Tag Archives: John Cage

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…)


DADA at MUMA

“Reinventing the Wheel: the Readymade Century” at MUMA (Monash University Museum of Art) pays tribute to Duchamp’s conceptual invention. A century after Marcel Duchamp’s lost Bicycle Wheel, 1913 and Bottle dryer, 1914 it is a difficult challenge to sum up the impact of this seminal work of contemporary art, even if this is only from public and private collections in Australia, but this exhibition has succeeded.

Andrew Liversidge, IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009, 10,000 $1 coins

Andrew Liversidge, IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009, 10,000 $1 coins

There are over forty artists – from internationally renowned artists of art history textbook fame to notable Australian artists. This is an important exhibition for anyone interested in the history of the last century of art. It takes the viewer to some of the most important works of 20th Century artists: Duchamp, John Cage 4’3”, Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Coast, Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculptures and Martin Creed’s Work No.88. The art alternated from the sublime to the ridiculous, the sacred to the profane, from transfigured value to ordinary stuff. I particularly enjoyed seeing Meret Oppenheim Eichhörnchen (Squirrel) 1969 because I hadn’t seen it before, Rosslynd Piggot’s etched glass because I haven’t seen her work for a while and pages of Peter Tyndall’s blog, Blogos/HA HA because I’ve seen it often (there is a link in my blogroll in the right bar of this page).

At the opening of the exhibition, once the noise from the bar and cheese table had subsided, there were a number of speeches including one from Scott Tanner, Chief Executive of the Bank of Melbourne. Tanner commented on the work by Andrew Liversidge IN MY MIND I KNOW WHAT I THINK BUT THAT’S ONLY BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE, 2009. Liversidge consists of 10,000 $1 coins that the Bank of Melbourne had loaned for the exhibition. Tanner talked about the coins or art “going in and out of circulation.” This an important point about readymades because they do not exist at all times, they go in and out of circulation. We take chocolates from Gonzalez-Toress’ Untitled (a corner of Baci) but there is an endless supply as long as the factory keeps manufacturing them. Martin Creed’s Work no.88 A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1995 exists in an unlimited edition of which this was #625. The readymade art on exhibition does not necessarily exist in W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse as distinguishable objects. (See: Kennick, “Does Traditional Aesthetics Rest on a Mistake?” Mind v.67 1958) It does not necessarily exist in a real studio as Susanna Duchamp demonstrates when she threw out the original Bicycle Wheel and Bottlerack when cleaning out Marcel’s Paris studio.

The idea that a readymade is not be warehoused or the art might return to the circulation of ordinary objects is a not a mistake. As a banker Tanner would know banks do not actually have all the money on paper sitting in a vault. That Liversidge’s art exists, like money, in the documentation and the power of the authenticating signature and the physical instance, when required. That money exists in the same way the Michael Craig-Martin’s An oak tree, 1973 exists in the exchange of the idea represented by the tokens of the exchange.

“We do not so much need the help of friends as the certainty of their help” – Epicurius. This was the message wrapped in the Baci chocolate that was part of Felix Gonzalez-Toress’ corner. Readymades do need the help of friends but not the certainty; they need the galleries, the plinths, the curators and gallery attendants for without them we might trip over them or shovel snow with one of them (a gallery worker really did shovel snow with Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm). Once again praise to the curatorial team of Max Delany (former MUMA director), Charlotte Day, Francis E. Parker and Patrice Sharkey.


Sound Work

21:100:100 is an exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces of  “100 sound works by 100 artists from the 21st Century” curated by Alexie Glass, Emily Cormack, Marco Fusinato and Oren Ambarchi. The opening of the exhibition on the first hot Saturday night of the summer was well attended. And unlike other gallery openings where talking and drinking are the main priority there was a lot attention paid to the art. Most of the crowd was listening to the works on the 100 headphones.

But why was this exhibition on at a “contemporary art space” rather than a music venue? When John Cage raised the consciousness of music composition from theory to philosophy by asking not how to compose music but what is music? Music became part of contemporary art.

This is does not describes the music that sprang from asking the question – what is music. 21:100:100 is an excellent survey of the range of musical directions in contemporary art that have developed since John Cage expanded our understanding of music. 21:100:100 includes works that range from hi-tech to lo-fi. From pure electronic, to samples, to ambient soundscapes. Music from arty rock bands like Chicks on Speed and Sonic Youth. From extreme music genres like ‘sludge metal”, “free jazz” and “free folk”. Music played on unique and invented instruments, like 50 foot long wires or glass harmoniums. Music from performance art, including the soundtrack from Christian Marclay. 2000, 14 minute video, “Guitar Drag but the video is much better. From around the world the curators have not left an acoustic record unturned to put together this out-standing exhibition.

100 didactic panels along with the 100 headphones were carefully arranged the ultraviolet lit gallery space. The didactic panels were all clear and well written – a major achievement in itself for the curators.

Although the exhibition title says “artists from the 21st Century” this does include artists, like Melbourne’s Philip Brophy or the American industrial musician Z’ev, who were making music long before the 21st Century. Brophy’s “Fluorescent” is one of the most pop, fun and catchy pieces in the exhibition.

While writing this review I was listing to X-X section (Extreme XCD 010) Various Artists on the Extreme label. At least one of these artists on this compilation, Merzbow, was in the exhibition but there could have been more. Extreme is a Melbourne label that distributes many extreme musicians.


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