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The importance of being pretentious: Why "difficult" art is so important

Apr 26, 2016 Art

Above: Sucu Mate / born dead.

With the $50,000 Walters Prize shortlist recently announced, a new book explains why “difficult” contemporary art is so important. 

Around the time David Bowie died, British art critic Dan Fox published a little book called Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. In it, Fox defends the kinds of things people like he and I most value: art-house films, experimental music, highbrow literature, and, most of all, contemporary art.

Bowie — that lifelong experimenter, right up to the considered choreography of his final, mortal album release — is one of Fox’s prime examples of pretentiousness, which he defines as “…a degree of dislocation between our circumstances and the image we are trying to project”.

Fox argues that this desire to become something more than what the culture has decided we should be — to slip the net of easy categorisation — matters now more than ever, because we live in an age of encroaching anti-intellectualism.

New Zealand is no exception: the reduction of investigative journalism and review pages in our newspapers; the conscious decision to exclude design expertise and academic debate from the flag selection process; the feedback-loop politics of John Key’s “I’m sure most New Zealanders will agree” rhetoric. All of these are anti-intellectual positions gussied up as salt-of-the-earth authenticity, as “keeping it real” and “giving the people what they want”.

Contemporary art, in this framework, is an incredibly soft target. As Fox states, it “…epitomises elitism and false affectation much more than it does creative experimentation and freedom of thought. More than any other field, art is where the nastiest brawls over pretentiousness are fought… Contemporary art is guilty until proven innocent. Yet for all the antipathy towards it, in 2014, Tate Modern had 5.7 million visitors, whilst New York’s MoMA enjoys an annual average attendance of 3.5 million. That’s a lot of people with an interest in the pretentious.”

Here, we face the same paradox. On one hand, there’s no question the New Zealand public has become more tolerant of, and interested in, contemporary art. But there are still those who suggest the whole thing is a game of smoke and mirrors — an elitist conspiracy designed to hoodwink the great unwashed.

Last year, I picked up a copy of North & South at Auckland Airport, on the way to Simon Denny’s opening at the Venice Biennale (pretentious, I know). In it was a story by Mike White called “But Is It Art?”, which went over well-worn ground. There was talk of priestcraft and bewilderment, of obscure and impenetrable writing. It was left to the poet Vincent O’Sullivan to kick out with the pointiest toe: “Never underestimate for a moment,” he is quoted as saying, “the part snobbery and pretentiousness play in the art world.”

While I was reading Pretentiousness, I thought back to White’s article, and saw two shows by young New Zealand artists that seemed to encapsulate Fox’s argument. The first was Oscar Enberg’s the prophet, the wise, the technician, and the Pharisee at Artspace: an elaborate nativity display which, as the accompanying text by Henry Davidson explained, “contains two origin stories — one secular, one religious… that of draper, businessman, Auckland city councillor and philanthropist John Court (1846-1933)… synthesised with the recognisable narrative of the birth of Jesus.”

A detail from the prophet, the wise, the technician, and the pharisee.
A detail from the prophet, the wise, the technician, and the pharisee.

Court and his brother George established Auckland’s first department stores, including one on Karangahape Rd, just metres from where Artspace now stands.

Enberg referred to this history with a mid-century mannequin dressed in a studded suit; itself a knowing wink to one of K’ Rd’s deceased art world heroes, Giovanni Intra. There was also a near-naked, grimy, mechanical “wise man”, which had once served as a key player in Christchurch store Ballantynes’ annual nativity scene. And there was an enormous, dangly pipe protruding from the wall — standing in (absurdly) for the elephant Jamuna, which the Auckland Zoo had bought with money Court donated in 1922.

The entire set-up was inauthentic and vaguely ridiculous. Nobody could have believed, walking into Enberg’s show, that it was a serious reflection either on faith or Court’s biography. But behind the humour was something serious: an examination of the dubious relationship between self-centred capitalism and community-oriented largesse; the commercialisation of the spiritual; and Auckland’s early transformation into a mercantile metropolis. All of which is relevant, and pressing, in a property-mad city puffed up by false profits.

Luke Willis Thompson pulled a similarly pretentious move in Sucu Mate / Born Dead at Hopkinson Mossman. In it, he arranged nine blank, age-worn gravestones in a line. Thompson had borrowed them, with permission, from the Old Balawa Estate Cemetery in Lautoka, Fiji, where workers from a nearby sugar plantation had been buried.

The fact he presented the gravestones as art was enough to get teeth grinding — to have taken things so tapu from the graves where they once stood, and turned them into ready-made sculptures in an über-trendy gallery. But in that act, Thompson was also giving the silent, anonymous stones new voices — which could be read as a powerful statement about forgotten Pacific history. Nowhere did Thompson tell us what his own intentions were, or what we should think. Instead, he let the objects stand for themselves with a pure, violent potency.

White’s article implicitly used the 2014 Walters Prize, which Thompson won with a taxi ride to an Epsom villa, as evidence of art world pretentiousness. It’ll be harder to fling such accusations at this year’s Walters shortlist, especially with Lisa Reihana as a frontrunner. Two other Maori artists — Shannon Te Ao and Nathan Pohio — are finalists. Reihana and Te Ao don’t have art dealers, let alone in Auckland. Good luck making a conspiracy out of that.

I hope the winning work is as good as Thompson’s in 2014. In the words of Fox: “What we are reluctant to admit is that culture would have no colour without pretension. It would be a lifeless shade of Gap-store beige. The doors to imagination would be kept locked tight in fear of finding behind them something that violates the consensus over what is an acceptable creative act…”

The culture we desperately need, in other words, is the culture artists like Enberg and Thompson enact for us — one in which our artists exceed the increasingly conservative rules the rest of us are asked to live by. We should celebrate their noisy, pretentious ambitions before a fear of newness, disguised as pious scorn, drowns it out.

Read more: But is it Art? By Mike White.


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