When Too Much Art Is Too Much

I can distinctly remember when I realised I’d had enough of art. It was a Wednesday evening, and I was at home eating dinner while watching the news on TV. I know, it’s an old person thing to do, but some traditions are worth keeping. Anyway, it was exactly 7.15pm, halfway through the bulletin, when the overseas reports finished, and the program abruptly switched to art coverage.

Another tradition for TV news is that when they talk about art, they have a different newsreader, with special intro music and graphics. In the past the newsreader had always been an older white guy, dressed in a neat suit with tie or dickie bow, a little bit camp perhaps, and there was either jazz music or flamenco guitar somewhere, but that was OK, this was art. Now there are women covering art, some Indigenous people, and the music and graphics are cutting edge. It’s great; we like diversity, and anything over 120 bpm.

Unfortunately, as much as the presentation may look a bit different in the 21st century, the content is the same as ever. On that particular Wednesday, the art world was a flutter because of the announcement of the annual trading of artists between galleries, and the news coverage was exhaustive. Peter Ness, the one-time performance artist, now a hugely expensive ceramicist, was leaving Gallerie Feldspar for the A-list of Astrid Weller. Gallerist Teddy Feldspar was on hand claiming Ness’s departure was a great way to open up new opportunities at the failing gallery for emerging artists, while Fiona Poni-Tale, spokesmodel from Weller, couldn’t help but smirk loudly at the ABC national arts reporter’s intense scolding.

Meanwhile, Melbourne gallery ARS Box had just triumphantly signed primary market superstar Salo Viczxnecz, even as she simultaneously mounted a career survey show at the seldom-visited Distant Regional Gallery and had been announced for Venice. To top it off, Harry Wu, the Adelaide-based booze-inspired funster and prizewinning doodler, was moving from the local marginal market space, Dicey Gallery, to Brisbane’s top-notch eatery and occasional gallery Hotel Stupid.

God this is tedious, my wife observed, and I had to agree – what is with Australia’s obsession with art? Everywhere you look in the media it’s art, art, art.

If it isn’t absurd TV panel shows discussing which museum show has the edge over the others or speculating on the trajectory of certain artist’s careers, it’s live coverage of gallery openings with off-screen commentators describing who’s there and what they’re doing, or breathlessly observing a waiter’s twists and turns through the crowd, handicapped by a heavy drinks tray. There’s live coverage of art on the weekends with six whole cable channels dedicated to art in various Australian cities and even overseas art action. And if that wasn’t crazy enough, there are even radio broadcasts of artists working in their studios. Hey, it’s a visual medium, but apparently people like listening to art on the radio, so again, tradition wins.

We’re inculcated into art worship at an early age in this country. I well remember being forced into art classes at primary school, whether we were interested or not. Some of us wanted to kick a ball around, but no, we were sent off to sculpture class, to painting appreciation, and endured endless slide lectures on gothic revival architecture. By the time I went to high school I had a thorough understanding of the lesser painters in the quattrocento and the highlights of neo geo. As if any of that would ever be needed in everyday life, I thought. You just have to wonder about a country that values culture, and art in particular, so highly.

So it was on that fateful Wednesday that I decided to opt out of Australia’s art obsession and avoid all arts news. It’s been hard too.

Although I switch off the news at 7.15pm or skim the headlines online but never swipe too far down the page, I seem to pick up bits and pieces. Somehow, I know that Helena R. Hankart is showing at Museum of Old and New art, or that Viczxnecz actually left ARS Box to marry long-time admirer, academicgadfly-turned-gallerist Fred Trellis, and to become the only Australian artist to represent the country twice at the Moose Jaw Quadrennial. It seeps in – art knowledge can’t be escaped.

But I often wonder if it could be any different. Sometimes, when I’m driving late at night, I see all those art galleries, studios and museums that dot every suburb of our city and imagine, what if there were floodlit playing fields here? What if we played sport? When I was about 9 years old, I saw some boys throwing a ball around the vacant block next door to our house, and sensing my longing, my mother forbade me from leaving my watercolour lesson. But mother, what if? WHAT IF???

Published in Art Guide, April 12, 2019

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