Tag Archives: modern art

Anti-Modern Art Ideological Idiocy

It is hard to believe that the Australian Communist Party and Catholic Church in Australia in the 1950s and 60s shared a position on anything. But, as I discovered when I was searching through old newspapers, they both hated modern art.

Newcastle Sun ran the article: “Vatican Slams Modern Art” on Thursday 11 March 1954. Quoting the Vatican magazine, Faith and Art, Cardinal Celso Constantini said that abstract art “is dying out. Why should the church accept such a repulsive near-corpse?” Cardinal Constantini also declared that Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Gaugin, Roualt and Corbusier produced “blasphemous religious works.” (Chagall was Jewish and many of the other artists now have work in the Vatican Museum.)

Eleven years later, in the Tribune (the official newspaper of the Australian communist party) on Wednesday 15 December 1965, the Australian social-realist artist, Noel Counihan declared that abstract art, Pop Art and Op Art were over. According to Counihan Australian artists were “reacting against the recent spate of mediocre imitations of overseas fashions.” Aside from trend following Counihan’s main warning about abstract art was that “the newly rich achieve social status with an abstract on their walls.”

“Op Art I feel will prove the most ephemeral of the latest fashions despite its immediate appeal to novelty mined youth.” wrote the communist Counihan advocating a reactionary nationalist position.

It is probably pointless to further unpacking these two short articles to point out errors and inconsistencies. It is clear from both articles that neither had a coherent argument and were simply appealing to the predefined reactionary prejudices of their groups.

I find the confluence of prejudices expressed by these ideologically opposed groups a proof of the lack of both group’s ability to reason. The intensity of both writers commitment to their ideology reduced their ability to critically think about their subject. If both writers had put aside their ideological based, rhetorical dog whistles and actually thought, and researched abstract art, they probably could have come up with better reasons to explain their dislikes. Unfortunately these reasons may not have appealed to their readers as much as their prejudices did. These reasons may have simply exposed them for only wanting art that expressed their ideology.

Would Australian Catholics and Communists today be interested in reading warnings about zombie formalism? 


The End of Modernism

The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.


Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.

Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.

Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.

However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.

This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.

The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.

Wandering Seoul’s II

After being thrown in at the deep end of Korean Art on my visit to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (see my post). I’m trying to learn more by reading Youngna Kim’s Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey). The first thing about Korean modern art is that it is only a century old and most of it happened after 1953 when the Korean War ended in the present stalemate. In South Korea artists through themselves into the deep end of modern art and before they had finished with working through modern art post-modern art appeared.

Kwan Yuk exhibition at Gallery 500, Seoul

Kwan Yuk exhibition at Gallery 500, Seoul

I am considering Kim’s book in relation to the life of Kwan Yuk, an artist that I met on my wandering around Seoul. I saw a couple small galleries in the streets in the Insa-Dong district of Seoul amongst the antique dealers, the artist supply shops and second hand bookstores. In one of these modern commercial galleries, Gallery 500, I saw a solo exhibition by Kwan Yuk, it was a mini retrospective of his work. Kwan Yuk is an old artist with a young mind. I want to look at his art and life as a random sample of a post-war Korean artist, to test the accuracy of the Youngna Kim’s history against the life of this artist.

I like an artist who continues to change throughout his life and in the exhibition I could see that Kwan Yuk has roamed from Chagal like expressionist paintings to collage with spray paint.  Kwan Yuk and I could only communicate with gestures but when your subject is the art in front of you this rudimentary sign language comes alive. And he generously gave me both the two-volume book of his work.

I have put together a short history from Youngna Kim’s history and Kwan Yuk’s short year-by-year resume in his book.

Like many Korean artists Kwan Yuk studied in Japanese art schools. This was in part the legacy of Japanese colonial occupation of Korea and that Japan had the most progressive modern art education in the region. Kwan Yuk exhibited in Japanese University alumni association between 1952-57.

In 1961-64 Kwan Yuk then exhibited in the National Exhibition. The National Exhibition was another legacy of Japanese occupation. It continued under the post-war government until 1981 when the national exhibition was privatised. There were breakaway exhibitions from artists of the Art Informel movement in the 1950s when they were included in the National Exhibition in 1961. It doesn’t look like Kwan Yuk was one the hard core of Art Informel abstract artists and not because he was frightened to attempt it.

Kwan Yuk had his first of many solo exhibitions in 1963. He worked as an art teacher and exhibited in the Seoul Teacher’s Art Exhibition between 1974-82. He has won awards and participated in various invitational exhibitions. It looks like Kwan Yuk has worked his way through European modernism in his own way. And ending up with his most recent works are collages that use candy-wrappers and nude photographs with a light bondage theme. Are these elements the Minjin influence on Korean art or sexy interpretation of Matisee’s collage?


I refer back to Youngna Kim’s book again to consider the Minjin, folk art movement. In describing Korea’s introduction to modernism Youngna Kim discusses the introduction of the idea of an artist, the continuity of tradition in modernism and the change of the role of Korean woman. And briefly looks at the Soviet-realist direction that modernism took in North Korea. This different history of modern and contemporary art full of references to tradition while seriously engaging with the modern, both international and local in focus and all happing very quickly.

Kwan Yuk, my random artist must have seen much of this history in his life and had an influence on a younger generation of Korean artists. And his art continues to develop becoming more colourful, playful and sexy.

MOMA is Overrated

There is a notice in the legal notice in foyer stating that 1200 people in MOMA is “dangerous and illegal”. It must have been approaching those numbers on the day that I visited. There were so many people at MOMA crowding around those must see works of art and taking photos on their mobile phones that I had to consider the following questions:

If mass population is the definition of lowbrow then has MOMA made some modern art lowbrow? For example, has The Scream become lowbrow? (There is art in MOMA that has not become lowbrow, there were very few people looking at the works by Joseph Beuys.)

The Scream at MOMA

“I don’t know how I feel about my selfie right now.”
—overheard at the Museum of Modern Art in the room with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (Hyperallergic 17/5/13)

Does the game of life now score according to what photos you have on your iPhone? The 1001 works of art/buildings/places that you must see before you die. Do not do any of the 101 things you must do before you die because everyone else is doing them. Thousands of tourists trapped at Machu Picchu in late Jan 2010 and thousands more tourists line up to see Michelangelo’s David. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to find a great artist who you have never heard of before?

MOMA is in a cultural feedback loop of its own construction since has MOMA defined modern art through its collection. The howl of this feedback loop echoes through Munch’s Scream and the packed galleries of MONA. “The accounts of the past are constructed out of facts gathered with the express purpose of bolstering this proposition, whose truth has become axiomatic. The accent is placed on the idea that New York art was crucial to the further development of all art the world over and, further, that it somehow emerged from the final phase of the long march towards a purified modern art. These histories of course subscribe to the formalist analysis proposed by Alfred Barr of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an analysis championed by Clement Greenberg throughout his career.” (Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art Chicago, 1983, p.7)

The second floor of MOMA does have contemporary art exhibited but this is a limited space. I enjoyed contemporary art more in at the New Gallery in the Bowery, the National Gallery of Canada or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a better atmosphere to appreciate the art and the collections of contemporary art are just as good if not better.

MOMA starts modern art in the 1880s with Cézanne, Monet and van Gogh and ends it in the 1980s, rather arbitrary points, as modern art clearly started earlier and probably ended sooner. And there are some other serious gaps in MOMA’s collection, or at least the works on display. There no Basquiat and nothing from the Harlem Renaissance making me wonder if MOMA ignores black artists? It is all very white (see my upcoming post on European Art History’s Audience) except for the galley attendants who could probably trash any other gallery’s attendants in a game of basketball. There seemed to be other gaps in their German and English collection for example no Francis Bacon and no Neue Sachlichkeit paintings.

Claes Oldenburg's Mouse and Ray Gun Museums at MOMA

Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse and Ray Gun Museums at MOMA

I did enjoy the Claes Oldenburg exhibition that was on when I visited. I was particularly interested in the way that his Store works anticipated the contemporary interest in the “graffiti” and the “street”; these words were repeated in many of his works. But otherwise MONA is not a museum that I would consider visiting again, it is over-rated and over-crowded.

MOMA is not the most over-rated art museum that I have seen in this world; that honour must go MONA in Hobart. If MOMA is a greatest all time #1 hits compilation album then MONA in Hobart is a heavy metal compilation. (See my post on MONA.)

Modern Artists & Graffiti

During the 20th century artists looked to the street and graffiti for inspiration. Street art has a century of artistic interest from modern art. I hope to show in this short and incomplete history that street art is not a transitory fad but the flowering of long established trends in art history.

At the turn of the 20th century modern artists attempting to connect with authentic, democratic creativity turned to the naïve, folk, primitive and street art. Graffiti was the logical conclusion as it was both urban and, at that time, primitive. Modern artists like Francis Picabia, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly found inspiration in graffiti and tried to imitate it in their paintings.

Balla, Bankrupt, oil painting, 1902

The urban landscape of the street, including its graffiti, was important theme in modern art. As early as 1902, the Italian painter Giacomo Balla, who later was a member of the Futurists, painted a realist urban scene that focused on the chalk marks on a door – “The Bankrupt”. Brassaï photographed graffiti on Paris streets in the 1920s. English Pop artists reproduce graffiti in their art just as they reproduced other signs from the modern world. David Hockney used graffiti in some of his early paintings. And Gilbert and George used photographs of graffiti in ‘The Dirty Word Pictures’, 1977. All of these artists were working with graffiti before the aerosol spray paint drastically improved the quality, at least calligraphically, of contemporary graffiti.

When aerosol graffiti emerged on the streets and subway cars of New York about 1968 it obtained a new sophistication and, with the late 60s focus on youth culture, a new relevance. In the same year the Situationalist International covered the streets of Paris during May riots with graffiti slogans bringing graffiti firmly into the attention of art students, including Malcolm McLaren. Graffiti was no longer the source material and inspiration for art; it was now art.

Graffiti and street art has since spread around the world. Some of its exponents quickly moved into art galleries: Robert Combas, Harold Naegeli, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and, most famously, Jean-Michel Basquiat all emerged from a street art background.

And graffiti continues to be the source of inspiration for contemporary non-street artists. Most notably, Gilbert and George have returned to using contemporary graffiti in their recent work, with mirrored images of tags in their ‘Perversive Pictures’, 2004. “Like the other pictures incorporating found text – whether graffiti, personal advertisements or street flyers – they form an idiosyncratic map of the city, tracing the artist’s endless wanderings” Wrote Simon Bolitho about the Gilbert & George Major Exhibition (Tate Modern, 2007)

“We’re making pictures out of the subjects that talk to us: religion, graffiti, sexuality.” Gilbert & George (interviewed by Michael Fitzgerald “We are two people but one artist: Four decades of Gilbert & George” Art & Australia v.47 n.4 p.577)

This is just a rough draft the future history of art will have a lot more to say about the relationship between modern art and graffiti that has developed into contemporary street art.

Galleries & Museums

Modern and contemporary art is often aesthetically dependent on gallery spaces; the gallery or museum architecturally and aesthetically frames the work art. Despite the emergence of site-specific works, many works of contemporary art depend on the art gallery setting to give them meaning even existence. Modern art was also dependent on gallery spaces; it was the modern world that created the art gallery, the art museum and the contemporary art museum. The mode of exhibiting art in white walled cubes may appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient.

Given that the art gallery/museum has been the prime location for art it is surprising that there has been very little written about the aesthetic impact and other effects of art galleries and museums. Paul Mattick, Jr. of Adelphi University notes this in his entry on museums in A Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1992); adding that “a quick survey of the British Journal of Aesthetics and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism turns up not a single article devoted to the subject.” (p.297) Mattick did say “a quick survey”; my research was better, because I found two articles in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1941 (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Why Exhibit Works of Art” and John D. Forbes “The Art Museum and the American Scene”). Neither of these articles is particularly insightful and both conclude that there is an educational function to exhibition. Mattick’s entry in A Companion to Aesthetics is possibly the best article written on the subject; I wish that A Companion to Aesthetics had been published when I was writing my thesis it would have made my life a lot easier.

Mattick traces the history of the art museum from the proto-art galleries of European royalty designed to be impressive displays of power and wealth. To the first post-French revolution art museums that removed the religious, political and moral function of art organizing them and, in that process, expanding the categories of art to include, industrial and non-European arts.

Although the neo-classical architecture has mostly disappeared art museums haven’t changed their function from that of the proto-art gallery, a display of the state’s wealth and power. As displays of power political allegiances are on display in major art museums where the international collection will reflect the countries geo-political position. Those countries firmly in the American camp following the American version of art history in their collections, the Europeans having a slightly different version of art history and post-colonial countries another version.

And if articles about the aesthetic impact of art museums are rare, articles about art galleries are non-existent. This is why I pay particular attention to current gallery practices and to describing art galleries, counting the number of people working in the gallery, the type of lighting in the gallery, the type of space, etc. in this blog. Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current practice is natural. I wonder how much longer the white walled gallery will continue to be the norm?

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)

“Modern Art” in Brisbane

The modern world started at different times in different places in different disciplines. In philosophy the modern world started in 1600. In the visual arts it is a few centuries later; modern art starts sometime in the mid 19th century and continues to around 1965. Contemporary art, is the current term used to describe galleries showing art created post WWII. But in Queensland, one of the more conservative states in Australia, the term “modern art” appears to still be with us.

I was under the misapprehension that GoMA, which opened in 2006 in Brisbane, was a contemporary art gallery. It looks like a contemporary art gallery. GoMA has three floors of contemporary gallery space and cinemas around a rather empty main foyer space. It has a dedicated children’s art area, an important feature of any new art gallery. There are also reading spaces, a reference library, and elegant outdoor balconies.

GoMA has contemporary art by Gilbert and George, Julian Opie and Ron Muerk in its collection. I didn’t see any art there created prior to WWII; that was all over in the QAG (Queensland Art Gallery). But when I looked I realized that GoMA stood for “Gallery of Modern Art”. So why is it still a “gallery of modern art”? Perhaps it is a slavish imitation of New York’s MoMA, established in 1929.

But it is not just GoMA with that is behind the times hanging on to the term “modern art” in Brisbane, there is also the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Fortitude Valley. And, like GoMA, the Queensland Government funds IMA. It is even stranger because IMA is in the same building as the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. There is no modern art at IMA; it shows contemporary art exhibitions.

You would have thought that someone would have said that the term “modern art” is not the correct term. Just next door the State Library of Queensland when I visited was showing the touring exhibition “Modern Times: the untold story of modernism in Australia”. For this exhibition modernism in Australia was defined as between 1917 and 1967.

Art history definitions aside, it is very difficult to understand the difference between the QAG and GoMA except that they are different buildings on Brisbane’s South bank precinct (another example of Brisbane’s slavish copying). The same artists are exhibited in both galleries: Ah Xian has art currently on exhibition in both. Both share the same website. QAG appears to have simply extended into another building with a silly name. QAG is more of a modern art gallery than GoMA with modern artists like Tatlin, Miro and Picasso in its collection. Typical of modern art galleries, QUG has a history of art sampler collection with example work, second or third rate, collected to illustrate the history of art. This historical approach to the collection at QUG is in contrast to the contemporary style of themed exhibition of GoMA’s permanent collection.

I don’t know why Queensland still uses the term “modern art”. Art is not an important feature in a state where beach holiday tourism, sugar cane and horse racing have always been more important. The QAG is the major state art gallery but only had a permanent home in 1982. Perhaps there is still “modern art” in Queensland because of the belief that “a better future” can be made in Brisbane. Or maybe the Queensland’s politicians are too parochial, stupid and ignorant to the listen to anyone else.

%d bloggers like this: