Sunday, 2 January 2011

GARY WILLIS – The Key Issues Concerning Contemporary Art

Paperback published by University of Melbourne Custom Book Centre, Australia, 2010

This is a tricky review, more of a favour. Gary asked me to write something about his book, in the faint hope of a little publicity. I’m supposed to publish it somewhere on the web where it will be widely read, but I don’t really know where I could do that, without fatally compromising my remarks, and with realistic hope of a prompt appearance. So this will have to do.

I agreed to do it, even though I hold quite opposing views on art, (as he well knows) because I have some sympathy for his position as a ‘mature-age’ student, (like me, the wrong side of 55) recently awarded a doctorate but with no prospects in academia. Like so many, his dissertation is relegated to some dim and unvisited corner, of minor or negligible interest. ‘Mature-age’ students are encouraged to undertake doctoral research by universities, but on the understanding that their efforts, even while meeting all academic standards, can lead nowhere, professionally, are frankly for their own amusement. The ‘mature-age’ student is supposed to be satisfied with having a framed degree on their walls, the discreet prestige. It’s a shrewd deal on the part of the universities, of course, since all enrolments bring fees and all examined dissertations go toward the university’s research record (quantitatively and qualitatively), on which they are assessed by funding bodies. So, universities are happy to profit from ‘mature-age’ students, so long as they don’t have to include them in teaching programmes and opportunities for publication bound up with that. It strikes me as ageist exploitation.

However, in Gary’s case, there has been unexpected interest in his topic, as it appeared on University of Melbourne’s Eprints Repository (UMER) – an online library of completed theses – interest there measured by number of PDF downloads taken. There, it was titled Contemporary art: the key issues: art, philosophy and politics in the context of contemporary cultural production (2007). In fact, the number of downloads and broad topic came to the attention of Lamberts Academic Publishing, a German company, who offered to publish it in 2009, with distribution through Gary accepted and hurriedly re-wrote it, re-titling it Art as Meme to conform with the narrow confines for title allowed by Lamberts, only to have them inexplicably publish it as Art as Mime! Again, it attracted modest but respectful attention, quite apart from the title, but no more than polite acknowledgement from the university. In 2010, the university’s own thesis publisher, The Custom Book Centre, offered to make it available in paperback, free of charge, to further interest generated by its UMER presence. Again, Gary revised the book substantially. And again, his old department’s response has been feeble: no offers of a lecture or some tutoring, no endorsement of his efforts, even as they reap prestige.

Now, this reluctance would be understandable if the topic had been something very specialised or obscure, or Gary’s approach eccentric or unfamiliar, but in fact he proceeds, very much in step with accepted thinkers such as Arthur Danto, Jacques Derrida, George Dickie, Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger and G.W.F. Hegel, to name but a few. This is surely the reason why the book has so far attracted some attention within academia, if not support from his former department. Tellingly, even the school under which he conducted his research changed its name in 2006, from The School of Art History, Cinema, Classics and Archaeology (SAHCCA) to The School of Culture and Communication (SCC). The drift to broader studies is unmistakeable, tacitly acceptable, for some. Yet Willis is denied opportunity even for fleeting teaching there in order that they might foster much younger, but scarcely more able or specialised talents. This is unfair, but department politics are notoriously corrupt and nepotistic. Gary is unlikely to earn much, if anything from this publication, and worse, gain nothing in academic standing for all his labour.

Even though I do not endorse the arguments in his book, I want to at least register my support for his scholarship, which was conducted in good faith. I know it was a long and difficult study. I read early drafts and suggested corrections. I know his main supervisor (whose arrogance is exceeded only by his dishonesty) refused to even grant Gary a consultation for over a year (when a candidate is entitled to at least four a year) and made rash and absurd demands so late in proceedings, Gary had to continue even after his funding had run out. It was a struggle, but he persisted in the belief that the findings were worthwhile. It will be small consolation that younger, better placed researchers within the school will submit similar findings and reap far greater rewards.

I shall now briefly run through my objections to the book. I know this is the part Gary is hesitant about, but since I’ve alluded to them, I feel obliged to come clean. To make one qualification, let me say that most of my objections would also be levelled at those writers Gary follows, and even though I recognise that they are currently academic orthodoxy.

The book divides contemporary art’s issues into four – roughly, the definition of art, the role of the artist, the subject of art and the language of art. On the definition of art, Gary argues that vast international surveys, such as Biennales, have encouraged the reckless expansion of art practices and that the growing political agenda that curators and sponsors bring to such shows has served to obscure critical standards, to, in effect, throw away the rules for art. My objection is that this exaggerates the importance of such surveys, focuses only on some shows and some parts of shows and ignores many other institutions and infrastructure that support contemporary art and the bulk of criticism that continues to perceive and appreciate novel and surprising works of art. As an institutional critique, it is so narrowly administered as to be crude and shrill.

The assertion that arts funding favours ‘socio-political strategies’, for instance, is trivial. All patronage brings some such bias. In general, the book‘s sweeping claims are supported by slender and selective examples, and are by no means persuasive or representative. Similarly, in looking to the issue of the role of the artist, Gary fixes on Performance and Conceptual artists like Michael Landy (pp 76-82) and Kendall Geers (pp 82-86) to the exclusion of developments in painting, video or sculpture. The result is a lop-sided account of the options available to the contemporary artist.

A shared theme to both the definition of art and the role of the artist is the blurring of boundaries between art and life, forms or branches of art, art and entertainment. But while it is easy to find examples like Laurie Anderson or Bjork, that manage to be both popular and highly regarded, it hardly convinces us that these are now the norm or a dominant trend. Nor does citation of other scholars settle the matter. It is one thing to agree with Rosalind Krauss that ‘popular culture, Conceptualism, Video Art and Post-structuralism have effectively dismembered the historic conceptions of art practice’ (p 91). It is quite another thing to demonstrate it. High or Fine Art has happily co-existed with popular culture for quite some time. Conceptualism is recognised as a style or category of fine art. Video Art is a sub-section of motion pictures, accepted as a branch of art. Post-structuralism rarely concerns itself with art. In general, the book is long on sweeping condemnation of the art world and its economy but short on thorough or rigorous research.

The third issue – art’s subject or content - is so general and discursive it is difficult to follow. An implicit assumption to much of the chapter (and the book) is that 20th century abstraction in painting supersedes figuration, or more concrete styles. But the fact is so-called Synthetic Cubism arises at the same time as the first full abstraction. Figurative styles such as Surrealism and Dada arise much later, Pop Art and Neo Expressionism even later. It makes no sense to see a simple linear progression toward full abstraction, or for that matter to reserve ‘formal values’ purely for abstraction. Nor is abstraction in painting then superseded by Conceptual Art for that matter, as a close look at their parallel developments will demonstrate. Complaints about the adequacy of art history are hardly borne out by careless disregard for the facts.

Extended discussion of Duchamp’s ready-mades arises in the issues of art’s subject and language. Like many writers, Gary takes ready-mades to be simply the placement of objects in an art gallery, for appreciation as art. But it ignores the fact that Duchamp was at pains to re-orientate or re-arrange very familiar objects, such as a urinal or bicycle wheel, in order that they might be seen in a new and ‘aesthetic’ way. Care was taken both in choice of object and presentation. To suppose he simply transferred arbitrary objects to galleries and conferred upon them the status of art by fiat is widespread, but mistaken. Equally erroneously, the ready-made is then seen as simply allowing the artist to nominate works of art and this in turn is understood as the origin of Conceptualism.

I shan’t complain about the brand of existentialism Gary embraces, in defining subject and language for art. I work the other side of the street, as they say, and follow the analytical tradition. (My views are here). But again, I know that many go along with that side of philosophy and that their numbers are considerable these days. To those, I say Gary’s take on these issues is as valid as any they might welcome and to be sought in the interests of current scholarship and a fair go.