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What does anybody know about art?

What does anybody know about art anymore? The more people rush to our large public galleries for spectacular event-style shows, the more they might discover that art has an elastic meaning. Is it art when you play table tennis with your pals at the Melbourne Now show at the National Gallery of Victoria? It is art when you can chuck a squash ball at a wall at Shepparton Art Museum’s the Nick Selentish Play? Well, of course it is. It’s in an art gallery isn’t it? The curators who programmed the work say it’s art, and they should know shouldn’t they?

As Juliana Engberg, the curator of the embattled Biennale of Sydney recently explained to Daily Review:

“I do not necessarily equate the spectacular with the dumb. Often this is a very sophisticated tactic to lure the audience to an idea. The sublime is also an ever constant aesthetic that pulls people towards it … but you know, I am not always a fan of the big for big sake or the empty spectacle … it has to have meaning for me to be super engaged with it otherwise it’s just art bling”.

So even if we don’t know if it’s art, at least we can be assured that the experts who choose the art we see at our public galleries, art fairs, expositions and biennales know what’s art when they see it.

Last month Engberg gave Time Out her criteria for what makes great art. Her guide is  “anthropological”,  “perceptual,” and “psychological”, as she assesses how  “technically adept” the artwork is, and whether it “ruptures an idea”.

She explained the last point: “It happens very rarely; occasionally it happens and you go, ‘Wow that person’s just dented the paradigm’. Like when Carl Andre put sculpture on the floor and you could walk on it – that changed how we encountered sculpture forever.”

Engberg might be crystal clear about what works for her. But others – including those who work in the visual arts – might still be confused as to what’s art and what isn’t.

Last week Steven Zevatis the publisher of New American paintings wrote an article brushing on this issue.

In his piece titled “The Things We Think and Do Not Say, or Why the Art World is in Trouble”, he argues the trouble with deciding what is good contemporary art is mired in the money and marketing surrounding it.

“There was a time when art critics, art historians and curators held substantial sway as to what constituted significant contemporary art. They rode the horse, and collectors and art dealers happily went along for the ride. These days, curators are too often hamstrung by the demands of museum directors who are focused on attendance figures, and board members, who can have very real (non-aesthetic) interests in seeing that certain exhibitions take place. Critics have suffered an even worse fate. Those that are left have been neutered, and can seem more like public relations specialists than critical thinkers.”

Well, we could always ask the artists themselves what makes good art. Yesterday, the Sydney art collector John Kaldor asked artists to submit concepts for “Your Very Good Idea” for a site in Sydney to mark the 45th birthday of Kaldor Public Art Projects.

The catch is that the very good idea for the site specific work will be chosen by a “panel of local and international curators”. These include Nick Baume, director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund, New York; Alexie Glass-Kantor, executive director of Artspace, Sydney; James Lingwood, co-director of Artangel, London; Jessica Morgan, Daskalopolous curator of International Art at the Tate Modern; Nick Mitzevich, director of the Art Gallery of South Australia; and John Kaldor, director, Kaldor Public Art Projects.

So will we be any closer to finding a roadmap to what is art and how to judge how good it is? Or does the fact a panel of international curators endorse a work mean it’s automatically great art?

Enter Peter Drew from Adelaide and his attempt to chew on some of these questions. The former street art blogger and three colleagues have created a six part series to begin on YouTube on April 1 called Art vs Reality.

A five to ten minute video will subsequently be released on the first Tuesday of each month with a “response” video posted in between in which Drew will answer and “destroy” the comments the show receives on YouTube and on its Facebook page.

“In a world where anything can be art, the art critic is becoming obsolete, and he’s not happy about it!” the show’s media blurb declares. “Betrayed by the art world he once loved, Peter Drew is taking arts criticism online to the YouTube audience. Instead of discussing the surface appearance of art, he wants to take on the art world as a system.

“For the last 50 years art critics have used television to dictate their taste and opinions to a captive audience, but today’s audience is not so captive. They have accepted the collapse of art into popular culture and surrendered its status to the market. They don’t need a critic to explain the value of art, it’s plainly displayed on the price tag”.

Drew is Art vs Reality’s writer and presenter and he and producer Shane McNeil, editor Ronnie Chin and director Frazer Dempsey have budgeted $10,000 for making the series.

“The tone of the series will be satirical in its presentation of an obsolete art critic who wants to prove that his authority is still valid. Based affectionately upon Robert Hughes, Peter’s flawed persona demonstrates that the role of the critic must adapt to its audience, its era and its platform. Ultimately, the series maintains Hughes’ dictum that honest and entertaining critique is necessary to uncover the greater meanings and insights locked within art,” they say.

Each episode deals with an aspect of the art world: art galleries, conceptual art, art fairs, art schools, art stars and art critics.

Art vs Reality is made specifically to address the online media consumer who is fascinated by the notion and nature of ‘art’, but suspicious of its hierarchies. We want to parody the former arrogance of broadcast art critics and dismantle the unquestioned authority of the art world while we’re at it,” say the team.

Here’s the trailer for Art vs Reality. It might be as good a guide as any.

4 responses to “What does anybody know about art?

  1. RAYMOND GILL: You are asking the wrong question. What makes great art; how much did the sponsor kick in; what makes bad art; how much knowledge do the critics have; did the first man/woman to paint on a cave wall wish to produce art or information; can’t almost anything become art; the art of war; the art of cooking? All of these, and more would, IMHO be more to the point.

    I’m in a bad mood, so I won’t continue.

  2. Well, Raymond, the question of what is Art is a very old and very tricky one.It is certainly one that is going to crop up more than ever in climate of ultra-postmodernism in which we find ourselves.

    For example, I consider myself a modernist, or perhaps a late modernist. What qualifies me as such is that I consider some Art to be Better than Other Art. A postmodernist would reject hierarchical divisions of Artistic forms utterly; that is, they would consider Dubliners by James Joyce and Fifty shades of grey of equal literary value. They would say that a pop hit is as good, or better, than something by Liszt, and they would qualify this by the argument that it is better because they like it more, and would justify this by saying that more people like it generally. Alternatively I, even though I hate Liszt, I would disagree. It depends whether or not you ‘believe’ in High Art. I happen to.

    Some people argue that POMO isn’t a consumer trend, but is instead a mode. I’m inclined to believe this is true, but I will add that Frederik Jameson makes a very powerful argument for the alternative. POMO is generally supposed to have begun after the 1950’s, if you believe many sociologists. This probably isn’t true, because before POMO there was the avant garde. In fact, pulp fiction such as Fantomas, which is ultra POMO predates this by decades. I mentioned Liszt before–some of Lizst qualifies as POMO in every way.

    In Visual Art, defining what is and what isn’t PostModern can get very tricky. For example, I’m a massive fan of New Objectivism (popularly referred to as ‘Magical Realism’) and often can’t decide which camp this falls into. It depends on the Artist, a lot of the time; Rob Evans is more Postmodern than Otto Dix, but Dali is more Postmodern than either of them. It’s easy to get caught in the nettle of your own theory once you get deep into this stuff, especially when you start trying to pin movements to periods. What is the difference, for example, between classicism and realism? When (at what point) does realism become Magical realism and when does Magical realism become Surrealism? You really can do a lot of head braking on this subject.


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