June 2012 was the 250th issue of Art Monthly Australia and I was one of a number of writers commissioned to celebrate the occasion by writing about “critical art writing”. My article, which became the lead, was not exactly reverential in tone, in fact I took a fair amount of delight in rubbing in the fact that capital A art is finally dissolving away into a broader culture of everyday life, something I had fought for all my life but which has some very threatening implications for the conventional art world. The version below is slightly different to the published version because it has some links and a number of minor amendments that never made it into print.
Shoot for the head!
250 issues eh? Well, I’m delighted to congratulate Art Monthly and all who sailed in it and acknowledge its achievements and longevity, an achievement in itself. But the congratulations are tempered by the fact that like so many art world achievements, it all occurred within the art world’s sheltered workshop in the name of a meme – capital A art – that has been slowly dissolving away for almost forty years or more, yet Art Monthly, and admittedly most other art magazines as well, seems hardly to have noticed.
When Art has dissolved away completely will there be any reason for art critical writing to exist? Well, we’ll get to that later but let’s step out of the art world echo chamber and examine what has been happening from the outside.
<First, a declaration of interest.>
In case you don’t know, I have a dog in this fight. It seemed fairly obvious to me back in the early 1970s that the historic moment called Art was over. Duchamp had demolished the art work as a special category of artefact by demonstrating that anything could be declared an art work and conceptual art had finished it off by removing the need for it to even have a physical existence. It seemed obvious to me that if anything could be art then nothing was art really and what remained were the various institutions and ideological beliefs that had built up around the art meme which the various players manipulated to suit their own purposes.
What also remained was the bedrock human activity of constant cultural evolution and adaptation to changing circumstance, unconnected to any particular media, discipline, training or social class, and that was what interested me. I began to see the cultural innovators as artists despite their lack of either art context or intent, and I began to see the art world’s “artists” as artisan manufacturers working to an existing formula.
As a result the two activities that began to interest me the most were the Builders Labourers Federation and the Green Ban movement on one hand and the innovative agriculturalist P A Yeomans on the other. They represented what I was seeking, an innovative art made out of everyday life, created by social interaction and with real world consequences. This also led to my involvement in the trade union movement, historically one of the main generators of traditional Australian cultural values.
I had no doubt there were many others around the world with similar perceptions but by the eighties the art world institutions had begun their fight back against the radicalism of conceptualism, a return to order that locked out those of us who had espoused a wider definition of art. It wasn’t until the advent of the internet in the 1990s that we even began to find each other again.
<End of DoI>
Now let’s talk about the official art world. Art Monthly was born in the middle of a period that really began around forty years ago. The social upheavals and cultural questioning that characterised the 1970s disguised something else that was happening, the transformation of the institutional art world – the Australian version of this has been documented and analysed by Dr Anne Sanders in recent papers. Driven by population growth and increased public funding, these institutions – art schools, museums, funding bodies and quangos like the biennales – were consolidating and growing. As always the art world simply mirrors the spirit of its time and the art world that had developed by the 1980s was the art world that the rising neo-liberal consensus had to have, a corporatised art world with the market at its core. And although this neo-liberal takeover centred on the US and Europe, Australia eagerly and unthinkingly tagged along, true to its unquenchable colonial spirit.
As the number of private and public galleries grew so did the volume of art production in all forms, and the number of professional (or at least aspiring professional) artists. Modernism had tacitly maintained that art’s collectibility was an outcome of its intellectual significance but this uneasy balancing act collapsed as art became a medium for pure financial speculation. Museums succumbed to a similar syndrome, their role shifting from recording and presenting history to something more entrepreneurial. Curators started to manufacture momentary art movements and by strategic use of funding and publicity they positioned the museum as a booster of market value. Curators and collectors were no longer the sweepers trailing along behind the circus elephants, they were to lead the parade.
Biennales also proliferated, joining the Olympics as a sort of marauding cultural predator that arrived every few years to take a bite out of the local culture. The biennales’ Disneyland version of culture as entertainment fostered an arms race of increasingly outlandish and sensational large scale art. Like Hollywood films, the product was preferably glitzy, a bit topical, a bit shocking, but always fundamentally inconsequential.
Cities requiring a more heavy duty fix began to build venue museums by starchitects like Gehry, Hadid, Liebeskind, etc. and as time wore on the biennale entertainment model mated with the venue museum model to generate high profile private museums like MONA. Don’t be surprised when the venue museums, biennales and private museums are eventually sold off to the multi-national media and entertainment conglomerates like Disney or Fox, it will be the natural fulfilment of their art as entertainment approach.
And the art of the period? By the early 1980s it had become clear that conceptualism, rather than being a threat to the existing order could be moulded into the ideal institutional form of art. The first wave of appropriation was more a marketing movement than an art movement and rebadging painting as “conceptual painting” provided a means of inflating the value of derivative art, increasingly necessary as the growing market required more product than was readily available. The second wave of appropriation, where it became the building block of most institutional conceptual art, was the art world’s equivalent to moving production to China. Just as the Fordist production line facilitated mass production by unskilled labour, so institutional conceptual art facilitated the mass production of art by artists whose primary skill was the ability to re-present other human activities in a form novel enough to keep the fashion cycle turning over.
And art critical writing? Nothing critical about it. During the whole forty year period art writing rarely deviated from its basic purpose, product review and the promotion of art as the most posh form of life decoration.
In the 1970s most art writing took the form of newspaper reviews but despite determined attempts to give some intellectual depth to this genre (particularly by Donald Brook) the quality of newspaper reviewing remained low and the quantity declined as editors increasingly took the view that it was really just advertorial and why give advertorial to an industry that wouldn’t pay its way with advertising.
On the other hand cheaper offset printing encouraged a growth in magazines through the 80s so art writing proliferated there, partly because there was more product needing to be publicised, partly because the educational institutions were churning out graduates who had to do something for a few years until they finally found work in a less marginal industry. The takeover of art education by the universities also encouraged the Moment of Theory which many of these magazines participated in until it collapsed under the weight of its own verbal sludge. But other power shifts were occurring. As art became less a cultural debate and more a form of manufacture for profit, magazines appeared that focused purely on fashionable collecting and lists of “must have” artists, the logical outcome of an overweening market. In fact the most conspicuous characteristic of art writing during the period was its mostly unexamined continuation of its traditional role of promoter and publiciser in an unquestioning alliance with the market.
What have all these people and institutions had in common? They have all operated as gate keepers controlling the flow of artefacts and information in a manufacturing and distribution system that was essentially a parasitic growth on the broader activity of human cultural evolution. As neo-liberalism captured this system it re-purposed the arts into a corporate complex not just for adding prestige and legitimacy to wealth, something that has always happened, but also for large scale financial speculation on the one hand and mindless mass entertainment on the other. The weak spot in all such ideological social constructions is the need for gatekeepers and sometimes even the most constantly alert gatekeepers cannot hold back fundamental change of the sort that occurred about the time Art Monthly appeared on the scene.
What changed? In the middle of this forty year period there was a major leap in human cultural evolution – the internet was born. Suddenly there was a distribution system that not only gave artists access to world wide audiences at almost zero cost but also did it directly without the need to get past the gatekeepers and rent seekers. The change has been rapid. In 1987 when Art Monthly began publishing, only a fraction of 1% of all telecommunicated information was carried over the Internet. Twenty years later in 2007 it carried more than 97%.
And the internet was the perfect medium for an entirely different model of art that had been developing since the 1970s, an art without collectable art works or exhibitions. It mostly grew out of 1970s activism and compromised versions continued to appear in the conventional art world – Haacke and Beuys for instance. It included street art, zines and poster workshops but also artists as cultural activists working collaboratively in groups like the Media Action Group, Union Media Services and BugaUp in Australia and similar groups throughout the world.
The most important aspect of this approach is that although it may generate artefacts like posters and publications they are not for the art market, they are produced to create cultural change. In this context any and every thing is cultural media, whether it is an event, a policy document, an interview, an image, a publication or a demonstration and the process is inevitably collaborative. These cultural activists were experienced community builders and therefore already perfectly adapted to the internet environment. In fact the internet and social media, based on open source and open standards software, collaboratively produced and available for free, could be seen as the ultimate outcome of their approach to culture.
As far as the art world goes it seems likely that we have undergone one of those Kuhnian paradigm shifts much touted in the late 1960s where everything changes in fundamental ways yet the effects do not become apparent until nearly everyone alive at the time dies – or at least loses their grip on power – because they simply cannot process the insult to their world view inherent in the new paradigm.
Although there are endless attempts to simply adapt the existing neo-liberal art world to the internet through websites and online sales or museum exhibitions of the usual suspects advertised with a rhetoric of new media and social involvement, the reality is that the neo-liberal art world is now a blundering zombie, undead but doomed to failure. The gatekeepers cannot pretend to own culture any more when ungraspably fluid cultural activity is flooding around their gates.
I suppose here I should define what I mean by failure. I’m a great fan of failure and I’m not arguing that all these institutions are suddenly going out of existence, or that painting, for instance, is finally dead (again). On the contrary, I am simply arguing that the internet will usher in a different age, for better and for worse, where the activities of the conventional art world will continue but they just won’t matter any more. Think of it as like jousting. Once at the cultural heart of medieval society, jousting still exists – in Lithgow where I live we even have an annual jousting festival. But ultimately jousting doesn’t matter and likewise the forms generated by the neo-liberal art meme are already beginning not to matter because they are incapable of playing a meaningful role in the necessary cultural adaptation we must make to survive in a world of looming environmental collapse. In fact they can easily be recognised as an outgrowth of the ideology that is pushing us to that collapse. That is failure.
On the other hand the cultural world growing up around the internet is a culture focused on the innovative adaptation of daily life. Everything is now up for use and discussion in case it turns out to be effective – even the official art world may be useful once its toxicity declines. It is irrelevant to present these activities as Art because they are Not Art, that’s the point, but they are cultural innovation and the limits now are the limits of the new technology. As Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Where does art critical writing fit in to this? Basically, just as slime mould amoeba adapt to stress by grouping together into an apparently different organism and moving elsewhere, so a lot of art writing has moved to the net without actually becoming something new. The early rise of online writing mostly reproduced the newspaper model of exhibition reviews so exactly that the suspicion was always that they were little more than disguised job applications. This approach failed to recognise that they were now writing about the wrong thing.
In fact we should no longer talk about art critical writing but rather about cultural critical writing. Dan Hill, whose blog City of Sound was an early starter, rarely writes about conventional art but a recent review for the magazine Domus about the facebook timeline is worth pointing to as an example of the direction that the most accessible critical cultural writing will take. He discusses timeline as interface design but more importantly he discusses the cultural implications of a widely available online tool that will change the nature of human memory in potentially devastating ways by making forgetting almost impossible. The article points directly to what is worth writing about, to the type of artefact like timeline whose designers are now the real artists generating cultural innovation in contrast to the ersatz culture of the art world.
And timeline raises another crucial issue, that the internet is a reputation management system where cultural writing is likely to take an entirely different form, closer to conversation and gossip than the supposed objectivity of academic language. Those who do not learn to generate and direct the conversation about themselves will be doomed to obscurity. The significance of an artist is increasingly judged not by reviews but by google ranking and the number of links, facebook friends, likes, twitter followers and who knows what else future technologies will throw up.
Shockingly for old players, cultural writing now also means unashamedly writing about yourself. There will be no benefit to false modesty or hiding behind sympathetic critics who you expect will say it for you, far better to regularly blog, tweet and comment far and wide about your latest activity. And that leads to one final aspect, sociability as a practical imperative and writing as the means of generating a supportive community of sharing and linking “friends” that you may never have met. As Marcus Westbury said on April 28 2010 “I just cracked 2000 facebook friends. Who the hell are you people?” Three people liked it, thirty people commented and I know that because I looked it up on his facebook timeline.
Posted: July 24th, 2012
Tags: Anne Sanders
, Art Monthly Australia
, conceptual art
, cultural change
, Dan Hill
, Donald Brook
, Green Bans
, Marcus Westbury
, post art
Comments: 4 Comments
In the mid 1970s I was thinking hard about the relationship between art and other forms of work while reading the great American journalist and oral historian Studs Terkel – his 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do remains a classic and an inspiration. Terkel, like PA Yeomans, was one of the people I saw as an example of the cultural activist as artist and his focus on the lives of ordinary people reinforced the way I was thinking of daily life as the critical arena for cultural innovation. In the process it occurred to me that what I might do was start some sort of news service about work and culture and politics, rather like his radio programs. These days you would just start blogging but then I couldn’t see how I would ever be able to do it so it just sat around in the background as an idea that would never happen.
But it was only a few years later that we set up Union Media Services Pty Ltd (UMS). I’ll talk about that in another post but for the first few years in practice it was mostly a full time working partnership between myself and a trade union journalist, Dale Keeling. Dale and I quickly realised the advantages of sharing material between the many publications we were soon producing and we even discussed organising it as a news service we would offer to other unions. In particular we shared cartoons between publications. We even fantasised that the combined readership of numerous trade union publications could form a sort of distributed alternative media that could at least start to balance the iniquitous propaganda of the mass media.
A bit further down the track, Dale was gone but within UMS we still shared material where we could. By 1983, I think, we were producing all of the Australia Council’s publications but we were particularly involved in their trade union based Art and Working Life (A&WL) program. In the course of discussions about how the program could be extended and further publicised I came up with a version of my original news service idea. I proposed that we could provide union journals, which almost all followed similar formats and were always desperate for interesting content, with entire pages, written, laid out, with photographs printed on hiqh quality paper that could simply be pasted in to the artwork for their existing layout without any additional work.
The Australia Council’s program administrator Deb Mills agreed and away we went. I designed a logo. Michael Davies did the art work. The content came from a variety of sources – ozco, the artists, etc – and Ian Burn mostly wrote it up. We produced one page a month, each covering a different A&WL project. It continued long after I left Union Media and covered a huge range of projects.
Meanwhile our influence had brought about a slow but major improvement in the way unions dealt with their internal communications. In the late 1980s the ACTU appointed a journalist, Andrew Casey as communication officer. He took the A&WL news service model, adapted it and began an ACTU news service, sending out a whole range of trade union and political stories in a format similar to the one we had developed. Suddenly, for the first time ever, a consistent story began to appear across most of the trade union movement for an audience that rivalled the mass media in size. The value of this was apparent in the 1993 federal election where the co-ordinated response of union communications played a major role in winning a supposedly unwinnable election – “one for the true believers” as Paul Keating famously described it.
The Barricades was written in January 1974 for The City Squatter,
the newspaper we published within a few days of the massive police raid that closed down the Victoria Street squat and forced the Resident Action Group out of the buildings we had occupied for most of 1973.
The complete text is at the end of this post.
Throughout 1973 I had been engaged almost full time in activities around Victoria Street, Green Bans and the resident action movement. This had been a straightforward development for me. In 1971 my work had at first been about involving the art audience in the art work through games that required them to interact with the work or with each other in some way, or created some sort of physical involvement with the gallery or other space – I’ll post some of these works later. This evolved from an engagement with the physical spaces of the art world and later led into an engagement with its infrastructure both in recognisably conventional ways (eg editing the Contemporary Art Society Broadsheet) and less conventional ways (eg in late 1971 entering the Contemporary Art Society annual art prize with a letter to the judges saying I deserved the prize because I had received more publicity in the preceding year than any other entrant). I was also writing to people suggesting ways they could alter their living spaces and around this time I began to write my New Artist essay for the NGV’s Object and Idea exhibition. It slowly occurred to me that if I could still be regarded as an artist (as it seems I undoubtedly was) then there were others who were also involved in manipulating the social relationships surrounding the use of space and the city on a far grander scale than I could and that was the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation. I started saying that they were the greatest living Australian artists and I started including things about their activities in the CAS Broadsheet.
At the same time that I was developing my contacts with the builders labourers, Victoria Street, Potts Point, near where I lived in St Neot Avenue, virtually exploded into warfare when Frank Theeman, a developer who had bought up a large stretch of the street, began a vicious process of forced evictions and demolitions. At first I was only slightly involved but then got pulled in completely when Arthur King, the main organiser of the resident action group, disappeared – kidnapped by the developers thugs and held in a car boot for several days as we later found out. From that point on a group of us, mostly Push members, set up headquarters in the former stables at the rear of one of the buildings. For months we fought an ongoing battle against the developer, eventually setting up the first large scale squat in Australia since the Great Depression. In January 1974 we were eventually forced out when hundreds of police and “security” thugs moved in and arrested us all, smashed everything usable in the street – every kitchen and bathroom, every window and door – and erected a barbed wire fence around it all.
The barricades article was written a few days later. At the same time I co-wrote another article In Memory of Victoria Street with my close friend Teresa Brennan and the publication also contained articles by Wendy Bacon, Anne Summers, Roelof Smilde, Darcy Waters, Sasha Soldatow, Liz Fell and others that detailed our research into the corruption behind the development. This research was the beginning of the wave of investigative journalism that over the next few years exposed the rampant corruption in NSW politics and the police force.
This is one of those things that has far more significance for its author than is obvious because in writing it I finally got clear in my head how political activism could be understood in terms of my previous more conventional activities as an artist. It was not in any way a theoretical paper but rather an example of how you could apply art world skills to other situations and so it opened up a way forward for me even though I did not know of anyone else who was thinking the same way – of course now via the internet I would instantly be able to find hundreds of people all over the world doing the same thing but then in 1974 in Australia it was a lonely and isolated position.
This “review” told the story of one aspect of the squat’s history and contained useful information about how not to build barricades yet it also gently satirised the art world and the uselessness of the products that it produced. Something I had been thinking about was that most of the objects in museums had an earlier utilitarian purpose (eg religious altar pieces, political and religious propaganda, topographical or personal documentation) before ending up as objects of aesthetic contemplation. In a gently satirical way I treated the barricades as if they were sculptures, more comforting aesthetic decoration than utilitarian protection, as events proved. Because the barricades were pretty useless they could only be seen as art for art’s sake. Had I been an Art & Language member I probably would have written a lengthy and incomprehensible theoretical paper about this, but my more activist inclinations led me to write this parody of an art review.
Nonetheless, as I said, it was personally important because it really marked the point where I stopped feeling any need for validation from the art world, from this point on for me the art world just became another audience segment, occasionally worthy of attention but no more worthy than any other audience segment. Political activism I now could see was just one of many activities you could undertake as an artist if the activism created cultural change. But it
would will be hilarious if when my copy of “The City Squatter” containing this article itself one day resides in an art museum thus completing the cycle.
The illustrations were not by me, ironically my drawings were too spindly and arty to reproduce well, they were redrawn for publication by Val Hodgson, an architecture student member of the group. The lettering may have been a Letraset novelty font but it may have been hand lettered by Jenny Coopes, I’m not sure now. I have been told by friends in London that this article achieved brief world wide fame when it was reproduced widely in urban squatters publications in the UK and Europe but I have never seen any evidence of this.
Then passed along the order
That a fortress should be made
And soon, with planks and palings
We constructed the stockade.
We worked in teeth set silence,
For we knew what was in store:
Sure never men defended
Such a feeble fort before.
from ‘A Ballad of Eureka’ by Creeve Roe, 1901
Work began on the Victoria Street barricades early in December, and continued for three weeks. It commenced with the indications that squatter Cox’s appeal was to be dismissed, and that police action against the rest of the squatters would probably follow.
Initially we had fantasies that our work would compare with that done by French architecture students in 1969. They had taken over several derelict buildings and rebuilt them as community centres for migrant workers. When the authorities moved in they were so well barricaded that the buildings had to be demolished around them.
While the Victoria Street barricades were aesthetically pleasing and structurally decorative, they were comparatively useless, as even the strongest only lasted an hour and a half. You may learn from our mistakes.
Nine houses were defended but the amount and type of barricading in each house varied, depending on the occupants’ attitude.
The most determinedly barricaded houses were nos 59, rear 111 and 115. Nos 59 and 115 are large early Victorian mansions. The rear of 111 was a small brick duplex.
The only vulnerable French window (opening onto the front verandah) was boarded up and braced with 9″ x 2″ Oregon (Diagram A).
The front door was similarly but more massively barricaded. It had several braces, but was not as well built as the other. It collapsed after only twenty minutes of chopping and pounding by the thugs. Once these barricades had been erected the only access to the building was through an exterior staircase at the rear. A barricade (Diagram A) was nailed into position there when we knew the thugs were on the way. Unfortunately they never went around the back.
All barricades were built with holes in them to allow us to fend off the thugs with long poles. This idea was pure romanticism (as some said all along). The only squatter foolhardy enough to try this was smashed in the jaw with his own pole when a thug hit the other end with a sledgehammer. A layer of corrugated iron nailed to the door would have been a better idea.
The only vulnerable window in the building was nailed up with one inch plywood (used for concrete formwork), and braced against a nearby wall with 4″ x 4″. Some of the doors had barbed wire nailed to them, but since the thugs used axes this was a waste of time and materials.
These flats had the advantage of being fairly small and were completely barricaded with scaffolding. There were already iron bars on the windows, and these were backed with 1″ ply (which it is almost impossible to chop through: it must be sawed). The ply was supported with scaffolding (Diagram B).
The front door, which opened into a narrow hall, was blocked by removing a brick from the-wall on either side and inserting a bar into the space (Diagram C).
The building was impenetrable, so the thugs knocked a hole through the roof into the top flat, and there tore up the floor to get down into the bottom flat. This took over an hour and a half. Lesson: The roof is the ultimate weakness on an otherwise well barricaded building.
A scaffolding frame was built around the front door of 59. Its horizontal bars were bolted into place at the last moment. (Diagram D.)
The outside of the door was armoured with corrugated iron to prevent its demolition and protect, the scaffolding. The windows were all nailed up with ply and braced against the opposite wall with scaffolding to take any pressure. (Diagram E.)
The upstairs verandahs were strung from top to bottom with barbed wire.
The thugs got in through one of the four french windows, barricaded as in Diagram A, skew nailed and butted into the window reveals, and braced twice. It did not collapse but was chopped to pieces in approximately 35 minutes. We had optimistically supposed that the thugs’ conditioning would lead them to come through the better barricaded front door — six feet away. It didn’t. A layer of corrugated iron and possibly hardwood instead of oregon, would have slowed them down considerably.
The only tools necessary for the job were a tape measure, a hammer, and a good cross-cut saw. A chisel would be useful but not essential. Tin snips and pliers were used for the corrugated iron and barbed wire. A spanner and hacksaw were used on the scaffolding.
The timber was mostly scrap from city building sites (dismantled formwork, etc.). In lieu of sympathetic builders’ labourers, it could be scavenged in the street, from old fences and buildings which have been partially demolished. Corrugated iron came from the roof of a burnt out building in the street. Although scaffolding made by far the best barricades we used it sparingly. It cannot be used efficiently in every case, and impossibly large amounts would have been necessary. If you hire it, you will lose the enormous deposit required, because after the battle you can’t dismantle your scaffolding and take it with you into the paddy-wagon. If you ‘borrow’ it, like we did, you can lose the friends who ‘borrowed’ it for you. Perhaps the best idea would be to ‘borrow’ it directly, but don’t get caught.
It is far more important that a barricade should be well-built and braced than that it should look intimidating.
The barricading was only one small facet of what Victoria Street was all about, but it illustrates some of the elements that made it work.
1. The best solution to any problem was always the immediately improvised one, within the limits imposed by all the available materials, people, etc.
2. The most direct contacts were the most useful, e.g. going straight to the men on the job sites rather than union officials.
3. Possibilities were discussed rather than decisions made. When necessary, people made their own selection from the available options, e.g. the people in each house made their own decision as to how much barricading they were able or wanted to do, and how they would do it.
4. Don’t rely on ‘experts’. Help from builders labourers was well intentioned but not much use. We knew what our problems were better than they did, and we came up with better solutions.
Posted: May 10th, 2011
, Anne Summers
, art for arts sake
, cultural change
, Darcy Waters
, Green Bans
, Jenny Coopes
, NSW Builders Labourers Federation
, public space
, right to the city
, Roelof Smilde
, Sasha Soldatow
, Teresa Brennan
, Val Hodgson
, Victoria Street
, Wendy Bacon
Comments: 1 Comment