Chris McAuliffe Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?, The Age, 2001
Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?
By Chris McAuliffe
Is ART a laughing matter? The hushed atmosphere of art museums, the sobriety of art historical texts and the intellectual’ intensity of art magazines suggest it is not. It is as if the caption of that legendary Australian cartoon “Stop laughing, this is serious” had become a kind of high cultural commandment.
But art is often the butt of humor. Perplexed or pretentious responses to abstraction have fuelled many a New Yorker-style cartoon; “His spatter is masterful, but his dribble lacks conviction”. And Tony Hancock’s 1961 film, The Rebel, established the bohemian farce as a cinematic genre, later employed by greats such as Scorsese (AfterHours, 1985) and, less successfully, Paul Cox (Lust and Revenge, 1996).
Two very different variants on these themes have recently been staged in Melbourne. David Williamson’s play, Up For Grabs, still showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company, revolves around fierce bidding for a Whiteley painting, orchestrated by a dealer whose tactics include infidelity, bisexuality, hyperbole and deceit.
An opera, The Broccoli Maestro, produced by the Slave Pianos collective and staged as part of Chamber Made’s recent program, From the Lip, hovered between parody and homage in its treatment of Melbourne artist Tony Clark. If the plays have in common their willingness to laugh at art, the different ways in which they construct their humor is telling.
Williamson’s play joins Art, Six Degrees of Separation and sundry others in using the competition and status-seeking of the art market to reflect on both the decline (moral) and inflation (commercial) of value in contemporary culture. Seeing the two as synonymous is perhaps where the weakness of the argument lies; the risk is that art will be seen as the corrupter rather than the corrupted. When the market is the whipping boy, the sins of the middle class — ambition, avarice and amorality — are visited upon art wholesale.
If Williamson’s medium is broad parody, Slave Pianos’ is the construction of an elaborate in-joke.
Consisting of artists Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson, and composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, Slave Pianos appropriate the arcane languages of avant-garde art, and, by inflating the scale and formality of their presentation, hope to see them collapse under their own weight.
The humor, smelling suspiciously of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety, lies in the translation of Clark’s deliberate amateurism into a medium in which the expectation of profound metaphor leaves the audience hanging on every word or gesture.
But The Broccoli Maestro is beyond a joke. So elaborate is Slave Pianos’ involvement with Clark’s oeuvre, so willingly do their performers adopt his position, that what might have begun as parody concludes as homage. Constructing a libretto from published comments by Clark and his colleagues, Slave Pianos paints a picture of an artist acutely conscious of the conceptual and cultural limits of his work.’ Where Williamson focuses on what should not be done with art, Slave Pianos throws the spot on contemporary artists’ sense of what art can no longer do. The negative tone of The Broccoli Maestro lies not in Slave Pianos’ pastiche, but in Clark’s own refusal to be swept away by the transcendence of art. It is the latter that Williamson’ throws to his characters as a lifeline; redemption dawns when it is realised — in a suitably awe-struck epiphany — that there is more to art than its dollar value. There is no such lifeline for The BroccoliMaestro, only an art prepared to engage with the threat of inadequacy.
Williamson’s humor lies in the failure of his characters to live up to the standards of art. Slave Pianos’ success, inadvertently but more productively, emerged as their subject transcended the standards of their humor.
Chris McAuliffe is the director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.