Eight books that changed my mind about art and visual culture.
- The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, as told to André Parinaud When I found this book in my high school library it blew my teenage mind. Dali made thinking about art exciting and full of possibilities.
- Theories of Modern Art, a source book by artists and critics Edited by Herschell B. Chip. This was on my first year art history reading list and I keep on reading and rereading the various texts by artists and critics in it. It was this book that opened my mind to the theoretical and political aspects of art.
- John Berger Ways of Seeing This short book is an excellent introduction to Marxist art criticism. It is also the easiest and fastest to read on the whole list, some chapters only have pictures but does not diminishes its quality.
- Arthur Danto The Transfiguration of the Common Place I read this when I was doing my Master’s thesis. If you want to know what is art is at a very deep Hegelian level, Danto’s institutional theory of the art world is worth reading. Danto’s art world is not about organisations defining art but a metaphor … The problem is that art world as an organisational theory is useful and Danto’s metaphor may be too subtle to be useful.
- Notes from the Pop Underground Edited by Peter Belsito. Expanding my idea of what was possible as art were the subjects of this collection of interviews that I found in the sale bin at Minotaur. When I bought the book I only knew about Keith Haring and Spalding Grey but this book introduced me to Art Spiegelmam, Diamonda Galas, the Church of the Subgenius, Survival Research Labs and others.
- Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces – a secret history of the Twentieth Century. The secret history of Dada, rock’n’roll and the Situationalists born from a radical negation is not explained but wonderfully retold. Marcus weaves in obscure anabaptist heretics and punk rockers gleamed before easy internet searches. I also have the CD of the book and I must share Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. I haven’t seen the stage production of the book; how many non-fiction books have stage versions?
- Stewart Home The Assault on Culture – Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War diligently tells the history of utopian culture from Dada to Neo-Dada in just over a hundred pages. The history of the groups that are ignored in a broad sweep from Dada to the Situationalists and Punk. In the afterword Home writes distinguishing art movements from isms, sensibilities and traditions. Home argues that: “‘Isms’ are emotional categorisations and close examination often reveals them to be intellectually incoherent.”
- Art in Society Edited by Paul Barker. More essays by John Berger, Dennis Potter, amongst others including Angela Carter, writing about sixties style and make-up, and a great essay by Micheal Thompson, Rubbish Theory that explains the chaotic flow of valuations of everything from used cars to art. These essays on films, popular music, marketing, design, television, theatre expanded my idea of critical examination of culture.
Leave a comment | tags: Arthur Danto, Dada, Greil Marcus, John Berger, Salvador Dali, Stewart Home | posted in Book Reviews
A century ago, in 1918, a local reporter reviewed a 14 year-old Salvador Dali’s first group exhibition in the vestibule of the Teatro Principal (now the Teatre-Museu Dali) in Figueres. The reporter wrote of Dali: “He will be a great painter”. (J.L Gimenez-Frontin, Teatre-Museu Dali, trans. Anthony John Kelly, 1999, p.12)
Black Mark at Sweet Streets auction.
A century ago, in age of multiple daily papers, there was a lot more room in the papers for regular columnists and reporters who covered a particular beat. The recent decline in newspapers is generally blamed on the internet but would it be more accurate to blame hedge funds? Still only a very local paper would write about a group exhibition with a 14 year-old artist in it.
Maybe that unnamed local reporter wrote that about every young artist he saw hoping that history would remember his one success and forget the many failures. Maybe the unnamed reporter didn’t exist but is a figment of Dali’s self-mythologising. Still I want to be that reporter.
It is now eleven years since I started writing this blog. Eleven years of hoping and trying to be that reporter. The vainglorious aspect of this quest is tempered with the knowledge that arts writers, especially reporters and bloggers, are currently amongst the least powerful people in the arts world. Still I think that it has been about the best use of my time as I could find.
The role of a blogger is not central to visual arts or culture. I suppose it depends on how you want to rate John the Baptist; there is a heresy that claims that he is more important than Jesus, the Johannite or Mandaean heresy, and Tom Wolfe claimed the similar thing about art critics in his 1975 book The Painted Word but I don’t believe him. The quality of the role of the art critic is as debatable as is the quality of any part of art and culture.
I do not only write about exhibitions that impressed me because that would imply that if I didn’t write about an exhibition that I didn’t like it. I don’t write about every exhibition that I see and I do write negative and mixed reviews. I try to write mixed reviews because, in accordance with basic statistics, most exhibitions that I see are average. I believe in kicking up, not kicking down, and that pointing out the flaws of a good exhibition is more productive than those of a poor exhibition.
I to want to continue to provide a view of Melbourne’s visual arts and other aspects of culture. This view is different from connoisseurship, the refined appreciation built up from obsessive repetition and a fandom experience that is over-explained and over-valued. Rather I hope to write about an exploration of the variety, an understanding based on analysis of a larger sample. I want to cast a critical eye on the whole for Melbourne’s visual arts from the major galleries to the ARIs and alternative spaces, from public sculptures to the street art, from art history to fashion.
Perhaps that is more than the un-named reporter a century ago aspired to with his review of Dali’s exhibition but it is right for me.
Leave a comment | tags: art critic, blogs, Melbourne, reporters, Salvador Dali, Teatre-Museu Dali | posted in Art History, Blogging
Persons of Interest was a series of blog posts about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact. I wanted to write a personal history of art, telling it from my own view, to examine how the art and biographical details have influenced my own critical judgements. It was not an easy process and the posts did not attract many readers; maybe it was too self-indulgent or my choose of persons too obvious. Maybe, the posts didn’t come with enough images; anyway, I don’t think that I will continue it.
Who to include and who to leave out? This is always the question in making such lists. Influences come and go in waves of interest by the public and at various times in your life you get caught up in that wave of general interest. As a kid I must have been reading Robert Hughes in Time Magazine as my parents subscribed to it but I wouldn’t want to count Hughes as an influence or a person of interest. I played on synthesisers and so I was interested in Brian Eno. I am not claiming that I am major fan of Eno but Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World has been on high rotation for decades.
Here are all my Persons of Interests posts. They were written roughly in the order that they started to influence me.
Jan #1 – Desmond Morris
Feb #2 – Andy Warhol
March #3 – Salvador Dali
April #4 – Marcel Duchamp
May #5 – Laurie Anderson
July #6 – Various, Notes from the Pop Underground
July #7 – Keith Haring
August #8 – William Burroughs
September #9 – Philosophers
December #10 – Hunter S. Thompson
It is not surprising that I am interested in influences when the subject of my thesis was the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I started reading Max Stirner because of one remark by Marcel Duchamp but as I was investigating his relationship to philosophy, both the influence on and the influence of, I felt I had to read him.
“When he (Duchamp) was asked later in life to identify a specific philosopher or philosophical theory that was of specific significance to his work, he cited Stirner’s only major book – Der Einzige und sein Eignetum…” (Francis M. Naumann “Marcel Duchamp: A Reconciliation of Opposites” p.29)
Leave a comment | tags: Andy Warhol, Desmond Morris, Hunter S. Thompson, influence, Keith Haring, Laurie Anderson, Marcel Duchamp, Max Stirner, Salvador Dali, William Burroughs | posted in Art History, Culture Notes
When I was a student at Bendigo High School I found a copy of The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942) in the library. Reading it made my life in Bendigo bearable for two more years. I was aware of Dali’s paintings from earlier art classes, when we had briefly looked at Surrealism, but the reading his book was a great experience at that time in my life. “’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’, might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilisation.” This quote from James Gleeson explains my situation in Bendigo as alienated 16 year old yearning to escape from the small rural city. As a solution to adolescent angst Salvador Dali was better than Bowie.
Dali in aerosol in the Collingwood Underground
Dali’s creation of a surreal self was one of the archetypal images of the 20th Century. Subsequent pop stars, like Bowie, would follow the process of egotistical autobiographical creation, the cultivated image and eccentricities that was Dali. However, Dali is a complex character and not just a superficial attention-seeking artist; I understood this when I read his essay on art nouveau, it was the most intelligent and concise analysis of the style that I had read. His interest and understanding of both science and mythology are far from superficial.
Dali’s technical mastery of painting and drawing is amazing and is this technique that accounts for much of Dali’s mass popularity. Later I read his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (Dial Press, 1948) it was useful to me as a painter but like a book of arcane knowledge you have to be wise enough to see the nonsense scattered amongst true information. But there is more to Dali than artistic technique; he co-wrote with Luis Buñuel, the landmark Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.
Travelling in Spain I took the opportunity to see Dali’s hometown of Figeros and the museum that he created there in his last years. From my travel journal: “ 27/4/2000 I don’t believe it but I made the 7:50am Figeros express and I’m on my to Dali territory. It just shows how easy it is to get around in Barcelona. The weather is a bit overcast and clouds shroud the mountains. I’m still having very strange dreams and waking up a couple of times a night…jetlag? … I was very glad that I visited the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art to understand Dali’s early influences and references… Museum Dali-Gala is full of moving sculptures, coin operated sculptures and optical viewers (25 pestas), peepholes and cues of people waiting for a particular view… Fortunately there is a garden to relax in because the crowds are worse than the Uffizi or the Vatican Museum.” It was the most fun museums that I ever visited, if Dali knew how many visitors would come he would have installed a fair-ground cars like a ghost-train.
I really do think that Dali believed that art was equal to spiritual salvation. As Gainsborough said on his death bed: “We are all going to heaven and Vandyke is of the company.” Painted on the ceiling (1100 x 575cm) of one of the rooms the Museum Dali-Gala is a vision of the apotheosis of Gala and Dali, the huge feet on their foreshortened bodies is most of what that we mortals can see as they ascend to a Dali heaven. The painting might appear egotistical, grotesque and even kitsch but what of its message: if prodigious artistic talent doesn’t make you immortal then what does?
Over my life I have sometimes tired of all images of Dali that are commonly repeated, the commercial industry built around his art, sometimes he has been too much, but there are so many aspects of Dali that I keep on returning to him as a person of interest.
This is part of a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact.
6 Comments | tags: arts, Figeros, Salvador Dali, Spain, Surrealists | posted in Art History
I’ve been keeping busy over Melbourne’s cold wet winter preparing for the re-branded Melbourne Stencil Festival – now Sweet Streets. I’m doing the secretary role and it all makes for very uninteresting reading – lots of meeting and email. It means that I have too many conflicts of interest to keep the reporting straight and I’m too close to see the picture properly. And Melbourne’s cold, wet winter has not inspired me to do get out on the streets more than I have to.
Excuses, excuses… there are still street artists out there freezing their balls off putting up new pieces all over Melbourne, some idiots are even freezing their balls off capping some of these new pieces. So what is stopping me from writing about them? Stringing together 300 or so words about all of this amazing art and adding a photo, the type of thing that Dr. Brian Ward of Fitzroyalty recommends to boost one’s blog stats (see his article: “A Measure of Success”).
I still see fresh new pieces of aerosol art from the windows of the Upfield train. I saw some yarn bombing on Gertrude St. tied to the chain fencing off a small garden area with an electricians cable tie. And I saw more street art sculpture in Hosier Lane, amongst the many new works of aerosol art there, including the first Sellotape sculpture that I’ve seen on the streets (of course, I’d already seen a lot of it online).
Looking through all the photos that I’ve taken of street art. I notice that at least one Melbourne street artist is still being influenced by last year’s Salvador Dali blockbuster exhibition at the NGV. I also notice that this same artist has used the t-shirt format for another piece that I had photographed earlier. I don’t know who made it, if someone does know please leave a comment. (Thanks Phoenix, now I know.)
2 Comments | tags: Melbourne CBD, Salvador Dali, Sweet Streets | posted in Blogging, Street Art
In the last months Melbourne has become gripped with Dali-mania. Everyone has been talking about it. It doesn’t take much to whip the public into a frenzy about Dali because he is a very popular artist around the world. Posters of his paintings are popular decorations as are the countless coffee-table books about him. Stories about his life form a contemporary hagiography. In Singapore in the forecourt of a grand art deco style apartment I had to laugh to see a statue of Dali was included, amongst statues of the great and the good, along side Mozart and Rembrandt.
Statue of Dali in Singapore
The Dali exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria has been a blockbuster. The publicity for the exhibition has been everywhere: banners, advertising on trams, magazines, even chalk stencil adverts on railway platforms. In its final weeks it has been going 24 hours a day. Crowds are queuing for the exhibition into the great hall of the gallery into the night. Musicians in the great hall entertain the long queue for the exhibition.
Chalk stencil advertising for Dali
Inside the exhibition the crowds shuffle around trying to see all the exhibits – doing the Dali shuffle. Is the exhibition worth the price, the wait and the crowded gallery? Sarah Winter of BMA magazine gushes about the exhibition and describes Dali as “the father of Surrealism” (which he certainly was not). Only the art critic Robert Nelson avoids the hype and writes a critical and balanced review.
I went with my wife and friends and it took us about two hours to shuffle through the exhibition. There are some good paintings and drawings but there is also a lot of padding typical of blockbuster exhibitions such as publicity photographs and the Alice Cooper connection. However, all of this “padding” does more completely tell Dali’s story than the paintings and drawings alone, as it is this padding that makes Dali a superstar for the contemporary audience. (It is far better than the dreadful touring commercial exhibition of Dali’s awful late prints and sculptures that was in Melbourne in 2003.)
The curators of the NGV exhibition are slightly defensive about Dali’s own penchant for publicity; noting beside a photograph of Dali and Warhol that Dali was criticized for his publicity seeking whereas Warhol wasn’t. (This is forgetting that Warhol’s art was about popularity and publicity and that Dali’s art isn’t.)
Will this immensely popular exhibition have any cultural effect in Melbourne? Will the Dali-mania have any lasting effect or will it just fade away after the exhibition closes? What will the effect be to Melbourne’s own few surreal and fantastic art and artists? Or is it just more infotainment, another dead artist whose relics the crowds make pilgrimages to see?
Dali in aerosol in the Collingwood Underground
Meanwhile, aerosol artists spray a face of Dali in the Collingwood Underground during the Melbourne Stencil Festival. And in Sydney there is a play running titled: “References to Dali Make Me Hot”.
Leave a comment | tags: Alice Cooper, National Gallery of Victoria, publicity, Salvador Dali | posted in Art Galleries & Exhibitions, Culture Notes