Friday, May 07, 2004

Anti-Israeli art in Melbourne

This week’s brouhaha shows once again just how bad the Age can be at bread’n’butter local journalism.

Unbelievably, the paper didn’t seem to think it necessary to interview either co-artist for comment (or, for one, to even name them), despite actually photographing one co-artist (with his back to camera) erasing the work.

Admittedly, this “statement” provided by one of the two, Azlam McLennan, does not inspire optimism that an interview would have revealed anything more than a grandstanding undergrad way out of his depth:

One of the most common questions raised over the last 24 hours is 'what is art'? Hitler similarly held views about what constitutes degenerative art."

That said, if artist Azlam McLennan is the same as this and this Azlan McLennan (which I strongly suspect is the case), then his unfortunate Hitler analogy, above, doesn’t mean the guy has nothing to say, period. On the contrary (despite my being a long way from agreeing with his Orthodox Left views on asylum seekers), as I said last year, Azlam's/Azlan's security guard stunt was pretty good art.

Anyway, what should the broadsheet take on this story have been?

For starters, by giving the censorship/free-speech arguments short shrift. Of course, censorship of art, a la what happened to Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, is odious. But for a text-based piece of art (and I see no reason to use scare quotes around the a-word) the real test of censorship is whether dissemination of the image and/or text-within is nobbled – not whether the “original” (yes, scare quotes this time) remains in situ or not. And both the image and its transcribed words were given the full-monty by the Age. Further, reinforcing my point about the reproduction being as good, if not better than the “original”, is that the latter was always going to be a temporary installation, in a vacant shopfront, in an area of town hit by the ugly stick.

In view of this, the Age’s vox-popping the usual suspects from the two tired old camps (“This is not art” vs “This is censorship”) was hack-journalism at its worst. All that was needed was to get an unbiased opinion from someone who knows something about art – take a bow, me (and hang your head in shame, expert-manqué Chris McAuliffe, artistic director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art).

Compounding the Age’s piss-weakery, in running with a usual suspects (all boomers, of course) Punch-and-Judy show, instead of doing a thoughtful coverage of the story is that the tabloid Herald-Sun did actually manage to cut to the chase. This is a story:

City of Melbourne chief executive David Pitchford said in a statement last night arts grants were discussed in private to protect applicants. "There is a concern that organisations might refuse to apply for funding if they believe they may be rejected in a public forum, which could harm their reputation," he said.

While I can appreciate that the sight and sounds of (i) an expert-panel, and then (ii) the Council rubber-stamping meeting may provide overly juicy carrion for tabloids – or probably more scarily, grounds of litigation for hard-bitten GenX rejectees (75% of all applicants, apparently) – it is clear that Melbourne City Council’s culture of secrecy over its arts grants goes way overboard. The latest info on its website today about successful arts grant recipients is from the 2002 round.

Finally, swirling in the middle of the maelstrom, yet somehow out of reach, is the figure of the said controversial artwork’s curator, Mark Hilton. From a Google search, Mark seems to be a Melbourne artist who has done very little of note – certainly that has been economically remunerative – other than to curate Melbourne City Council’s art-in- vacant-shopfronts program since at least 1992 (same URL). My lukewarm wishes of luck to him – plainly he is either a boomer, or if GenX, an ex-private-school (=job-nepotism) mediocrity.

I still don’t understand, however, how and why Mark Hilton, in all his glowing mediocrity, has been given such an easy run by the Age:

Mr Hilton arrived home from Japan yesterday, unaware that he was flying into a storm. He said he realised something was afoot when he passed the exhibition space and saw Opposition Leader Robert Doyle holding a news conference in front of it.

He said threats of damage to the shopfront housing the artwork had forced his hand. He apologised to the council and other sponsors, acknowledging he had failed to abide by a contract that obliged him to notify them of potential controversy from his exhibitions.

Mr Hilton said the exhibition, titled fifty six, was a late replacement for a work that dropped out at short notice, giving him insufficient time to notify the council of its controversial content.

Heard of this new thing called a telephone, Mark? They’re a gadget which allows you to contact people – especially useful when you’re pressed for time. In the last ten years or so, there’s even been an invention called a mobile phone, which allows you to contact people, and be contacted, on your way to and from the airport – a place which, from the sound of your cushy, unchallenged job, you get to pass through quite frequently.

But we wouldn't want to take "a backward step" by joining the proles with phones, would we, Mark?

Update 14 May 2004

Today’s Age has a feature follow-up. For whatever reason, it gets quotes again from All the Usual Boomers (some previously quoted, some not), plus one Xer.

First, a correction. Mark Hilton may not have been the person who failed to notify the Melbourne City Council that Azlan McLennan's art work was potentially controversial (as was contractually required). Instead, this seems to have been the omission of an unnamed (!) person, who was "directing the space" during Hilton's absence overseas.

Also, an interesting figure gets mentioned: the total annual budget for the shopfront art program is said to be $8000. I find this figure difficult to believe, unless (i) it is net of Hilton’s curatorial fees, or (ii) the artists get paid nothing, and the sum is all curatorial fees going to Hilton.

On to some of the unintentionally hilarious Quotes From Boomers Who Matter:

Last week, Chris McAuliffe, artistic director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, said this:

If local government gets involved in supporting culture, then it's got to be prepared to support culture in all its forms. If it's getting involved in culture in order to support only certain kinds of expression or only certain kinds of ideology, it might as well admit that it's supporting its own form of social engineering or propaganda.

This week, it’s this:

[Azlan McLennan's work is] art because that's the claim it made for itself, but it probably didn't have the sophistication needed to negotiate the politics effectively.

Even better is this masterpiece of Kafka-esque contradiction from NGV director Gerard Vaughan:

In no way will we condone censorship, but we do need to draw the line occasionally . . .
Our position is straightforward. As a publicly funded art gallery, we must be apolitical, but we defend our right to display work by individual artists that does have a political message.
(same URL)

As for the lone Xer interviewed (28-year-old artist McLennan was still not interviewed), Marcus Westbury, artistic director of the yoof-oriented Next Wave Festival, manages to come across like an 11 year-old giving a class presentation:

We would all be in a much sadder situation [if arts funding were linked to the politics of the day] . . . it would lead to bland and boring art and it would be worse for the community. (same URL)

Hey, no kidding, Marcus. But I reckon that the big boys may well have stolen your playlunch while you were impressing the teacher with your eloquence, up at the front of class.

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