Art Words: Melbourne Art Book Fair
Maxine told me on New Year’s Day that I need a new hobby. Other than art: “Look”, she said: “I like art too Mum, it’s just that I don’t feel like I need to talk about it allllll day.”
Heeding the advice of the child and knowing she knows me better than I know myself, I’ve begun to read more (and watch Netflix more since guilty pleasures are the most pleasurable).
I read not-art. Sometimes not-art is more art, than art is. Take this excerpt from Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Unknown Terrorist, 2006. Flanagan, critiques a casual lunch for carefully selected guests, a lunch where the relationship between the ruling elite, their relationship to culture and their maintenance of position and power within society all play out, against a backdrop of harbour views and a spicy little Pinot Grigio. When I read this, I knew I had a new man crush. Morry, you’re on the bench. Hellooo Richard:
‘Yet somehow it all seemed tedious, overwrought and as much effort to endure as a day at work. No one really cared overly about anything, but they still felt the need to repeat what they had read in the Sydney Morning Herald which repeated the opinions of people at dinner parties such as the one they were now at, all feeling slightly dizzy with the familiar dullness of everything.
So many ideas to parade, films to have watched, books to have read, exhibitions and plays to have seen, so much to have to have greedily gobbled- and unless you were a glutton and had swallowed the world whole, you were an ignorant fool, unqualified to say anything.
But all these subjects existed only to lard the hard truth of the lunch: the gossip that traded knowledge for money and power; the finessed probings of position and status; the sly seeking of alliances and linking of chains of patronage; the constant aggrandizement of self, as necessary as a bull elephant seal’s bark.’
Words can be so great but sometimes they say something. Something that someone doesn’t want to hear.
The Melbourne Art Book Fair is an indoor weekend market, where: vendors investigate methodologies of selling books about art, whilst extending existing parameters of commercialization within public art galleries. That’s Art Speak. Art Speak is easily recognizable, because you must reread it at least once and words don’t seem to work like they normally do. You know: as tools for communicating. Funny haha huh.
At the Melbourne Art Book Fair, they flogged books about design too (which is not BTW, art). Although good design is better than crap art. Just. There are books about architecture too (which, BTW, is not art either). Although architects really love the idea of art and artists and ever since some smart architects built us Meyers Place (our drinking clubhouse), artists and architects have gotten to know each other increasingly intimately. Architects recognize that artists are free and spirited (and enjoy drinking free spirits). Well, the artists who haven’t become accidently institutionalized by jumping through PhD hoops and funding applications are. Compared with the Councils and the planning disputes that can really knock the livelihood out of an architect. Poor things. Architects are besotted with me. Intrigued they are. Can’t get enough nattysolo time. Is that a ‘shard’ in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
At the Melbourne Art Book Fair, they sell books about fashion. Which is most definitely not art because artists don’t use sweatshops. Artists are sweatshops. At the Melbourne Art Book Fair, they sell a load of T-shirts and tote bags that are sort of about art, but also about eggs and the beach. How ‘nobody owns the beach’. Humorous slogan merchandise for the ‘now’ crowd. I think it’s so all your friends can tell you’re cool without having to come close and talk to you. Slogan T-shirts and tote bags are also purchased, so that art lovers can identify which art teams people are on. And they’ll pay good money to possess the cultured products within their reach.
Blessed art lovers. We’re a new and exciting range of fabricated consumers, we art lovers, a new and bewildered herd of cultural connoisseurs. Our fashionable desires that will keep us off the streets and out of the hair of the establishment. We’re educated too, don’t you know, don’t you know. We’re in debt for life but we can spell. With the help of Spell Check.
The stallholders at the Melbourne Art Book Fair, the small, independent publishers (and some ambitious artists who haven’t yet lost faith in the Creative Industries) pay the NGV a fee for their stall, for the weekend. It’s not a big fee (not yet) but there’s always the future. Remember HECS, when it was first introduced by a Labor Government in 1989 as part of the Dawkins Revolution? It wasn’t big either, but the future is here with the exciting new collaboration between education and business. The one where education is business. The Dawkins reforms have led us to:
a culture of “corporate managerialism” in universities, and have been related to a rise in bullying tactics among university management, a decline in the freedom of academic speech and inquiry, and a loss of academic collegiality.
This quote is from Wikipedia and is included as it describes what we’ve all heard the poor sessional lecturers from University complain of. Down the pub. Where the real words get spoked of. Society has been led to believe, perversely by men who got a free University education, that public investment in education is well in the past. The Country can’t afford it now because we’re too goddamned poor. It’s every man for himself now, you pay to play, I mean learn. And the cost of learning (surprise, surprise) gets more expensive with each and every year. This is part of a game called neo-liberalism, and like lots of games, the Devil is in the detail.
With the Melbourne Art Book Fair, the NGV look to be supporting independent publishers and artists. But really, they’re renting out the Creative Industries funded Great Hall, in another pay to play scheme, a bit like at University. It all starts out innocent enough, but some doors once open, refuse to close. Then it ends with several commercial art galleries infiltrating public exhibition space, because hey, that’s the best-goddamned art being produced in this whole goddamned country. Goddamn it.
Think power in the hands of a narrow sector within a huge sector. Yep, that’s neo liberalism. It’s the privatization of public space, because art can have power, occasionally, so it must be carefully managed or else all hell could break loose. Because we artists want to be in art shows and collections of institutions, but we’re not supposed to mention the monkey business. We have to play the game.
The Friday Night launch Opening of the Melbourne Art Book Fair is a Party where the NGV, charge those in attendance for tickets to attend. For all intents and purposes, this function looks like a normal art opening reception. But it’s not, it’s another push: The ticketed faux opening. Think Sydney Biennale Opening on Cockatoo Island. You buy a ticket to join a long queue to buy a beer. Then you join another queue at the food truck to buy an expensive sautéed mushroom on a roll that’s called brioche. Running parallel to events we plebs pay to attend (usually in a roped off area up an escalator or down a long corridor) are the super, super exclusive, leading industry professional VIP events.
I don’t want to get bogged down in complex notions of class, but let’s just say it’s a roomful of people who give orders, rather than a room full of people who follow orders. These VIP Events can easily be identified by the presence of alert security guards (often people from multicultural backgrounds) and often begin an hour earlier than the paying event. Or the night before sometimes. You can crash these events, but the fear of being turned away at the door keeps most people from attempting to frock up and fake it. They’re lame parties (rest assured) as it’s all ‘work’. Your visual cues are the Flight Deck on Darth Vader’s Death Star, (Dur-Dur-Dur, Dur-dee-Dur, Dur-dee-Dur). Everything is free, because those in attendance have assumed the mantle of the Gatekeepers of Culture. This too, is an illusion, and can be challenged by anyone philosophically opposed to elitism and vested interest.
No one can control culture, culture has a life all its own. The fear of exclusion from institutional canons, is again fully utilised at the roped-off entrance. It stops all but the most spirited from giving the zeitgeist a good old shake. For cheap laffs.
Class mobility died way back. You need to build your own audience to effectively challenge those keeping we rabble in line. At the Very Important People Events, secret squirrel handshakes persist. Here, the ruling class maintains their class-consciousness in privacy. See they don’t want the hoi polloi downstairs talking about the nuances of class, because then we might work out that we are in fact the oppressed. We’re getting a good hiding. A fair suck of the sav is not on the plate of hors de oeuvres.
See, we’re strapped for cash, haven’t you heard? Even the People with Cultural Capital have to pay to participate now. It’s the privatization of culture, and it’s coming to a gallery near you. Soon.
Hey, have you met this new word? Precariat. It’s a doozy. It’s a word that mixes Precarious, and Proletariat, and it’s a naming word, no, it’s a doing word, hell, it’s a Vibe. It’s a nine-letter word your parents won’t understand. They just think we’re crap at saving.
If you work in the small to medium sector of the creative economy, you probably met Precariat on Black Friday. It’s where the ruling elite running the show, introduce increasing levels of precariousness to the working masses down the bottom of the pyramid. We work harder when we’re hungry.
The positions at the top of the pyramid, aren’t precarious, they’re increasingly well remunerated. NGV Gallery Director Tony Ellwood has a salary of $445, 000, commensurate with that of Canberra-born Michael Brand, who was recently appointed director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – the NSW government had to double the salary of its gallery director to $445,000 in order to secure the expatriate.
Working with artists and other volunteers is a tough gig. Malcolm Turnbull earns just over half a million and he runs the whole country. Well, he pretends to, while the miners and the bankers really do the job. Gallery Directors have to manage their staff too, that’s a big job.
The Melbourne Art Book Fair was free to attend on Saturday and Sunday, so that was good. Scrap the ticketed faux opening, and the paying for a stand crap and it would be beyond criticism. Invest a bit of the Andy and Ai Wei Wei ticket sale bonanza cash in some local artists, just for the weekend. All the small, independent publishing houses at the Melbourne Art Book fair have fans, who they bring along to the NGV in the flesh, to Instagram the living be-jesus out of it. So everyone knows it’s the hottest ticket in town. The NGV love counting bodies through their doors. Attendance figures are a key indicator of relevance and shit. Attendance figures get you on the league tables for World’s Top Museums and shit. And governments love backing a winner. They love it almost as much as they love being named Worlds Most Liveable City and shit.
Speaking of art books, I got in an international book on Live Art. Yay! Unfortunately they couldn’t pay me, but they regret that. They said: ‘We regret that there are no fees for the Almanac but we will send you a complimentary copy of the publication’.
That was nice to hear that. In the email they sent, first they wrote a lot of words talking about all the Institutions, right round the world, that had partnered up to make the book I’m in a reality. Sadly none of these people have any money to pay the artists who put the words in the book. They didn’t say either, where the proceeds from the book sales go to. They did speak about how big the net was that they’d thrown out for potential contributions to the book I’m in, which made me realize how very lucky and how very grateful I was to be included in their book. Despite not being paid for my contribution:
The first Live Art Almanac was published on a print on-demand basis by LADA in partnership with the Live Art UK network in 2008. Live Art Almanac Volume 2 (2011) was also published on-demand in an international partnership between LADA, Live Art UK, Performance Space 122 (USA), and Performance Space (Australia). Volume 3 was co-published in 2013 by LADA and Oberon Books, with an extended pool of international partnerships including Live Art UK, La Poach Nostra (USA), Mask (Slovenia), Asia Art Archive (Hong Kong), Artiest (USA/Middle East) and Ashcan Alwen (Lebanon).
Oberon have agreed to keep the book’s cover price as low as possible, making it affordable for students, artists and the unwaged in keeping with previous editions of the Almanac.
That’s nice, isn’t it: keeping the book affordable for people who are not flush with cash. I’ve helped them do that. The way I’ve been giving my work away for free all these years, but it’s all very exciting, I feel drunk with excitement for my own potential. I signed all the legal documents they sent me, giving my permission to have my words published in their book. It felt so good, it made me feel like I was at work. Even if I wasn’t getting paid. The creative industries are good like that. You can be working full time as an artist and rarely get paid. And if you are lucky enough to get paid, it’s never much. Don’t worry about that. It’s never commensurate with the blood, sweat and the tears you’ve put in. It’s never enough to pay off your HECS debt, from studying art at University, so you could be an artist. But hey! As my Mum said, talking about money is bad manners. I’m just so grateful to have been ‘found’ after all these years. I’ll be Barbara Streisand in A Star is Born (which BTW, I discovered last week was written by Dorothy Parker).
I’m not being totally left out of the Institutional construct. Maybe someone will read my writing in the art book A Fan Letter to Matthew Barney and that will launch me into the stratosphere. Ha ha.
Finally, I might find myself in that rare place where artists get paid. I haven’t lost hope, completely. Hope is seductive . The thing I don’t understand though is that art is the hottest ticket in town:
Live Art is experiencing a huge surge in interest with major museums embracing this disparate area of practice, formerly cult artists becoming household names, and everyone from Shia LaBeouf, Lady Gaga and Jay Z trying to get in on the action.
It’s funny you know, but of the artists who do get paid, there’s only a very small minority who’s work I actually rate. Mostly it’s artists who toe the line and play the game who get to get paid. I like artists who stray off script. Primarily because the script that’s currently in development, is totally fucked. There’s no arguing against the fucked-uppedness of the current state of everything. I’m looking to artists who are working on new scripts. Where’s radical gone?