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Tag Archives: Robert Nelson

Robert Nelson is grumpy

“When there bursts froth from one mansion a song of youth and originality, even though harsh and discordant, it should be received not with howls of fury but with reasonable attention and criticism.” Max Rothschild

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Ronnie van Hout, You!, 2016 (at Gertrude Contemporary)

I don’t want to be one of those old critics who go on about how art has lost its path and that some boring, old artist is that last real artist. I don’t want to be Clement Greenberg, Robert Hughes, or, to be more current, Robert Nelson who this week brought out the old complaint about painting being dead.

I have lived a long time and I’ve yet to see the death of painting, although it has been talked about for longer than I have lived.

Nor do I expect to see contemporary art creating an infinite regression of self-referentiality that swallows up all meaning.

Like Nelson I had also seen Nicholas Mangan’s video of the endlessly spinning coin, Ancient Lights at Monash University Museum of Art. I agree with Nelson that it is ingenious and beautiful but where we differ is over Nelson’s conclusion that video has  replaced painting, or that this means that now “most painters lack most skills in painting”.

The critics who thought that modernism would crash like a Ponzi scheme have been exposed as simply conservative. The fact is that the apocalypse will not occur and there will never be a final revelation that modernism or contemporary art are a load of rubbish. This is because art is not like a cult or even a pseudo-science, like phrenology, it lacks the definition of such organisations, it is more nebulous, living and growing, like fungus.

I am sure based on population size that the greatest artist who ever lived is probably alive today. When you consider increased education, social mobility, women’s rights and other factors it is more than likely that this is the case. Now I can’t tell you who this artist is with the same certainty but I am certain that they are out there and I am looking for them.

I am equally sure that the worst artist who ever lived is also probably alive today but what does that prove? I am not renouncing writing bad reviews; if you see a bad exhibition then give it a bad review just don’t see it as some general example of the decline of art.

I am sure that there were awful, dross fourteenth century altar pieces and frescos because I have seen some of them. Four headless saints their necks still spurting arcs of blood bowing to the crucifixion while their heads sit on the ground in a neat arrangement around the cross. Others of it were probably painted over or replaced and thrown out, like an old TV sets.

To go from specific examples to generalisations is always a mistake but when the size of the present from which to cherry pick examples is so large compared to the smaller sample of memories of the past it is absurd to believe that you have evidence of any value.

Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man. The only problem with current music is that it isn’t loud enough. Or, maybe I now need hearing aids.

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Examining the spirit in secular art

Robert Nelson The Spirit of Secular Art, A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Value (Monash University ePress, 2007) is an ambitious project, a complete history of western art from Ancient Greek art to the present day. Very ambitious as it requires the author to have a good knowledge of the entire history of art which Nelson does have.

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Along the way Nelson does make some interesting arguments about the architecture of frames in medieval altar pieces, progress in academic art in the nineteenth century and the limitations of symbolism compared to Freudian psychology. See Peter Steele’s review “The Material Stretched by the Spiritual” in Eureka Street Vol18 no.4

Ambitious as the project is, it is unfortunately a rather conservative project. Nelson follows the usual strata of art periods; Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. The idea of broad layers of styles defining a time, does not fully explain all of the art being created during that period nor is it a clear guide to the history of influences on artists.

The book is also a bit of a jeremiad, a general complaint about contemporary art. Nelson writes several times that contemporary artists are “sacrificing their talent”. Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and complain about the standard of art today. It is as boring and false as complaining about the youth of today ever was.

However, the real problem is art’s the sacramental roots and however much Nelson knows about the history of western art, he is not as knowledgable about the history of western religion.

Throughout his history Nelson tries to demonstrate how the sacred added an aura to art in different ways at different times. The term ‘sacred’ is a fuzzy and elastic word, even in comparison to the word ‘art’, and poorly defined terms are the downfall of many studies. For Nelson spirituality haunts art and exorcism is impossible even for secular artists. I have doubts about anything artificial having essential and eternal features as such elastic apparitions may give an object any aura you imagine.

Art’s relationship to the sacred appears to be both complex and varied, leaving many trace elements behind in the mix. Artists may be inspired, or even possessed by muses, spirits, ghosts, gods and genii. Art, particularly the abstract and mathematical nature of music, could be considered an emanation of the divine. And this is not an exhaustive list.

In Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Harmony and Cadmus, he explains, in his simple but elegant manner, the relationship between beauty and the gods. The gods appreciate beauty, music, perfumes in the same way that we do. For if they did not we would have nothing in common with the gods, there would just be an immense power imbalance.


Dada Centennial 1916-2016

“Where is the monument to the folk who took a stand against the war rather than those who capitulated to its madness?” Robert Nelson asked in The Age on Remembrance Day, 11 November, 2015

Dear Robert Nelson, the monument exists but it is not in the architecture of state power, the column, the triumphant arch or faux tomb of imperial power dominating territory. It is a single word “Dada”.

Dada, a little word that means everything and nothing. A word like a Buddhist mantra capable of destroying all illusions by using it as a substitute for all other words. Instead of patriotism, dada; instead of reason, dada.

Not that the word works like magic but the question that Dada posed still remains as potent as ever. What is art and culture doing other than making various governments look like a humane and decent society, masking and distracting from the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? If this is how much of an improvement the best of art and culture can do then why continue with it?

This is not a joke, this is a serious point.

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Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

One hundred years ago on the 5th of February 1916 in Zurich three “oriental gentlemen,” as Hugo Ball described them in his diary arrived at the newly formed Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire was a music and poetry night that Hugo Ball was running at the Holländische Meierei tavern in Zurich. Hugo Ball had had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself.

The “oriental gentlemen” were certainly from the east as they were Romanian. They were the architecture student and artist, Marcel Janco, his brother George and a 19 year old poet who was calling himself, Tristan Tzara.

The reason why they were there was because Romania had ended its neutrality in 1916 and joined the war on the Allied side. It was one of the stupidest decisions of the war; outstanding even considering the extraordinary stiff competition of stupid decisions made in World War One. The Romanian army was obliterated.

The three young men kept on saying “da da”, “yes yes” in Romanian. The word “Dada” was invented later that year, around 11 April 1916, the first Dada periodical appeared over a year later in July 1917. There is a long standing debate about who invented this word but it has to be remembered that they were all very drunk at the time (or using other drugs, yes, I’m looking at you Herr Huelsenbeck and your cocaine).

Historical debates about dates aside, on Friday night in Clifton Hill DADA lives! 1916-2016 celebrated a century of Dada. Over a hundred people packed into the narrow space of the shopfront bar with its tiny stage at the back with of poetry and performance. Sjaak de Jong was the MC for the evening. Most of the performances were of original material but Santo Cazzati did read a historic Tristan Tzara Dada manifesto and perform a recognisably accurate version of Raoul Haussmann’s poem, phonème bbbb.

People try to laugh Dada off but that is just a desperate tactic to hold onto the certainties of dictatorships. Attempts have been made to quarantine Dada in art galleries and libraries around the world but it keeps on breaking out with nihilistic force. For it is nothing, it is ridiculous and is better than any god/country/insert reason here that you can dream up as nobody has ever killed or died for it.


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