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February Issue 2006

A View From Down Under
on Parochialism

by Judith McGrath

While having a lively debate with an irate artist the other day, I was diagnosed as suffering from "parochialism". Considering the condition doesn't produce an itchy rash, I wasn't overly worried, however the way the word was spat out, like bile from the speaker's mouth, did cause me some concern. The intended insult had me pondering the innocuous word and wondering why it seems so loathsome when used in reference to the visual arts?

According to my trusty dictionary the definition of parochial is "to be confined to, or interested in, one's own parish", while parochialism refers to "having a narrow scope of interest". It seemed a bit old fashioned but I must admit, the artist was right, I am hopelessly parochial. My extracurricular interests are restricted to the visual arts, most particularly those of this parish. I prefer walking through local art galleries to bungee jumping and would rather converse with artists in their studios than talk to my dentist in his office.
The old dictionary's definition caused me to wonder why the word "parochial" was used with a venomous voice when the phrase "you're sooooo out of touch" uttered in a highly superior tone would have sufficed? So I accessed the thesaurus on my brand new laptop only to find a very different slant on the word, one that added to my confusion. When and how did "narrow scope of interest" mutate into "narrow-minded" then "small-minded" before taking the quantum leap to "bigoted" and "prejudiced"? These are just some of the synonyms for parochial listed in this computer's thesaurus.

Yes, I know that word definitions change in concert with a culture but this seems more a mutation then an evolution. What puzzles me is how having a priority interest in local people, places or practices is considered a virtue in certain sections of the Parish but a vice in the visual arts. For example politicians, clerics and doctors are each confined to a narrow scope, often at our request. We expect sitting politicians to represent their local electorate, we want religious leaders to preach the tenants of a set creed, and we seek out medical practitioners who specialize in a single field. Our society celebrates these forms of single-minded dedication.
And why is a narrow scope of interest applauded in other artistic practices but not fine art/craft? For instance, when film stars venture onto the stage they are kept safe within the limits of their specific via type casting. When recording stars or ice dancers appear in movies, they're usually winter musicals. And most writers keep to their genre, be it crime novels, poetry or sci-fi screenplays. They're all specialists in their field. Yet when visual artists concentrate on a specific method, prefer a certain subject, or choose not to travel too far from home, they're labelled parochial aka small-minded. The paradox continues when parochialism, deemed offensive in studio practice, is respected in the business side of the visual arts. Consider how fine art galleries would fare if they didn't pander to the preferences of their patrons? Most galleries have a stable of local artists who produce similar styles and a list of clients in the parish who prefer the type of art they show. It's an acceptable form of niche marketing and good business practice, as the art buying public soon learns which gallery has the type of art they like.

I feel for those artists, who honestly follow their own muse, only to be judged as being limited in scope. And I fret for those who abandon their singular pursuit of truth to appease the general public, as they will be accused of prostituting their talent. It's a no win situation. And hot on the heels of these starving artists are the underfed visual arts writers, whose honest comments are sought by readers only to be dismissed as being parochial (to be read with a wrinkled nose) by those who own a different opinion. We are condemned, for granting celebrity status to some artists by mentioning them too often and ruining the careers of others by not mentioning them enough. Hey! It's supposed to be the painting not the prose that makes the artist!

The primary meaning of parochial, the one that references confined localities and interests, has little relevance today. At best it is quaint, at worst it's an insult as the term has morphed into a synonym for intellectual or experiential limitations and bias. Its original intention is redundant in an age of global connections. (A case in point is how this little rant written by me sitting on one side of the planet is printed on paper and read by you, on the direct opposite point of the globe.) We live in an era where the Internet has closed the distance between creative ideas and methods. It allows artists to access a multitude of sources that stimulate the mind, feed their muse and help their practice without leaving their studio. I know sculptors who discuss lost-wax casting techniques with foundries in China via e-mail, printmakers who purchase the best archival inks from Germany over the net, ceramicists who swap recipes for glazes on-line with potters in South Africa, painters who show and sell their work worldwide via the web, and art appreciators who broaden their visual acumen by accessing different art sites. This fine paper you are reading is readily available on-line to anyone in the world who has an interest in the visual arts.

As a result of these sober (the sun has yet to cross the yardarm) ponderings, I have come to the conclusion that I am "Parochial" in the old fashion sense of the word, and proud to be so as today my Parish, the Visual Arts, encompasses a global community with exciting ideas. The irate artist mentioned above tried to limit me to a particular point of longitude and latitude because I prefer to promote, through my reviewing and writing, the art and passion shown by artists of my town. Not to be deterred by the intended insult, I will continue to appreciate their efforts, celebrate their successes, recognize their failures and discuss them in print, in the pub and on-line.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinates the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (www.artseeninwa.com).


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