Thursday, July 09, 2009

Holding a Miro up to life

Miro cushions from Victoria & Albert Museum

At last
the interminable second term is over. Larrikin’s End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé has washed its brushes of its bothersome students for a couple of weeks and I’m left to piece together the shards of my shattered sanity as best I can. I have learned just one thing in the last six months – when you ask a teacher a question, a politician answers.

The final week was hell on skates as each of us struggled to articulate a response to the probing question, ‘why did you make this piece?’ Apparently, ‘because you told me to Miss,’ is not an appropriate response. I did try to anticipate the pain of the assessment process by pointing out well in advance that, as we had not been given even the vaguest semblance of a working vocabulary for doing so, it was not likely that any of us was going to be able to ‘talk to’ our work with any degree of sense, never mind sensibility. I was assured that after Modernism there really is no big conversation, so to speak, in the visual arts. Teachers have consequently absolved themselves of any responsibility for intelligent input into the learning environment. Picture if you will fifteen students with multiple artworks and no discussion guidelines and try to imagine the torment. Not even close. It eclipsed root canal surgery by a factor of ten.

I, of course, refused to believe there was no known lexicon beyond pointing and grunting for first year art students to consider work with peers and teachers within the context of six months worth of development. Surely there was some way of assessing whether or not an idea had been realised with due budding giftedness or at least absorption of some of the scantily-clad knowledge we’d managed to prise from the unwilling grasp of teachers. I say ‘unwilling’ because I’m next to sure they know a thing or two. I suspect their reticence has everything to do with the absurd ‘sustainability’ and business-fixated curriculum that recoils from considering any aspect of quality other than to stipulate that there should be lots of it. Presumably there is also some intolerable penalty for betraying a fixed position on any topic at any time.

As Jack Kerouac once said, ‘Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.’ I vowed to devote my winter break to sourcing a decent template upon which I could at least base my own evaluation of my work. The term ‘evaluation’ suggests an appraisal of some ‘values’. The first step would appear to be to work out what these are. If there are no common ‘values’ then judging fairly and accurately was going to be difficult. The first step was to scan some of the endless lists of adjectives and occasional adverbs that we are routinely dispensed in a laughable stab at exegesis. In landscape painting for example, one must ponder such concepts as ‘symbolic’, ‘cultivated’, ‘literary’, ‘psychological’, ‘idealistic’, ‘theatrical’, ‘formally’, ‘micro’. Micro? Kerouac was on the money.

These lists weren’t going to be any help. Neither was the barrow-load of books on art history from the library. Master of the slide projector it seems was correct. Post-modernism is a critical void in everywoman terms. I wasn’t asking for the flickering neon installation equivalent of particle physics here, just an iddy-biddy little primer on basic principles, preferably in whole sentences. And then, it looked like I was going to get a big break. Sunday Arts, a television show on one’s just about occasionally watchable ABC, promises an interview with one Eleanor Heartney, art expert and author of a definitive new book on contemporary art with the general reader in mind. Hoopla!

I throw a log on the fire and curl up on the Miro-cushioned sofa-bed (pictured) with a G&T and prepare for enlightenment. Believe me, I’m the first one to accept that when you’re nervous, the sum total of what you know about anything and everything important and relevant deserts you and all you can think about is whether you turned the iron off. You should see me in job interviews. And this is why we rehearse what we are going to say before we go to a job interview or indeed a TV show to talk up our expensive coffee table book on contemporary art. If you would like a good laugh, the ABC has thoughtfully published an agonising transcript of Ms Heartney’s non-exposé complete with the entire cache of sort of kind of you knows, which to be honest was most of the content. It was like watching a one-legged man trying to start a Norton Commando in quicksand. Here’s a sample,

I wrote the book in part, hoping that it would be a useful textbook, or that the general reader might be able to go to it and begin to understand, you know, why are all these crazy artists doing all these crazy things? So, I see it as a kind of a map, I guess, more then anything else. And some of the most interesting artists are doing work that almost doesn't seem like art anymore. It's gone so far into some other kind of area or discipline that it's really new territory. And I think that's what's very exciting.

Illuminating stuff. The realisation dawned. As usual, I would have to work it all out for myself. A couple of weeks ago Brian Eno said in an interview on the very same Sunday Arts that discourse on contemporary visual art amounted to ‘no thoughts, inarticulately expressed.’ That would appear to be the sturm und drang of it. The blisteringly obvious question would be if it’s so difficult to subtext pictures, why does anyone bother? Photography books don’t contain musings on the meaning of a sunset now do they?

I can understand an artist’s reluctance to add words to what is adequately self-explained. Few nail this particular colour to a mast as comprehensively as sculptor David Smith who told students in a 1959 speech,

'There were no words in my mind during its creation, and I’m certain words are not needed in its seeing; and why should you expect understanding when I do not? That is the marvel—to question but not to understand. Seeing is the true language of perception. Understanding is for words. As far as I am concerned, after I’ve made the work, I’ve said everything I can say.'

Antony Gormley, another sculptor says, 'I want to start where language ends’. You get the message. It makes perfect sense for artists to jettison words once they’ve found their subject, marshalled their tools and are making work and succeeding commercially but there must have been the odd phrase floating about when they were learning how to mould and weld and mix and glaze and so on. Their apprenticeships can’t have been all one big joyous Marcel Marceaury of higher plane drifting, surely.

If the purpose of contemporary art is to deconstruct the artifice of convention and demerit the element of skill, then why do we still have art schools? There is very obviously many layers of understanding present between vox-pop Turner Prize outrage and doctorial enquiry and I was rather hoping, as a first year art student, to land somewhere to the left of centre and move on from there. Too much to ask? Apparently. Even Turner Prize judge and art blogger Jonathan Jones, who should be able to shed some light on this dilemma says,

'A critic is basically an arrogant bastard who says "this is good, this is bad" without necessarily being able to explain why. At least, not instantly. The truth is, we feel this stuff in our bones. And we're innately convinced we're right.'

Triffic. I’ve attended almost every Turner Prize exhibition since its inception in 1984 and am probably favourably conditioned towards conceptual art, the black sheep of the contemporary art family, because of a long and steady exposure to it. Whether this proximity has heightened my intuition in any way is not clear to me but I can and do judge these pieces and I usually can say why. For example I don’t rate Steve McQueen’s 1999 Turner Prize winning Deadpan, a reworking of the Buster Keaton toppling house gag because the original idea was simply reprised and not advanced and I could find no emotional connection between the old and the new.

I compare it with Tacita Dean’s video piece, Stillness (currently showing in Melbourne), where dancer Merce Cunningham performs his own choreography to late partner John Cage’s famous 4’33”, (usually known as Silence). Cunningham sits on a chair for the duration of the four and a half minute piece in three movements where not a single note is played, moving slightly to denote the change of movement as per the original score. It is everything the McQueen piece is not. Here is a dancer in old age paying homage to his dead partner with a companion work spiritually and intellectually in tune with Cage’s original concept.

I can see the piece might annoy some people just as Cage’s 1952 composition did but I found it both emotional and clever because I clocked the personal and creative references. I can't say how I would have responded if I'd just happened upon a video of an old man sitting still without knowing that he was Merce Cunningham dancing to John Cage under the direction of Tacita Dean. It could be that a work of contemporary art moves us if it hits a mark in our continuous narrative, makes us feel smart for making the connections it sets up for us and allows us to feel a sense of cultural belonging. Well, that’s one identifiable ‘quality’ at least.

I’m sure there’s more to it than this. The last thing I need right now is to be spending all my time on a pursuit for which I can find no purpose. I think it’s time I read John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts again. I’ll get back to you when I’ve joined a few more dots...