Art Fairs are like orgies: a frenzy of writhing, twisted bodies all vying for best position, it’s difficult to know where to look or who did the good bits and by the end, you need a hot shower and another lie down.
Part Fashions on the Field, part Disney on Ice, part mini-marathon, Art Fairs are the cultural sector’s answer to a Hawker’s Bazaar, sans the discounts.
Art Fairs are to art, what Tinder is to relationships: an outcome orientated solution for time-poor customers that induces option anxiety and can mess with your head. You can’t fake real commitment and it’s presumptuous to assume people are interested in real commitment.
Art Fairs cost everyone loads and the art seldom looks any good, which is just one of the problems. Have you noticed how disproportionately well the people who set up the successful, big distribution channels for art and culture are doing? The Spotify dudes, the Netflix and Stan people, some music festival organsers, the film festival folk and the Art Fair organisers. Some content distributors make a killing and they’re springing up like wildfire. If you can provide artists and their management representatives with sets of eyes and ears for our art, we’ll pay an inexplicably pretty penny for that privilege. I wish we artists could negotiate better deals for ourselves, but you’ve got to be in it to win it I guess. At Art Fairs there are winners and losers and we all stand round and watch. Everyone turns fan-girl for the winners.
All art fairs end up looking the same, which is quite the achievement when they’re trying so hard not to be the same. Booths function like home show showrooms, the Vogue Living overlay helping shoppers (I mean art collectors) to imagine what a piece of art will look like in their home. We look forward to an art wallpaper being a ‘what were we thinking’ trend of the past.
After a brief but complex hiatus brimming with intrigue, Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) returned this year, relocating from the Exhibition Building down to Melbourne’s Art Precinct. Melbourne’s Art Precinct condenses culture down into one block so you don’t have to walk too far to see who’s selling what. At Melbourne’s Art Precinct, an art school and an art fair are all the same diff. Art students investing in their creative futures had to bump out of their studio learning stables to make way for the grown ups to bump in. In the Arts the grown ups have the money and with less and less of that to share ‘round, it’s rapidly becoming decidedly grown up. So grown up the architects have made art their home (or house museum). Most art collectors reside at the top of the wealth spectrum and most decent artists reside towards the bottom of the wealth spectrum, so that is a social situation with potential.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_iQZiVD_zA Money (That’s What I Want), The Flying Lizards 2.12mins
At MAF, the tent hire company had a big week so that’s a plus. The ‘Creative Industries’ love getting super busy. Not much is busier than creating ‘pop ups’ from scratch. We’re super busy popping-up pavilions and creative-hubs, popping-up design stores and villages and bars and reading rooms. It’s all terribly exciting. As far as ‘light footprints’ and ‘sustainable design decisions’ go, the ‘pop up’ trend is dubious, especially in locales where infrastructure already exists within walking distance of where it has all been temporarily constructed, at great expense and effort, only to be torn down again within days.
Art Fairs don’t just attempt to sell us shit they educate us too. Art Fairs offer up punishing schedules of public talks, panels and discussions to help punters contextualise what happens, as art is swept into the marketplace of privilege. Privilege protects privilege, because that’s good business. You learn that at elite private school: to look after your mates above all else. Art fairs are devoid of antagonism and dissidence, because rich people are understandably wary of both. Dissidence is the seed of change and if you’re doing well, you want nothing to change. People think art fairs are about art but they’re not. Art Fairs are about watching the ‘doing-well-crowd’ looking to buy class and establish refinement, with good taste and a gold AMEX. It’s a good day out for the rich people who got bored with the polo. The Art market makes me question my commitment to art more than any of our other get-togethers.
The Windsor Hotel again played host to satellite art fair Spring 1883. At Spring when the celebrations subside, you don’t have to book a hotel room because you’re already in one. Spring 1883 is the ‘Animal House’ of the smaller commercial gallery/ARI sector, dressed up in a top hat with Pommery sponsorship and a pumping Artists Party, where DJ Lucreccia Quintanilla had the Grand Ballroom bouncing.
At Spring, it’s difficult to see the art through the White Settler narrative that the Windsor Hotel upholds. The Windsor is still the hotel of choice for the Imperialist Founding Father/ Land Grab/ Squatocracy/Gold Rush set when they come in to town to celebrate their family’s good fortune. At the Windsor Hotel nothing changes, because holding on to the past is their business model. The poor Doorman still wears a top hat, the traditional livery of the door servant. The top hat is also associated with the upper class, a symbol of elitism, capitalism, business, politics and diplomacy, so maybe all the workers at art fairs should wear one. And if you’re hanging out with the Royal Family the top hat will be part of your formal attire, top hats are still connected to all the other worst British traditions that we so proudly maintain here.
Conversely, Spring 1883 is also the newby/punk/Satellite fair from an edgier, younger generation of galleries. So it could be time for a new home, one that sends out fewer mixed messages and dank Imperialist aftertastes. At some point, you’ve got to reconcile where you are and why. And maybe, if you should be there at all. Look I’ve got nothing against Spring Street and the Paris end of Collins except it’s not Paris. It’s Naarm.
When I was a disillusioned woman in my 40’s, I liked to kid myself that value in art is assigned as arbitrarily as purchasing the winning ticket in a chook raffle down the local RSL club. Now I know that is a lie artists rely on, to justify not selling shit and feeling disempowered to do anything to change it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPudE8nDog0&index=11&list=RD3_iQZiVD_zA The Human League- Don’t You Want Me 3.25mins
Just like a list of our Hottest 100 hit songs, lists of who’s winning the art game reveal much about us too. And what they say ain’t good. You know in some ways the market is a reflection of where we’re at.
Speaking of money, I wish money had better taste in art. Sure art is subjective and not all money exhibits bad taste in art, but most of it does. Money isn’t the root of all evil but in the absence of values, money is where many of life’s complexities root. Money is a tool of control. As inequality grows, so does the political influence of the rich over everything, even art trends. It’s difficult to pinpoint where it goes so horribly wrong but it is important that we get real and acknowledge shit is wrong. Here’s the proof: the Highest Prices for Australian Living Artists at Auction.
Lucy Lippard stopped wanting to be a critic, because she noted that being one put her in an antagonistic relationship with artists. She didn’t want to antagonise artists, because artists had taught her everything she knew about art. Her rule resonates since it is logical, based in respect and re-situates makers as the foundation on which the behemoth creative industries depend. Being a good artist is a difficult job. So I thought to adopt Lucy’s idea and stop being critical of artists. But then breaking rules (especially rules you’ve made for yourself) is great fun, so I set about making amendments to Lucy’s thinking. This way I wouldn’t exactly be breaking Lucy’s rule, but I would bend the living be-jesus out of it. The amended Lucy’s rule is that I’m only able to criticise artists if they’re super, super successful and/or if their work is really, really crap. Then it’s game on. It’s of concern how often super crap art and success can be seen hand in hand.
Many people want to be artists. Fuck knows why but it’s like a dream job or something. If you’re going to try to be an artist you might as well endeavour to be a good one. You might be able to fluke one or two good exhibitions or a solid first album, but one or two pieces does not maketh a career. Audiences trust that if an artist can produce very good art, their talents won’t slip through the cracks and be lost to all of humanity forever. Beginning artists trust in this because they don’t know any better and everyone forgets to tell them because who wants to be the bearer of bad news? In conservative times, you get conservative gatekeepers and conservative ‘leading industry professionals’ and conservative collectors. All three dudes put their risk adverse heads together and prop up each others really bad taste in art, they systematically back the wrong players and doom us and our ‘canon’ to hell. That, dear readers, is where we’re presently at. And if you think this is an exaggeration, here you go. What they call in a court of law: hard, irrefutable evidence.
All the artists on the list are painters, (Vale Charles Blackman). They’re not within cooee of this country’s best painters. It’s predominantly another old-straight-white-man-sausage-fest, ‘Brother’s of the Brush’ if you will, and very nicely they’re doing out of this art game too thank-you-very-much. These are our ‘winners’. The Highest Prices for Australian Living Artists lists what Australian money values most in art. It would be hard to conceive of a more conservative list and old and white and outdated and boring. This is a list of artists chosen and collected and elevated by un-woke money, a list from yester-year except it’s not yester-year. It’s today.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lErIKELSex0 L7 Shitlist 2.46mins.
So let us consider now, in a little more detail, three of the ‘influential’ Australian artists selling shitloads of their art to arts enthusiasts with more money than sense: John Olsen, Tim Storrier and Del Kathryn Barton. Olsen, Storrier and Barton are all Archibald Prize winners. Once you’ve won the Archibald the art collectors and institutions come knocking. Del Barton is so good she’s won the Archibald twice. No Aboriginal artist has ever won the Archibald Prize, but white men’s depictions of Aboriginal people have been heralded a couple of times which sounds wrong because it is wrong.
John Olsen has assumed the mantle of Australia’s greatest living painter, even though nobody believes a word of it. Olsen won the Archibald Prize in 2005 with a self-portrait Janus faced. Janus is the Roman god of doorways and doors have been bursting open for Olsen for many decades.
Back in 2000, the National Gallery of Australia bought John Olsen’s ‘Sydney Sun’ for half a million bucks. So that’s a swathe of public cash invested in his talent. When this painting was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in the universally panned exhibition ‘Australia’, the Sunday Times’ critic Waldemar Januszczak exercised his subjective right to literally bag the shit out of the work. He described how Olsen’s painting: ‘successfully evokes the sensation of standing under a cascade of diarrhoea.’
John Olsen’s work does not elicit the high esteem abroad that it commands at home. In 2006 an art collector, with more money than sense, bought a 1969 painting by Olsen for $1,075,500. The painting is titled ‘Love in the Kitchen’, an act that breaks every Occupational Health and Safety rule for food preparation known to man. If John Olsen invites you over to dinner at his joint, say no.
Archibald Prize winning artist Tim Storrier weaves a romantic tale about the hardship of his personal art journey, that’s gone gotten us all misty eyed. We didn’t realize how hard it is to be a multi-award-winning straight-white-man-artist: “Burdened with the accoutrements of an itinerant painter, a palette, baggage, equipment, blanket, food and the water bag. This nameless surveyor is a passenger on the endless road to oblivion; in search of enlightenment, he stumbles on.” Hope the enlightenment turns up soon, looks like the invisible man to me.
Despite the overestimation of his talents, it’s still not easy for Tim. He needs our help. Why not invest in what he’s selling? For a limited time only and exclusive to Tim Storrier’s Store, Tim offers us a limited-edition giclee prints. Each print is hand signed by the artist himself, and comes with an authentic authenticity certificate so you know it’s not a copy of real art. If sculpture is more your ‘thang’, the Tim Storrier Store (for a very limited time) is offering us a range of bronze statues. These works will be a welcome addition to any serious art collection. But be warned, delivery can take up to 4 weeks so order now to avoid disappointment. https://storrier.com
Every year, just like clockwork, some clown from the mainstream media reaches out to Tim Storrier and/or John Olsen for their expert opinion on the latest winner of the Archibald Portrait Prize. Like we give a shit what they think. Every year, just like clockwork, Tim and/or John declare the latest winner to be a fraud with poor draughtsmanship skills. ‘Worst decision ever’ proclaim John and/or Tim. ‘Nobody can paint as good as we can’ they echo, tackling the nuance of artists and their egos with the delusional self-grandeur of those who have sold what they do for far more than it’s worth, for way too long. ‘Painting isn’t as good as it used to be’ Tim and John continue, romanticising a past that put them on a pedestal and forgot to take them down. Well past their use-by dates, Tim Storrier and John Olsen are ungracious winners and poor losers whose career successes are a damning reflection on the integrity of the Australian arts sector. Divest people, divest (while you can).
New to the list of highest selling artists and representing the 51%, is artist Del Kathryn Barton. Her depictions of strong women are eagerly eyed by bidders, because everyone digs a depiction of a strong woman more than the real thing. Art valuer David Hulme says collectors are even beginning to see the value in women’s art! He said Barton’s work: “appeals to a lot of women art collectors. Her work has strong craftsmanship, colour, brightness. The overall appeal is very strong”. Also: “women have always been found in art school but often once they left art school the journey between men artists and women artists was quite different. In more recent times as our society caught up (!), women are getting more of a voice.” Praise be.
So let us consider then in more detail the highly successful, influential and celebrated voice of Del Kathryn Barton. Barton’s entry in the 2007 AGNSW Archibald Prize was a portrait of her former dealer Vasili Kaliman (co-founder of Spring 1883) titled: ‘Vasili Kaliman and contained familiar together within the Dreaming.’ Alarm bells sounding, we continue reading: ‘characteristic of her work is the way she juxtaposes figures and animals, as symbols, in an attempt to explore the complex relationship between humankind and nature. For Kaliman, she chose the owl, ‘poised as if custodian of more hidden aspects of the psyche.’ The stylized decorative background relates to Kaliman’s interest in Aboriginal art. ’He deals in it, collects it, and regularly visits Aboriginal communities,’ says Barton.’ Aboriginal culture speaks about a connectedness to place, it’s harder for Australians per se to find a language system that speaks about a spiritual connection with the land.’ This portrait is an expression of that connection.
Cultural appropriation is a practice based on exploitation. It’s when a person takes aspects of a culture that is not their own, (especially without demonstrating proper understanding of or respect for that culture) and makes a motsa out of selling what they admire and pretend-learned from that culture. Has Barton, a white woman, reaped commercial advantage from using traditional aboriginal cultural motifs and speaking about settler connections to the unceded lands of Aboriginal peoples, within her paintings? Like yeah. Aboriginal art as stylized decorative background anyone? Oh yes please, I love Del Kathryn Barton, I’ll Buy 3. The NGV recently hosted a survey show of the artist’s work which value added to her auction prices.
Questions about the cultural appropriation of aboriginal art within the work of Del Kathryn Barton have been raised before:
Why has there been no correction to Del Barton’s market when her work is culturally inappropriate? Is it because too many people have paid too much for Del Barton’s works over too many years, for her market to undergo the correction it warrants? Too many dealers, curators and collectors have placed their chips on the roulette wheel of her talent and none of them wishes to lose what investment, intellectual or real, they’ve forked out. The continuing velocity of Del Barton’s career, the inertia it represents, is at odds with societies shifting attitudes toward cultural appropriation and what it represents.
A voice-over on the excellent ABC arts program Everyone’s a Critic begins:
‘Art they say is the mark of a civilised society. To find out what art can tell us about who we are, this series invites everyday Australians into some of the Nations most eminent and popular galleries, where they’ll become art critics. Casting eyes and opinions on our most iconic and celebrated works. Art provokes, confronts and entertains. Love it or hate it, art is for everyone. Everyone’s got a story. Everyone’s got an opinion. Everyone’s a critic. For their first gallery our critics visit the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre. Garrett, Germaine and Levi met at the Aboriginal Academy of Performing Arts in Brisbane. They consider Del Kathryn Barton’s work from 2014 ‘of pink planets’: ‘look at the background, like that stuff there. That kind of looks like dot paintings. I’m even looking down at those dots here and there’s these tiniest dots. Even, like I don’t know if they’re feathers or what but like, is this an Indigenous artist?’
If Del Kathryn Barton were an aboriginal woman would she be as successful as she is?
It’s interesting how Auction results emerge from behind the smoke and mirrors of events like Art Fairs and their satellites, (where nobody knows who sold what to whom and for how much) and make the money and value transparent. Then we gape in wonder at how truly outdated Australian private and public money’s taste in art remains, how we as a country systematically value the wrong things.
The list of artists who achieve the Highest Prices for Australian Living Artists at Auction is the culmination of all the exhibitions and art fairs, all the Biennales and triennials and surveys and retrospectives and programs and books and interviews and forums and panels and scholarship and associated hoopla. These are our winners but we are not winning. We are bereft. The Australian arts industry must work more critically toward valuing that which has value. Conversely, we need to stop value adding to a whole lot of worthless, outdated crap.
See you at the next Art Fair.