NGV #cockfest: Degas – A New Vision
If you were to call the National Gallery of Victoria a large, expensive, State-funded #cockfest, you couldn’t be called out as a vicious, attack dog, tall poppy trimming, black widow spider of a whining woman. You could more reasonably describe yourself as a social realist.
The State of Victoria is formed from land stolen from Aboriginal people using Terra Nullius, and is named after an English Queen. The State of Victoria has always had a male Premier; apart from that time Joan Kirner had an all too brief go in 1990-92. Since it’s founding in 1861, Australia’s oldest, largest, and most frequented museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, has never employed a woman as Director. They just haven’t found the right woman yet for this very important job. She’s out there somewhere waiting patiently, knocking on the door and when she does (finally) get the gig, she won’t be paid commensurate to male colleagues.
Men designed all the buildings that make up the NGV. NGV International (designed by Roy Grounds with a refurbishment by Mario Bellini) and Federation Square (designed by Lab Architecture Studio and directed by Donald Bates and Peter Davidson). So in a State stolen by men and administered by men, we have an impressive Art Gallery, designed for society by men, built by men, run, by men and filled too, with the art of men. The visions of men. The stories of men. The egos of men. (Ding Ding, Round One, Women Win)
If you dial up The Wikipedia and see what it has to say about the Highlights from the NGV Collections, (Australia’s most important Museum), it reads like a tired old, Colonial Folly; an outpost of Empire wanting very much to prove itself, as a part of a civil, sophisticated society. Stuck in a time warp and very much still invested, in the idea that white men are most excellent in everything they do. Looking at the NGV Wikipedia page, you could get the impression that throughout history, women have always been crap at art. Art history is not, nor has it ever been, a friend to female artists. Please just skim read these lists of male genius, I’m just including them to prove a point:
The Australian collection includes works by: Charles Blackman, John Brack, Arthur Boyd, Louis Buvelot, Rupert Bunny, Nicholas Chevalier, Charles Conder, David Davies, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, E. Phillips Fox, John Glover, Eugene von Guerard, Hans Heysen, George W. Lambert, Sydney Long, John Longstaff, Frederick McCubbin, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Margaret Preston, Hugh Ramsay, Tom Roberts, John Russell, Grace Cossington Smith, Arthur Streeton, Fred Williams and others.
The International collection includes works by: Bernini, Bordone, Canaletto, Cézanne, Constable, Correggio, Degas, van Dyck, Gainsborough, Gentileschi, El Greco, Manet, Memling, Modigliani, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Poussin, Rembrandt, Renoir, Ribera, Rodin, Rothko, Rubens, Tiepolo, Giambattista Pittoni, Tintoretto, Turner, Uccello, Veronese and others.
Bizarrely, (and very disappointing too) is the omission of the art by Aboriginal people from the Wikipedia lists of Highlights from the NGV Collection, one that we look forward to being remedied as soon as possible.
Now, let’s drill in a little deeper and look back at the Jewel in the Crown of the #snoozefest that is the programme at the NGV; the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces Series. The NGV have taken the Masterpiece tag quite literally, because (guess what) and strap yourselves in. Here too we see another #cockfest. Beginning in 2004, the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series has presented the art of more white European men than you can shake a stick at. We’ve had Caravaggio, Picasso, Dali, Monet, Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, Impressionists, Dutch Masters, Art Deco, Guggenheim Collection, Vienna Art and Design, Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado (this show tanked, I think the title lacks punch), and last year Masterpieces from the Hermitage – The Legacy of Catherine the Great (featuring Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Van Dyck and other well known masters).
Now look, don’t get me wrong, some of these guys were even pretty good at what they did (I’ve a soft spot for Caravaggio for instance (what a bloody handful!), that’s not the point I’m making. The point is that Europe is a long way away and we’re lavishing huge amounts of public money perpetuating the myth of already established legends. Over and over again. It’s retrograde and boring when that’s all that’s on offer. It’s like using art history to exclude women, then blaming us for not being up to much.
So what treasures do we have to look forward to in the near future at the NGV? Masterworks from MoMA: a line-up of seminal artists including: Paul Cézanne, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper, Jeff Koons, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Lyubov Popova, Mark Rothko and Vincent van Gogh.
Male genius artists are always the Headline Act at the NGV. No exciting female artists to look forward to seeing then, no Frida Kahlo, no Cindy Sherman. No impressive women to hold up to my daughter to show her how awesome women can be at translating life into art. No blockbuster women enjoying the full machinery of a large publicly funded museum. We can’t have all been crap artists since the beginning of time can we? Or is something else going on? Is a disproportionate amount of the public purse being used to extend sexist views? That men are more excellent than women, not just at sport, but at every darn thing? Is the NGV denying women a fair suck of the sav (?) but then pretending they’re not? When does the feminist revisionism start?
Up next at the NGV (and look, it’s goddamned exciting), major exhibitions by David Hockney, Viktor&Rolf, Lee Mingwei, Bruce Armstrong, John Olsen and Glenn Murcutt. Seeing any patterns yet? Yay #cockfest! Men own the past, men own the present and (unless some pretty big shift occurs), men own the future too.
‘And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never has been altered. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Don’t the funding bodies that fund the NGV have gender equity policies about what they’re sinking our public resources into? Isn’t there some case to answer here? I’m so bored of men telling each other how great they are, and me helping pay for it. And there’s no end in sight. Except if you’re a female artist trying to get a show. That looks like one big DEAD END.
The NGV missed the memo about the push for a feminist revision of art history. The one that unearths overlooked, undervalued, under represented and misunderstood female artists, long dead or close to dying, and finally includes them in the canon. Because hey, sometimes you’ve got to throw women a bone. See us as makers of culture, and not just models for culture.
Which brings us neatly to the current Winter Masterpiece: Degas, A New Vision. The show is billed as another very important show, years in the making and very lucky we are to have been lucky enough to secure it, out here in our colonial outpost. It’s a big call for a dead man to have a new vision, but hey, when you’re dealing with genius, no stone is left unturned. I think in some perverse way, Degas is seen as providing female content in a gallery that clearly needs some.
Part of a resurgent ballerina fetish currently playing out in the public domain, Degas ticks all the conservative boxes: Rich white French man; Daddy was a Banker; so talented he couldn’t keep a friend; brave enough to shine a light on aspects of society many artists wouldn’t dream of depicting.
In my mind, ballerinas have taken a sinister turn. A swan trying to get laid. Ballet is a very fancy, outdated rom-com; females waiting round to be rescued by a hunk in very tight dacks, vying for his attention. Yawn. Let’s take comfort in some hoity-toity make believe, where all the young girls are virgins with perfect posture and poise, tiara firmly affixed to her little tight bun. Tights affixed to her tight little buns…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlcJW30a94k 3.15 mins. Virginity Documentary, trailer
Ballerinas have begun (for me) to personify the Culture War currently raging in Australia. While everyone in the Arts is having their funding slashed, the Australian Ballet has never had it so good. They got a million bucks to have one rehearsal room refurbed. When I told Morgi, he said: ‘How much does a hall of mirrors cost to install and maintain?’
The Liberal Government hates art and artists so much, they run an Arts Ministry but haven’t bothered writing an Arts Policy. I think they suspect their words could get them into trouble. The Catalyst guys make funding announcements late on a Friday afternoon, before a Long Weekend, so they don’t have to answer the phone complaints till Tuesday. Out they roll the pork barrel, sloshing out the contents to their mates in the marginal seats.
I went along to the Degas media call with as open a mind as I could conjure (despite reservations about what all the ballerinas everywhere I turn might mean) and a fatigue, at being presented with another genius male artist. I walked ‘round the show and one of those handy information plaques caught my eye. This is what it says:
Because intimate access to female ablutions was rarely experienced by husbands in bourgeois life at the time, it was assumed by critics and audiences that Degas’s female nudes were performing their toilettes in a brothel setting. Their close observation of undressed women engaged in private acts of washing and drying themselves led Degas’s ongoing status as a bachelor to become a topic of speculation in both the art world and in wider social circles. Far from being a respectable state, in Degas’s day bachelorhood was considered to be a social evil and a sign of degeneracy, a condition that challenged the status quo of both Second Empire and Third Republic family values. Degas’s refusal to marry, as well as his apparent lack of sexual interest in women – despite his obsession with observing the naked female form – inevitably led to unfounded notions that he was a misogynist.
(NGV information plaque).
The NGV mustn’t have heard that popular truism: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. See, I hadn’t suspected Degas was a misogynist. Not until they mentioned it. But in they launched, using their words to tell the story if you will, of how these completely unfounded allegations that Degas was a misogynist first began in his own lifetime. It turns out, poor Degas was a victim of different times. Times when men were forced to get married. Poor men. Poor, rich, successful Degas who’s Daddy was a banker. Poor Degas (using titillation) painting and drawing nude women over and over again to create shock. There’s not any detail of how women fared under these conservative societal norms. You’ve got to fill in the dots yourself here. One is forced to imagine the plight of the women Degas painted and drew.
I find myself in life, now in a place where I don’t care what men think of women. I don’t care what men think about men. I don’t care about men’s take on much at all. And it’s all men’s fault too, because they’ve over exposed themselves. History has over exposed men and now I’m over compensating for this clear injustice, with an extreme and emotional response. You see, I’m angry at the extent to which men dominate public discourse and pretend they’re not. I’m angry that so many men don’t concede that it’s more difficult for women than it is for them, to live full and fulfilling lives. That the cards are stacked against us by the chance of gender. So many men still don’t get it and it’s boring explaining it over and over.
Female people make up half the world. And we’re more than models for the art of men. But walking around this Degas exhibit, you wouldn’t know it. There’s no historical fleshing out of what it might have been like to be a prostitute in the late 1880s for instance. All we read is: Degas this and Degas that. Women and girls are everywhere in this show, but we’re strangely absent too. Like history continues to look at us, but not see us. There’s no empathy, no concession that the lot of women has always been more difficult than that of men. And still is today. So that makes this exhibition part of a problem, and not part of any solution that attempts to improve gender equity within society now. So it’s a real shame, because as taxpayers, women have helped pay for it, this large, exciting, expensive art show. Of another genius male artist, his career reinterpreted by a famous male curator, held in a museum, lead by men, in a state run by men, in a country run, predominantly, by men. But hey, grab your mum and your daughter, and get yourselves along to another state funded #cockfest. And wonder at the grace and majesty of the pretty young ballerina’s who used to roam the planet in the oldey-worldy days. Degas – A New Vision. Nah. Looks like the same tired old vision to me.