Painting’s Blessing: A Mysticism of Sight

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‘And so it is not the painting that ‘speaks.’ A painting does not mean (to say) anything. Were speaking in fact its aim, it would certainty be inferior to speech and would need to be ‘sublated’ by language to receive meaning, and a clearly communicable meaning at that. Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge’. – Sarah Kofman, ‘The Melancholy of Art’

‘What you’re looking at is a combination of my efforts to say something and what the painting is saying independent of me. It’s saying more than me now. So, I can just listen, you know?’ – Chris Ofili, ‘Interview’

‘What guides the graphic point, the quill, pencil, or scalpel, is the respectful observance of a commandment, the acknowledgement before knowledge, the gratitude of the receiving before seeing, the blessing before knowledge’. – Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind

Somewhere among the connections, disconnections, and resonances between these lines from Sarah Kofman, Chris Ofili, and Jacques Derrida is where I locate the connections, disconnections, and resonances between my ‘art’ and my ‘faith’. Somewhere among them is what could be called a mysticism of sight. Not a mysticism of the invisible but of the visible. Not a mysticism of incarnation but of carnation. A mysticism of the intensity and wonder of the world’s appearing that painting receives and blesses.

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Peter Kline, Before the End of the World, 2019. Acrylic on paper.

Kofman denies that a painting has anything to say, otherwise why not just speak instead of paint? There is a gap between painting and language that cannot be overcome, and it is within this gap that painting offers its ‘truth’. Ofili thinks painting does speak, but it speaks as the combination of an artist’s efforts to communicate and the ‘more’ that a painting communicates beyond the artist’s (and perhaps also the viewer’s) intention. Surely both are right, even if they cannot be neatly reconciled.

If Ofili’s ‘more’ overlaps with Kofman’s ‘gap’, perhaps what comes undone between them is any notion of a sovereign, all-seeing ‘I’, or ‘eye’. There is, for both Kofman and Ofili, something about painting that confronts us with the unsovereignty of sight, with the world’s excessive appearing that overflows our ability to translate seeing into saying, or seeing into knowing. If sight were sovereign, if it could fully comprehend the world’s appearing, painting would be redundant, a mere reproduction or representation of what is known and grasped ‘immediately’ by vision’s power to receive the world as intelligible, or within the bounds of ‘discursive order’.

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Peter Kline, Apocalypse, Australia, 2019. Acrylic on paper.

But sight is not sovereign. The world’s coming to appearance is never fully comprehended. No one could ever say comprehensively what a sunset means, or what the face of a child means, or what the colour blue means. Each are events or bursts of sense that are never metabolized fully within language. Painting responds to and plays with this excess. It does not represent the world; it presents its excessive appearing, becomes its appearing, supplementing, and carrying it further. Painting stages, within unending difference and variation, the wonder of existing in a world where what is visible is not a closed set of known forms but an infinitely open passage and variation of sense, never reducible to our systems of knowledge. Which is why what is visible must be shown or presented rather than accounted for or explained – every art form does this in its own way. Painting invites us to ‘listen’ to the fact that we see a world that goes far beyond any ‘discursive order’. It lets us acknowledge, as Derrida puts it, a receiving and a blessing that come before knowledge, before seeing. It opens the unsovereignty of sight.

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Peter Kline, Isolation, 2020. Acrylic on canvas.

Painting, then, might itself be understood as an act of faith – if faith is understood as entrusting oneself to and engaging oneself with a world that goes beyond our ability to master it, a world that goes beyond itself. A world that did not go beyond itself toward what religions call ‘God’, or toward what might be called the sacred or the divine, a world that did not open beyond itself beneath a sky that illuminates it from beyond, a world collapsed on itself, perfectly at one with itself, given, completed, finalised, could not be painted – nor could it be sung or danced or filmed or narrated.

Painting, like faith, risks itself within a world that is there not as a given to be reproduced, but as a blessing to be offered, shared, and formed. Painting opens for sight the opening that the world is. It gathers and intensifies the world’s visuality, like making love gathers and intensifies the body’s touch, like singing gathers and intensifies breath and language. Sight becomes no longer functional or useful. It tips over into pleasure, into joy.

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Peter Kline, Love’s Hidden Life, 2017. Acrylic on canvas.

When I paint, I never think of it as representing the content of my faith, even when I’m painting something religious. Perhaps this is because faith, for me, is not synonymous with belief, with having something to say about God. But painting is for me an act of faith, a way of staying faithful, perhaps to God, or to the open wonder of existence. Faithful to the gift and joy of the world, its carnation. Painting passes on the blessing.

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Peter Kline, Position Doubtful, 2019. Acrylic on canvas.

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Peter Kline is the academic dean and lecturer in systematic theology at St Francis College, which is part of the Charles Sturt University School of Theology. He is the author of Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology. The land on which he lives and works is that of the Jagera and Turrbal peoples.

Martyrdom and the Meaning of a Death

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Robert Besana, Non in cruciatu sed causa quae facit  martyrem (It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr), 2018. Oil on canvas, 244 x 609.5 cm.

The image of victims whose individual lives have been crushed by political or social forces is a common part of our media consumption in this period of increased international conflict and tension. While local circumstances contribute to such deaths occurring, there are clearly larger social interests at play when one death becomes a cry that their death will result in change and justice may prevail. This is the anger and hope that is reflected around the name of an African American victim of police violence, George Floyd, that has resulted in a movement towards justice that has been echoed around the world. This is heard, most especially, where social inequality prefers certain people based on their colour, race, religion, or gender to enjoy the luxury of privilege and power.

Robert Besana is a skilled painter, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. In an important solo exhibition in 2018, he explored the subject of martyrdom and the lens that it provides in looking at the meaning of death at the hand of political and social forces. The title of the major work in this exhibition is a quote from a sermon by St Augustine about the meaning of the death of a martyr: ‘It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr’. Besana uses this phrase as a means to advance concerns about the meaning of death in contemporary society, in particular of those who die violent deaths as a result of government or political intent. Since 2016, the Philippines has endured a government-led ‘war on drugs’ that has seen many unlawful killings, including a bounty on murdered criminals and drug addicts. The subject of martyrdom also reflects on the longer history of political repression, especially by the Marcos regime during the 1970s and early 1980s, that forms part of the public consciousness of Filipino identity.

Besana has taken a historical work, The Martyrdom of St Matthew by Caravaggio (1599–1600), as the basis for his own interpretation. The original work, which is part of the cultural-religious imagination, has been enlarged to panoramic scale and then divided by angular gold bands. In some ways, the viewer has to reassemble the work and its subject in their own imagination. These gold bands – or as he calls them, slashes – are stained with black liquid, reminiscent of dried blood. At several points, a large red rose intersects the composition. The act of visual repair required by the viewer becomes a metaphor for considering an unjust death and the pursuit of freedom in the face of oppression and corrupt structures. It offers a visual link between these historical markers of martyrdom and the meaning of contemporary deaths caused by unjust actions. The red roses reference the daily practice of the rosary so familiar to Filipinos, a prayer that focuses on the suffering and redemption of Christ.

Contemporary art in the Philippines is engaged with questions of representation and their social and political implications. Artists are alive to the power of images for uncovering the effects of colonisation in the past and the nature of freedom in the present. Filipino culture has undergone over four centuries of European colonisation. It has been formed within a vocabulary that reflects Spanish Catholicism and inherent hierarchies of power. Set within an Asian context, these unique cultural forms of visual awareness deserve wider international attention. These perceptions also resonate for those in first world situations who struggle to uncover the ingrained habits of visual ordering that are based on the apparent colour of skin. In this work, Robert Besana offers a meditation on violent death that affirms the meaning of life itself, reflected in the sacrifice and redemption found in the Christian story of faith. Death is not an end, for like a seed it holds the possibility that it may break open the future with hope.

Reposted (with some editorial changes) from Artway

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Robert Besana (b. 1976) is an artist, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. He is presently the Executive Director of the Asia Pacific College in Makati, Manilla. He has served on the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Philippines as Technical Committee Member for Multimedia Arts since 2011. Since 2008, Robert Besana has held nine solo exhibitions and has joined various group exhibitions in art galleries in the Philippines including Galerie Anna, Blanc Compound, Blanc Peninsula, Nineveh Art Space. He has exhibited in the Art Fair Philippines and Manila Art Fair. He holds a Master of Arts in Fine Arts and Design from the Philippine Women’s University, Manila.
ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

A Choreography of Grace

My world has contracted, the dining table replacing my studio, my watercolours small enough to occupy that limited space. It’s my habit to begin each day with a watercolour reflection on the state of things around me. I’ve been comforted by small pleasures; knitting, cooking and our sunny balcony but saddened to see empty shelves and abandoned playgrounds, birthdays celebrated alone and embraces from afar. The idea that this too will pass sustains us and the creative impulse never wanes. – Margaret Ackland

I have become so very conscious of the empty spaces, and all the in-between manoeuvres that I have had to negotiate to keep my distance from other bodies. This is especially focused when I take an afternoon walk in my local park. It is filled with other bodies longing to break out of confinement. Bikes, wheelchairs, dogs, and runners are all vying for space on the footpath. At every potential meeting, there is an awkward hesitation of give and take as we work out who goes where. My eye is on the space to make it through, no time to recognise faces. I imagine this is what footballers do – looking for the opening space, with their eye on the prize. Freedom at last!

In the last nine to ten weeks there has been an abundance of space. My diary was the first thing to empty out; first in days, then weeks, and then for the ‘foreseeable future’, a phrase now in constant use. Space appeared as the garden called for nurture, half-finished projects reached their completion, my floors appeared from under piles of paper, and small things found an unexpected level of importance. Space appeared for cakes, slow cooking, vegetables, art-making, sunshine, and that elusive sensation of actually feeling time pass. I loosened demands that I had on myself. I got bored. I watched re-runs of old comedies. I felt nostalgia. I made no plans. I wasted time and did not feel guilty. I slowed down and actually felt life, like a pulse under my skin.

I could sense the expectations peeling off – of getting things done, of tidying up, of always being cheerful, on time, efficient, careful, spontaneous, and always great company! I lessened the strangle-hold that the consumption of products has had over me. I purchased nothing for weeks and found I was not in the need for anything. I discovered online shopping, and I thoroughly enjoyed the arrival of luxury in the post! I was inconsistent and enjoyed it. I have enjoyed this isolation. I have been an indulged introvert! As things begin to open up, I want to treasure this sense of finding the space in between. This might prove useful in negotiating the bigger spaces of my life and work, and especially how I judge my life to be productive, useful or full!

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Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing #7 – Palm Sunday, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 18 x 24 cms. 

Artist Margaret Ackland has pictured it well. In a series of small watercolours, she presents moments of intense stillness and empty space that become the centre of her interest and awareness. This intensity of looking indicates a refined observation of things usually overlooked and pushed the edge of vision. Palm Sunday, the fifth of April, now so many weeks ago, Margaret Ackland captures the profile of a priest leading a televised service in a church empty of a congregation. The placement of this robed figure to the left of the page, leaves an accentuated empty space held in place by a shadow and a curled palm frond. It is as if there is a tug of war going on for our attention between the figure intent on religious ceremony moving to the left and the space that opens up to the right. There is an interplay between activity and rest, movement and stillness, presence and absence, that leaves this otherwise empty space alive with possibilities. I remember how busy I was, that time now so long ago, when this emptiness arrived and piqued my interest.

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Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing # 3 – Stay Part, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 19 x 28 cms. 

In another work, we see people busily going about their activities, jogging, shopping, or incessantly checking their mobile phones. This evidences a search for the new choreography that we have been told will express our consideration for others. Suddenly our personal boundaries are being pushed out and our physical edges take on new meaning. We need to find a distance that is clearly more than one breath away. Alert for coughing, and the slipstream of joggers and getting our tongue around that new phrase ‘respiratory aerosols’. The bright pink lines of geometry represent that process of retraining needed to find the correct level of distance between us and the other. Such is the evidence of this discipline that even the pigeons seem to be following the lead. We are all re-crafting our world with our eye not on things, or even people, but the illusive and moving spaces of the in-between.

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Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 19 x 26 cms.

Presumably on the kitchen bench, two cans of imported Italian tomatoes have sorted out their positioning. A larger-than-would-be expected distance between them accentuates this awareness of space. How did we not see this before, this negative space, this void, this shadow, that allows what is present to pop out into our visual awareness? In taking the time to look at these two objects in space, we become acutely aware of the space that is enveloping and giving frame to what has firm edges and solid shape. After a while, the two elements of what is and what is not play a game of grabbing our attention, taking it in turns to hold our awareness. Our eyes remind us that we live in this space, and that we are not the can of tomatoes! Life does not consist of firm edges, but also welcomes the shadows and empty spaces that are full of lively potential, or of nothing at all. How restful and yet also how exhilarating are these possibilities.

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Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing #6 – Stay Inside, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 20 x 28 cms.

A space of potential is explored in a final watercolour, as two skeins of wool lie next to each other, with one strand rather seductively unravelling into the void between. Is this accident, or comedy, or fate, or chance, that a thread relaxes so easily into such a place. In the emptiness of this space, I begin to see my mind at work looking for meaning, connecting threads, cause and effect, patterns, portents, powers. I fill such empty spaces with signs that confirm my own anxieties, wants, desires, and hungers. In my mind, I can see this tendency to draw endless lines over the surface of existence. I am looking for meaning on every surface to reflect back to me my freedom or my struggle. And then I become amused by the meanings that a single twine of thread keeps generating in my mind; it shows me how furiously the wheels are turning to keep the world from dissolving into nothing. And yet there is nothing to be anxious about. In the end, there is nothing, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Living with space. Living in space. Who knew there was so much space! What I find in these humble and small works are scenes of the ordinary that have taken on the gravity of something keenly observed and considered. They carry the weight of significance and the attention to detail that is found in acts of contemplation. They carry an aura of devotion. This is the stance we would adopt in front of a religious icon, or a work of great spiritual significance. These works carry a sense of gravitas usually reserved for images inviting a form of devotion, where looking is rewarded by an experience of grace. This is a form of looking that leads to life, where my own insignificance is held in the gaze of another where I sense my own existence as a gift. These fine moments of looking become the empty spaces where we experience what we might term at this time ‘a choreography of grace’.

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Margaret Ackland is a Sydney-based artist. The works referred to in this article are currently being exhibited online through Flinders Lane Gallery, in Melbourne.
ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

‘Great!’

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George Gittoes, Great, 2017–19. Oil on canvas, 92 x 76 cms, collection of the artist.

Artist George Gittoes has spent considerable time working as a filmmaker in poor urban communities in the USA. Over the last few days, he has been sharing with me by email and phone his responses to what is happening in the USA this week. He has sent me the text below where he distils his response in a painting he completed in 2019. – Rod Pattenden

I met Elliot Lovett in Baghdad in 2003. He had just come in from a combat mission and joined in the freestyle rap competition called the Bull Ring, beside the pool of what had been Uday Hussain’s Palace. Elliot’s rhyming verses began to sculpt images in my mind with the genius of a Picasso re-configuring form to match images evoked by the bombing of Guernica. Instantly, I felt protective of Elliot’s genius and said, ‘Let me talk to your officers and have you excused from frontline duties – your talent is too great to be risked’. Elliot laughed back, and said, ‘George, it is more dangerous in Brown-sub Miami where I come from. I joined the army because it is safer’.

I followed Elliot back to Miami to make my film Rampage, which would test this challenging statement. Sadly, Elliot’s even-more-talented-poet-brother Marcus was shot and killed while we were making the film. Elliot asked me to come back again in 2017 to be with his community while they campaigned to oppose Donald Trump’s election. Elliot said: ‘We need to make a video clip and call it ‘Ya all don’t hear me’. He wanted the rap musicians to wear white clown masks and perform in front of a huge street mural depicting Trump with his face painted like Batman’s Joker, taking a knife to the Statue of Liberty.

All the rappers crammed into a hotel room to watch the election results with Hellen Rose (my partner) and I. They could not believe that Trump had won and would be their new President. Elliot commented: ‘He will say anything because he is crowd-pleaser, like a clown’.

As well as poetry, Elliot sees bodybuilding as an art form and uses his amazing physique to make symbolic poses that are art. He explained that the following day he wanted to take one of the clown masks out onto the street and ‘show what it means to a black person hearing the slogan “Make America Great Again”‘.

His performance, which I drew and photographed, was like a scream and I did one painting called that – The Scream – but for Elliot the most powerful image he wanted to evoke was standing with empty hands outstretched and looking down at them through the white clown mask and saying ‘Great!’ Saying it Elliot’s way, the word took on the opposite meaning; like when you have had a bad day and both tyres of your car have been punctured on the side of a highway in heavy rain and you reach for your mobile phone to call for help and discover the battery is flat and you say, ‘Great!’

Elliot has the double disadvantage of being an artist and black. In our society artists are discriminated against for being different. Growing up as an artist in conformist Australia helps me to understand the suffering of African-Americans and Indigenous people. Our film White Light gives a voice to the people of segregated Southside Chicago – a community which, literally, has a church on every corner and every one of them is full on every Sunday. The uplifting voices of Gospel singers can be heard, evoking the suffering and prayers of a people who have been victimised since slave days. To see Trump holding up a Bible to these truly-spiritual people was the deepest of all insults, at this time of crying out for change ‘at last’.

In the first four minutes of White Light, the police are seen approaching Harith Augustus, a much-loved hairdresser and barber as he peacefully walks up to his shop. Within seconds they have shot him dead on the road. The police never gave an explanation and were never punished. If it was possible to fly to the US, Hellen and I would be on the next plane to be with our friends, out protesting for change and an end to such injustice.

(George Gittoes’ recent film White Light features this song ‘Off the Chain’. In many ways, it provides the soundtrack for understanding the current unrest in the USA.)

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George Gittoes AM is a highly-recognised Australian artist, who for more than four decades has documented some of the world’s most serious conflicts. He has been recognised for his humanitarian and peacemaking efforts and has been awarded an Order of Australia (AM) as well as the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize 2015. A painter and printmaker, Gittoes is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has worked in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and, more recently, the suburbs of Chicago. He is the recipient of several major art awards and his work is included in public collections nationally and internationally. George Gittoes lives and works on the land of the Wodi Wodi people, of the Dharawal nation.

C-V 1

 

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Douglas Purnell, ‘C-V 1’, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 122 cm. Private collection, Sydney.

 

This painting is human in scale, 180cm x 122cm. Like everyone in the world at the moment, I am living in the time of the Covid19 Pandemic. I have chosen to make a series of paintings that reflect life in the present for me, and, and the experience of ‘lockdown’ where my days begin and end in my studio. The works are beyond my words. I hope they somehow address the mystery that surrounds us.

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DOUG PURNELL IS A PASTORAL THEOLOGIAN WHO IN HIS RETIREMENT IS FOCUSING ON A COMMITMENT TO A FULL-TIME STUDIO PRACTICE OF PAINTING THAT EXPLORES THE NATURE OF ABSTRACTION AND MARK MAKING. HE WAS FOR 17 YEARS THE DIRECTOR OF THE BLAKE PRIZE FOR RELIGIOUS ART. HE LIVES, WORKS, AND PLAYS ON THE LAND OF THE BURRAMATTAGAL PEOPLE.

Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

The outrage on Hosier Lane and who has the right to the city

When a crew descended on Melbourne’s Hosier Lane using fire extinguishers to paint the walls, condemnation was swift. While the lane is celebrated for its street art by the City of Melbourne and punters across the globe, the reaction of property holders and city authorities to this latest installation demonstrates their appreciation of street art stretches only to the extent it increases tourism and bring buyers into shops.  When they can co-opt street artists as unpaid labour to paint unchallenging images, it will be celebrated, but upset the establishment and they will criminalise you.

Referring to Melbourne as the ‘street art capital of Australia’ and noting the ‘ephemeral and forever changing’ nature of street art, Lord Mayor Sally Capp – with zero irony – stated that the latest installation was the work of ‘vandals’, ‘unacceptable and not in keeping with the spirit of Hosier Lane’. She indicated an intention to treat the artists involved as criminals. Property owners and others weighed in on the artwork. Chase Joslin, who manages Culture Kings, a street wear store that capitalises off the street art culture, said in a statement to the ABC:

In a matter of minutes it was destroyed. It’s a real shame. … Coming through and destroying people’s art, I don’t think it’s part of the culture. … There’s not much art to it.

These statements are astonishing if you accept City of Melbourne and Culture Kings’ support of street art culture, but to most street artists they’re unsurprising.

The line between what is classed as vandalism, which is widely condemned, and street art, which is tenuously celebrated, is vague and requires examination. Both refer to artworks that occur in public. Melbourne City Council delineate the difference as to whether the artwork is ‘unwanted.’ I suggest it is more useful to think in terms of whether the artwork is authorised. Authorised may mean explicitly commissioned, tacitly encouraged – as exemplified by Hosier Lane – or a more vague form of authorisation, such as areas which become known as ‘street art spots’ where council and property owners seem not to take action to criminalise artists or remove artworks. Unauthorised works also fall within a spectrum, from where no attempt is made by the artist to gauge consent from an owner, to putting up works in areas known as ‘safe zones’ such as Presgraves Place or Hosier Lane in Melbourne. Whereas ordinarily artists would have to seek explicit permission from the property owner in order to avoid possible criminal sanction, in these areas very few do so on the tacit understanding that artwork there is encouraged or at least, accepted.

The recent ‘painting over’ the large mural-esque images that make up much of Hosier Lane’s artwork was an important critique of the co-option of street art and a commentary on who ascribes value. Its point was missed by the very people it sought to critique. That Melbourne City Council is now seeking to criminalise those artists demonstrates that their appreciation of street art dissipates when it presents a challenge to their authority.

Everyone is required to engage with public space, but few have the legal right to impact it. The appearance of, surfaces within, and images in our cities articulate our socio-political, legal and cultural make-up. Blank walls, locked gates, neat lawns, paste-ups, tags, murals and advertising bollards are neither aesthetically nor politically neutral. Unauthorised street art makes an important and politically charged contribution.  It is direct democracy exercised over the appearance of public space and changes both the appearance of a wall or building and the experience of the society in which it is encountered. It creates radical possibilities for new ways of existing. If the appearance, function and experience of the city is understood as an expression of the law – what Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos refers to as a ‘lawscape’  – then street art shifts the law, and hence power dynamics,  in profound ways.

Much of the art in Hosier Lane is shaped by the tacit approval of Melbourne City Council. To distance themselves from ‘unauthorised’ street art and controversial genres such as tagging, many artists utilise realist imagery and make palatable murals designed to be widely shared on social media, using terms such as ‘aerosol art’ to describe this practice. Authorisation co-opts street art culture and nurtures an inherently different form of artwork, as the impact of putting up work without authority is removed.

Last Sunday’s incursion critiqued this culture of co-option, and the images that predominate in Hosier Lane.  It provoked questions of value and who gets to define whether something is art. In doing so, it thoroughly annoyed the political establishment. More than mere annoyance, Melbourne City Council has indicated its intention to criminalise the artists.  This indicates both the threat unauthorised street art poses to the political establishment and the contempt with which artists are held.

Melbourne City Council are unlikely to begin criminalising every artist who paints in Hosier or other ‘safe spots’ around the city. When they realise the importance of this latest piece, and its appreciation by street art enthusiasts, they may soften their approach. They may also seek to further articulate their policy on street art and further control it. If they do, they can expect more pushback from artists who understand that the right to the city is theirs.

Reposted from Overland.

Video by deansunshine.

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Erin Buckley is a Melbourne-based lawyer, academic, and sometime artist, who lives and works on Wurundjeri country.