Art Life Security Threat

Art Life , Old media Oct 12, 2006 No Comments

The reason The Art Life is a terrorist target is because the terrorists hate who we are, not because of what we do. We have just been going about our business like we always do, and there has been a lot of business to do over the last couple of weeks. We have been re-jigging our publishing schedule so that our bi-weekly blog updates alternate with our bi-weekly radio show and podcast. Since we posted the first of the podcasts last week we’ve had so many downloads and subscriptions that we’re already number 15 in the iTunes Top 20 Art podcasts. Sign up for the bi-weekly update and, who knows, we may even get to number 1 [with a bullet]. This blog has also recently been nominated the 6th most top art blog in the world. It’s a big honour to be recognised, even if it’s in a site we’ve never heard of – Top Ten Sources – but it’s nice to be loved by some even if the terrorists want to release Sarin Gas into our change room .


We were recently in Newcastle for the This Is Not Art festival, which was actually five festivals under the ‘TINA’ umbrella. After getting back from our appearance with Lily Hibberd and Jeff ‘Wrath of…’ Khan talking about art writing and publishing, we received a mysterious anonymous email asking us if we would please write a review of TINA. We would have loved to have seen enough to write a review but unfortunately TINA was the most shambolically organised event we’ve been involved with. The plan was to go to Newcastle the day before our appearance, go to a few events, attend a cocktail party or two, relax by the beautiful Newcastle foreshore, do our talk, perhaps linger for the rest of the day before heading back to Sydney. Sadly, TINA’s promise of accommodation as an offset for the fact we weren’t being paid to be there never happened due to a complete breakdown in communications between Art Life officers and the TINA people. We never had official confirmation we were speaking at the event and had to rely on the website to confirm we were even on. No one told us where exactly we were speaking, no one gave us any information about venues or details of the city – maps and so on – and the only person from the TINA org we saw was its director Marcus Westbury who dropped by to say hi. Compared to others, we had a good time of it. We heard of some people who had been put up in accommodation right next to a Newcastle nightclub, their hotel walls pounding with disco beats until 5am, and others who arrived from interstate to discover their scheduled appearances were listed in the TINA program as having happened the previous day.

The only thing we saw much of in Newcastle was the inside of the fabulous Goldfarb café and the hundreds of Christian youths cavorting in the park opposite the Newcastle town hall taking part in the festivities of the Jesus Make Us Whole Festival [not affiliated with TINA]. People we met who had been in town for a few days and had got down with the laid back organisational ethos said the fest had some great events. Unfortunately, TEAM Art Life had to pack up our robes, get on the bus and head back down the F1 regretting the fact that we hadn’t demanded at least a free cup of coffee for our troubles. As to the review, we can’t help you, but our friend Lauren at She Sees Red has written an excellent account.

Another story that we’d been following with interest lately has been the sudden and inexplicable change of direction in opinion by our good friend The Esteemed Critic. For those of you who don’t recall, we decided some time ago to have a three month moratorium on any mention of the Sydney Morning Herald’s art critic John McDonald. This was because we were heartily sick of him and by just ignoring his boring, pedestrian and highly predictable reviews we were hoping he would go away. Well, we had been putting so much energy into ignoring him that we ended up actually forgetting about him for awhile, and by not reading his reviews and articles, life started to seem so much brighter and happier. Time passed, weeks turned into months, and now it has been – ooh – six months since we even opened Spectrum to see what he had to say. Two weeks ago we thought, oh go on, have a look – and guess what – things had actually changed.

At the end of last year when the whole brouhaha over the future of the National Art School kicked off, we noted here that when McDonald used his column in the SMH to promote the cause of saving the NAS, he was in no position to claim any objectivity in the matter as he was listed on the NAS website as an employee of the art school. It turned out later that “someone” at NAS had taken it upon themselves to list his name there even though he wasn’t on staff. Our questions about the ethical nature of using a SMH column as a soapbox while claiming to be objective was met with a rather rudely worded email from the Esteemed Critic:

“I’ve just had this latest piece of paranoia brought to my attention. For the record, I am not employed by the NAS this year. I have given two guest lectures. I’ve also spoken at CoFA. I have nothing to hide, unlike those who like to sneer and slander others under the cloak of anonymity. This stuff is offensive, it’s inaccurate and it’s childish.”

The game plan at NAS to try to save their bacon and avoid being amalgamated with NSW University’s College of Fine Arts has been to attack COFA as some sort of crazed bastion of post modernity where core values like learning to draw are ignored in favour of pointing a video camera at your jacksie. This strategy worked a treat in the early 90s and NAS had been trying it on again. Never mind that many of NAS staff had actually studied and taught at COFA, or that the NAS’s much vaunted “atelier model’ that’s allegedly in danger of being snuffed out is duplicated in private art schools such as at Julian Ashton’s, in private courses conducted by artists such as Garry Shead and Jason Benjamin, or in government funded institutions such as the Sydney Gallery School – attack COFA, ignore the facts, appeal to some misguided and uniformed notion of NAS’s importance. As we said at the time, if NAS had simply appealed to the art community for support it may have got it but its divisive and dishonest campaign has alienated many of its potential supporters. Increasingly desperate measures such as celebrity art auctions, open letters to the Prime Minister John Howard and appeals in the media have come so far to nothing.


And this, in a round about way, brings us back to The Esteemed Critic. We asked in November 2005 if McDonald would start using his column as a soapbox to support other worthy art world causes – protesting the imposition of Voluntary Student Unionism and the end of student association galleries, newspapers and radio stations for example. Of course, nothing of the sort happened and we knew full well it wouldn’t. Still, it was rather surprising to open Spectrum and finding that McDonald had reviewed Chinese Whispers, a drawing exhibition held at COFA’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery that was curated by Mike Esson, a highly respected artist, teacher and art skills traditionalist who has been at COFA for at least 20 years. McDonald’s preamble to reviewing the show [and another at Ray Hughes Gallery] was actually longer than the time spent on discussing the art, going through the back story of the NAS battle. Then this:

“I am an unashamed partisan of the independent National Art School, along with a large and diverse group of people, including Margaret Olley, John Olsen and the Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi…”

Finally, an admission of the bleeding obvious. McDonald then raised the spectre of voting for Peter Debnam as the Liberals are the only party willing to commit to saving NAS. Ahem. This being a review of sorts, McDonald then moved onto to discussing the IDG show. Although rather long, we’re going to quote most of McDonald’s column below as you can see in it the twists and turns of logic [combined with patented EC insults and barbs] all of it ending up at a very surprising place:

“Among the more contentious issues between the two institutions is the question of the teaching of drawing. Since its rebirth in 1996, the National Art School has made drawing the foundation of its educational platform. Every student is expected to draw, no matter what their specialisation, and no one has ever suffered or had their creativity ruined by acquiring these drawing skills. It is a common boast at the school that College of Fine Arts students come to them as postgraduates in order to learn how to draw. Perhaps this is the kind of barb to which curator Mike Esson is responding in the catalogue of the exhibition Chinese Whispers at the college’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery. “The College of Fine Arts has always maintained a strong commitment to drawing,” he writes. “It has been COFA’s intent, not to be prescriptive, and not to teach students how to draw, but to teach them how to learn to draw, and to see drawing within a wider artistic and cultural context.”

“This may seem a very fine distinction, but it hints at the differences between the schools. The college prides itself on a more “pluralistic” approach, with a greater emphasis on new technologies. The National Art School clings doggedly to tradition, believing that basic drawing skills should precede any experiments with new media. Esson, having stated the college’s case with some precision, goes on to concede that all the artists in the exhibition work with the traditional media of pencil or charcoal on paper. This may be one of the reasons that Chinese Whispers is such an impressive show.

“All of the artists are recent masters or doctorate graduates from the College of Fine Arts. Most of them have also studied at other institutions, including the National Art School. They are mature artists with numerous exhibitions behind them, not raw beginners.The variety of approaches and subjects makes this exhibition a fascinating compendium of drawing styles, from Maria Kontis‘s exquisite, pale pastels based on snapshots, to the Zen-influenced abstractions of Toshiko Oiyama and the expressionism of Deborah Wilkinson. Nicola Brown portrays herself in the guise of a battalion of toy soldiers; Amanda Robins draws elaborate swathes of fabric, as a cypher for the body. Muamer Cajic and Li Wenmin are explorers of physical and mental space -from rooms and buildings to the frontiers of memory.

“With the exception of Li Wenmin, there is nothing especially Chinese about this show. It may simply be that Esson, who now bears the august title “director, International Drawing Research Institute” (a college research group with ties to colleges in Beijing and Glasgow), has been to China so many times in the past few years that he has China on the brain. In fact, Esson and that other frequent flyer, the college’s director, Ian Howard, a have virtually established themselves as a two-man institute of Sino-Australian relations. How much more impressive would it sound to their Chinese peers if they could stick “National Art School” on their business cards?

“Ultimately there is no reason to believe the college is anti-drawing. In Esson and Idris Murphy, at the very least, they have two highly dedicated draftsmen. Perhaps the simmering tension between the institutions could be defused by a straightforward policy of live and let live. Along with the third alternative of the Sydney College of the Arts, there is room for three very different art schools in metropolitan Sydney. It should be obvious that with any creative activity, a greater number of educational options creates a more vital and productive environment. That’s enough about the art school debate. In a perfect world I could forget about the art politics and concentrate on exhibitions.”

By ignoring the colloquial meaning of the term “Chinese whispers” McDonald gives himself the perfect opportunity to take a cheap shot at COFA’s pragmatic engagement with Chinese artists and, of course, their full fee paying International students without whom NSW Uni would be in deep financial trouble. The bigger issue of chronic under funding by the Feds, VSU-imposed cultural desolation of tertiary institutions, not to mention the complete isolation NAS has enjoyed due to their Shangri-La style funding arrangement with the state, are all left unaddressed here. You have to wonder why the Esteemed Critic, after all this time, has finally admitted on the one hand he is a NAS partisan, and on the other, conceding the very arguments that he himself has put forward are utter rubbish. He writes as though he is reporting someone else’s argument when it was he in the pages of the SMH who claimed only NAS taught drawing ‘properly’.

It is interesting to speculate on which pressing issue in the art world that McDonald will next turn his prodigious writerly skills to supporting. With NAS now as good as dead and all those famous people moving on, he might like to consider the plight of the University of Western Sydney who are being forced to axe three of its key arts programs – Fine Arts, Electronic Arts and Performance. Students, staff and alumni are publishing a blog to gather support for saving UWS and have managed to get their story into the Herald. Thus far, however, the Esteemed Critic remains silent.

The Art Life

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