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September Issue 2006

A Few Words From Down Under
On Throwing Stones

by Judith McGrath

While surfing some art web-logs on the net a few months back, I discovered an interesting one out of Japan. I visit this blog every so often as the writer travels widely, around his island nation as well as my island country, and posts musing about the art he sees in both places. He must have recently returned from a trip to the Great Southern Land as the latest entry revealed how exhibitions of Fine Art in Japan are so much better then those presented in Australia. I respect his patriotism; he has every right to be proud of his culture with its long and respected history of art and design. What I don't agree with is how he puts down the Australian Art Scene because; 1) that's my job, and 2) he said we are so (I can hardly say it) Informal!

It seems that contemporary art exhibitions in major cities in The Land of the Rising Sun run for only six days after a rather formal opening. The show represents a full year's work on the part of the artist, who must pay all costs of the exhibition and attend the gallery every day to converse with, and answer questions from, all visitors. The blogger explains that the artist goes through a great deal of trouble to present an exhibition, therefore members of the public should politely view the work and discuss it with the maker.

Meanwhile art exhibitions held in major cities in The Land Down Under run for a month (there's talk of a few galleries extending them to six weeks) and opening nights are not so much about the art, as they are about having a party, full of back-slapping, celebrating the artist's achievement, wine drinking, being seen, and net-working  Who pays for what and when is decided according to a variety of parameters between each artist and every gallery.

The blog had me thinking, about how I've begun to notice a certain sense of exclusivity edging into aspects of the art scene in my town, a mood that caused little concern until now. Do I sense a certain Formality surrounding gallery staff and art organizations here? Could it be that what I read on-line has been voiced by Other People or heard in Better Places and has prompted a few in the art establishment here to change direction away from the backyard barbeque atmosphere of our art opening nights? Am I being paranoid or is there really a subtle shift in the local visual arts parameters and a movement towards the elitism found in Proper Major Cities around the World.

I'm aware that many a metropolis beyond Australia have a dual gallery scene; one that is open and inclusive, the other that is so insular the gallery doors are kept locked with only those on the 'list' allowed in - I'm talking buyers here, not artists! I've noticed how a few commercial galleries in my town are leaning in that direction. They no longer advertise exhibitions outside specific art publications, gallery opening times are not advertised and doors are locked, except to admit a potential buyer "by appointment only". I hate the idea of the art establishment in my town becoming so uppity that they create a void between artists and appreciators by insisting Fine Art is only for the cognoscenti and/or the financially well endowed.

If you take the Whole Wide World into consideration, my first-hand experience of the Global Visual Art Scene is very limited to what is available on my visits to major cities and country towns in Australia, Ireland, England and at least a dozen different states in the US of A. Despite this lack of "worldliness" my sojourns have proved that good art can be found in small village coffee shops as easily as in Big City Commercial Galleries, and that great art can be found everywhere, even in some State and National Museum Galleries! Minimal travel has also taught me that every town has its own particular way of doing things, from celebrating religious or national holidays to defining the artists in its midst. And this is a unique artform in itself.

Art can, and often does, provide a bridge that spans the differences between people and places, and the chasms that separate eras and cultures. The practice of art should relate to a particular sense of time and place as it is that "originality" that makes it good art. The parameters that define what is "good" in art and craft have remained basically the same throughout history all around the world. For example, we can see the African mask in a Picasso portrait, how the Edo Period of Japan influenced the Impressionists of France, how aspects of Classical Greek architecture effected buildings and monuments in Washington, DC, and that cross-hatch lines and concentric circles carved on bone or stone in prehistoric times continue in today's art, and commercial department store logos!

So to my blogger boy, by all means take pot shots at the establishment, or ignore the no talent pretender, or critique the art on your patch, on your watch. And I'll do the same on mine.

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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