The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) website tells me that it has “over 65,000 artworks spanning thousands of years”, but it doesn’t tell me why. To what purpose have they put together this collection. National (state) art galleries are like their counterparts in the computer game Civilisation. Collect the set in your city to advance to the next level. The purpose of these institutions was to provide education and, failing that, an alternative leisure activity, infotainment. Major galleries become part of tourism with destination architecture; the Guggenheim in New York and Bibloa are paradigm examples. These institutions are about providing a tourist attraction in a spectacle based economy.
I haven’t seen a full acquisition policy for the NGV, but it gets mentioned in passing in some of its annual reports. A proper acquisition policy would be transparent, accessible to the public, and include a deaccession policy.
However, deaccessioning is almost a forbidden topic of discussion in Australia; consider the following statements. “Deaccessioning is crazy”, declared John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the NGV, at a talk (Saturday 13 October 2012, Johnston Collection). And when Joe Eisenberg, former director of NERAM in Armidale and now head of MRAG, was asked by Anna Waldman what he thinks about deaccessioning? (Art Monthly Australia, June 2015, p.25)
“Don’t believe in it – Armidale has actually sold some works that I collected, and tears well in my eyes just saying a thing. A curator’s or director’s choice is just that, and because times and tastes change, you don’t sell off their selections. Most major Australian galleries clean-out the storeroom every so often, and I think that is criminal. It should all remain part of the collection to represent an important piece acquired at a specific time and place.”
The assumption that the collection has been acquired legally and ethically is being challenged in the post-colonial world. The conservative anti-deaccessioning position wants to keep the collection as a treasure horde regardless of its acquisition. If a state gallery can make mistakes about provenance, it can also make mistakes about aesthetic merit or historical importance. Their accession policy is not error-free, and deaccessioning is part of the process of correction.
The giant KAWS statues at the NGV, Bendigo and Pt Leo Estate Sculpture Park were not acquired because the directors thought they were great art. Instead, they claim that the popularity of KAWS will attract new visitors to the gallery. If this were true, would it be appropriate to sell these statues when his popularity declines and before the market crashes? But this is not the case because these institutions also support the neo-liberal idea that private ownership of art is the cornerstone of the art world. By retaining the work in their collection they will endorses the value of those owned by private collectors.
This again raises the question of the purpose of the gallery’s collection. Supporting private collectors? Displaying part of a treasure horde? Playing some game of interstate rivalry? Not knowing the purpose of your collection is crazy. Not deaccessioning is crazy.
The accusation of charlatan is sometime levelled against some artists. Robert Hughes made this accusation to Jeff Koons. Koons replied to was to point out that if had put his talents to use in the business world he would have a bigger income.
Chelsea, NYC, stickers, 2013
I smile sadly at the street artists who snigger about all the street art photographers, the artists who dislike collectors and the accusations of “toy” amongst the street artists. I understand the artists who hate critics, although I think that critics are misunderstood. For all of these people are all part of a system that creates and defines what art is.
Artists, collectors, curators, critics, gallery visitors, gallery directors have many different ambitions, drives and desires; one artist may have many different ambitions, drives and desires. The game of art, if it resembled any game, is like a role-playing game; in these games the players are not directly competing against each other but playing characters in a story.
I regularly play tabletop role-playing games and the players have a variety of ambitions within the game: the power player, the character actor, the storyteller and the puzzle solver are the typical variations. Like any game there people playing it for a variety of reasons from the social to personal. In the game of art there are artists and other people playing with all kinds of ambitions within and outside of art.
There is early episode in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Tom and Huck are playing at highwaymen and Huck complains about the futility of playing at gentlemen highway robbers.
“He (Tom) said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called ‘Don Quixote’, I would know without asking… So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in all the A-rabs and the elephants, but for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday school.”
Tom Sawyer’s self-conscious play demonstrated awareness of the rules of genre whether it is highwaymen or pirates. He makes the painting of his aunt’s fence into an event, although the event lacking any authentic emotional or artistic quality it is very profitable one for Tom. (Read more in my forth-coming book, Tom Sawyer, Art Entrepreneur. Syndicated chapter from the early years about Tom getting the local street artists to paint his Aunts fence for nothing, they even brought their own paint. But I digress.)
One can always have doubts about Tom Sawyer’s true intentions or have doubts about Duchamp – serious, joke or both? Tom Sawyer chooses to play at being pirates or highwaymen just as Duchamp chooses to play at making art. However whereas Tom Sawyer slavish follows the conventions of the genre, to Huck Finn’s great consternation, Duchamp incorporates jokes about them into his games. Jokes were about being aware of the conventions of the art gallery and the art world. Duchamp did not change the conventions of art galleries and the art world, the changes had already been made.
Isn’t a charlatan just the opposition’s view of a magician? (Are we talking stage magician or someone like Gandalf?) I am referring to Jed Perls’s new bookMagicians and Charlatans.
Walking along Hosier Lane with the street artist, CDH who was half-heartedly tearing off the advertising posters. CDH was talking about making Hosier Lane an advertising free space (a worth while ambition). CDH wants to distinguish between art and advertising but I’m not sure that such a distinction can be made because the nexus between art and advertising means that there is no necessary feature to create a clear distinction. CDH and I have been discussing an article from The Atlantic Cities about Los Angels attempt to restrict mural adverting (“The Convoluted Path to Ending Los Angeles’s Mural Ban” by Nate Berg, March 22, 2012).
Advertising for the play “Optimism”, 2009
I have written about the relationship between street art and advertising in an earlier post. Aside from the propaganda element of advertising that has always been important in art and thinking only about avant-garde visual art and mass-market advertising it is clear that there is an increasing relationship in the 20th Century.
The use of advertising material in the visual arts started with collages by the Dadaists and Kurt Schwitters. Was the word “Dada” taken from an advertisement for Dada brand shampoo rather than from the mythic random dictionary search? Almost anticipating Pop Art, Charles Sheeler’s “I Saw The Figure 5 in Gold” from 1928 used the bright colours and images of American cigarette packaging. American cigarette advertising was the start of modern advertising. In 1949 Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Mahé Villeglé used layers of torn advertising posters in a process they called “décollage”. In the 1960s many Pop artists used advertising material, Roy Lichtenstein used images from magazine advertising as the subject for his art although Andy Warhol concentrated on packaging design rather than advertising. In the 1980s many artists influenced by Pop Art used advertising material, most notably Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger. Koons reproduced magazine advertising and made magazine advertising for himself that were printed in art magazines. Koons marketed himself as a brand. Kruger uses the same visual techniques as advertising in her art.
Advertising has had a close relationship with the visual arts; not surprising since both the artists working in the advertising art department and artists not working in adverting have the same art education. In 1888 Pears Soap first used John Everett Millais painting “Bubbles” 1886 as advertising; Pears was another early innovator in mass market adverting. Also created in the 1880s Toulouse Lautrec’s posters advertising cabaret acts have now entered the art cannon (currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia). Since then advertising has used notable artists to create images for advertising, like Absolut Vodka (see their art collection) or to endorse products, Dali and Lavin chocolate in 1968 (see the video).
Given the increasingly close relationship between avant-garde arts and advertising it is likely that advanced art in the future will have more references to advertising. For more on this subject read Joan Gibbons Art and Advertising (I.B. Tauris, 2005).
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.