Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Tracking and tracing

In the war against the coronavirus, many stories are told of heroes and heroines fighting for humanity. The Fundy Post, a blog of record, will serve to tell the lesser-known stories of entitled pricks who are concerned only with themselves. Here, for a start, are some reactions to a report in the New York Times: "Last week, doctors on Long Island in New York started treating Covid-19 patients with estrogen in an effort to increase their immune systems, and next week, physicians in Los Angeles will start treating male patients with another hormone that is predominantly found in women, progesterone, which has anti-inflammatory properties and can potentially prevent harmful overreactions of the immune system."


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Caveat vendor

Someone in Palmerston North attempted to sell a guitar on TradeMe, unaware that one of his neighbours is a man who will not take no for an answer. This could be the start of a horror film. They Are Out There could be its title.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Friendly reminder

Many bearded men on Twitter issue friendly reminders, seemingly at random, to ensure we remain fully aware of something terribly important to them. Often these men are called Tyler. Here is one. 

Tyler want to remind us that white privilege exists and is not up for debate. White people have privilege. This is  so important  that he turns on the caps lock and writes PERIODT, a spelling  appropriated from black culture.

Right on, Tyler.

But then, in comes Tim, with a reminder about two other privileges, straight/passing and male. Tyler cannot tell Tim to bog off and write his own friendly reminder, because that might appear homophobic, or transphobic. So Tyler falls in line, and Tim parades his privileges.

But then in comes Nicky, who asks difficult questions. And I come in, just for the fun. Tyler sees an opportunity to parade his virtue, so at the end of the day everybody is happy in a very real sense.

The Tyla Gang:

Friday, April 17, 2020


Coleman is, apparently, all things to all men. According to Martin Williams, who wrote the liner notes for this album, his playing "will effect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively". An advertisement for a concert he is participating in refers to him as "the new alto saxophone sensation”. A jazz disc jockey calls him the "most talked-about musician in town". And in the "Goings On About Town" section of The New Yorker, he is "Ornette Coleman and his perhaps mortally wounded alto saxophone.
I will be more than happy to leave technical discussion of Coleman's music to Williams' liner notes, for he seems to have a much better grasp of the situation than I.  
The instrumentation of this group will suggest the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, but the only point of similarity is that Coleman's musicians have taken harmonic advantage of the absence of a piano, while Mulligan's thought in such a harmonically conventional way that the piano might as well have been there all along. 
In reference to the various quotations above, it will be interesting to see what happens to the career of the first new prophet to appear since the publicity machinery of jazz has gotten itself in full swing. Coleman's is an authentic attempt, and the initial praise for it came from musicians. Now it seems, everyone else has climbed aboard for what may be a long, long ride.
What I hear from this group (Coleman, alto sax; Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; and Billy Higgins, drums) is almost completely different on fast and slow numbers. The uptempo selections are nerve-shattering unrealized fragments, departing, it would seem, from Charlie Parker at the time of KoKo. On slower numbers, Coleman, who sounds much like the late Ernie Henry, is capable of composing strange melody lines that stick naggingly in the mind for days, and, on his solos, playing isolated phrases that have an instantly affecting beauty.

American Record Guide 
Vol 26, 1959, 339

Thursday, April 16, 2020

'St Disgustin’s', the charladies called it

Notes taken from Nicholas Taylor ’s "Sir Albert Richardson: A Classic Case of Edwardianism”, in  Alastair Service’s  Edwardian Architecture and Its Origins (London: Architectural Press, 1975).
445 His myth, as the obituary notices sedulously repeated, was that he had been 'The Last of the Georgians.' He was no such thing. His love of fast cars and (in his early days) of long-distance bicycling, his crowded accumulation of high quality bric-a-brac, his experienced courting of the world of big business, his outrageous use of the verbal pun, his rotund oratory, his smoking of equally rotund cigars - these were the essence of an Edwardian 'card,' a dining club man par excellence.
I was fortunate in spending two Saturday afternoons with him in 1963 (aetatis suae 83) and, at the first of these in particular, his generosity and enthusiasm and remarkable memory were in full spate.

446 J. Alfred Gotch had already published his Growth of Early English Renaissance Architecture ("A student asked, 'Have you got Gotch's Growth?" The bookseller answered, 'God help me, I hope not’.") [Here, Richardson has confused Gotch’s Early Renaissance Architecture in England with his Growth of the English House, combining them into a single title]

447-8 Richardson admired this church and also Pearson's St Augustine, Kilburn ("It was very High Church - 'St Disgustin’s', the charladies called it") because they displayed a 'classical' handling of the Gothic.

448 Moreover, [Leonard] Stokes had turned to a severe stripped classicism for domestic work, after his marriage in 1898 to Miss Gaine, daughter of the general manager of the National Telephone Company, had brought him a rich harvest of telephone exchanges.

Stokes sat in an end room making sketches and sending them down to be drawn out. His pupils and assistants ('Damned Colonials' and 'Damned Scotsmen' were his two main descriptive labels) frequently felt the whip of his tongue ("One day he was swearing at the top of his voice - and the ceiling of the office fell in. He fell on his knees, prayed and crossed himself, gave cheques to all the assistants - and was worse the next morning.") The assistants used to retreat to the lavatory, where they read the Daily Mail until their master shouted for them.
The freedom from Gothic detail that led to the 'free architecture' of Lethaby and Voysey had led simultaneously, and much less satisfactorily, to the development of a relaxed, undisciplined English Baroque manner by architects who had been trained as Goths, but who had large regular practices in the City where clients demanded representational grandeur.

449 Then there was Aston Webb, yet another ex-Goth and an ambitious competition-winner ("He was the fox, the sneak, worked for himself entirely and against others").

451 Selfridges admittedly alarmed students by its vulgarity ("'Don't you be so Selfridge,' we said" muttered Richardson).

456 In the '20s, alas, most of these leaders lost their way somewhere between bypass Tudor and jazz modern.

Richardson’s home, Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedfordshire.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse:

Monday, April 13, 2020

Bad British Art

This is something I wrote years ago, but did not publish because it had a paragraph about New Zealand which would have caused Trouble. That paragraph has been removed. If you can understand the relevance of the photograph, please send your answer on a postcard to the usual address.

Oh dear. The Guardian is trying to create a fuss with the old "why don't we love our intellectuals" ploy, overlooking the obvious answer that most public intellectuals are also insufferable pricks; it goes with the job. Of course there is a list – there is always a list. This one was compiled by taking an earlier list and adding to it people who have contributed to the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books. It is a list filled with the usual names; well, it would be, wouldn't it? It is after all a list made from an earlier list and from contributors to the two most prestigious literary magazines.

The surveyor, John Naughton, then makes his own gloss of this self-fulfilling list, with such searching questions as these:
The philosopher Onora O'Neill has influenced the thinking of many of us with her coruscating insight. But so too has the playwright Michael Frayn. Both have had a significant impact on our culture. But who has been more influential? Impossible to say. Similarly, with his Radio 4 series In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg has done sterling service in injecting serious ideas into public consciousness. Is he therefore a more significant public intellectual than the unobtrusive editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers? Who knows?
Who indeed? And what of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir? They were French and horrible; nobody reads them anymore. Other French intellectuals decided they preferred Martin Heidegger instead. He was German and horrible. He was also a Nazi, but that did not bother the intellectuals. Of course, there were British intellectuals as well, such as Bertrand 'Dirty Bertie' Russell, the well-known Rationalist and sex predator.

Meanwhile the Independent covers the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of British Portrait Painters, and in doing so suggests another answer: the British prefer tweedy celebrities to thinkers. So, in short, the British do not like clever-dicks, modern art or the French.

They don't like accordions, either:

Sunday, April 12, 2020


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Saturday, April 11, 2020


The Art History gang

This is a piece I wrote on commission for the catalogue of a group exhibition a few years ago. It was rejected by the shows curator, after complaints by the artists. Fortunately, I was paid.

Let’s curate again (like we did last summer)

There is a painting in the Auckland Art Gallery by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema that depicts a woman with a pearl earring, a leopard skin and not much else. She is Cleopatra. We know this because the artist had the painting set in an elaborate frame in the Egyptian style, in which the subject’s name is incised. As if that were not enough, a curator has added a label to the frame, naming the subject and the artist, whose own name is also on the frame, directly beneath the label and in large letters. The painting is usually exhibited with another label, again identifying Cleopatra as the subject and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema as the artist, while also providing some historical information about both. With both visual cues written names, no viewer could be in any doubt as to the subject and the artist of this painting. This is Cleopatra, painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Cleopatra is an extreme and literal example of the long and vexed relationship between art and words. Somehow, art is never enough. Art cannot be left to itself. Words are always added, by artists, art historians  and curators. We might have guessed that Alma-Tadema’s subject is Cleopatra, because the woman in the picture is obviously a sensualist and the frame - decorated with hieroglyphs - indicates she is an Egyptian. Who else could it be? But these visual indicators were not enough for Alma-Tadema so he added her name, in  faux-primitif lettering laid out vertically and perversely - the word is broken onto two lines. Of course, the real Egyptians had no need of lettering: they had the hieroglyphs, pictures that indicate sounds and when combined make words. But we cannot read hieroglyphs and, it seems, cannot be trusted to read pictures correctly, so artists and those others involved in art add words to ensure we get the pictures right.

Oddly enough, the Egyptians are partly and indirectly responsible. In 1422 the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo was rediscovered and taken to Florence. Horapollo, one of the last priests of the ancient Egyptian religion, lived near Alexandria in the fifth Century.  His Hieroglyphica is a two-volume book that attempts, unsuccessfully to translate hieroglyphs. A new edition, in Greek, was published in 1505, the first of more than thirty editions and translations published in the sixteenth century. The popularity of the Hieroglyphica  prompted the creation of a modern European equivalent, the emblem book. But while the Hieroglyphica showed the meaning of images as words, the emblem book showed ideas as pictures. Each page showed a representation of an abstract idea, such as a virtue, with a title above it and an explanation below. 

Unfortunately, emblem books did not make things easier at all. They made simple ideas difficult. The words and the pictures did not come together. Ideas cannot easily be reduced to pictures and pictures cannot easily be explained in words. Besides, their makers did not want to make things easier. As Erwin Panofsky says of the first emblem book,  Andreas Alciati’s Emblemata of 1531, its “very purpose it was to complicate the simple and to obscure the obvious where mediaeval pictorialization had tried to simplify the complex and to clarify the difficult.” 

Despite these shortcomings the emblems depicted in Alicati’s book and its imitators quickly made their way into paintings all over Europe. Renaissance artists and their patrons saw the pictorial interpretation of ideas as being the one of the great aims of painting. Emblem books gave them a shortcut. So Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, a painting from about 1550, shows three male heads above the heads of a wolf, a lion and a dog. The image of the three male heads is adapted from the emblem of prudence in Alciati’s Emblemata, where two joined heads float above a landscape.  In case the viewer is unfamiliar with the book or is confused by the extra head, Titian’s painting comes with a motto - “From the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions." You get the message. 

You need the motto to get the message because It would be nigh on impossible to depict prudence visually. A virtue is not a thing; something else has to represent it. Without the motto, the painting would be a mystery. So, it must be explained in words. One might think it would have been better for the artist to depict visual things and to leave words in books. But that was not the Renaissance way of doing things.

Nor is it the New Zealand way. While Modernist artists tried to remove literature from art and to get the words out, our own Colin McCahon put them back in. The abstract expressionists in New York tried to free painting from representation and reveal the contents of their ids, while McCahon in Titirangi made landscapes of words, where huge slabs of biblical text stand before sullen hills. Ever since, New Zealand art has been fascinated with words. New Zealand artists paint words on their pictures, they make words into sculpture. It is the legacy of McCahon, they will tell you, but perhaps it is also a distrust of the visual, a fear that images are not enough, that things will not do. Things, art and its objects, must be explained, labeled, denoted.

It’s not just the artists. Now it’s the schools as well. In keeping with international best practice, art students must justify their work with an Artist’s Statement, that explains What it is All About in dense prose. Or rather it doesn’t, because the artist’s statement is usually an abstraction, abstracted from the artist’s work and from some theorist, usually a Dead French Male. Again, in keeping with international best practice, it is considered improper to abstract from a theorist’s writing about art. 

And then there are the Art Historians. Having invented the New Art History a few years back, the Art Historians are now free of any responsibility to look at works of art. Instead they devise theories about those works and apply them at will. Free also, because of the Death of the Author, from any responsibility to bear in mind anything the artist says, the Art Historians draw their own conclusions about what those works mean. These theories can be found in books and the lengthy essays in exhibitions catalogues, such as this one, as well as the on the labels fixed to the walls beside the pictures.

And then there are the curators. The independent curator is a globalised development of the old-fashioned museum curator. Curators once had jobs, with pensions and other benefits. Now they are independent, which means they fill their own tax forms and have to travel to find work. On the other hand, the independent curator sees the world, visiting the places you read about in Artforum,  mounting exhibitions, attending conferences, voicing opinions. The independent curator now has the power that the critics once had and that the artists never saw. Independent curators think in Artforum ways about art on a global scale, in Business Class.

The apotheosis of the independent curator came at the Fifty-third Venice Biennale of 2009. There, the United Arab Emirates had a pavilion for the first time. Since the UAE has no artistic traditions, nor any artists, they hired a independent curator, who hired a couple of Germans to make their art. What the Germans did was make a transcript of the press conference in which the UAE’s pavilion was announced and have it recorded by two actors playing the the parts of the international curator and the UAE-pavilion commissioner; two more actors then performed the parts and lip-synched the dialogue at the opening of the pavilion. The tables and chairs of the press conference had been left as they stood and a video of the recording played throughout the biennale. So the content of the  UAE’s exhibit was the words of the curator and his patron, the only citizen of the UAE involved. This performance was subsequently reported in Artforum by Thomas Crow, an art historian.

Thomas Crow tells us, in the September 2009 edition of Artforum, that  the UAE’s curator, Tirdad Zolghadr, provided a “metacommentary on the whole, stating explicitly what the core of the Biennale asserts by implication: that the art world has so absorbed the lessons of autocritique that they can be taken as read – but not set aside or discarded.” So it seems a state of normalcy, of equilibrium, was achieved in Venice; all the concerns of art were absorbed and replaced by a performance of curating. That this work of neutralising art was done by a hired gun working for an oil rich federation of absolute monarchs at a festival that provides ample parking for superyachts is entirely appropriate.

With precedents like this one, artists could soon be dispensed with altogether. The business of making art could be done by curators and recorded by art historians. Critics would no longer be necessary, since critics do tend to criticise, which can have harmful effects. Art historians, though, can be relied upon to be helpful. Already, art criticism has largely been replaced by postmodern ekphrasis, a literary form in which the art historian explains the work to the reader while scrupulously avoiding giving an opinion about it. 

So, what are we to do? How shall we save the artists from the curators and art historians? How shall we save art from the tyranny of words?  Can we curate our way out of the ennui of contemporary globalised art? Yes we can. Perhaps we could start by supporting local curators. Perhaps we should let artists do the job, since they know about art and know other artists. And perhaps we could start looking at art again.

This last is the most difficult, since we have become accustomed to reading art, reading the words on an around works of art, as well as treating works of art - visual and spatial objects - as if they puzzles to be decoded.  We need to realise that art does things that words cannot do and that words are not always what they seem. 

Henry Cow