Newsletter 509

Published September 18, 2023
Hazards of travel

I’m back in Sydney after two successive trips, to Europe and South Korea, feeling as if I’m still finding my feet. People are either travellers or stay-at-homes. To be a traveller you’ve got to be more interested in new experiences than creature comforts, as it’s almost impossible to avoid the long drawn-out waits in airport queues, dragging suitcases for kilometres at a stretch, or trying to find time (and a WiFi connection), to meet pressing deadlines. Nevertheless, I’m happy to put up with all this, if it means I get to see important exhibitions or revisit favourite museums. Then there’s the opportunity to catch up with artists in their studios, which can be revelatory.

One of the main benefits of travel, from my point of view, is that it affords me a sense of perspective on the Australian art scene. Spend a few weeks overseas and it’s much easier to discern the strengths and weaknesses of what one sees at home.

The prices paid for art is the most obvious point of difference, but there is also a huge contrast in what is expected of a curator in places such as Paris or Berlin. Not only do the Europeans speak several languages, they can discuss the history of art from prehistoric times to postmodern, and are well versed in literature and philosophy. I can think of few Australian curators who are even vaguely comparable, with figures such as Ted Gott (NGV) and Terence Maloon (Drill Hall, retiring), being the stand-outs. Most Australian curators are honest strivers who have sought to educate themselves in an area of specialisation. On this island we have no strong tradition of learning other languages, and few opportunities for a comprehensive art education.

I accept that one can’t expect curators in Australia to be on the same level with those who’ve been educated in the French or German systems. What’s more disturbing is that so many new generation curators seem to be uninterested in remedying those shortcomings. It used to be that all curators had degrees in art history or deep knowledge of their field. Today, it’s just as likely they will be be graduates of some curatorial studies program that deals primary with “issues” and techniques.

And so it is we have curators who are obsessed with issues of race and gender, and contemptuous of art history – which they conveniently see as a collection of ideological mistakes to be ignored or reflexively derided. Those who have never read Plato or Descartes are well-versed in Queer theory. Those who have never studied Australian history know with absolute certainty it’s all a tale of colonial brutality and oppression. The trouble is, it’s just not true. The deeper one reads, the more complex the story becomes.

The current mania for rediscovering the work of neglected women or non-white artists has been valuable when it has drawn attention to figures such as Hilma af Klint or Norman Lewis. It should not, however, be a recipe for denying the value of everything that has come before. The winning argument of all great reformers has been one of equality, not revenge or conquest – a level playing field where people may be judged on their merits, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Any curator who feels certain types of people need to be cancelled, as a way of “decolonising” the museum is flirting with totalitarian logic. One can’t deny the value or the ability of Picasso – like the Great Gadsby does – because you don’t like his sexual politics. The stance of High Morality looks a little awkward when it is used to defend bigotry and ignorance.

Curatorship is one of those professions that defies definition, it encompasses so many possibilities. One could argue about qualifications and credentials, but open-mindedness and curiosity are essential. There are too many occasions when curators feel the need to make political statements when they should be asking questions.

This week’s art column looks at Elisabeth Cummings: Radiance, at the National Art School Gallery. At the age of 89, Cummings has nothing to prove, but this survey of her work of the past 20-30 years reveals a painter who has continued to grow and develop at a time when most artists are set in their ways and producing signature pictures. In this show one can see how Cummings’s work takes on new life and energy from the 90s and into the present. It’s one of the most inspiring shows of the year.

The film being reviewed is more of a cautionary tale – not to believe your own propaganda or be flattered by others’ admiration. In Everybody Loves Jeanne, the heroine begins as a media celebrity but soon becomes a laughing stock. Escaping to Portugal to sell her late mother’s apartment, she meets a very strange guy at the airport, who becomes an unlikley love interest. There’s no accounting for what happens when one travels.