Newsletter 471

Published December 29, 2022
Christmas tree by Alexander McQueen

And so this is Christmas, as John and Yoko sang. I can hardly remember a year in which the Yule tide has crept up so steathily. Is it just me or is this a peculiarly low-key Christmas? In some ways it’s been a two-speed year, starting off slowly with pandemic restrictions still in force, and becoming increasingly frantic as everyone began to feel more confident and started making up for lost time.

I know that as one gets older, time seems to speed up, but the past few months have been breathless. I’d like to take a break and curl up with a book, but there’s never any let up with exhibitions and movies, so I’ll take a mini-breather at best.

This week’s art column is devoted to the Alexander McQueen show at the National Gallery of Victoria. I can’t see any other exhibition getting within coo-ee when it comes to attracting audiences over summer. This is not just because of the spectacular nature of the work, or McQueen’s track-record as a guaranteed crowd puller. There’s something incredibly edgy about this show when it is put alongside all the things one sees in museum exhibitions today. In 2010, when McQueen committed suicide, galleries weren’t putting Indigenous place names on wall labels or committing to 50-50 male and female representation even if it made for a lopsided view of art history. Neither were we so outrageously sensitive when it came to using images or motifs associated with other cultures.

McQueen had such a rough & ready approach to borrowing from other sources he attracted lawsuits and huge disapproval. In the catalogue for the NGV show the curators are almost apologetic about this, but in the context of the present day, when we’ve become so insipid in our attitudes, it’s almost refreshing to find an artist who didn’t give a damn, but was doing it for all the right reasons – ie. to challenge ideas that women were powerless victims, muslims dangerous fanatics, and so on. He was still angry at what the English did to the Scots, during and after the battle of Culloden.

That McQueen used fashion as his medium should not be seen as a trivialisation of his social and historical interventions. By now we need to recognise fashion as the place where popular culture, commerce and contemporary art collide. There’s an absurd, carnivalesque feeling about much of McQueen’s work, and this is one reason for its widespread appeal.

I found myself thinking of the McQueen show as I read through the book published by the Art Gallery of NSW to document “The Sydney Modern Project”. At certain points it reads like a manual put together by social workers and therapists, stressing how inclusive, how caring & sharing the museum has supposedly become. You’ll be pleased to learn that the AGNSW is now a “safe space”, just in case you were terrified of entering those forbidding portals.

A public museum, by its very nature is “for all”. It should not have to stress that fact or go out of its way to tell us that it “welcomes” every kind of person. I’d suggest that museums also need to be places of intellectual rigour and high aesthetic discernment, with a willingness to take risks and challenge popular attitudes. The current subsidence into PC hearts & flowers is a make-believe radicality that no-one is going to oppose. In essence we’re all against racism, sexism and lots of other nasty stuff, but that doesn’t mean we have to be constantly professing our own progressive views and using them to structure every display and program. In this way, good things become a new orthodoxy, with their own dogmas and patterns of exclusion. The McQueen exhibition is a timely reminder that art needs to push against dominant social trends if it is to maintain its vitality.

For the Boxing Day releases I’m reviewing two films: Triangle of Sadness andThe Lost King. The former is an arthouse comedy that satirises the decadent, callous life of wealth and privilege that so many aspire to today. The latter, an allegedly true story in which one dedicated amateur embarrasses the experts, who swiftly try to squeeze her out of the picture.

If Triangle of Sadness is clinical in its cruel satire of the rich, The Lost King is a film that plays on our instinctive love of the underdog. Both movies recognise that the world is never a “safe space”, no matter how much we might wish it were so. The big chorus of John Lennon’s Christmas song was “War is over”. This year, that goal is not even close.