Art and soul
Reflection, commentary, expression – art wears many hats and serves society in myriad ways. But what purpose does it serve in our own private spaces? asks Annemarie Kiely
The Studio (1987) black-and-white

What role does art play in the home? It plays no role unless you assign it one: to memorialise a face or a place, to semaphore success, to offset tax or a damask-covered couch, to console for the endless pressure to acquire, to politicise, to exhilarate, to amuse, to agitate, to reflect, to ruminate, to beautify…

Or to serve as a reminder of that over-hyped exhibition where the pinot flowed, the bravura peaked, all reason departed and you purchased a caustically titled bucket and mop and became the patron saint of conceptualism. That is, until a catalogue entry made the work’s intent clear: to clean all idiot art out of contemporary culture. Ah, the gravity of levity when the joke is on you. But hey, Marcel Duchamp changed the entire discourse on art with his porcelain urinal, Fountain (1917), history’s most figurative and famous piss-take.

Yes, conceptualism is the butt of all art jokes as one hapless cleaner gleaned when he binned a Damien Hirst installation featuring cigarette-filled ashtrays after an exhibition launch at a London gallery. But before you deride such strategies as rubbish perhaps you need to be a bit more Baldessari about it. That’s John Baldessari, the two-metre-tall stretch of an American artist famed for painting colourful dots on appropriated photographs, who philosophised that “conceptual art wasn’t about art that had a concept, but about interrogating the concept of art.”

And that cross-examination, at its most potent and most democratic, posits the questions of what constitutes art, why we make it, why we feel the need to arrange it in salon hangs in our homes, why we institutionalise it and why we classify it. Within closed and codified circles, great art has been decided and displayed according to strict taxonomies that tell of our place in the continuum of culture and society. But whose society is the question increasingly asked of agendas informed by myopic perspectives.

As Helen Molesworth, former chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) recently wrote, “The Museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with ›› its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by.”

Funding bodies are painfully aware of these past framings of culture and now skew their spending away from patrimony to ‘the necessary’. But in so doing, they are arguably serving to further narrow the field of vision as artists and curators attempt to pre-empt the perspectives that put grant money in their pockets. Within this catch 22 of redressed representations, the qualitative assessment of art appears to be slipping to make way for the new essentialism of now. But that’s a whole other spiel.

The bottom line: museums, in their placatory excision of old-world viewpoints and pandering to politically correct populism, are morphing into shopping centres with all content colluding to make audiences spend on merchandise and meals, and shopping centres are recasting as compelling cultural content providers. Is it the death or democratisation of high art?

The big conundrum for wider culture is that audiences want all viewpoints acknowledged, but bore easily to their breadth, depth and denial of our personal curatorship in an era of hyper-individualism, hyper-stimulation and systemic distrust.

In Your Face (2010) artwork by Lara Merrett and Noughts and Crosses (2015) sculpture by Todd Simpson. (Images courtesy of Justin Art House Museum (JAHM).)

Between these warring forces of self and state, homes are increasingly aggrandising into the ‘gallery of me’: mini-museums minus the patronising text and the political impost to please. At their through-the-peephole best, they are the ‘house-museum’, the province of ordinary people with extraordinary addictions to art.

Project For A Theatre Set X, Colour Group E (Random) artwork by John Nixon.

They can be as unpredictable as the Museum of Innocence, a 19th-century Istanbul residence featuring a wall display of the 4213 stubbed-out cigarettes cited in the novel of the same name by Orhan Pamuk (also the creator of the museum). Or they can be as purpose-built as Melbourne’s Justin Art House Museum (JAHM), a celebration of ‘the spatial’ that dishes light refreshments and talk with its retired architect owner Charles Justin and his wife, Leah. But all articulations trade in a deeply personal affection for art like no clinical institution can.

Unless it’s the Museum of New and Old Art (Mona) in Tasmania, the shrine to sex and death, delivered by gambling supremo David Walsh who flipped the script on audience engagement and went the way of self-pleasing (so to speak).

“I own an art gallery and I know almost nothing about art,” he has bragged of the big-budget build and collection that afforded him the “evolutionary” advantage of bagging the babes — his claim, not mine. You have to love his nose-thumbing critique of the traditional museum, until such time as dwindling finances and Darwinian forces pressure Mona to become one.

Mona is a pumped-up private mansion with an open-door policy and a want to flush all art hierarchies down the River Derwent. It makes you laugh, linger and feel, and it articulates what Lucian Freud likened to falling in love without meeting the parents — the earth-shaking sensation minus the mediating sanctimony — which brings me back to the question of the role art plays in the home.

Sorry, no directives on getting it right in the gallery of ‘me’, other than indulging that irrational sub-neural response that makes you open to difficulty, blind to incompatibility and begging to know more. Love should be the sole determinant of the find and function of art at home otherwise it arranges into a marriage of convenience that makes said parents happy but inevitably leads to divorce.

Art is infinite possibility, not a warrantied vacuum, so let’s leave all the bull-dust about working with decor to be sucked up by others, because it simply reduces the urge to self-express to feckless fashion.

Art is personal, universal and perennially slapping us in the face when dangerous familiarities lull us into the slumber of acceptance. It is both Narcissus and the pool of water, the canary and the coalmine, the bucket and the mop, and the broad, brushstroked answer to the maddening question. And it reminds us of our shared humanity when all around conspires to erode it. Art is the fathomless inner self – the only interior that warrants addressing.

photograph with vinyl paint by John Baldessari, courtesy of the artist.. PHOTOGRAPHERS: ANDREW WUTTKE (JOHN NIXON ARTWORK), SHARYN CAIRNS (LARA MERRETT AND TODD SIMPSON ARTWORKS)

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Vogue Living - January/February 2020


January/February 2020