The sprogs and I hit some canvases yesterday in our homeschool art class.
The task: paint COVID-19.
[Reposted from jasongoroncy.com]
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.
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.
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.
Erin Buckley is a Melbourne-based lawyer, academic, and sometime artist, who lives and works on Wurundjeri country.
For more on this exhibition, see George Gittoes: Prophet or Provocateur?
For the last two years I have been working on the exhibition ‘George Gittoes: On Being There’ which opens at the Newcastle Art Gallery on 8 February 2020. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work alongside a unique artist who is more at home in a war zone than the usual haunts of inner-city cafes favoured by creatives! This exhibition covers fifty years of Gittoes’ artistic production from the heady days of his involvement in the Yellow House artist community in Kings Cross, through his documentation of the working conditions of the steel mills of Newcastle, to his work in the field in war zones, the creation of another Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and his most recent sojourn in South Side Chicago, a place which has the worst statistics for gun violence in the USA. In each situation, Gittoes has sketched, painted, photographed, and, more recently, produced feature-length documentaries about what it is like to be there, in a way that draws in viewers to consider the ethical and moral dilemmas of what it means to be human in these difficult and limiting environments.
Rather than the usual structure of an artist survey, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to get under the skin of what motivates this artist. It seeks to address the questions about why he goes to such inhospitable places to make art and why he puts his life at risk. His answer is as simple as it is profound: ‘I feel privileged to have been able to spend much of my life creating beauty in the face of the destruction of war. I have been waging a personal war against war with art’. These works offer insights into the manner in which Gittoes works and how he sees, what catches his attention, and how this shapes his responses through his art-making. Against the backdrop of dangerous and emotionally charged contexts, Gittoes is drawn to empathise with the human person, as a site for bravery, resilience, hope, and despair, inviting our involvement as compassionate participators in a world that has moral and spiritual implications.
During 1969–1970, Gittoes was involved with the creation of the Yellow House artist community. Through his Puppet Theatre, Gittoes was able to play out the human dramas of heaven and hell, and life in between, using his skills in storytelling and the making of an extraordinary range of puppet creatures. His deeply imaginative work made a sharp response to the Vietnam War and contains some of the strongest responses to the war found in Australian art. Gittoes speculated at the time about how he could take the Yellow House experience, of incubating a creative artists community, to Vietnam, in the midst of this terrible war. In many ways, his life work has been to play out that possibility. Since 2011, Gittoes has worked regularly in the eastern part of Afghanistan, setting up the Yellow House Jalalabad. Here he linked with local filmmakers and actors renewing his earlier experiences of artistic collaboration. This process is documented in the award-winning film Love City, Jalalabad, which highlights the possibilities for hope in making art in such an unlikely context.
Through the Yellow House, Gittoes leaves aside the usual goals of western artists to highlight their own originality and prefers to embed himself in communities of creative people. Here, collaboration and the trust that is afforded to each person’s own gifts and creativity is highly valued. Gittoes’ work in Afghanistan has had a major impact on the film industry in that country incubating actors, directors, and technicians who are following through on their own projects in a country with a rich artistic heritage. Here we see culture as a form of renewal that provides stable images for a possible future. The results of this manner of working returns art-making to a community base that is concerned with the common good, the search for justice, and the creation of hope. It is a profoundly different model of valuing creativity that reaffirms the role of art to form the future as a social experience. One might say that the making of community might be the most profound art form practised by humans.
This film explores his encounters with the communities of Englewood in South Side Chicago, and uncovers the social impact of gun violence through the stories of both victims and perpetrators. It is a film filled with tragedy, pathos, and hope, developed while living and working together with the local residents. White Light is his most beautiful and evocative film, yet it is filled with the harsh social impact of gun violence. It is a moving and deeply empathetic narrative that uncovers the vitality of human beings looking for conditions that will allow them to reach their full potential. Gittoes focuses on the stories of young lives who through the means of their own creativity deeply yearn for a life that is better.
One of the paintings produced during this period is ‘The Scream’, which is his take on the anxieties of our current time. This work examples his capacity to provide a prophetic perspective on the history that is unfolding around us. The work was based on a street mural that depicts the yawning face of Donald Trump as it looms over the poverty and violence of the inner city. The scream is echoed as despair or protest by the lone African-American figure in a mask, which allows for the possibility that they see things differently, and look towards a different future. The prophetic imagination uncovers the structures that create injustice, it works to unsettle the status quo, and to question the myths we accept for what is considered normal. Prophecy works towards an alternative future based on justice where every creatures matters. This is deeply echoed in the Christian tradition and Gittoes takes us to the churches and activists who live this out on the streets of South Side Chicago. This frightening and disturbing image is linked to the emergence of hope in the darkest of situations.
The final work in the exhibition is a stunning 2.5-metre high ceramic form based on a traditional Afghani ewer. A collaboration with ceramicist Cameron Williams, Gittoes has decorated it with symbols from both Muslim and Christian traditions. Here both east and west come together in an act of potential hospitality. The work is entitled ‘To Cleanse the world of war’, it brings together into an imaginative conversation, cultures that are more often seen at enmity. The work evokes the ritual of welcome through the washing of hands and the serving of refreshments. it also offers a perspective that religion might contain resources for healing, understanding, and reconciliation. Religion is often considered in the popular imagination to be the problem, and yet religious faith from both Muslim and Christian traditions offer deep inspiration for mutual understanding and the solving of common problems that rob us of a peaceful future.
George Gittoes provides an extraordinary record of an artist willing to create in the face of chaos and potential destruction. While Gittoes might be a prophet, he is certainly a provocateur, alive to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of what it is to be human. Gittoes is also alive to the positive resources that religion and culture provide. This exhibition will give privileged access to his process through paintings, prints, visual diaries, field drawings, photography, and film. Through these works, we experience an amazing human journey that holds out the hopeful power of creativity in the face of prejudice and fear. This is a magnificent visual record of a creative imagination that provides a visual resource for the difficult times in which we live.
George Gittoes: On Being There is on exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery (8 February – 26 April 2020) and will travel later in the year to Casula Powerhouse Art Centre (opening 26 September) and Wollongong Art Gallery (opening 28 November).
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:
‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTML| EPUB | PDF)
From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
The article can be accessed here.