Feature Articles

September Issue 2001

A View From Down Under
Bouncing off Walls of Silence

by Judith McGrath

The Association of Art Galleries, an elite little group in our city, publishes a quarterly magazine to inform the viewing public of exhibitions scheduled by its membership. This glossy little guide can be picked up free from members' galleries only. The latest instalment informs the reader how the Association has commissioned independent writers in order to commence a regular series of critical essays on the local visual art scene.

The inaugural essay is by the one and only art critic from the one and only daily newspaper in this city. In his essay, Walls of Silence, the critic asserts that dialogue on the visual arts today is nil, inhibited by the fear of saying the wrong thing. He purports to encourage debate by stating that in art there is no wrong thing. All well and good except this is the same writer who caustically identifies what is 'wrong' with art, and dictates what is artistically 'right', in his weekly column. Debate is not this man's forte.

I would argue that there are numerous uninhibited dialogues on the visual art scene taking place in this and most cities around the world every day. They are not heard in public forums directed by state-funded organizations where invited academics offer didactic commentary followed by a limited Q & A session. Nor are they read in glossy art magazines that originate in some distant major metropolis and occasionally commission commentary from the local literati. No, today's dialogue takes place in free and open venues; in cafés, galleries, studios, on a park bench, on the phone, on-line. Participants prefer an egalitarian environment where no spontaneous outburst is put down as being of dubious origin.

Debate is by definition a discussion between matched sides. But when one side constructs an elitist environment on a stage, under a proscenium arch, behind a lectern, with a microphone, then dialogue becomes lecture and lecture kills debate. Elitism is born when exclusivity and authority get together to close open minds and protect the status quo.

Exclusivity in the visual arts is found in all cities, as creative people collect into closed groups. Divides are dictated by such diverse attributes as art school attended, style of practice, career level, who you know and where you live. Each group identifies the parameters of their exclusivity by declaring the only creditable Art Scene consists of certain named artists (members of their own circle) who studied at specified art schools (their own local or any overseas institution) and exhibit in selected galleries (which they support) to be written about by one of their own (commissioned biographer). For exclusivity to survive, any event not orchestrated by a group, unless it can bring kudos to it, is dismissed as unimportant and ignored. This attitude is evidenced in my city by walls of silence from established groups that have crushed niche publications and small galleries that tried to get off the ground. Without support, each effort evaporated yet surprisingly, some are still mentioned with reverence and nostalgia by the very groups that let them die.

Authority, like Expertise, is a label conferred on one by another. An expert may speak without authority just as those in authority often speak without expertise. However the expert must be able to validate their utterances with facts or, at the very least, an impressive curriculum vitae that displays excellent educational credentials and proven practical experience. Whereas the words of someone in authority need only be validated by the ubiquitous 'they' of "they all say" fame. In the visual arts, when a comment is made with authority, its truth or relevance is not defined by proven expertise as much as by the commentator's backing group. If 'they' all agree, the authority is unquestioned. It has been my experience in this city, that any group can legitimise any rubbish as fine art simply by displaying, writing and talking about it with authority. And when authority is deemed absolute, debate is stifled.

In summary, when it comes to dialogue in the visual arts, placing a level of authority on a speaker perpetuates an exclusivity that fosters an elitist attitude, one that is legitimised by its own exclusivity, which is perpetuated by the speaker's level of authority! In effect, art dialogue enters an ever-decreasing spiral where only those ensconced in the centre are permitted to participate.

There are no walls of silence blocking open dialogue in the visual arts; it's just that some ears don't want to hear. As the elitist circle grows ever smaller the public dialogue grows larger and reaches out further then the myopic minority ever imagined. Walls are being eaten away by electronic bytes. Authoritarian pronouncements and didactic lectures are being replaced by logical and/or emotive two-way debates involving practicing artists and individual appreciators, around the world. They discuss ideas and encourage broad opinions. The participants congregate in-groups that are not exclusive as their parameters are flexible and movement between them is accepted. As the group ebbs and flows, authority or expertise shifts according to the topic being discussed.

It's a refreshing and revitalising atmosphere, one that permits debate to continue, loud and vigorous.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her web site at (http://www.artseeninwa.com).

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