What is art and what is it good for? Artweek, starting this weekend and running to the end of next, turns the central city into a showcase with a thousand answers: events, exhibitions, gallery tours, talks, open spectacles, hidden surprises and untold delights.
I saw a video of a man dancing to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings once. He was naked and skinny, and his genitals flopped up and down as he danced. It just went on and on. It was one of the most moving pieces of art I have ever seen and I don’t think I was the only person to think that. The video filled most of one wall of the room, which was dark, and people kept coming in, middle-aged American tourists mainly, seeing what it was and leaving, and then – this was the amazing thing – turning round and coming back in. They processed it, reacted, and then their minds slipped into another place and they processed it some more and came back and were mesmerised.
It was full of meaning, too, at least I thought so. About the futility of human endeavour and the futility of not being engaged with human endeavour. About hope and despair, cruelty and compassion, about how our vulnerability is our strength. The artist was Sam Taylor-Johnson and the work was called Brontosaurus. I saw it 20 years ago and it still stops me dead every time I think about it.
Although you could argue she was just an exhibitionist artist with a grant from some soft-headed council. Sam Taylor-Johnson also directed the movie 50 Shades of Grey, which is to art what Brontosaurus was to titillation.
What is art anyway? Is it beauty? Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on Earth and all you need to know. So the poet John Keats said, after studying a Grecian urn. But is it true?
When people advocate for art, they usually talk about beauty. Art as the realisation of beauty. And yes, some art is beautiful and some artists strive above all else to render beauty. But others don’t. You have to twist your idea of beauty inside out to say that when the Tongan Auckland artist Kalisoliate ’Uhila spends time living in a pen with pigs, he’s aiming for beauty.
Is this work by Don Binney beautiful? (It’s part of the BNZ collection, on display during Artweek.) There’s definitely beauty in it, just as there is a strange beauty in a man lying in the straw with pigs, but to leave it at that – to settle for “I see the beauty” as a response to the work – is to miss some quite big things the artists were exploring.
You don’t choose art like you’d choose curtains, said the British artist Grayson Perry, although that does seem like wishful thinking. We do choose art to fit in when it hangs on the wall or stands in the public space outside the building. Art is decorative as well as being other things.
Except when it isn’t. Because everything art is, it also is not. What is art? Every definition you come up with will be wrong.
Beauty? What even is beauty? That thing you perceive by looking, or listening, or perhaps touching, and that seems, somehow, to animate the soul? Did we invent that idea to reassure ourselves, or is there some golden correlation between the object and our perception of it? Is beauty objectively true?
Or maybe art is a conduit to the sublime, that place where disturbing things co-exist with the beautiful. Art makes your mind slip, it takes you into a world not accessible through rational faculty, as if you have walked through a wardrobe or the wall on platform 9¾ at Kings Cross Station. And what do you find there? Portraits and landscapes and an unmade bed. Found objects piled in a corner. Some man knitting an orange scarf that trails out the door and down the stairs. I haven’t seen that but I bet it exists, somewhere.
And the fragile, colourful wonder of a tree art installation honouring those who have lost their lives to suicide (Mika Haka’s “Pohutukawa Chi” will be at St Matthew-in-the-City during Artweek). Art can lift you up in the most surprising of ways.
Some art is sublime, but not all. Some art is an interrogation of the sublime. Some art is a shocked, fevered, ecstatic, despairing, rapturous, humbled, glorified or even beatified response to the sublime. Colin McCahon cycled through most of those. Reuben Paterson cycles through some of them too in Black Matters II (his show at Gow Langsford Gallery during Artweek), although that doesn’t mean he’s like McCahon in any more obvious ways. Paterson uses a brilliant palette, fractal shapes and fireworks glitter, none of which it’s possible to imagine McCahon ever being tempted by. Art is infinitely varied.
Art is a cow in formaldehyde and a skull encrusted with a diamonds. Works like that, by the British artist Damien Hirst, are not usually beautiful, or are they? Are they sublime, or are they merely obscene? They’re incredibly expensive artefacts and they are art. Being obscene is the point, and also not the point.
Art is what it is not.
A long mirror set in the ground is art. Reflecting you as you stand over it and the buildings to either side, I lost myself when I found you by Zee Shake Lee is in Exchange Lane during Artweek (that little lane off Queen Street, opposite Fort Street). Art is unexpected. Art is what nobody else thought to do until the artist thought to do it.
You can make a giant shiny balloon dog and put it outside a museum and that’s art. You can float a giant shiny balloon over a car yard and that’s the very opposite of art. Or is it?
Art is a town square full of post-apocalyptic pop-art illustrations: mutant beauty, they’re calling it (Atomic Forest is in Courthouse Lane during Artweek). Art is photographs of homeless people, all funds donated to the City Mission (John Crawford’s On the Street at Gow Langsford). Art is bees (at Griffiths Gardens on Wellesley Street). Art is a giant poi made of recycled polystyrene, flying around Aotea Square. Art is flowers frozen in blocks of ice (Roma Blooms on Albert St). Art is in galleries – so many shows, so little time! Art is in the street. Art is expensive and art is cheap. Art is for the daytime and art happens at night (32 exhibitions and events on one evening, Tuesday October 10). Art is for laughing with and laughing at. Art lets you have a good cry.
Art frees the mind. Art asks you to look at something in a way you haven’t before. All art since the Impressionists is about that one thing. Art is not about that at all. Art rearranges the possibilities of how we see the world in order to create new ways to know beauty, and suffering, consolation, hope. Arts confounds us, to take us to a place we can only get to through art. Art just confound us. Art is a house that looks like a state house, down the end of Queens Wharf, with a giant silver Captain Cook inside. Art is wrong. Art is right.
Also, art doesn’t free the mind, it enslaves the mind. Art organises and reinforces the value systems of the world. Art confirms what you know, or what you fear. Religious art makes humans feel puny. Religious art is also a conduit to God. Michaelangelo’s David has enormous hands, which makes the human sacred and therefore powerful humans are like gods. Art glorifies the mighty and the triumphant and the close-minded patriarchal petit bourgeoisie. Art permits respectable men to gaze at naked women. Art reinforces the male gaze. Art undoes us all.
Art is craft. Good ideas are for lazy people but artists work hard with their skills to make things. That pile of beer crates jumbled on the gallery floor, look how exquisitely they’ve been made.
Or, art is not craft. Art is the idea. Skilled people can make good beer crates but it is the artist’s idea that makes them art.
Really? You’ll see more creative ideas in a night of advertisements on TV than in all the galleries of the city. Take a look at any art video ever made and compare it to any pop song video ever made.
No, if you think commercialism has annihilated art, you are not looking at the art properly. Really?
Art is what the artist says it is, suggested Oxford don John Carey. He said that’s the definition you’re left with when you’ve realised all the others are useless, which might be right but is it good enough? What about the problem that some artists don’t seem to know what they’re doing? Is it an incredibly profound thing to say, involving subtle concepts about the act of creation and the existence of values beyond our comprehension, or is it just incredibly glib?
Still, I like it. It’s art if the artist says so. It has the advantage that it clears the decks for a much more important question: what is good art?
Most art is bad art. We’re not supposed to say it, but it’s true. Most books aren’t worth reading, either. And most movies, and most music. We know this about movies and music and it’s fine because we know how to find the good stuff. Or we think we do. That’s largely true for books, too: nobody walks into a bookshop and thinks, I don’t want to read most of what’s in here. You think, I’ll start browsing, or what the hell was the name of that book I read a review of?
Artweek is your art store, full of a thousand possibilities, in galleries and in the streets all over the central city. What is art? It is what it isn’t. What’s it for? It’s for the things nothing else is for. What is good art? It’s the art that’s good for nothing. Or maybe it’s treasure for the soul. Artweek is for you to decide.
October 7-15 is Artweek and here are 5 useful things to know
2. Late Night Art, Tuesday 10 October, 5pm-9pm, is a special evening opportunity to see many of the exhibitions and events of the week. Details are here.
3. There are lots of participatory activities, including a Drawing Club, where you can give it a go from life; Quick Draw, where you can get your portrait done in 10 minutes – or your best friend’s, or your kid’s; and a guided cycling tour.
4. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on inside the dealer galleries, this is a great chance to find out. Their doors are open and they’ll be friendly as. Here are five of the “must-see exhibitions”. On the streets, keep an eye out for pop-up exhibitions.
5. The Auckland Art Gallery provides a kind of sturdy tripod for Artweek. One leg is classical, with the Corsini Collection, a magnificent show of renaissance and baroque art on loan from Florence. The second leg is contemporary, with the Chartwell Collection show, a wonderfully curated exhibition of new and newly acquired works, called Shout Whisper Wail! It includes the first new work by renowned local artist Jacqueline Fraser the AAG has shown in 12 years. The third leg is the community, family and educational focus of the gallery. It’s the school holidays and there’s heaps on, including kids’ workshops and movies for kids (yes, of all ages).
Want to find out about everything? The full Artweek programme is here.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.