Tuesday, 7 June 2005

Let’s knock knees and talk fees: Proposition no. 3 : A meeting

Okay, Okay – let’s face it. The purveyors of art etiquette in this artworld of ours have won. All you diplomats of the curatorial unspoken word who hold artists hostage to unpronounced exhibition terms – have succeeded. Victory is in the air, your silent, courtly codes and enfeebling procedures are now empowered. Etiquette has well and truly won the day over a mandatory artists’ acknowledgement fee.

So. What does an artist do when the fertile ground upon which they might have stood has been eroded by the salt lakes of art etiquette? Rather than be bewitched by an environmental degradation’s art-hype, sparkling in the sun although the result of waste, an artist goes to the Kings Cross library. They dodge the librarian on the counter for fear of being spotted for having overdue fines, and they find the isle, the shelf, the book and the page upon which the Art Etiquette for Australian Visual Arts is located. And here it is in the Cross Chronicle, as proclaimed by the Kings and Queens of creativity, with all their courtly procedures way back in Cross (as in being angry) counting days. On page 2005, the Cross Chronicle reads:

Now to avoid wasteful anger – where artists and curators get terribly cross with each other and vow never to drink coffee in the same cafe forever after (to put it lightly) – it is imperative that anyone who is extending an invitation to an artist to include that artist’s work in an exhibition must first distinguish in their minds what is the aesthetically meaningful part of the arrangement, and what is business.

To do this it is paramount, the chronicle writes, for a curator to establish the aesthetic import of an artist’s work within the overall curatorial argument, first. Once established, a curator must keep their eye on this ball at all times. If they loose sight of it, they will fall prey to decisions based on personal ‘favour’. Curatorial favour, writes the Chronicle, based on one self-satisfying reason or another (oh, that artist doesn’t bend at the knee when I enter a room, so never will they be in an exhibition of mine ...), result in exhibitions that express curatorial power over the engagement of aesthetic argument. Regrettably, too many curators work on the basis of favour within Australia without necessarily recognising it, as the industry of late promotes it. How might one tell?, asks the Chronicle. If a curator is offended by an artist who asks for what should be rightfully theirs – an acknowledgement fee based on a schedule of no less than $2000 – and replies by saying something to the effect: ‘But you should be grateful to be in my exhibition, I am making your work meaningful and desired by others in return for your participation – and besides, the budget won’t allow an artists’ fee’. This curator – writes the Chronicle – has dropped the ball. Good curators, with their eye on the point behind art, uncover meaning through debating aesthetic arguments. A fantasy-fevered curatorial fink will think they have created a work’s meaning and will treat it as gospel (not an argument), for which reason they expect the artist to be thankful – but not acknowledged. If you are a curator and this does not sound like you, then keep your eye on the ball at all times and observe the distinction between art and art business, a distinction that ‘favour’ blurs.

With their eye on the ball, a curator is ready for business. Art business is not art. It is something separate. There are principles to doing business, especially art business, writes the Cross Chronicle. One fundamental principle is that a curator must mention the terms of the exhibition when inviting an artist to contribute their work. If the curator does not do this, a presumption will persist from this day forward upon reading this Chronicle (1) that the artist will receive an acknowledgement fee. It is therefore malevolently irresponsible of the curator not to inform the artist from the outset if this is not the case. If a gallery falls short of this responsibility, then the result is industrial abuse. To engage another in a business activity without disclosing impinging terms is to act under false pretences. This is unlawful.

The Chronicle then states that the Australia Council must set up an office to receive artists’ complaints of industrial abuse so as to properly investigate them, make necessary reprimands and pay the outstanding acknowledgement fees. If the Australia Council does not do this, then by default it becomes the perpetrator of any industrial abuse committed by a gallery that it funds.

Exhibition Terms and procedures include, writes the Chronicle:
  1. Place/s and dates of the exhibition – as well as an exhibition timeline;
  2. Artists’ Acknowledgement fee;
  3. Artists’ Acknowledgement Fee Additional Payments (eg. if a work is not in concrete existence and is to made either in the gallery, or for that exhibition, even though the work may continue to exist afterwards, then the gallery must absorb these costs from the outset, which includes reimbursement to the artist for material expenses and their time spent drawing up instructions for others to follow, etc...);

    Gallery operational costs and procedure:
  4. Freight;
  5. Accommodation and airfares if the artist is required by the gallery to be present at the opening, involved in any public programmes, or is required to direct the work’s installation;
  6. If any information on the work to be published by the gallery that has not been validated by the artist as being true – then the onus is on the gallery to make this evident within the information – otherwise the information will erroneously carry the authority of the artist when it may, in fact, be curatorial speculation (which is fine, as long as this is stated as such) and misrepresentative of the work;
  7. Catalogue requirements and timeline.
The Cross Chronicle also points out that the replacement in the Australia Council Handbook of a mandatory schedule of fees with a statement pronouncing that the Visual Arts/Craft Board, ‘aims to ensure that artists employed as a result of a grant receive pay and conditions appropriate for their work and professional skills’, is unproductive. While unclear as to how an artist who receives a grant is to regard themselves as ‘employed’, let alone how a gallery that receives a grant is to ‘employ’ an artist, the implications are nonetheless alarming and are cause for great concern.

While wage rates are helpful to establish ‘additional payments’ to an artists’ acknowledgement fee, in excess of the fee; to replace an artists’ fee with a system of wage rates undermines the necessary independence that a visual artist’s practice must have. It turns the clock back to pre-modernist times in art and is indicative of an art system that is ignorant of aesthetic concerns and art history. (Goodness, thought the artist upon reading this, this Chronicle doesn’t hold back. Such etiquette!)

The Cross Chronicle then recounts an occurrence in art history to clarify this point. In 1877, when the art critic John Ruskin concluded a review of an exhibition at The Grosvenor Gallery, London, with criticism of a work by the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler by writing, ‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’, Whistler brought a libel suit against him. At the ensuing court case Sir John Holker, the chief counsel of the British crown acting for Ruskin, learnt from Whistler during his testimony that it took a couple of days to complete the painting criticised by Ruskin. Sir Holker then asked Whistler whether ‘two days of work was worth the 200-guinea price of the piece. Whistler replied, “No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime”.’ (2) Ruskin’s criticism connected quality (skill) and value (payment) to the time spent making a work of art. Whistler disconnected these by his reply, a disconnection that does not fling paint into the public’s face but presents an aesthetic argument – the value of which Australia can attest to today for having purchased a work such as Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’, 1952, at a record price that was well worth it (3).

Back then, Whistler won the case. Let’s not prove more than a century later here in Australia – by again connecting payment to the time spent making a work of art (through which many more conservative notions will waltz through, such as skill, etc...) – that it was Ruskin who should have. Payment of an artists’ acknowledgement fee works as a safeguard against this retrograde notion. It is acknowledgement – not a wage. By including a mandatory schedule for an acknowledgement fee in the Australia Council handbook, the independence of an artist’s practice will be safeguarded, and the number of cross moments to be counted between artists and curators will greatly dwindle, concludes the Chronicle.

Upon this last proclamation the artist snapped shut the book in utter disbelief of what was just read. Art etiquette is in fact based on reason and industrial fairness. If only the diplomats of the unspoken curatorial word when it comes to exhibition terms knew. Dazed by this new realisation, the artist returned the Chronicle to the shelf and strolled out of the isle, no longer fearful of impossible-to-pay library fines. Once on the street, the artist looked for the bells to toll and the town criers to announce throughout the land that art etiquette has won the day, and what a very good day it is. Let’s celebrate by having a meeting, the artist thought, one ideally hosted and chaired by the National Association for the Visual Arts. But who to invite?

In hope that a knock-knees meeting will become either an annual or biannual meeting, one wish list would include (even if it doesn’t happen the first time):
  1. Five artists: an established, older artist; an emerging artist; an artist representative from two different types of artist-run initiatives; and a representative from SASS;
  2. The Australia Council;
  3. 3 curatorial representatives, one each from large scale, medium scale and small scale public art galleries that receive funds from the Australia Council;
  4. A representative for regional galleries;
  5. An art student representative.

It would be the responsibility of each representative to collect information – factual and anecdotal – from others in their area (eg. an established artist would canvas other established artists, a representative from a large scale public gallery would canvas as many others from similar sized galleries, etc...), and to relay information back through their networks after the meeting. While an art student representative will not have first hand experience to contribute, it is important that the information from this meeting is communicated by the student through a network of art colleges, nationally. If those who attend are not in the employ of an institution, then an attendance fee should be made available.

The matters to discuss include:
1. Setting up an officer within the Australia Council to receive industrial abuse complaints from artists, until such time as an artists’ acknowledgement fee is made mandatory; and
2. An artists’ acknowledgement fee that will:
  1. Pave the ground for aesthetic arguments to be mapped on the basis of a valued culture of acknowledgement;
  2. Safeguard artistic independence;
  3. Stimulate a greater circulation of artists’ work throughout Australia; 
  4. Make art administrative practices open to productive debate within the industry (such as the immediate implementation of an artists’ acknowledgement fee);
  5. Be a means by which to set curatorial standards in Australia; 
  6. Have the capacity to act as a pathway between areas – artists, art administrators and audiences;
  7. Stimulate aesthetic debates that spread the engagement of contemporary visual art through word of mouth and not the hype of marketing or promotion (where both are indicative of a failed industry).
An acknowledgement fee will, once more, make our visual arts industry work. So let’s knock knees and talk fees immediately, please.

Gail Hastings for SASS

  1.  The Cross Chronicle states that In a letter from the federal Minister for the Arts, it is claimed that artists’ call for an acknowledgement fee is unnecessary given information he has received from the Australia Council that public galleries presently pay increased fees (to the level of an acknowledgement fee, this therefore suggests). If this is the case, although it defies artists’ own experiences and therefore holds artists in contempt, then it is the Australia Council’s responsibility to ensure an acknowledgement fee is paid by receiving complaints when it does not happen, and following them up.
  2.  The work in question was Whistler’s ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket’. The Chronicle suggests that the following conclusion by Erin Landry in Whistler v. Ruskin: Morality in Art Versus Aesthetic Theory, is of interest: The libel suit of Whistler v Ruskin is indicative of the greater change that was taking place in both art theory and practice. The process of this change occurred in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. It was a transition from concrete to abstract, and from abstract to non-objective or non-representational. Whistler is a good example of the origins of this transition. As is evident in many of Whistler’s nocturnes and arrangements, stimulative aspects of painting became more important at the same time that representation became less important. Other factors in this transition are that narratives in the painting were seen as bad, subject matter became subordinate to execution, and outlines were blurred to make objects indistinct – everything was a harmony of colors. The trial represents the shift in visual art from the usefulness and morality of Victorian art to the philosophy of art for art’s sake that denied any meaning of art beyond beauty. 
  3.  Robert Berlind, Looking at Blue Poles – Jackson Pollock work, in Art in America, May, 1999, writes: ‘Making my way through the history of Australian painting at Canberra’s National Gallery several years ago, I was shocked suddenly to come upon Blue Poles, seeing it firsthand for the first time, in all its rough splendor. (I had forgotten about the Aussies buying it in 1973 for a then scandalously high $2 million and the ensuing consternation that jeopardized the art-friendly Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Witlam [sic]. Rumors--true--of the painting’s booze-fueled genesis at the instigation of Tony Smith and Barnett Newman, who actually worked on it, only made matters worse for the already perturbed public.) After studying the modestly scaled, mostly conservative Australian art of the modern period, I felt a rush of gratification before that Pollock. It was so immediate, so real. And so tumultuous, quite unlike the magisterial drip paintings of 1949 and ‘50 at MOMA and the Met, which I know very well. Blue Poles gives the impression of disaster narrowly averted: a near train wreck of a painting whose off-kilter, staggering verticals just manage, with grace under great pressure, to hold the work’s anarchic energies in place.
    At the recent MOMA retrospective it was evident that Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 holds a singular place in the trajectory of Pollock’s oeuvre. …Frank O’Hara wrote extravagantly of Blue Poles that it was "one of the great masterpieces of Western art ... our Raft of the Medusa and our Embarkation for Cythera in one." (I can’t think what Watteau has to do with it, but the reference to Gericault’s high drama of last-minute, against-all-odds salvation is inspired.) …’

    At a launch at the National Gallery of Australia in October 2002, the purchasing culprit himself, Gough Whitlam, had this to say: ‘… The purchase of Blue Poles made an immediate impact at home and abroad. …The first question in Parliament had been directed to me on 24 October 1973 by Doug Anthony, the Leader of the Country Party and my fellow republican, who asked how the choice was made but not ‘how the painting was made or about the merits of it, which I cannot comprehend’. I was compelled to reply:

    ’If Australian galleries were limited by the comprehension of the right honourable gentleman they would be very bare and archaic indeed.’

    W.C.Wentworth IV pored over the myths of the painting’s creation to produce the last question, which was directed to the Speaker on 4 December:

    ’Do you agree that the aesthetic impact of a work of art is increased by the contemplation of it in the circumstances in which it was created? When the bargain-priced masterpiece Blue Poles reaches its fortunate purchasers in Australia, will you discuss with the President of the Senate the possibility of having the painting laid out on the floor of Kings Hall so that honourable members and senators can view it from the viewpoint of its inspired creator? Will you further arrange for free drinks to be served in King’s Hall so that honourable members and senators can share to the full in the inspiration of the artist or artists? If the painting is so exhibited, will you ensure that it is securely fenced off in order to shield us from the temptation to take off our shoes and affix addendums to it in the same manner in which the basic painting was allegedly done.’

    Speaker Jim Cope answered in his best style:

    'I will do so, providing the honourable member agrees to sit on the biggest pole for some time.’ …

    American critics derided the purchase. The Australian connoisseur Daniel Thomas dismissed their remarks as sour grapes, ‘a desperate American excuse for allowing Australia so unexpectedly to steal one of their great national treasures’, and he urged people to go and see the painting for themselves.’ … Between 1 November 1998 and 2 February 1999 the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised a retrospective exhibition of the works of Jackson Pollock. The total attendance was 329 330. The Chief Curator described Blue Poles as one of the linchpins of the exhibition. He said that, if the National Gallery were disposed to sell it, he would bid not less than US$25 million for it. My Government had bought it for US$1.35 million, a world record price for a modern American painting until that time.

    …Eighty of the 104 paintings in the Pollock retrospective at MoMA, including Blue Poles, were exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London, between 11 March and 6 June 1999. They attracted 196 321 visitors. When I welcomed Blue Poles back to Canberra on 21 July, Australian sceptics had been converted to true believers. Pollock’s Summertime (1948) is one of the treasures of Tate Modern, Bankside, opened in May 2000. The gallery’s handbook pays this tribute:

    ’Jackson Pollock is widely seen as the key figure in western art in the mid-twentieth century, exercising an influence on the second half of the century comparable to that of Picasso on the first half ... The celebrated Blue Poles of 1952 was a final heroic manifestation of the high point of the Pollock of 1948-50.’

    You all can further research these matters in my latest classic My Italian Notebook. I abolished many things, like conscription and higher education fees. I initiated many things like building the National Gallery and buying Blue Poles. Seeing all of you here surrounding a masterpiece, I was right!’