Avant-Garde and Kitsch

The historical opposition of avant-garde and kitsch is finally reconciled in the work of Damien Hirst, as demonstrated here in this masterly performance of self-parody. Not only is this manifested in the buttons (see Ben Davis’ review) which you can buy for 75p, or the 19.95 cufflinks, but also to the fifteen Iron-on Spots, above, which I bought for ten quid.

Such trinkets may appear to be superficially kitschy, in the contemporary sense, yet perhaps they are also a key to a characteristic of the rest of Hirst’s enterprise? Compared to other critics, it has been Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker who has worked hardest to extract some value from what he saw at the New York Gagosian venue of the global exhibition: “Hirst is originally unoriginal, to put it positively: a master of supererogation. His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction.” Despite his scathing reservations for this kind of art, as he concludes, the Hirst phenomenon produces only forensic pleasure: “In the course of one fair and square taunt after another, Hirst surely marvels at what he is abetted in getting away with. “The Complete Spot Paintings,” to his credit, makes no bones about what a certain precinct of the world has come to.”

Comparing the outcome of The Spot Paintings spectacle to some shady forms of post-GFC dealing, Schjeldahl evokes Marcel Duchamp to try to makes sense of Hirst’s strategies: “Duchamp remarked that art is created partly by its maker and partly by its audience. Hirst dumps pretty much the entire transaction into the audience’s lap. The result is art in the way that some exotic financial dealings are legal: by a whisker.”

What Schjeldahl failed to extract from this use of the Duchampian formula is the presence of the shadowy third agent in the creation of meaning, which is the dealer. Of course there are other agencies which confer status on a work of art – notably museums and auction houses – but in this instance the figure of Gagosian himself participates equally in the transaction which leads to the appreciation (if that is the correct word) of this particular body of work.

When you visit a Gagosian gallery, the door is opened for you by a black-suited doorman, apparently groomed to be excessively polite. When Axel and I visited the Gagosian in London, in each of the galleries sleepy black-suited guards outnumbered the viewers. Three young women sat behind a row of computer screens. Another well dressed young man sat at a desk in the shop, where the prints, books, and trinkets such as the Iron-On Spots (above) were for sale. Strangely, despite the apparent similarities, this did not feel like a museum, the role of which is, in part, to strip the work of art of its commodity status. In museums, works of art are no longer for sale. In the Gagosian Galleries, you are made to feel as if you are privy to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, outside of trading hours.


And so I found myself sharing with Peter Schjeldahl the perverse necessity to search for meaning or aesthetic value in the paintings themselves: “I can enjoy looking at one for a while, but to like them would entail identifying with the artist’s cynicism, as herds of collectors, worldwide, evidently do. Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.” It is interesting, in its own way, to stare at coloured circles, separated by a white ground, to see what you see. And yet there is just enough white ground separating the dots for there to be no discernible cumulative colour-effect, as one comes to expect from abstract paintings, when the subject and content of which is purely the interaction of form and colour. In the Hirst spot paintings, even this effect is denied the viewer. It is an aesthetic of excessive denial.

When Clement Greenberg wrote his groundbreaking essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” for the Partisan Review in 1939, both the word “kitsch” and the concept of the “avant-garde” meant something altogether different. And yet the argument still resonates, over the years. In those days, Greenberg’s use of the word “kitsch” evoked its Germanic origins, referencing a conservative “popular” and academic visual culture. By contrast, the avant-garde was seen as a “bohemian” outpost of bourgeois high culture. Nowadays, kitsch is seen as a phenomenon of jokey bad taste and retro-inspired fashion, and the avant-garde is primarily dependent on its institutional and museological contexts. These are the contemporary meanings that enable Clement Greenberg’s original title, the dialectic of which once appeared so contradictory, to have become perfectly reconciled in Hirst’s practice. But don’t feel sorry for the poor investors, they’re well protected – by the men in black.

Oh! The O

With apologies to James Thurber or Anne Desclos fans, but this is a story about another kind of O…

When you visit MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart), once you’ve made it past the engaging architectural effects and you’re standing in front of a work of art, you realise there are no labels! And so you turn to the “O” they gave you at the door. It’s a modified iPod (an OPod perhaps) which is (another) paradigm shift in the way you experience a museum.

Powered by 46 WiFi transmitters embedded throughout the building, at any time at least six of them know where you are, and your O presents you with a list of the things you’re looking at. And better still, you have options at your fingertips which allow you to go beyond the title data to levels of information and opinion which are inaccessible in other formats.

No longer do we have to engage in that forward and back dance to read the label beside a work of art: “this looks like…” “never heard of him, oops, her…” “when was this made?”  or “where on earth did they get this treasure/dudster from?” Now MONA’s O gives you access to all these layers of provenance and interpretation, and more. It’s very smart. You can even vote: yes, you can form a love/hate relationship with a work of art!

Other museums agonise over how much information to provide on their labels. Not enough, and you’re expected to buy the book. Too much, and it’s Anthropology. Don’t let the Words get in the way of the Art, they say. With the O, you decide. And if you enter your email, by the time you get home you’ve been sent a record of all the things you looked at, all the things you missed, and access to the layers you didn’t have time to read.

One of the tabs at the bottom of the gadget’s screen is GONZO This gives you David Walsh’s words… What made him buy it, among other things:

Enjoy the mini-essays by Jane Clark and others, under the ARTWANK tab…

And there’s the interactive diagram of your voyage through the labyrinth. Very cool indeed.

And MONA keeps all this info to tell them how to rearrange things in the future. According to David Walsh, if a work becomes too popular, it comes down!

Even though that’s unlikely in the case of the Kiefer Pavilion. The O is a product which DW would like to see adopted by museums internationally. It gets the Iconophilia vote, but we don’t yet have a museum to go with it…

is MONA a paradigm shift?

Seems that way to me. If the experience of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart irreversibly changes the way you think about the potential of the art-architecture experience, the old guard had better look out! If MONA has established a new paradigm for museum practice in Australia, then how will all the other orthodox public and private museums respond? Mount a rearguard critique? Ignore it? Keep doing what we do? I think not.

In the few months since its opening, MONA has been seen by 163,000 people, and there have been more than 100 reviews internationally. (Some of the best are linked at the bottom of this post).  Sure, the MONA effect is individualistic, some say quirky, but certainly a challenging conjunction of architecture and art. Some say, a tad dismissively, it’s a twenty-first century wunderkammer. And if you are really threatened, professionally, you can argue that it’s not really a museum, but rather an egoseum, a private collection made accessible to a curious public, with none of the constraints and obligations attendant on public collections. Its owner, David Walsh, makes the principle of unpredictability his only standard, where any given event or manifestation is just one of “the multiplicity of things that could have happened”.

And yet, if Walsh and his architect, Nonda Katsalidis, have succeeded in making you think about art and its architectural setting in different terms, has it not also altered the standard by which you engage with works of art when you’re in all those other places? In future posts I want to think about such questions. In the meantime, let me show you why it took us an hour to get to the first work of art…

Your iconophile was traveling with Marr Grounds and his daughter Marina Ely, together with Pam McGrath (these photographs), plus Rebel Films‘ David Batty and Jeni McMahon, who are working on a biographical film of Grounds. It was Marr’s father Roy Grounds who designed the two original 1950s modernist houses on Moorilla Estate for Claudio Alcorso (the Courtyard House) and his parents (the Round House).

When you arrive from Hobart on the MONA ferry (which is a kind of mobile coffee shop) you wonder at the red ochre Cor-ten steel windowless forms which enclose the cliff face at the end of the peninsula. As you arrive at the jetty, you are presented with a long narrow staircase which takes you up to the original level of the Alcorso villa. The staircase is your first experience of the excavation of the site, and the sandstone becomes the key motif of the underground spaces which you discover when you eventually enter the galleries below your feet. But first, as you pass the steel and zinc structures, between the sandstone and concrete walls, and the first plantings, you are being prepared for the material qualities that you will experience throughout the building. It feels very good.

When you reach the top of the stairs you realise you’re in for a lot of visual gymnastics. The spaces of the building often appear like a sparring match between an owner-builder and his architect(s). The ground plane of the original Grounds building is linked to the meandering concrete spaces of the gallery roof to the south via a synthetic tennis court. It was Walsh who was the advocate of this icon of suburban popular culture, which faces off the architect’s rejoinder, a stainless steel mirror which frames the Museum’s entrance. In one direction you are attracted to the view of the world outside, framed by the architect’s elegant transparent steel battlements and the modernist villas, while in the other direction the illusionistic mirror draws you in.  Continue reading →

new musea and their architects

“I saw Cubism in a different light” says I.M. Pei. As you would… Two Cities, Four Architects: interviews with I M Pei, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel at the NYT, as they talk to Nicolai Ouroussoff about their experiences (“universal principles” among other things) that they found in Doha and Abu Dhabi.