Suffering from political dyspepsia? Have a dose of the arts. All the passion and calculation and urgency of politics without the blood and damage and miserable responsibilties.

Theatre people catfight

Q: How do theatre people behave on a stage? A: Theatrically.

So, I’m sorry to have missed the session on theatre criticism at the Wheeler Centre. I was told that Someone said to Someone Else that they* were a “whiny little bitch.” And that Someone said that Someone Else wrote certain things just to sound smart, rather than having a real point. But all is not lost — the Wheeler’s video page should have that show up next week. (*Ya, I know that should be a “he or she” rather than “they” but that connective for gender specificity is just clumsy, no?)



Panel (bio details), l-r: Peter Mares (moderator), Patrick McCaughey, Phip Murray, Naomi Cass, John McDonald.

Last night’s event at the Wheeler, “Visual Arts Criticism,” was the last of “Critical Failure,” a quasi-symposia on the state of criticism, director Chrissy Sharp’s little brain child which became several bunches of adults on consecutive nights having discussions modulating from the decorous to the vindictive. (See on film, on books.) Ah, arts people — wired for psychic articulation. Perhaps it’s just more arousing talking on stage in public.

Naomi Cass1

As usual there was a problem about the distinction between reviewing and criticism. It was spotlit once when Naomi Cass, director of the very high-toned Centre for Contemporary Photography, protested about how the media had dealt with the Bill Henson affair — reams of writing about every facet but the offending jewel of the art itself — what a photo like the one on the invitation might mean where the nude young woman cannot see the photographer who takes her picture; about the meaning of the light on the hairs of her arm. While I’m not at all sure that kind of writing would have aerated the bombast and table pounding of that heated moment, Cass is surely right (and she would know) to say that no writing of that kind — reflective and nuanced — was part of the public conversation, and whatever shading it may have lent we will never know.

Patrick McCaughey1

The diff between reviewing and criticism was never properly fleshed, so I refer you to the David Bordwell clarification on the blog post of the Film Criticism evening. Patrick McCaughey gave his version of the essential point of the activity:

The fundamental of art criticism: discriminating the good from the less good.

Actually, never mind reviewing. It’s about the reviewed too. As both the Mc’s noted, artists are just dying to be recognised, dying for their art to be looked at. The artists are begging the reviewers to come down so their exhibition of year/s’ work can be acknowledged — a print review is simply the golden fondant on the deeply problematic fruitcake of many, many artists practising with often only the minimal audience of their friends.

Hierarchy or anarchy?

The Art (oh, alright, visual arts) panel included two bulls of the old school who championed judgement and two younger women (no, I’m not implying the other cattle gender) more inclined to a contemporary relativist mode. Their tendencies were perfectly distilled in a late exchange between the avant and the apres guard. The younger gun, Phip Murray, is the director of the cutting edge West Space gallery, editor of the freely bleeding edge Un. magazine, and a writer and artist. The old bull, Patrick McCaughey, is the celebrated bowtie flaunting ex-director of the NGV, Wadsworth Aetheneum and the Yale Centre for British Art, and the current director for the Festival of Ideas.

P Murray: I don’t really think there needs to be hierarchy in art.

P McCaughey: Hey, the whole of Western art history depends on it.

Phip Murray

A powerful beekeeper

During question time the notion arose again that perhaps the lack of msm interest — the lack of space and opportunity — was one of the chief reasons reviewing, never mind criticism, was at such a low ebb in the national culture.

John McDonald (smugly, it sounded like) asked rhetorically: How many art critics make a living in Australia?
Peter Mares helpfully answered: I think we’re looking at you.

Of course, there has never been more space and opportunity for writing to appear since we all clambered up the internet. But McDonald (and the rest of the panel) is obviously, indisputably correct about the msm’s uninterest.

Apropos his position as the long-time art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald, for which he writes 1500 words a week, McDonald also said:  If you get hung up on your “incredible power” you should go and take a cold shower.

Which of course recalls the sainted, bedemoned Robert Hughes who, when asked if he thought of himself as a powerful art critic, replied: A powerful art critic! What, you mean like a powerful beekeeper?

John McDonald1

The J word

Criticism is pretty much Old Testament.

McDonald: The essence of criticism is judgement. I would argue that criticism is judgement … the transcendental value of the judgement … the good and the bad, and why.

And: Even if you say it’s a bad show they’ll go and see it.



Discussing the proprieties, the frequency, of friends reviewing artists’ work in the little press, Naomi Cass defended the practice, citing Apollinaire: If Apollinaire wasn’t writing about his friends who would he write about?

McDonald: Apollinaire! He was the greatest nepotist. He just happened to be mixing with Picasso and friends. His writing was gushing and ghastly.

McDonald also spent a bit of time explaining and describing how the SMH coverage of art — art reviews and notices — have fallen calamitously from several pages a week (the many capsule listings) to an ever diminishing number of column inches.

McDonald on reviewing poorly artists who are friends: If you have to write it in print, on the record, you can’t shirk the judgement.

McDonald to Phip Murray: I haven’t read Un. or Fresh [Flash?]. I’m feeling left out. But you haven’t read the Sydney Morning Herald either.


PMcCaughey3Let me introduce myself

One of my favourite awkward moments was at the start as Peter Mares threw the challenge out to John McDonald on the far right (as it were) as to whether art criticism had indeed failed. McDonald had a go at it, prevaricating a little but mostly agreeing that it had. The feisty McCaughey (seated far left) immediately hoed in with a But … whereupon he was promptly moderated by Peter Mares.

Mares: Wait, Patrick, I haven’t introduced you yet.
McCaughey: But isn’t it a conversation?
Mares: Yes, but I have to introduce you.

As punishment for the etiquette infringement Mares did not introduce McCaughey to be able to make remarks or interjections until Naomi Cass and Phip Murray had been brought forth and each given her opening address.

A critic on critics

McCaughey on Robert Hughes: Not to kick a man when he is down but Hughes is only good when he is attacking. When he is praising he sounds like a kindergarten appreciation officer.

And finally McCaughey deals with the unacknowledged elephant in the room, notably missing as a panellist — Robert Nelson, chief art critic of the Age: I can’t believe the Age would have the critic they have if they could find another good critic.

Naomi Cass for the defence: Robert Nelson has a gentle way — he doesn’t make judgements. He’s got too much weight on him.

Peter Mares (mischievously!): Robert Nelson, as we’re talking about you, are you in the audience?

Silence. Sadly, not. At least, not that we could tell.

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