We had never intended on buying or reading Peter Timm’s book What’s Wrong With Modern Art? We’d seen it in book shops, flicked through a few pages, had a laugh, then got on with our lives. A former art critic for The Age, former editor of Art Monthly Australia, former curator and former adviser to various marginal galleries and the author of books on gardening and ceramics, Timms is the Melbourne answer to Giles Auty – a paid up member of the Old Fogeys club. Timms believes in beauty and simplicity and classicism and why aren’t the kids reading Plato and Ruskin in art schools anymore?!! Standards are falling!! You know the drill – whatever is new and post modern he has to be against it. Who needs it?
Then we got a phone call at 8 am from an Art Life reader who had been up all night reading Timm’s book over and over and he was in a terrible state. His girlfriend had advised him to get on the phone to The Art Life Crisis Hotline where one of our operators was standing by to take his call. Calm down, we said, and yes we’ll read the book and get back to you. That was somewhat foolish as we had been on holidays and were heading back to Sydney when we saw the book at the airport bookshop and thought, we’ve got a few hours to kill, we’ll knock this sucker off over a few beers.
We started off by reading the book and turning down the corner of a page when we thought there was something we either disagreed with or had something to say about it. After about 30 minutes the first 50 pages were all turned down, we were on our sixth beer and the emergency handle on the door next to the seat was looking mighty tempting. We could just blow the hatch and take our chances…
As a book it is a mess – What Is Wrong With Contemporary Art? has no overall narrative shape, its arguments are vigorous but contradictory and the chapters follow a muddle-headed formula that starts with a statement then drifts off into increasingly irrelevant examples before fading away without a conclusion. There are factual errors all the way through,foot notes go AWOL for the first chapter and the book’s production is cheap and nasty as well. There are reproductions of artists work including pieces by Callum Morton and Patricia Piccinini that are grey and washed out and in the case of the Piccinini, badly pixilated as well.
Timm’s book sets up a series of arguments spread across its 184 pages complimented by studies of artists the author thinks are either good or bad. The arguments roughly go as follows:
Why New Media Rule is where Timms explains that new media forms like photography, installation, video art and the web rule the art world, having staged a palace coup against painting, drawing and sculpture. The reasons are many: there is an academy at work that is teaching this rubbish to our children who neither know nor understand classical aesthetics and are betraying the future of art by adhering to cultural studies (read post modernism) rather than to art historical texts by Plato, Ruskin and the rest. He also argues that new media is inherently bad because it is allegorical rather than metaphorical and therefore cannot exist without a framing text to explain what its all about.
The Wheels of Commerce argues next that the art market is conservative (demanding paintings and plenty of them) and therefore has a pernicious effect on true art that is naturally resistant to such pressures. Timms cites examples of where artists have resisted but notes cynically that it is a no-win situation and even if artists attempt to control their own work in a gallery or in the market, this is doomed and counterproductive.
Building A Notion, the third chapter, is a description of how art writing, the market, TV shows and magazines are the ones responsible for creating the framing justification for allegorical art that could not otherwise stand on its own. Funding bodies and universities also come in for a serve because one funds work that doesn’t deserve to exist while universities are just diploma factories where the unworthy teach the untalented and where neither students nor faculty know their own history.
Cultural traditions and personal desires is something about ceramics and we were struggling to keep our eyes open as we read on to…
What Can Art Do? is the final chapter where Timms compares a work by Patricia Piccinini to George Stubbs’s Horse Attacked By a Lion and brings the full weight of his art historical knowledge and critical talents to bear on an unlikely juxtaposition.
So there you have What Is Wrong With Contemporary Art? The unnerving thing about reading it is that in some respects we agreed with Timms. His description of the way Indigenous Art is held to a different measure of criticism than non-Indigenous art was pretty much spot on, and, in broader terms, his arguments about academic orthodoxies existing in universities and art schools were also right. But the odd thing is that he doesn’t successfully explain why anything is necessarily bad. As the back cover says “in this provocative book Peter Timms asks confronting questions” – but he satisfactorily answers none of them.
In Why New Media Rule Timms cannot bring himself to explain why a framing text for what he terms ‘allegorical art’ is a bad thing. Picking on some fairly silly new media art texts, Timms shows that new media writers like Adam Geczy don’t know anything much about painting but conversely fails to justify how or why a text is ‘wrong’ or how indeed the historical context of painting is any different to that of pop culture in general or new media in particular. Context is everything, Timms says, but apprently not when it comes to something you plug into a wall.
In The Wheels of Commerce, Timms wants to say that the market is bad and evil and is stopping artists from being truly creative. We agree with Timms that the market is conservative, but again why is that a bad thing? For an Old Fogey like Timms we would have thought the secondary market’s adherence to painting (and mostly figurative painting at that) would be the prefect refuge for the last of the real artists. Timms takes aim at the complicity of magazines and their advertisers but doesn’t satisfactorily explain how it could be any other way. Bizarrely, Timms cites some very odd examples of how commerce affects art – the closure of the Andreas Serrano show at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997 and a protest by artists over the (partial) sponsorship of an arts festival in Hobart by Forestry Tasmania in 2003. Although both events were victims of inappropriate advertising, were public relations disasters and travesties in their own right, they are hardly good examples of the way money distorts artistic integrity.
Timms’ book is full of contradictions – he repeatedly cites artists from the US and the UK as his examples while bashing local funding bodies for ill advised press releases and reports, as though, somehow, it all just goes together in the end – Damien Hirst and The Australia Council exist in the same universe.
Timms’critique of Callum Morton completely misses the point of the artist’s work – Timms wanders off on an analysis of Modernism and architecture after Robert Venturi but ignores narrative in Morton’s work – and then gets all hung up on what Juliana Engberg wrote in an essay somewhere. For heaven’s sakes Pete, if you don’t agree, give us your interpretation instead. Actually, when he does offer an interpretation, likewhen he discusses the work of Gwyn Hanssen Piggot, the results are not much better than the writing he lambastes elsewhere.
In his comparison between Piccinini and Stubbs, he goes on for pages discussing art and nature, but ignores the simple theme of hubris as the constant between these historically removed art works. There are no mentions, interestingly, of Tracey Moffatt in the sections that deal with new media or Indigenous art, no mention of Ricky Swallow ehen it comes to discussions of artistic ‘skill’, there is no analysis of market forces in any detail and the specific magazines that deal with the market (Australian Art Collector and Australian Art Market Report) are not mentioned at all.
To make his toughest judgments, Timms follows a simple maxim: never let facts get in the way of a good argument. He wanders off the subject on tangents that seem only vaguely related to the topic and along the way makes some horrendous blunders. In his chapter on creating an aura of specialness around contemporary art (an aura that Timms naturally abhors) he has this to say about Adam Cullen’s art:
“One reason is that art – even, or especially, art that pretends not to be art – still holds out the promise of financial and career opportunities. It’s all about status.
“The kid who spray paints graffiti onto railway viaducts can expect no recognition or financial reward, just a fine if he’s caught. But when an artist such as Adam Cullen copies those designs onto canvas and hangs them – dripping with irony -on a gallery wall, they add another notch to his meticulously detailed CV as well as bringing in the cheques. Then, when one of Cullen’s paintings pops up in an ABC television advertisement without his permission, Cullen rushes to the arts copyright agency, complaining that his work ‘is art … not a random image … it’s been cretinised into something that has nothing to do with the art’s original conception, production and eventual context’.”
Timms is completely and utterly wrong when he says that Cullen copies his works from the imagery of unknown and uncredited graffiti artists. To our knowledge, Cullen has never used text from anywhere else but from inside his own fetid imagination. Timms might be excused for imagining that the text that Cullen had used his paintings of seven or eight years ago came from some unattributed source but the art work in question was Cullen’s portrait of David Wenham that won the Archibald Prize in 2000 – and there was no text in the work at all. The ABC had used an image of the painting in a promo for the station and Cullen rightly objected to his work appearing in another context without his permission. Even if the work had been an appropriated text or image, the artist could still claim that their own copyright had been violated and not a court in the land would deny them.
“There are endless other examples of artists who, while freely appropriating pop-culture imagery on the basis that art and mass marketing are all just part of the same game, retreat very quickly into the old fine-art rhetoric when they, in turn, are appropriated.”
That may be Peter, but you’d better find another example to back up this contentious claim.
Timms takes aim at the pitiful state of art criticism in the newspapers and on TV and we at The Art Life applaud his generally perceptive comments. Unfortunately, the author’s Old Fogeyisms get in the way when he reaches for examples. His condemnation of Matthew Collings is typical of Old Fogeys – but again Timms gets the basic facts wrong, and ladles on his own expectations above what is actually offered:
“These days, even the BBC opts for the fatuousness of Matthew Collings, whose series, This is Modern Art, shown here on the ABC a few years back, managed to fill six hours without ever delving much below the surface. In the hour-long program devoted to Beauty, for example, Collings gave no indication that he was aware of the vast literature that exists on this subject, from Plato to Wendy Steiner, making no attempt even to consider what beauty might be.”
The episode that Timms is referring to was called Lovely, Lovely where Collings compared the philosophy of Matisse to artists working today. Although we doubt Timms taped the show when it was screened or during its recent repeat, we suggest he goes to the library and checks out page 104 of the book version of This Is Modern Art and reads under the subtitle What Is It? where Collings attempts an admittedly light but nonetheless to-the-point definition of what the concept of ‘beauty’ means to us today. Although he does not mention Plato or Wendy Steiner – Timms preferred references – Collings does show his audience examples of work by Matisse, Picasso, Morris Lewis, Jules Olitski, Alex Katz, Elizabeth Payton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, Chris Ofili and Patrick Heron and although he doesn’t mention Plato, you get the general idea. While we mostly agree that art on TV in Australia is pretty shit, again Timm’s example is way off the mark in both substance and detail. And by the way, This Is Modern Art was on Channel 4, not the BBC.
One last example. Timms chapter on the warping of art culture by dreaded commerce is illustrated by some odd examples as we have mentioned – but none are odder than this example where he discusses the fact that artists and galleries promote their work in ads in magazines:
“The cover of the Autumn 2003 issue of Art and Australia […] featured a striking close-up of one of Dani Marti‘s woven constructions. His densely textured strands of clashing orange, pink and white synthetic fabrics certainly made the magazine stand out on the newsagent’s shelves and induced me to purchase a copy. Inside, Victoria Hynes had contributed an eight-page feature on Marti which was an unashamedly puff-piece. ‘Until recently unrepresented by a commercial gallery and still largely undiscovered by the wider public,’ she wrote, ‘the artist has nevertheless built up a strong following among architects, designers, institutional bodies and critics.’ […] Prominently situated at the front of the magazine was a full-page advertisement for a Dani Marti exhibition at Gitte Weisse Gallery’s Room 35, and another full-page advertisement reminding us that Dani Marti is represented by ARC-one at Span Galleries in Melbourne.”
“Now this confluence of cover, feature article and paid advertisements might, of course, be just a happy coincidence, but it’s the sort of coincidence that occurs with alarming frequency in art journals, where editorial content often reads like extended promotion and serves to complement the advertising pages only too well.”
The interesting thing about this passage is that Timms does not appear to know much about the detail behind the example he cites. Room 35 is a hire space gallery which would have been rented out by the artist and the advert would have been paid for by Marti as well. The gallery that Marti subsequently joined was Sherman Galleries who, as we all know, has no connection to Gitte Weise Gallery whatseover. That Arc-One Gallery chose to advertise the fact that they represent Mart when the magazine was running a feature on him is so unremarkable one wonders why Timms chose to mention it. He also overlooks the fact that the article by Hynes was not in fact a critical essay or evaluation but more a lifestyle/art news article which simply stated the facts about Marti’s career. These are almost random facts that don’t add up to a conspiracy…
“I don’t mean to suggest any conspiracy. The editors of Art & Australia […] and so on no doubt see it as their job to be supportive of artists and the commercial apparatus that sustains them. It’s just that their conception of what constitutes support is limited very narrowly to career advancement. To be fair, they are caught in a bind. Since their advertising revenue comes from almost exclusively from commercial galleries and art dealers, they cannot afford to bite the hand that feeds them.”
That sentiment in general would seem to be true but it is not the case in the example cited. Since Art & Australia regularly features critical articles, reviews and news items along with softer lifestyle articles as well as art market reports, it’s unfair to generalize that the magazine is beholden to its advertisers without giving a reasonable example. If the fact that the magazine is supported by advertising is some sort of indictment, then every single magazine in Australia and (very possibly the entire world) is guilty.
After reading What Is Wrong With Contemporary Art? we felt as though we had been beaten around the head or forced to listen to a tedious lecture for hours. As we arrived back in Sydney we decided we would never discuss Peter Timms again and drank to it – we needed something to forget and help us get on with our lives. Here’s cheers.