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Art wank

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 1 June 2017

In a recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart I was amused that on the downloaded app that has replaced catalogues and didactics there was a link to "art wank." A line drawing of a phallus and balls pressed home the point, as it were. MONA is cheeky and puts into plain speech what many of us have been thinking for years; that curatorial interpretation of works of art have become a form of masturbation i.e. a private activity to which the rest of the world has no access.

The art world is not beyond make fun of itself. One comment on the Cloaca Professional, or the poo machine installed at MONA is that the "Cloaca makes the ultimate criticism of modern art - that most of it is crap; that the art world has finally disappeared up its own backside." The artist himself Wim Delvoye remarks "When I was going to art school, all my family said I was wasting my time, and now I have made a work of art about waste." This is a work of art, supposedly, that makes a comment on modern art, that it is shit and we might as well make a piece of art that produces shit.

Some days earlier we went to the blockbuster exhibition of Van Gogh at the National Art Gallery of Victoria. I was immediately plunged into a grumpy mood by having to traverse firstly a video documentary, then a room full of prints that Vincent owned and finally a collection of Japanese prints that he admired before getting to the paintings themselves. I skipped all this and went straight to the paintings and because they were arranged according to the seasons, for some odd reason, was confronted by dreary canvases depicting winter from an early period of his work. I was determined to transcend the hype about Vincent; the many time psychotic who had stumbled through life and only in his final two years produced some remarkable work. Vincent had the kind of life from which mythology is made and from which stupendous prices are asked. His life carries the message that we all love, that even the most debilitated person can be great.


Personal mythology protects the artist from critical assessment. There were canvases in the exhibition that you would not look twice at if you had not known that the artists was Vincent. Some were uninteresting, badly drawn and amateurishly painted. Vincent is a minor artist when compared to the likes of Degas who spent a lifetime perfecting and extending his skills in both painting and sculpture. But the mythology makes up for the lack of accomplishment and mythology making is an aspect of art wank.

My next holiday experience was to visit the Art Gallery of South Australia. We paid to see an exhibition called "Versus Rodin: Bodies Across Space and Time " The exhibition features the gallery's own large collection of Rodin sculptures displayed with contemporary works. The gallery web page states that "Through a series of duets and duels, Rodin's work is brought into conversation with over 100 modern and contemporary works of art by…."

Unfortunately, we followed a guided tour that was difficult to ignore. The docent struggled to make sense of the pairings of works by Rodin and the host of contemporary artists. There were sections for the classical body, the fragmented body and the erotic body. These works were meant to "Challenge our understanding of the human condition." The connection between the Rodin pieces and the contemporary pieces was obscure and did not help us to understand the work. Here, as in the Van Gogh show, we have the imposition of a category or concept (the seasons in Van Gogh and the types of body in Rodin) that was unhelpful when it comes to appreciating the works.

The idea that works of art challenge us and change our minds is central to much curatorship. For example, in Gallery of South Australia, in a room devoted to the sensibilities of the nineteenth century we find, hanging from the ceiling by it's hooves, what looks like a dead horse. What is it doing there? Is it meant to confront us as we inspect paintings of gentility? One of the phrases the docent often used was that some artist had turned a certain thing on its head. That is supposedly what contemporary art does; it upsets us by inverting our conception of things. It is no longer the function of art to illuminate the world and humanity so that we see more deeply.

Art has become provocation, a bit like the Cloaca in MONA that is modelled on the digestive system. It is saying to us, this is what you are, a system for producing shit out of food. It is now the purpose of art to push us out of our boring and inadequate rut so that we may see anew. What arrogance!

Why has the role of the curator become an essential intermediary between the artist and his or her public? Why does art have to be interpreted for us? I think we will find that the curator had a small role in the art world before the onset of the modern with the advent of conceptual and abstract art. This is because this art did not automatically speak for itself; someone had to speak for it, perhaps the artist and certainly the curator. As art become more personal to the artist and more obscure to the viewer, the role of the curator grew.


The modern has produced a disconnection between the artist and the viewer. They no longer share a common premise and the curator is needed to fill the gap. Before the modern both the artist and the viewer shared an interest in the depth of experience of the world. Art was not mere mimesis that transferred the visual image to the canvas but an interpretive activity that discovered the wealth of the visual experience. Before art was detached from its origin in Christianity in the West it interpreted the gospel, it was the Word made image.

Take these two imperatives away and we have left only the subjectivity of the artist; the private, often intellectual experience that, like masturbation, cannot be shared. Art wank finds its origins within the psyche of the artist following its own bidding isolated from the world.

Modern art therefore lacks a shared ontological foundation. It can be as mysterious and obscure as it wants and this will only increase its allure. But this cannot go on. Once all the fads have run their course, all the new things have been exhausted; there is nothing left but the void, the death of art. Our common lives, the world we have in common and the gospel will go without interpretation and hence enrichment. We are already well on the way to this void. The public has become disenchanted with the modern and its vaulting arrogance and has stopped buying. Galleries are closing and art for sale is vanishing as we approach cultural sterility. We face a future of increasing technological sophistication but decreasing depth of experience.

It is the role of the fine arts to teach us to see and feel. Stand before great landscapes and you will see landscapes in a richer way. Stand before great paintings - the crucifixion, the Madonna or the Annunciation - and the gospel will be more real to us. The loss of these images produced afresh in our time impoverishes us and bears witness to cultural and spiritual sterility. All we have left is art wank.

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I am grateful to Christopher Allen's writing in The Weekend Australian for some of the insights presented here.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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