Letters //

Biennale: a culture war

An anonymous letter regarding the Sydney Biennale.

Dear Honi,

Modishness is far quicker to dance into print than passion or reason combined, to the disadvantage of everyone. Criticism sure is an easy pose to assume when its formal responsibilities are kicked to the kerb. It seems that where contemporary discussion of culture is concerned, critical intelligence has been reduced to the dexterity with which one can find something “problematic” – bonus points if you also find it “interesting” and make desultory humming noises pregnant with sapience. In any case, a steady stream of theory-commonplaces and verbal clichés will warm the press nicely.

My qualms are not with the author or contributors to the Biennale Feature, whose verve is admirable and not defined by the above flaws – it is with the mood that underpins it. I have neither the skill nor the space to undertake a full diagnosis of the cultural issues of which the state of art is both symptom and contributor – the idea that art is ‘fully implicated’ is both ancient and obvious, yet we act as if it were a thunderous disclosure. Bourgeois bashing – a dead horse so easy to flog – has a surface glamour that verges on the convincing, but trips on its Dr. Martens in the unfashionable search for a meaningful life. It supplants the problems it condemns with new ones that can hardly be called better – worse, they’re blind even to themselves. Rather than pillory the Belgiorno-Nettis, a more astute Marxist might discern in contemporary artistic practice an expropriation of labour by ‘artists’ who effectively act as ‘patrons’ directing nameless and underpaid labourers who whip up their art in some garage. Give me a puffy aristocratic patron any day, for all the honesty of their hubris!

The feature’s only unforgivable contention sees the works of Titian and Raphael as “the pretty playthings of past oppressors” – setting aside the myopic grossness of this characterisation, heaven forbid art pursue beauty and be meaningful for an individual or small group. One wonders: whose ‘class hatred’ really takes the floor here? Perhaps what makes us squirm is that art had a place in the Renaissance, and any specific existence will always be serviceable because it is constrained – the reality that something can’t be everything is one that seems only to surprise the professionally value-less. But is the pussy-footing bureaucracy and cerebral masturbation of today’s ‘almost-liberated’ art world really any better? The author’s perceptively judged observations of the status-quo – bogus or itty-bitty funding, David Walsh’s spurious entrée into collecting, and the contemporary commodity culture that makes art an investment to be stacked like bullion – points out that the problem isn’t class or capital, it’s the art culture propagated around those practices. They lack love.

Another Honi author’s profession of incredulity at the actual art of the Sydney Biennale points to a despair felt even by staunch espousers of contemporary art: ‘What on earth are we on about?’ For creation to happen, surely the gravity of what we say ‘Yes’ to –what we’re sincerely passionate about, not passionate about despising – has to be greater than the gravity of what we say ‘No’ to.​ Thank God that’s hard to fake.

In the hope of humble anonymity,

A second-year.