Art can seem mysterious, irrelevant. Something only for those “in the know”. But stop to give art a chance- focus your attention onto it for a bit, and it pounces! As an art historian I passionately believe that because a work of art is the product of its culture, it will always have something to say, something to teach us, some new beauty to reveal. So give it a second look. Then duck.
In the world of art, as in life, there are only two kinds of news… The Bad News The Delaware Art Museum is selling off anything that isn’t stuck to the wall. Well, it’s not quite that bad yet. But their director, Michael Miller (who was formerly employed by DuPont and has no arts background) has decided, against all advice, to sell off several of the museum’s treasures to make good on a bad debt. The first painting to go on the block was William Holman Hunt’s mesmerising ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’,(a smaller version of his 1867 original) which sold for only half its estimated price. Delaware has a wonderful collection of Pre-Raphelite works, but it seems that these are are merely potential dollar signs to a museum in sell-off mode. They now plan to auction four more artworks, including a lovely, wistful Winslow Homer (Milking Time, 1875). When will we stop thinking that the purpose of our art galleries (or universities, for that matter) is to turn a tidy profit? Like the NY Times says, it’s ‘like burning down your house to heat the kitchen’. The Good News Art is everywhere, at least if you live in the UK. The Art Everywhere project is a venture between several museums, galleries and auction houses and a whole range of corporate sponsors. Their goal is to bring art into the daily space of millions of people- where one might expect a bland car advert or perhaps an unwelcome push for home insurance, they get some of the country’s best masterworks instead. People tweet photos of the artworks as they find them, using the hashtag #arteverywhere, and the whole thing turns into a rather cultured treasure hunt! Holbein in Angel Tube Station, #London @arteverywhereUK #art pic.twitter.com/3ZohWxCRsK — Vanessa (@ars_brevis) August 23, 2014 Like the wonderful otherworldliness of Poems on the Underground, Art Everywhere reminds people that they are human, with feelings, depths and a whole life outside their daily commute. The other good news, also out of Britain, is that YOU CAN MOVE ROBOTS AROUND THE TATE AT NIGHT!!! We salute whoever came up with this idea, and actually managed to sell it to (desperate?) museum officials. Actually, you missed out. It finished a week ago. But at least we can remember. #Tateafterdark was fun, although I may have gotten Robot 2 stuck trying to leave the Moore Gallery! pic.twitter.com/jHdrLgQpVq — Thelma Phillips (@redclayroad) August 16, 2014 The Good/Bad News If the Tate Bots (and you missing out on them) teaches us anything, it’s that good and bad news often come together. Heck, sometimes you can’t even tell them apart! For example, The National Gallery is now allowing photography. The Apollo Magazine argues that clicking away actually replaces close looking and contemplating. The Independent bemoans anyone taking anything seriously ever again. Fantastic #MuseumSelfie in 1001 Objects to Inspire gallery via Instagram http://t.co/De0ywcMRiD @MuseumSelfie pic.twitter.com/Gfbx1kHIro — Derby Museums (@derbymuseums) August 15, 2014 On the plus side, now you won’t get kicked out for having some...read more
Welcome to a new segment entitled ‘We’ve seen that before’, because nothing makes us historians more smug than pointing out that some recent phenomenon has origins or parallels with something long established. (Read Part 1 of this series) In the epic age since Art Attack last added its own humble contribution to the myriad, weird and cool-wierd bunch of selfie commentary currently on t’internet, in no less an organ then the Apollo Magazine, Maggie Gray has weighed into the fray. She argues that museums labelling their self-portraits #selfies, is merely jumping on the bandwagon. “Selfie” and “Rembrandt” really don’t go together, and this attempt to merge genres is really just a cynical attempt to get noticed on social media and up their numbers at exhibitions. She quotes Jerry Saltz’s article attempting to place the selfie in a separate category: “It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history.” Well, yes. Quite. Selfies are not self-portraits. Self-portraits are not selfies. Self-portraits take time, skill, an abstraction of all forms in the mind only to re-create them artificially on a canvas or bit of paper. It’s a painstaking process, which requires a very different set of motivations than “Hey- everyone! Like my new hair?? LOL”. [Note on the image above: I had such a crush on Parmigianino when I was a teenager. Just look at his little boy-band face!] But there are several very interesting reasons these new selfies are unique, and let’s talk about one of the most obvious ones now. I WUZ HERE. In very few self portraits do we see an attempt to show the viewer where the artist is. If the artist is anywhere, it is in a non-place, or a trippy nether land. In some Renaissance portraits, for example, you get a small window’s view of a place. Check out one of the earliest known self-portraits below, by Albrecht Dürer. As this was a pretty new thing to do (paint yourself) Dürer later added an inscription below the window: “1498. I painted this after my image. I was twenty-six. Albrecht Dürer”. The window is small, but opens up the whole scene..to what? A lake and some snow-capped mountains. It’s not terribly specific. Art historians suggest it may symbolise Dürer’s recent travels, or perhaps his state of mind. (Snow-capped?) In any case, it’s not really a place. Or if it IS a place, it’s almost purely symbolic. There are a few exceptions, of course, but on the whole, a self-portrait focuses on the subject, not where they are. Yet, with selfies, where you are is just as important as who you are. In fact, the two are completely linked. In my cousin Geoff’s picture, above, the point is not him, or his image. The point is that he is UNDERWATER WITH AWESOME TURTLES. Just in case you were wondering how he felt about this, the centre of the image is his ‘thumbs up’. In both diving speak and the world of Facebook- this is a good thing. So this ties his own identity, his “brand”, if you will, to the fact that he visits amazing places. This core requirement of selfies has come about because the medium is easy and portable. If you can set up an identity through props, clothes and expressions (just like self-portraits) you can...read more
What’s been happening in the world of art and art-related nonsense, you ask? Excellent question. Enjoy the smattering of links below, and be better informed. Smackdown at the Tate The controversy over Tate director Penelope Curtis continues. Basically, she’s given only a few rooms at the Tate Britain to the historical collection (1550-1900) and LOTS AND LOTS of room to the 20th century. So, it feels a bit imbalanced, to put it mildly. Peeps is pissed. Other peeps defend her. Don’t have an opinion yet? No worries. Sack Her: The Times’s Art Critic, The Burlington Magazine She’s Brilliant: The Telegraph Meh: The Guardian Worthy Reflections As it’s winter here, I was thinking the other day about Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem/Christmas carol, In the bleak midwinter. I was then delighted to find that Dinah Roe had written an enlightening article that examines the poem closely. Did you know that stuffed wombats regularly photobomb the internet? Did you know that this specifically happens on Fridays? Did you know that it was a Pre-Raphelite thing? I need to get a wombat. Maybe a real one, just to up the ante… Victorian women on bikes! Local News The National Gallery of Victoria is celebrating it’s awesome Italian Masterpieces winter exhibition by turning the whole gallery into a hipster’s dream every Friday night until the end of the month. Art Attack has seen at first hand the late openings, eclectic DJs and folk bands, wine bar and italian-themed food, and some cool feather covered bears. What better way to start the weekend? Did you know about The Melbourne Art Network? It’s kind of like this page, only updated regularly and useful. It’s not as snarky, though. Attack of the Week This week, the Grumpy Art Historian was on form: discussing the way we talk about children and their experience of museums, while championing context and intellectual engagement. My favourite quote: “As you develop the ability to discriminate, Thomas Kinkade and Jack Vettriano will please you less and you might come to appreciate artists like Poussin or Guido Reni more.”...read more
Welcome to a new segment entitled ‘We’ve seen that before’, because nothing makes us historians more smug than pointing out that some recent phenomenon has origins or parallels with something long established. A few months ago, the Oxford English Dictionary announced that ‘selfie’ was the Word of the Year 2013. Since then, selfies and related (mostly freaky) phenomena have been getting much more coverage in the press. In fact, according to some media watchers/comedians, we’ve now reached ‘Peak Selfie’. Loads of people all over these inter webs are writing about selfies, why add to the noise? I’ll tell you why- they are all doing it wrong. Why haven’t art historians been storming the internet, demanding some kind of visual analysis? (Maybe they have, but we are a tiny discipline comparatively, and perhaps that discussion has been lost in the noise…) Anyway. Though the word apparently originated in Australia some years back, the selfies themselves came about with our new mobile technology- we’ve had cameras we can take about with us for ages, but somehow when you put said camera in a mobile phone, the urge to hold it out at arms length and snap away is that much stronger. I’m fascinated by selfies. They seem to be tied very deeply to identity- both an individual’s identity and our modern conception of ourselves. In the same way, artists have been doing self portraits since the Renaissance: a fascinating combination of ‘Hey, look what I can do!’ and ‘Hey, look at me!’ which have some striking parallels to selfies. As I started looking into this, I realised that though there has been a lot of noise about selfies lately, I’ve not read much about how they function on a deeper level. These blog posts attempt to break down some basics- food for thought, if you will. Selfies and Self-Portraits: All About Identity “When it is the artist’s own face, the potential for revelation is all the greater” – Vivien Gaston On a certain level, this is pretty duh. Selfies and self-portraits are about the person in them, the person who created them. We are programmed as a species to read faces- this is no abstract subject or hazy landscape. This is something familiar and legible to us- but we very rarely break down what we see when we look at a face. But the fascinating thing about analysing these images as an art historian is separating the intentional from the unintentional. What that person meant to convey, and what they accidentally do convey. Let’s look at our friend up there in the blue shirt. While waiting for the bus, she snaps a selfie. What does she attempt to convey? She wants us to see her as attractive: she’s well-practiced in the art of holding the phone up slightly to get a more flattering angle. She’s young, slightly trendy without trying- she’s got classic ‘I’m a smart and stylish person’ glasses and a cool leather corded necklace. She’s still wearing her headphones, emphasising both her detachment from the tedium of commuting and her cool musical taste (this is implied, we don’t know what she’s listening to, but we judge by her clothes that it’s not Katy Perry.) But most of all, most telling of everything, is her look to the camera. Direct, serious,...read more
Having recently de-camped to Australia, I’ve noticed a strange similarity between the native gumtrees and certain hazy psychedelic images from my youth… Just...read more
So I was doing my usual bout of procrastination on Gawker, and came across a fantastic story about Banksy’s latest escapades. The famously incognito street artist was in New York City, doing a series of his traditional graffiti, and apparently some quite bonkers, Halloween-inspired installations. The video below shows a traditional emblem of death, the Grim Reaper, riding a jerky bumper car underneath disco lights. The soundtrack is, of course, ‘Fear the Reaper’ by Blue Öyster Cult. An ‘audio guide’ was available on Banksy’s site (now unfortunately taken down!) for those heading down to Houston Street to see the temporary spectacle. It was spooky and hilarious, full of juxtapositions between the uncanny and the sardonic. Slow and creepy accordion music accompanies the voiceover. A few fantastic excerpts: This sculpture perfectly represents death, in that it’s a bit…random. ……. Let us pause for a minute, and step back. [car honk] Not that far, Jesus! ……… It is often said that the role of art is to remind us of our mortality. Brasky’s [sic] take on that seems to be mounting an art show that goes on for so long we all wish we were dead already. Each serious point, each creepy fact, is undercut with the ridiculous. The grim reaper rides a bumper car in a very undignified fashion. The viewer is asked to reflect and is then honked at. The viewer is reminded of the ‘fragility of existence’ and then in the next breath the narrator complains about the accordion music. This is typical of Banksy’s style, to wrap heavy topics in humour to make them go down easier. Because in our culture we don’t face certain things head-on; I suppose you could call this exhibit a sugar-coated death pill. It’s not as if we recoil in horror when someone mentions death in the abstract, we just don’t take it in. And we don’t mention it that much, really. Sure, we’ve got lots of films, TV and video games that seem to represent lots of death, but that is mere cartoon death. It isn’t real. And occasionally we must face it; a death in the family, or a serious illness transforms death from abstract idea into a real, dimension-changing possibility. People don’t know what to say to us, when our mother has died. We don’t know what to say to others, how to comprehend the finality of death. We have lost the vocabulary. So, was there ever a culture which possessed a vocabulary for these experiences? Yup, and the audio narrator quotes a few famous lines from that culture: Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. These are the final two stanzas of William Earnest Henley’s famous poem Invictus, from 1875. It is about facing death in all its uncertainty; confronting the possibility of damnation with dignity. The poet claims control over his soul, and the ‘Horror of the shade’ loses some of its menace. Turns out, Victorian England had quite the fascination with death and loss, and all those creepy,...read more