It’s been a long time since I posted an extended rant. None of my grievances compare to those we’ve seen in Syria, Israel or the Ukraine, so don’t take them too seriously; they’re better viewed as light entertainment. If you’re not in the mood for vitriol, light-hearted or otherwise, you’d be better off looking at catgirls and ponies. There are plenty on DA.
Whenever we move to a new place we tend to notice differences more than similarities. I’ve mentioned some of the differences between Tasmania and mainland states in earlier journal posts, but I’ve avoided mentioning my interaction with the locals. This is partly because they’ve been limited – I didn’t move here to socialise and have little in common with people I know – and partly because I wanted to wait before making any generalisations. I’ll start with some sweeping ones: in the past six months the people of Hobart have mostly been helpful and friendly and the streets are quieter. I still hear too much RnB, but I’ve been called “cobber” more than “dude” (I’ve hated “dude” since a walking abortion from Sydney took on the guise of an Out There Cat who Like Seriously calls girls Hardbodies Dude). I’m less impressed with local journalists adding “internationally significant” to supposed places of interest, eg. “Mrs. O’Higgins’ internationally significant haberdashery.” I’ll let them off the hook with Mona, but does anyone believe these words? We never hear about the internationally significant Louvre, the internationally significant White House, or internationally significant conflict in the Middle East. I think this quirk annoys me because I didn’t move here for “internationally significant.” I wanted cooler weather and fewer distractions and Hobart has provided both.
Three distractions are worth mentioning as they embody ailments that aren’t unique to Hobart. I find it hard to work at home, as home, wherever it may be, drains my creativity. Any quiet public place with solid tables serves me well; good coffee is a major plus. I was at a loud venue that serves bad coffee, drawing in spite of these challenges, when I noticed one of the staff had stopped working – he’d been emptying bins – and was intently watching me. Few people have annoyed me so much, so soon, as this guy did, so I’ll be brutally honest and say he looked like an unholy cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Dennis Nedry. Neglecting his duties was not enough; he had to stop me working too. He came over and asked what I was doing, and I told him I was drawing. This intrigued him all the more, and as he hadn’t yet annoyed me, I showed him my folio. I’m no Frazetta or Beksinski, but I’d like to think the work in it revealed a wide range of interests and evoked many different worlds. Napoleon Nedry seemed impressed and asked if I’d draw him some cricketers. I said no, perhaps a bit too harshly, but it prompted him to get back to work and let me get back to mine.
It didn’t end there, but I’ll put things in context. This venue was plastered with cricket promotions and was serving cricket-themed meals because a test series was on. If this wasn’t enough for Napoleon Nedry he could have opened one of the newspapers and seen page after page of photos that captured the game and its players more faithfully than I ever could. If he’d wanted a bigger fix he could have got it on TV or found it on the internet. I’m not denying him the right to enjoy a game that bores me (the matches drag on forever and most of its players just stand around waiting) but I was surprised that someone in a cricket-filled environment would respond to something other than cricket with “draw me cricketers.” Nothing in my folio suggested interest in the game. It doesn’t help my lack of interest made me a pariah at school while my interest in art made me “gay.” My father, in his infinite wisdom, put my strangeness down to “autism.” Apart from my natural disinterest in cricket I’ve got good reasons to hate the game and the culture that surrounds it. But I’ll be fair on Dennis Dynamite. He had no way of knowing these things and he hadn’t quite annoyed me yet.
I kept drawing; he fussed round the bins and shot the odd glance my way. Eventually he came back and asked me if I was watching the cricket. I said no, more emphatically; it’s a pagan ritual to me. This sent him back to the bins. I packed up and left with a twinge of guilt. Maybe he’d been desperately lonely; maybe he was something else. Despite sharing my father’s interest in cricket he’d done a better impression of autism than any I could have pulled off. I could have been more tolerant, given him more of my time, and offered him some affirmation – but I’ve also been lonely and isolated and encounters like this haven’t helped. He chose to start a conversation when we both had work to do, and if he really had to talk cricket with someone he wouldn’t have had to wait very long – the game’s a national obsession.
I shared this wretched episode with some Sydney friends via text. Emma was simply mystified, but David, to my gratitude, reminded me I often draw “morbid lumps of flesh doing horrid and inexplicable things in barren landscapes, which sounds a lot like cricketers.” There’s a hint of another malaise in this statement and I’ll cover it in time, but I laughed harder than I had all year.
The next distraction came at a venue which is usually much quieter, has far better staff and cheaper bad coffee. Sunday nights are especially good as the city’s winding down. It wasn’t a few weeks ago as the Dark Mofo festival – which marks the winter solstice – was on at the waterfront. I didn’t bother going but it looked like inoffensive fun.
It wasn’t for the crowd that arrived and filled the room I’d had to myself. No problem so far; I kept drawing. Then one of the men approached me and – you guessed – asked what I was doing. Must I state the obvious? I didn’t show him my folio, but let him see one finished work that featured no nudity, weapons or gore. He kindly told me it was nice and moved on to other things. He’d been to Dark Mofo with his family – this vast horde was one family – and discovered it was “shockingly pagan.” He wasn’t being dismissive as I’d been about the cricket – this wasn’t inscrutably “pagan,” but “pagan” in a damnable, thoroughly un-Christian sense. Our European ancestors had celebrated the same date with sacrifices to false gods, and now the same dark powers had a foothold in Tasmania. Some readers might be wondering why I hadn’t seen it the same way. Others might be wondering why I didn’t pack my bag and leave. I chose to stay and talk instead and over the next hour I repeatedly surprised myself.
Having made his beliefs clear, the head of this vast family – I’ll call him the Patriarch – asked me about my own. I said I was familiar with Christian theology but did not subscribe to it any more than I subscribed to pre-Christian belief systems. He asked me if I’d thought about hell. I haven’t met many evangelists who have raised this threat so soon, but as he wasn’t pulling punches I told him the honest truth. I’ve given a great deal of thought to hell. I don’t personally believe in it but find the concept fascinating – far more than descriptions of heaven, which get boring very fast. Descriptions of hell and its variants – be they places of eternal pain or temporary punishment – are as many and varied as the cultures that produce them, but my favourite literary hell is the one revealed in Dante’s Inferno (my favourite English translation is Mark Musa’s in blank verse). Besides being very imaginative it’s also a great primer for late medieval politics and classical mythology. It also offers insight into the medieval mind and dispels more modern myths: Dante’s Earth is round, not flat, as many educated ancients and later medieval scholars knew before the days of Columbus. At this point I’d lost the Patriarch, who confessed he’d never read any Dante (I told him not to worry, as he was obviously content with his personal ideas of hell). He got back to the little picture. Where would I spend eternity?
He seemed a lot more concerned now – he’d probably assumed I’d accept or reject him immediately, and he certainly hadn’t expected the kind of conversation we’d had. But I was only warming up. I said where I spent eternity wasn’t that important in the greater scheme of things. If his outlook was correct (unlike many non-believers, I feel it is important to engage others on their ground) it would condemn millions more – including many better people than I – to eternal suffering, while the most depraved on earth could save themselves through deathbed conversions. If Christ is the only path to salvation, where does that leave those who lived before him? Would an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful god really allow their eternal damnation? Could he think of no better way to save others than sacrifice himself/his son after many generations had already been sent to hell? None of it makes any sense unless you’re swayed by arguments like “the Bible is right because it’s the Bible” and “you can’t question God because he’s God.” I can’t believe in such a god, and nor can I believe in one when so much suffering exists – and whatever that god’s apologists say, not all of this suffering stems from godlessness or misuse of free will. I’d struggled with such thoughts as a child and on discovering alternatives renounced my faith immediately. Faith has less to do with reason than emotional fulfilment, and I found Christian metaphysics less fulfilling than horrific. The Patriarch believed things I got over at the age of eight. His fixation with hell – which he kept bringing up – bespoke a mind constrained by fear, as well as a more sinister need to impose that fear on others. In case I sound too full of myself, it’s worth saying he was well-presented, apparently successful in life, and blessed with a happy family, while I probably came across as homeless. It’s also worth saying I heard him out, and though I made my beliefs clear I never told him to change his. I just stated my case in the hope it might prompt him, or others who were listening, to look at things more critically. It might have been a waste of time but I’m glad I made the effort. I’ve taken a harsher approach in the past and it hasn’t achieved anything.
We went on talking for some time. I made a theoretical case for Purgatory, which to me seems more reasonable than a stark damnation/salvation divide, but the Patriarch dismissed it as a Catholic superstition. I said Dante’s account was interesting, more so than his Paradise, which was filled with martyrs and crusaders – people I’d prefer to avoid. I also said early experiences can shape beliefs in adulthood. If the positives of our upbringing outweigh the negatives – as is usually the case – we tend to adopt our parents’ beliefs, be they religious or otherwise. The opposite is also true; when negatives outweigh positives, children are more likely to reject their parents’ views. This seemed to bother the Patriarch. At one point he admitted he was glad all his children had kept their faith.
After this surprisingly long and civil conversation the Matriarch took over. She ignored metaphysics and talked about painting. She showed me prints of some she’d done: acrylics of lions and heavenly cities, all very C.S. Lewis and arguably no worse than my work. Her depictions of her children revealed a genuine affection I’ve rarely managed to convey. At last they filed out and I got back to drawing, though it was close to closing time. I’m no nearer to their faith than they are to my lack of it but I don’t hold any grudges – as far as evangelists go they were fine.
The third and final distraction was the most agreeable one. I’ve met another artist who shares my appreciation of quiet venues and cheap coffee, though unlike me he’s studying at a local university. His stories are all too familiar: he likes representational art and his lecturers like conceptual art. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned to tolerate evangelists and cricket fans who aren’t as insistent and clueless as Napoleon Nedry. I don’t think I’ll ever learn to tolerate such lecturers. They have very strong ideas of what counts as acceptable art, and their dim view of the landscape that lies outside this narrow vale is so ignorant and bigoted it puts most evangelists to shame. Many reserve their greatest contempt for the art I like the most: representational but imaginative work that makes the unbelievable seem real.
I hold them in the same contempt. This does not stem from ignorance of what they consider “art.” I could glue stacks of coins together, paint eyes on concrete ice cream containers, or display blank canvasses. I could also write long tracts of text that say such works encourage us to rethink our relationship with materialist abstractions, marvel that an ephemeral piece of grassroots Australiana has assumed an air of permanence, or question traditional approaches to landscape depiction and related attitudes, including those responsible for invasion, rape and genocide. Is anyone still paying attention? If you want recognition in Australia you should always mention genocide. It makes you almost critic-proof, or completely critic-proof if you claim the right ethnicity.
I’ve been asked why I don’t sell out. If it’s easy to get government grants for such lazy visual stunts why don’t I produce the same? It’s simple. I despise this worthless culture. I would rather see such grants spent on schools and hospitals. However noble the ideals of the “artists” responsible, blank canvasses won’t undo past wrongs or improve health and literacy. If they had the inclination, any heart surgeon – or sandwich hand – could give us the same blank canvasses, and if they really constituted art, they would make the same point, just as clearly, without explanatory text. I would not trust the aforementioned “artists” with surgery or sandwiches. Am I getting worked up over nothing? These “artists” and lecturers hated me first and hate artists I respect. Giger is a favourite target; he devoted his life to “morbid kitsch.” We never hear this from producers of similarly imaginative work – but we hear it, time and time again, from their self-proclaimed superiors, who would rather discourage us from being so imaginative. Blank canvas is more praiseworthy, especially when attached wall text is predictably “subversive.” They ignore some salient truths. When artists can paint like Giger, they do. When they want to, they try, and through trying, improve. When they can’t, and can’t be bothered trying, they display blank canvasses, and cover their deficiencies with tracts of sanctimonious wall text. If such “art” was superior we’d have seen the same from Giger. Why waste time on fine details when your intentions can be better expressed through blank canvas and psychobabble? This doesn’t start and end with Giger. I could use Breughel or Beksinski and it wouldn’t change my argument.
Some will dismiss this as bitterness from a less successful artist. If they want to get personal, so be it. My dislike of abstract/conceptual art isn’t purely theoretical. I’ve actually produced the stuff, using everything from acrylic impasto to engine parts and melted plastic. Some of it was well received and if I’d been more politically savvy – and claimed results achieved through chaos undermined the status quo or championed minorities – it would have gone down even better. I stopped because I found it dull, unchallenging and unrewarding. Representational art was the opposite, and in trying to master it my respect for it has only increased. It demands patience, skill and discipline – unlike so much conceptual art – and the sense of achievement on getting things right means more to me than wealth or fame. It also gets the point across more clearly than conceptual art. Some of my work (Lure, Consumers) is thematically close to what passes as “acceptable” art – and its meaning would be just as clear if I removed my short descriptions. Most conceptual artists consider themselves progressive and cosmopolitan; but what good is wall text in English (for instance) to a non-English speaking audience? Conversely, my idea of great art transcends language, space and time. It will impress or shock its audience now or in a thousand years. A lot of ancient Roman, Egyptian and Assyrian art is triumphal and imperialist – unfashionable notions today – but this makes it no less powerful. Do any of us really wish these cultures had left us blank canvas instead?
Great art doesn’t have to be triumphal or imperialist. A lot that I like is purely escapist. Conceptual artists hate this too, but when their drivel counts as “art” there’s more need for it than ever. If my work fails technically, my development was never helped by those who like blank canvasses. If it’s too ugly and bitter to offer escape, that ugliness and bitterness is the product of a culture that rejects skill and discipline – at least where fine art is concerned – for pretence and laziness. Expressing ourselves visually is a natural inclination, but instead of encouraging us to do so more fluently, the blank canvas advocates rob us of this inclination and discourage visual fluency. They don’t just make life worse for artists; they make life worse for viewers too. Accomplished representational art gained widespread admiration, and prompted deep discussion, among artists and non-artists in Renaissance Italy, while pre-Raphaelite paintings attracted large crowds much like modern blockbusters. It might not be realistic to expect the same today, but it’s less realistic to expect lazy, self-important work that requires no skill or discipline to generate the same response. It devalues what might otherwise be thoughtful and worthwhile statements and decreases public interest in them. If the blank canvas advocates feel ignored or undervalued they only have themselves to blame.
At this point it’s worth looking back and comparing art to sport. I don’t find sport as engaging, but it’s a field of endeavour where, within a given set of rules, excellence is all that counts. This excellence is only gained through hard work and discipline – just like visual fluency – and most people can appreciate this. In its greatest manifestations such excellence uplifts and inspires, transcends divisions of faith, race and class, and unites us in admiration just like the world’s greatest art. Too many artists sneer at sport – and the blank canvas advocates tend to sneer the most of all – but given their rejection of such excellence in art it is not surprising their galleries are empty while sporting stadiums are full. Perhaps Napoleon Nedry wasn’t so deluded after all.