite is open to everyone but it is a pursuit that only a few will have the time, will and inclination to do. What mean by this democratic elite is a meritocracy the 1% of people who put the time in to contribute seriously to a culture, who aren’t prepared to simply swell a scene in the chorus or to be a spectator.


Sculpture @ Melbourne City Square

Historically no city in Victoria was designed with a square because the then Governor Gipps didn’t like them because they encourage democracy. Melbourne City Square was only built in 1980 (when democracy was no longer a threat) and marks the start of the architectural rejuvenation of Melbourne’s CBD. There are currently several statues: Loretta Quinn’s “Beyond the Ocean of Existence”, Charles Summers’ Burke and Wills Memorial, Pamela Irving’s “Larry LaTrobe” and a wooden wombat without the usual City of Melbourne brass plaque to identify the sculpture or artist along with the Mockridge Fountain in the square.

The missing statue from the city square has to be noted – “Vault” by Ron Roberson-Swann was only in the city square for less than a year but it left a permanent psychic mark on Melbourne. Melbourne City Council had to change the direction of their public sculpture in response to the controversy over “Vault” and so the quirky and the historic have replaced the formal modernist. Whimsy and idiosyncrasy are not part of the collective consciousness; they are about a personal mix of elements. They are the opposite of any kind of political statement.

Keeping with the quirky mood of sculpture in the City Square are the two animal sculptures: Pamela Irving’s “Larry LaTrobe” 1992 and the wooden wombat, “Warin” 2002, by Des McKenna.

Des McKenna, "Warin" 2002

On the Flinders Lane corner there is Loretta Quinn “Beyond the Ocean of Existence”, 1993, a bronze sculpture. This generative sculpture stands on the opposite corner to the 19th memorial sculpture to Burke and Wills, standing on the corner of Burke and Swanston Street. Created by English born and trained sculptor, Charles Summers in Melbourne in 1865; Summers had previously created the Fitzroy Gardens, River God Fountain in 1862. The sculpture of Burke and Wills has been relocated many times as the city has changed and the corner is its 5th location.

Loretta Quinn "Beyond the Ocean of Existence" 1993

Loretta Quinn, "Beyond the Ocean of Existence", 1993

“Beyond the Ocean of Existence” follows the traditional sculptural form of a god or hero on top of a column. But the tradition has been twisted, a large bulbous form and tendrils support an angelic version of her little girl figure with her hair swept back. The figure of the little child is central to Quinn’s sculpture. The figure minus the wings is repeated in “Within Three Worlds” (see my entry on Loretta Quinn’s sculpture “Within Three Worlds” at Princess Park). Other works by Loretta Quinn include the Artist’s Seat at Linden House, St. Kilda and “The Crossing of the First Threshold” in Southgate Melbourne Victoria.

When “Beyond the Ocean of Existence” was installed it did not have a café behind it and the area of the city square had more trees. Near the statue there is a painted pole by indigenous artists, Maree Clarke and Sonja Hodge. The poles have been there a long time even though the city of Melbourne does not consider it permanent.

“The Mockridge Fountain” by Ron Jones, Simon Perry (who also crested the Public Purse in the Burke St. Mall) and Darryl Cowie  c.2000 is a concrete fountain that makes a little bit of water go a long way. However even its water conservation features did not prevent it from being turned off during the drought between 2007 and 2010.

Leaves placed on the Mockridge Fountain


Street Art Idealism

I came back from the final day of the 5th Melbourne Stencil Festival full of optimism for street art. There are more reasons to be optimistic beyond the 5th year of successful small street art festival; beyond increased public interest in street art and beyond the increasingly impressive multi-colored stencils. I am optimistic particularly about spirit of international cooperation and communication amongst street artists.

U.S. and Iranian diplomats are currently barely able to talk face to face. But U.S. and Iranian stencil artists can collaborate to create works of art at the Melbourne Stencil Festival. A1one, a stencil artist from Iran worked with US, German and Australian artists producing some beautiful pictures. (The art was then sold to benefit an Australian charity, the Collingwood Neighborhood House.)

To say that street art is a global art movement is not a sufficient description for the unparalleled increase in communications, travel and collaborations. The internet has been responsible for much of this communications but it takes trust and a generosity of spirit have to make it work.

Street art is a democratic force, not in terms of civil government but in the very human terms of giving a voice and artistic power to ordinary people. Street art gives a voice to people who cannot buy advertising space, property or political influence; young people, minorities and sub-cultures whose voices are frequently censored or ignored by the masses. The question in the back of all art history is not who painted the pictures but who owns the walls. It has often been remarked that great art follows empires, money and power and it has been the ambition and dream of radical artists to end this connection.

There are many other examples of the international reach of street art. Chor Boogie, an American aerosol artist participated in the 1st Street Painting Exhibit in Xi’an China this year. In my last entry Spray the Word I wrote about an exhibition of collaborations between Brazilian and Australian stencil artists and poets.

The geopolitical implications of street art should not be under estimated; it is truly remarkable for an art movement. Nor should it be over estimated; street art will not create global peace and harmony.


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