All Froth And No Bubble?


People in the art world hate it when someone tries to work out what’s going on. The "big picture" is a discredited concept. And it’s why there are no art movements anymore. Things happen in isolation, free from the influence and effect of the events that are happening elsewhere. If you’re going to ascribe a reason for why these things happen – why a painter paints in a certain way, why an artist works with video, why their art looks stunningly like the work of an international art superstar – it’s safer to stick to the script supplied by artists or their galleries.

Naturally, it’s bollocks. I once wrote an article for an art magazine where I decided — half-jokingly, half-seriously — to name two "art movements" by describing the common features of certain painters working in Sydney while trying to figure out where their influences had come from. For my trouble I got a ticking off from a writer in Melbourne who used my article as evidence of my own claims to grandiosity. Really, how could anyone, in this day and age, try on such a regressive and retrograde tactic? Bah.

This minor dust-up is emblematic of the scope of most thinking within the art world: its internal debates are based on rarefied topics and have negligible impact beyond its borders. For all the posturing that art engages with big, world-shaking ideas, the art world is in truth an intellectually isolated community. Although events like the Biennale of Sydney, major auctions sales, or perhaps the opening of a new museum may vaguely register on the consciousness of the general public, the internal workings of the art scene remain remote and obscure.

It’s only when art erupts into a scandal that the art community is exposed as the fractious, disorganised and divided place it really is.

The fears and prejudices exposed by the Bill Henson affair earlier this year were profoundly ugly. I suppose it was the height of naivety to imagine, not even a year into the rule of a new federal Government, that the demons unleashed by a decade of fear mongering would have settled down. The right wing commentariat jumped on the Henson photographs with glee, a brain numbing pedo-hysteria whipped up by pundits who love using art as an example of something, aided and abetted by sincere but misguided "community leaders", a compliant media and politicians reacting before the facts were in. It was an apocalypse of sheer idiocy.

For its part, the contemporary art community acted with uncommon unity during the affair. This unity amounted to silence – followed inevitably by a rout.

The silence was of the stunned variety. Elitist? Out of touch? Us? No-one in the art community seriously believed the claims against Henson, although many had written off Henson as a once-great artist who had given into the profitable temptation to repeat himself. And what was more, if the outraged journos had known anything about their subject they could have found much more damning, virtually indefensible examples of contemporary art whose whole raison d’être is shock and awe.

The post-Henson rout erupted when the editors of Art Monthly ran a photo of a naked child by the artist Polixeni Papapetrou on the magazine’s cover in a deliberate attempt to restart the "debate". While the art community had held its ground over Henson the Art Monthly chapter of the saga seemed stunningly stupid, cruelling support from the wider community and dissolving unanimity within the art scene.

The contemporary art world has grown used to being vilified in the media, usually by resident art critics openly hostile to anything made after 1950, and by columnists casting around for content for their twice-weekly rantings. The Henson affair was kicked off in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald by Miranda Devine, a journalist who has often used art as a little colour for her "pieces". And even though the issue spread around the country, with various police agencies visiting the collections of major museums, it would normally have ended there. However, there was a postscript to this disturbing chapter in the cultural life of Australia: state attorney generals gathered in late 2008 to consider how they might change the law to make it easier to prosecute ambiguous art. This ugliness has yet to run its course.

As the Henson affair brewed, the Biennale of Sydney opened to much hoopla. Under the artistic direction of Italian superstar curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev the Biennale was a hit with the punters, drawing in a record attendance of 435,000 visitors over its three month run. To put that number into perspective, the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most prestigious art event, managed just 320,000 over five months in 2007. Although rumours had circulated before the Biennale opening that Christov-Bakargiev was an autocratic curator given to emotional outbursts, she certainly had the right touch when it came to putting together a popular show. Art critic Daniel Palmer writing in the magazine Art World spoke for many when he called the Biennale one of "the most stimulating exhibitions of international art seen in Australia in the past decade".

I was making a documentary about the Biennale during its run for the ABC. I met Christov-Bakargiev on several occasions and interviewed her for the show. I found her charming and was impressed by her talk of democratic communities, her commitment to reaching wider audiences, and the whole revolutionary vibe of the Biennale. Towards the end of the show’s run I got a call from the Biennale office asking if I would like to take part in a panel discussion that had been hurriedly organised to replace a cancelled keynote address and conference that had been planned around the visit of Hans Ulrich Obrist — it had turned out that the Swiss curator wouldn’t travel to Australia after all. "Carolyn asked especially for you", they said, and flattered to be asked, I agreed.

The panel was designed in a rather peculiar way. The panellists wouldn’t make statements or present their views — instead they would ask Christov-Bakargiev questions and listen to her explain why the basis of their questions were misguided. I asked her a deliberately provocative question about the future of biennales — would they become the art world equivalent of visiting airports or shopping malls, acting as outlets for overly familiar brand name artists, or would biennales evolve into niche events, drawing on the strengths and uniqueness of their host cities, as I thought the 2008 Biennale of Sydney had done

Christov-Bakargiev’s answer was revealing. She took my question to be about proscriptive curators telling artists what to do and that, as a matter of principle, artists needed to be free to express themselves however they want to. In respect to organising a biennale, Christov-Bakargiev stated that the world circuit of biennales — which now includes over 150 pit-stops — was an international dialogue between host cities and of course, certain artists must be represented because they are important

I then asked her what difference having certain artists would make since the vast majority of punters in Sydney can’t afford to fly to Havana or Berlin or Venice. Well, she said, biennales are really only there for the 1500 people who travel around the world to see them. I took this to mean the movers and the shakers, the big deal curators, collectors and presumably the artists as well.

As I sat on the stage at the Art Gallery of NSW listening to this answer I wondered if anyone would question the whole idea that the Biennale of Sydney had just spent $4 million for the entertainment of 1500 jet setters? Where had this whole notion of engagement with the public gone? So much for the revolutionary vibe – if you have the air miles you’re part of the club.

Writing about this incident feels like I’m betraying a confidence. Sure, there are personality foibles and organisational eccentricities in all large groups, but do I really want to make it public? Christov-Bakargiev’s comments were made in the theatre of a large art museum, but it felt like we were only talking to ourselves. Thank God there were no shock jocks or right wing columnists in the room, I thought, because there — finally — was the proof that the contemporary art world really is as elitist as they make us out. In reality, however, I also understood that no one outside the room really gave a toss either.

The art world is divided. There is the contemporary art world of biennales, glossy art magazines and high profile kids making careers in the klieg lights of publicity. Then there is the more traditional art world of artists quietly making traditional art and showing it in the sort of gallery that doesn’t really advertise. Both sides eye each other with suspicion and envy, one side wanting the publicity of the other, the other longing for institutional acceptance. The one thing that unites the art world is money. You’d think with the financial crisis that the art community would be banding together, hoping that the decade and half expansion the market has enjoyed since the crash of the early 1990s would remain strong. After all, isn’t an expanded market a strong market? Isn’t a variety of buyers and sellers good for everyone?

Well, not if you believe some sections of the art world — a crash can’t come soon enough. The reasoning goes like this: some art isn’t worth buying because it is bad and anyone who spends a lot of money on it is a fool. If the market crashes and the nouveau riche are forced out, then only the really good stuff gets sold to people who really want it. The conspicuous wealth of artists like Damien Hirst isn’t deserved and what’s more, a market crash is God’s justice.

I am reminded of Cold War propaganda. When talking about nuclear war it was said that there would be no winners, only losers. So too in a crash of the art market. Despite the seeming differences between sections of the art community, we’re more same same than we are different.

And so the end of the year finds the art world awaiting its fate. The anxiety is acute since the buying and selling of art, the funding of various public advisory bodies and boards, the numerous government funded museums, commercial galleries and publications, all live or die on the health of the financial markets.

And when the market falls, so too the golden palaces of art’s Sodom and Gomorrah.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.