Category Archives: Contemporary Art

Picasso At The AGNSW

Picasso’s Picasso

As best as I can tell, the current show touring Australia from Paris is based on the collection Pablo Picasso owned of his own work at the time of his death. In other words, these are the works he liked so much, with which he would not part. As such, it offers an entirely different sort of entry point to most collections of Picasso works that are extant. I’ve seen the Guggenheim collection and the Norton Simon Museum collection and over the years there have been some others that have come through town so even if I can’t claim to understand Picasso’s work, I have a good level of prior experience of seeing his work.

In one sense, it’s a Picasso exhibition that’s mostly curated by Picasso himself.

What’s Good About It

The outstanding thing about this collection is that it covers a great deal of his career, so there’s almost something from just about every period of his career. Each room is contextualised around a part of Picasso’s life, and so you get a better feel for how he developed his style and vision through his life. In that sense, this is a fine collection that allows you into the mindset of the creator, much more than other collections of Picasso, although I must admit I have not seen the big collection in Spain.

There is a wide range of works, covering small sketches and paintings through to larger canvases and sculptures. I’d seen the book of the exhibition about a month ago when I got drawn into an argument about the greatness of Picasso, but when I saw the whole exhibition it made more sense than the book.

What’s Bad About It

Some of the rooms are dark. You don’t really get a good sense of colours in some instances and in with some sketches, you’re squinting to get a sense of contrast. You get a little booklet where they explain the rooms and the period of Picasso’s life, but it still feels somewhat under-explained. I don’t know if the onus is on the curator for something like this, but it did seem sparse in parts.

What’s Interesting About It

When you see this series of works, some of his favorite objects and motifs begin to leap out at you. For instance, he really liked guitars, and other fretted instruments like mandolins and lutes. There are two sculptures that ostensibly are representations of guitars and it is actually quite interesting how he deconstructs the guitar into abstract art. You get the feeling that Picasso spent a lifetime tangling with the guitar – possibly because he was a Spaniard to the end – and he kept trying to capture something about the guitar that drew him in.

He also liked animals, for they make frequent appearances in his works. Bulls and Minotaurs are famous; as is the dove of peace he designed for the United Nations; but in this exhibit we’re introduced to goats and goat’s heads and goat’s skulls quite a bit. Clearly he liked women a lot, but it’s surprising just how much he liked abstracting the lines of animals.

As for the women, this is perhaps the only Picasso exhibition that offers insight into who these women were to Picasso. He kept paintings of these women long after they were out his life. He’d managed to abstract them as well as capture them and perhaps he didn’t need them any more. There’s clearly something predatory and unrelenting about Picasso’s pursuit of these women and on to the canvas. And no matter how much he abstracted their faces, he really liked lining up the pair of nipples and breasts properly. he wasn’t about to start abstracting “tits and arse”.

“The Greatness of Picasso” Arguments

We’ve all been there. Confronted with the mass of Picasso’s work, somebody always pipes up and says they don’t think Picasso is that great. You can even hear that person as you walk through the exhibit, and they bloody well mean it because they say in a whisper that is inevitably heard by everybody in the room. We get int these arguments any time somebody decides the abstracted lines are simply crap, and not good descriptive art. You hear the argument that if Picasso could draw and paint as well as he could, then why didn’t he go off the rails so much? And why do critics think this is so great.

My humble opinion is simply this: Picasso got bored easily. And to the extent that he got bored, he decided he was only going to paint or sculpt or draw what interested him and kept his interest. There is one particular back-to-the-classicism painting of Olga, with the background unfinished. Clearly he was interested in Olga, and painting her with sufficient fidelity, but when it came to filling in the background, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, but kept the unfinished canvas. It’s obvious – without ascribing motive, hopefully – that he simply chose not to fill in the background, and moved right along to the next thing. While the reason is unknown, my best guess is that he got bored.

All these developments he made such as cubism appear to be a desire to abstract shadow from form, form from subject, lines from outlines and image from perspective. The reason Picasso painted these funny mixed up faces was because he wanted to paint lines that he liked from the face at certain angles, but for them to all be there at once. To me, this is self-evident; but I have no hope of convincing you of this insight if you disagreed.

In as much as there is so much of Picasso’s work in this world, I imagine there is a powerful legion of critics who still question whether Picasso was a genius or not. The thing about going through the gallery looking at this exhibition is that in the very least, Picasso was an inventive artist, forever trying a new way to express something. He did not fear failure the way a perfectionist does; and to that extent he was a lot more free than most people would imagine.

I for one do not think Picasso’s works is for everybody. It’s not going to convince everybody, unlike say, the voice of Pavarotti or Shakespeare’s plays. It’s probably sacrilege to say this but I don’t think everything he did has a wide appeal. Yet, if you look at a lot his works in one spot and spend the time to carefully observe the lines and shapes he painted and sculpted, you begin to get a sense for what defines his style, as well as why that might be so.  I can’t – and won’t – claim to understand all of his work but I will venture that based on this exhibition, there’s something of Picasso that I do grok.

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History Is Now

The Sum Total of Human Experience For 2000 Years

A little while ago the Economist put up this chart in their Daily Chart section. I’ve been meaning to blog it but life has a way of getting in the way of blogging. It’s a chart of summing up the years lived and the economic output of humanity for the last 2000 years.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

For a moment, I want people to consider what this means. That 28% of human history and experience was lived in the 20th Century tells us that whatever was important leading up to the 20th Century, things that were just as important happened in the 20th century. Add in the 23% from the last 11 years of the 21st Century and basically, the last 111 years account for 51% of the sum total of human experience for the last 2000 years.

If you look at that gentle slope to the left of the 20th century, that includes the Empire phase of the of the Roman Empire minus the first 49 years which fell before 1AD, the various empires in the Middle East and Persia, the multitude of Chinese Dynasties since the latter Han Dynasty, and so on. The cultural output probably correlates with economic output as a proxy, so what this all suggests is that everybody from (just randomly, no relative importance implied) Tacitus and Suetonius and Zhuge Liang and St Thomas Aquinas and Renee Descartes and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Constantine and Napoleon, all fall into 49% to the left of the 20th Century.

In turn, if you had a detailed understanding of the 20th Century and the 11years of this century, you’d actually be on top of 51% (and growing in proportion) of human history since 1AD. This doesn’t immediately relegate the classics of any field to the dust bin, but it puts it all into a different perspective.

There was a study done in Germany that pointed to 1970 as the year classical education ended. That is to say, it was the year in which the teaching of classics was no longer the mainstay of education, that increasingly vocational education pushed aside the classical education. If you look at this chart, you can see why. The push of modernity was directly the push of the massive demographic that arose in the 20th century. It is possible more people were lost to war and violence than any other time in history in the 20th Century, and even then it managed to produce so many life-hours and economic output and by extension, cultural output.

In turn, what has happened since 1970 sheds a lot of light on this shift. The move from modernism to post-modernist philosophy was probably an attempt to accommodate this giant shift where overnight the classical teachings that formed the cultural framework became obsolete. Indeed, more humans have read the classics, listened to classical music alone in the last 111years, while things like cinema as a form of expression grew into maturity and needed to be discussed. Pop music of various shades supplanted the ‘importance’ of classical music and contemporary art keeps on rewriting the frontiers of expression at an ever more frantic pace.

The best book that in fact offers an insight into this might be ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler, because what is described in that book is precisely what this chart has shown, and the implications keep reaching out. I don’t mean to praise the book, but rereading it today would offer confirmation that indeed the future is not only now, so is history.

One of the important take away messages from the chart is that what we are doing right now, is just as important as what happened before. Your poem, your short story, your film, your song is no less important than anything that preceded it. It’s just that nobody has had the time to find your work unless you have become a celebrity. Not being famous and best-selling does not preclude you from being a valued contributor to the human experience. Be encouraged in knowing that what you are doing is meaningful. Go forth and create, secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is just as important as what came before. It’s counter-intuitive, but history is in the making, right now as we speak, and you are doing it.

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Censorship Blues – 13/May/2011

How About Arguments Based On Intellectual Merit?

Where does one start with the idiotic submission by Bravehearts to the Senate?

ONE of Australia’s most prominent child protection advocate, Bravehearts, has weighed into the art censorship debate, calling for the Classification Board to be overhauled and for matters of ”artistic merit” and expert evidence to be scrapped when deciding if art is pornography.

Bravehearts’s submission to a Senate inquiry into the film and literature classification scheme was one of several submissions highly critical of the board for allegedly sanctioning the exhibition of photographs of children that would otherwise be illegal, and for failing to halt the proliferation of images that demean women and pressure young girls to act in sexual ways.

Other community and Christian groups wanted the board’s power increased so it could censor outdoor advertising, which is at present self-regulated by an industry body, the Advertising Standards Bureau.

The executive director of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston, an outspoken critic of the work of the photographer Bill Henson, called for NSW employment laws that ban taking photographs of naked and semi-naked children to be replicated across Australia and said such photos should be refused classification by the board.

”How is it that it was illegal to take the photos but not illegal to exhibit them?” she said, referring to photographs Henson took of a naked 12-year-old girl that were exhibited at a Sydney art gallery in 2008, sparking a ferocious debate about pornography and art.

That sound you hear in the distance is me grinding my teeth. I don’t exactly do art with nude teens in them, so it’s not a problem that sits in front of me, but I have written songs about an Orangutan sex slave prostitute and Josef Fritzl so I can see this sort of thing being a problem for my work as well. It may very well take Frank Zappa recordings off record shelves.

The problem is threefold.

The first problem is that the censorship board can’t be the board that decides if there is artistic merit or not. neither can it proceed with the notion that there is no such thing as artistic merit. Asking for it to discard notions of artistic merit and place judgments based strictly on whether there is a minor depicted in the nude or not, is grossly censorious and has terrible ramifications for ALL freedom of expression. It places too much under the blanket of a taboo, just in case there’s a pervert out there who gets aroused by art. Nobody would be able to discuss anything in fiction or art, because sure as hell it won’t stop at fears of paedophilia.

The second problem is that of defining pornography when removing the framework of art. In any age of history in age of differing societal standards is that it’s strictly in the eye of the beholder. It’s up to the beholder to decide how they respond to an image or an object. By Johnson’s logic, it’s only acceptable art if one doesn’t get sexually aroused. I don’t think that is going to work as a definition of art. And this has a corollary:

Let’s consider for a moment the humble rock melon. Most people on the planet don’t conceive of a rock melon as a sexualised object. Some people who use them as sexual aids for purposes of masturbation might consider otherwise. By Hetty Johnson’s logic, it would become illegal to display melons in shops because somebody might get aroused.

Similarly, if there are in this world bestial perverts and they were likely to be aroused by sheep, then why should there by all those naked sheep allowed to roam our countryside available to the person? How does Hetty Johnson suggest we enforce this issue? Putting diapers on all sheep in Australia? It’s clearly an idiotic position to take on what things are in the public view.

The third problem is that should it be possible to enforce censorship without notions of artistic merit, then where would such a revision stop? The naked cherubs in Renaissance paintings? The statue of David by Michelangelo and Donatello? David was a teen when he slew Goliath by biblical accounts, so by Johnson’s logic any statue of David should not be in public view, lest some pervert get aroused. Well, there happens to be a replica in a shopping centre on the Goldcoast, and it’s been there for years. She is really arguing that we shouldn’t consider the artistic merits of a Michelangelo, or Donatello, just focus on the exposed genitals.

Artistic merit of works is like the presumption of innocence in criminal trials. Without it, you’re going to have totalitarian repression of expression. If Hetty Johnson doesn’t understand this, it’s probably because she is happier with embracing fascism than actually trying to help kids from paedophilia. Picking on the arts is stupid.There’s no correlation between what artists do and child porn. Likening the two to one another is insidious. The fact that she can only see controversy and no artistic merit in Bill Henson’s work is not a failing in Bill Henson or his work or for that matter the Classification Board, it’s actually her problem and it rests squarely with her. She should seek help from a psychiatrist instead of wasting the Senate’s time.

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Shadow Of Death

Why We Do Creative Stuff

This isn’t an entry about the artist over at iComp who used to go by the handle Shadow of Death.

This is something else entirely.Just thought I’d get that out of the way first.

I’ve recently been thinking about the mission of the artist a lot, in as much as I have been teaching a class full of novices how to produce videos. It’s a 12 week course that I’m teaching so it’s hard enough getting through all the technical aspects, but I keep on having to digress to talk about the whys and wherefores of approaches. That is to say, I’m busily trying to impart a method, only to be forced back to the raison d’etre of creating anything in any medium.

An artist or writer or musician will come fact to face with their work only a limited number of times in their life. This is why death makes the price of artworks by a particular artist go up. There is no such long tail with cinema and film making, but the opportunities to do anything are even more limited than if one’s means of production were more readily accessible. The flip-side of that it is arguable that every time you pick up something to do anything creative is an important moment.

I’ve also been telling my students that whatever it is that they choose to do or make, they have to work it with the utmost of their artistic convictions – otherwise they are cheating not only the audience but themselves of the opportunity to do something truly transcendent. The good news is that as Frank Zappa says, if you can put a framework around it you can call it a work of art. at one end is the austere challenge of doing something worthwhile and at the other is the liberation for all approaches; I sort of wonder if my students can keep both things in my head.

The truth is, I tell them so many things I don’t know what is sinking in and what is washing off like water off a duck’s back. All the while the elephant in the room seems to be the challenge to do something worthwhile. They asked me if I was a tough marker. I said no, but in looking at how I’ve marked their essays, I have to admit that I am tough. In turn, Ive been sitting on a desk job for 3 years now just to pay the rent and as the summer rolls around, I’m beginning to feel a real yearning to go back to a creative life. Perhaps my own creative frustration is seeping through unfairly.

I don’t offer any new insight into any of this except perhaps all of this is in sharper focus for me this month because I have had to think about this stuff more with students at hand. We do what we do because it pleases us, and we do what we do because we want it to delight somebody. If somebody did a sculpture of a dog turd and called it art, it probably has somebody who takes delight in the object sitting in an art gallery as art. The point is do more, do as many, mean it when you do it because you don’t know how many shots you get at it.

In any case, all our work – be they films, songs, novels and poems – mark out time unto our ultimate ends. All our creative works are done in defiance of the impending doom, affirmations of a life lived under the shadow of death.

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