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Newsletter 339

Published May 25, 2020
No propaganda here. Donald Trump demonstrates the proven benefits of taking hydroxychloroquine.

There’s a distinct feeling that things are starting to rev up again. Even though the coronavirus is still raging it seems as if everyone’s patience is exhausted. There are more people on the streets, sitting in parks and cafés… about the only place where hardly a soul can be found is on the wretched light rail that nobody in Sydney ever actually wanted.

My first major museum reopening announcement has just arrived, but it’s from Italy! Even allowing for the terrible swathe the virus has cut through the northern part of the country, the irrepressible Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev tells me she has opened the Castello di Rivoli, outside of Turin, with a host of new exhibitions – and suitable social distancing measures. This is very much in character for a director whose energy puts her in a different class to most of her peers.

The Castello is currently designated a “Slow Museum”, in mock-echo of the Slow Food movement, which also originated in Piedmont. There are face masks and social distancing, but the main thing is that visitors will once more be able to experience artworks – from Chinese contemporary art to paintings by Giorgio Morandi – at first-hand, rather than via their approximations on a screen. The new measures don’t sound like too much of a burden for viewers, as all museums are best experienced as slow museums.

My abiding suspicion is that most museum directors and curators are enjoying the break so much that they hate the thought of opening their doors to the public again. If they were immersed in disinterested scholarship I could be a little more sympathetic, but laziness is a more likely explanation. Anyway, the announcement has just been made that as of 1 June, Sydney’s galleries and libraries will reopen, so we’ll all have to abandon our hermetic ways, regardless of whether we’ve been slothful or industrious.

Having come across an on-line reproduction of John McNaughton’s new portrait of Donald Trump as a biker, I thought it might be time for a column on art and propaganda. We tend to view ‘propaganda’ as a bad thing, unless it promotes the views we ourselves hold to be right and proper. The critic, Lucy Lippard, once called on artists to make “good propaganda”. Over the last 30 years they’ve responded to the challenge with a lot of monodimensional messaging. After a suitable period of time totalitarian propaganda degrades into kitsch, but ‘good propaganda’ only gets more boring.

The Trump portraits are not good in any sense – technically or morally. They are born as outlandish examples of kitsch that speak eloquently about the debased state of American popular culture. Perhaps we better laugh while we can. If the current incumbent gets another four years in the White House this sort of work will end up hanging in the Metropolitan Museum.

After groaning through the Netflix series, Hollywood, last week, I wanted to devote the next film column to something more susbstantial. For Sama is a powerful documentary that charts the last days of resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo, as the forces of the Assad regime zero in for the kill. The filmmaker, Waab Al-Kateab, inserts the events of her life into this bleak scenario, allowing us to see the conflict from the perspective of ordinary people, not opposing armies or ideologies. It is, I suppose, a superior form of propaganda in which we are not hammered with ideological messages, but shown the human consequences of a war of which the west has washed its hands.