Famous Examples of “Preliterate” Art

Cuevas de la Manos (Cave of the Hands), dating back to 11,000- 7000 BC, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Photo by User “Mariano”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.

The word “prehistoric” is very popular but when it comes to art made before the advent of settled life and writing systems, I try not to use it. Many believe that history officially begins with scripted records of human life and culture in the Ancient Near East around 6000-4000 years before the present. This somehow implies that the time prior to that period isn’t included in the grand narrative of the human race. But we have so much evidence available of human consciousness and creativity from the deep past…30,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago—not written accounts on tablets, certainly, but drawings and figurines, signs and symbols that speak volumes. All that cannot not be a part of history. That’s why I prefer the word “preliterate” over “prehistoric”.

Here I will examine five famous examples of preliterate art from different parts of the world and what they might tell us about our ancestors. Very little is known about the cultural context of these hunter-gatherer societies. The works may have had a ceremonial or merely decorative function. Despite the lack of clarity, we might deduce something precious about the human condition by exploring them.

The first artwork that comes to my mind is the “Cave of the Hands” from southern Argentina, about 13,000 years old. These stencilled paintings of dozens of hands (the pigments, it is believed, were sprayed through bone pipes) highlight our inherently social identity, how we must band together for safety and survival. They also indicate our desire to be remembered—as in “I was here”.

Another cave I think of is Lascaux in southwestern France, which has paintings of wild animals going back 17,000 years. Some observers have linked them to an idea known as “sympathetic magic”—the term was first used by Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer (1854-1941).

Depiction of horses, aurochs and deer in a painting at Lascaux caves in the village of Montignac in southwestern France, believed to be 17,000 years old. Photo by User “Prof saxx”, Public Domain, Wikipedia.

Sympathetic magic means a kind of procedure aimed at bringing good luck to the hunters. It could have been performed by shaman-like personalities in a state of trance believing that “ritual actions imitate the real ones you wish to bring about”, that by visualising and meditating on big game, a community will be able to encounter and capture them for real.

Venus of Willendorf as shown at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Photo by User “Bjørn Christian Tørrissen”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Next, I think of 25,000-year-old “Venus of Willendorf” (Willendorf being a village in northeastern Austria)—a 4.4-inch-tall statuette that was discovered during excavations by Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Josef Szombathy (1853-1943) and others in 1908. This female figurine with plaited hair or headdress and large body could be a mother goddess—that is, a personification of creative forces, fertility, the plenitude of nature found in many cultures, primitive and advanced.

Fourth example is that of the paintings found at the Bhimbetka rock shelters, located in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. About 10,000 years old, these depict animals like horses, bison and deer, weapons like arrows, shields and swords, scenes of hunting and also, interestingly, dancing. They give us a glimpse into a slightly more developed community. Here we understand that even with a harsh existence devoid of the comforts and luxuries of civilisation, our ancestors could make room for entertainment and take time out for fun.

Paintings in Rock Shelter 8, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by User “Bernard Gagnon”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Dancers at Bhimbetka. Photo by User “Nandanupadhyay”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Ain Sakhri Lovers, British Museum. Photo by User “Geni”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Lastly, I have chosen the Ain Sakhri Lovers, a 102 mm high figurine—now at the British Museum—from a cave near Bethlehem, discovered in 1933 by René Neuville, a French consul in Jerusalem. This is the oldest known representation of a copulating couple. It is also a phallic symbol. Like the Venus of Willendorf, it can be said to denote fertility but within a relational framework.

When observed from different perspectives, it looks like different sexual organs—breasts (top), penis (side), vagina (bottom), also testicles. The artwork is about 11,000 years old and belongs to the Natufian culture of the Levant that was known for its semi-sedentary lifestyle even before the dawn of agriculture. Archaeologist Ian Hodder of Stanford University has interesting thoughts on the entwined figures:

The Natufian culture is really before fully domesticated plants and animals, but you already have a sedentary society. This particular object, because of its focus on humans and human sexuality in such a clear way, is part of that general shift towards a greater concern with domesticating the mind, domesticating humans, domesticating human society, being more concerned with human relationships, rather than with the relationships between humans and wild animals, and the relationships between wild animals themselves.

British art historian Neil MacGregor writes that to him the tenderness of the embracing figures suggests not so much reproductive vigour but love. People were beginning to settle and form more stable families and “perhaps this is the first moment in history when a mate could become a husband or a wife”. From this point onwards you must make an effort to continue the species, not in a purely animal way as did those before you, but within the structure of a more definite, committed interpersonal dynamic.

These are only five. Every example of preliterate art can lead to a contemplative or enlightening experience if we engage with it deeply enough.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Using our Shadow Side as Fuel for Creativity

The Self and its Shadow by Swedish artist Gabriel Isak (Fair Use)

One of my favourite contemporary thinkers is the American author Robert Greene (born 1959)—who has produced the bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power (1998), The Art of Seduction (2001), The 33 Strategies of War (2006), The 50th Law (2009)—this one written with the rapper 50 Cent–Mastery (2012) and The Laws of Human Nature (2018).

Given his subject matter, Greene is a controversial figure. Some people are quick to dismiss his ideas as manipulative and amoral. But that is not the impression I have formed of him after reading a good deal of his work and listening to dozens of his interviews. It’s a joy to engage with his vast knowledge of psychology, history, philosophy and literature­­.

Greene’s is an unusually wise voice in the realm of self-help and personal development. He is not one of those just-believe-it-and-you-will-achieve-it gurus. He also isn’t about just-work-hard-and-you-will-certainly-get-it. Sure, our optimistic mindsets and efforts are crucial factors behind our success. But hope and industriousness, no matter how potent, may not be enough to melt other people’s “resistances”. People have egos, they are the centres of their own universe. They have deeply held beliefs, prejudices and proclivities. If we want to win them over to our side—as romantic partners, as audiences, as customers, as collaborators, as supporters—we must be careful in what we say or do before them and how. We must learn up the art and science of persuasion.

Robert Greene’s books. The next will examine the concept of “the sublime”

Greene is passionate about equipping his readers with practical tools that can help them navigate a world the dominant forces of which might not always be in their favour. He doesn’t want us to go beyond good and evil or alter the essence of our identity. We don’t have to be wicked or fake, only skilful and strategic.

Of late, Greene has been talking a lot about the “dark side” and why it needs to be mastered if we wish to achieve great things in life. This dark side isn’t some dualistic evil half to your good half—it is much more complex than that. It is related to the concept of “the shadow self” proposed by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961). Our shadow is that part of us that lurks beneath our polite and affable exterior. It could be composed of impulses that we may consider both immoral (say, a desire for extramarital affairs) and moral (indignation at the economic inequality of the world). It may be wayward, insecure, selfish, passionately righteous—whatever it is the best way to understand the shadow is that it is carefully concealed from public view.

If the shadow lies repressed or denied, isn’t confronted or disciplined, it leaks out in ways that we might regret later—during touchy moods, in offhand comments, as irrational and irresponsible behaviour…suddenly in your late 20s you get addicted to alcohol and you don’t know why or at the age of 45 you leave your steady job and family and elope with a 19-year-old, destroying everything you’ve worked so hard to build all along.

If the shadow is denied, it leaks out in destructive ways. (Credit: Pixabay)

Interestingly, because of its energetic nature, the shadow can act as fuel for extraordinary feats. Greene himself attributes his accomplishments to careful channelling of his dark side. Before becoming a writer, he’d tried 80 or so jobs across America and Europe—among them, a construction worker, translator, magazine editor and Hollywood writer. The Hollywood stint proved to be an important point in his life. Despite his excellent performance, he ended up getting fired on account of office politics. The experience left him bitter and frustrated.

It is easy for us to accept defeat and sink into self-pity after such incidents but that’s a waste. Dissatisfaction, disappointment, irritation, anger—such emotions have a hidden generative force. In fact, many times the impetus provided by these feelings is even stronger than the motivation that might arise from straightforward love or gratitude or bliss or contentment. Dark energy could be metamorphosed into something productive if it is dedicated to the service of a higher purpose, a bigger vision, a worthy cause or movement.

Instead of directing it inward and becoming a prisoner of it, Greene projected the massive hatred he felt towards the hypocrisy and sycophancy he witnessed in the film business outward into the craft of instructive non-fiction. He wrote The 48 Laws of Power to tell people that you do not have to be naïve, you do not have to suffer. You can protect yourself from harm and the machinations of others.

The shadow can be a real gift to those in the arts, whatever their medium. If a person feels aggression—because of a difficult childhood or professional rejection or failed relationships or something else—and if they have it in them to create and construct something new and beautiful, that ability will be magnified and sharpened manyfold if every time there’s a rush of dark energy through their mind and body, they choose to not give in to painful pondering but just courageously pick up a pen or brush or chisel or camera, diverting the power out of their system into the world.

Shots from “Blue” by Kevin Diallo (Fair Use)

An artist I would like to use as example here is Kevin Diallo (born 1987), a Senegal-born Ivorian-Australian media professional whom I interviewed recently. In his recent installation “Blue” exhibited at Artspace, Sydney, I believe he converts his deep-seated anger into a powerful expression for a greater cause—he lifts up an entire race.

Here’s the description of the project: “The ocean belongs to the semantics of black suffering, from the history of the Atlantic Slave trade to the recent tragedies of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea while seeking refuge on the shores of Europe; black bodies are intrinsically linked with the maritime.

“From May – September 2019 artist Kevin Diallo crossed the Pacific Ocean on a 40ft sailboat from San Diego USA, to Sydney, Australia accompanied by three friends. ‘Blue’ illustrates how the artist attempted to reclaim the ocean as a space to practice resistance and healing.

“The work utilises photography, moving image, installation and sound to situate black normative existence within a space that typically denies blackness—and how the trauma of blackness’ relationship to the ocean can be radically altered to express freedom, joy and opportunity.”

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Albrecht Durer and selfies

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait

Who are you, and what are you doing here? You, there in the mirror, there in the lens of your phone: What do you see? asks Lawrence Farago in the opening paragraph of an essay in the New York Times about self-portraits and Albrecht Dürer.

Selfies are everywhere. The Google arts and Culture page estimates that about 93 million selfies are taken and uploaded onto social media every day. Social platforms like Instagram were specifically designed for the iPhone in 2010. Selfies are the major means of self-expression in our times. Few realise that selfies have art royalty in its bloodlines in the form of Albrecht Dürer, who lived from 1471 to 1528.

Dürer was a genius, one of the most remarkable artists of all times. He is regarded as the father of self-portraits. Prior to Dürer, self-portraits were rare. Dürer changed that. He was obsessed with his image and painted numerous self-portraits. For artists like Dürer, self-portraits were a means of self- expression. Think of self-portraits by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to mention but a few. Today, with the advent of the selfie, self-portraits are everywhere. They are the major means of self-expression.

Farago’s questions about portraits are similar to those asked by the foremost cultural critic of our times, the late John Berger. In his book Portraits, Berger writes pithy essays about 74 artists. Berger, looking at the same self-portraits of Dürer as Farago had, asks why people seek images that depict them? His first response is that any person who has a portrait painted about them, seeks to produce evidence that they lived. It is a voluntary existential act with a particular look that is unique to the subject of the portrait.

As always, Berger digs deeper and suggests that the appearance and look of the subject has a duality. First, it is an image of a particular person. Secondly the image interrogates the looker of the portrait, and asks what the looker thinks about the image. Any journalist will tell you that any story is about the “w’s”, “what, when, who and why”. The person who created the image (selfie included) asks the same question and seeks to answer the question by means of how the subject is presented in an image.

Selfies say a lot of things. They tell stories or can poke fun at us. I once saw a selfie where the maker of the image stands in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The caption of the image says one of these faces are worth $860 million dollars.

Farago who is no media hack, studied art history at Yale and won the acclaimed Rabkin Prize in 2018 for art criticism, is rather cynical about selfies. He writes “In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands”.

Farago argues that Dürer is the principal perpetrator of the myth upon which selfies stands. In this respect he looks at Dürer’s self-portrait painted in Munich in 1500. It is a magnificent painting. More so because flat mirrors did not exist at the time. Farago writes that the detail in the portrait evokes divine inspiration. Just look at Dürer’s hair in the image. Dark and light intertwined, displaying immense skill. Study the eyes and ask whether you see a window in them. Dürer’s gaze is intense, so much so that it troubles lookers. One person even damaged those eyes by poking needles into them. Farago also writes that the myth about self-portraits, is not innate but manufactured. He sees arrogance in the portrait but also believes that it is the best portrait ever.

Berger in turn regarded Dürer as the first one man, avant-garde. Dürer did his first self-portrait, a drawing, when he was 13 years old. His talent, even at that age, was remarkable. Like Farago, Berger sees the divine in Dürer’s self-portrait of Munich 1500.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at 13

Berger wrote that Dürer’s self-portraits were theatrical in the sense that they conveyed something more than what he actually was. In the Munich portrait, Berger suggests that Dürer presented himself as deity. It is not blasphemous because the artist was a devout and practicing Christian. Berger’s suggests that the divine is an awareness of the artist and of his creativity. At the very same time Dürer was aware that he was living in a world of suffering and that his magnificent creativity was impotent to do anything about human suffering.

Both critics conclude that self-portraits are designed to represent the ego in a flattering manner. In that sense the artist, whether it is the hand holding a telephone for a selfie, or a brush loaded with paint, is misrepresenting the self. Upon looking at the Dürer self-portrait two things stand out. One is that Dürer was truly a magnificent artist. His ability to do detail is genius. He was concerned with portraying himself exactly as he was. The missing part is, despite the self-portraits, we do not know who and what Dürer was like. That question hangs in the air, just like with most selfies.


Written by Luisa Blignaut.

The Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Interior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Raffaele pagani”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Looking into ancient Greek and Roman visual art, I recently discovered a curious location that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the comune of Pompei, near Naples, in the Campania region of southern Italy. Situated on the outskirts of the ancient city of Pompeii, the Villa dei Misteri or “the Villa of the Mysteries” was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, excavated around 1909 and restored between 2013 and 2015.

The villa is famous for one particular room—containing dazzling red frescoes that show a religious ceremony. Ancient Rome is known for its murals or wall paintings. This form of art has a long history in the Mediterranean, where the Minoans, a pre-Greek people of the Aegean islands, regularly used it as early as the mid-second millennium BC.

Exterior of the Villa of the Mysteries by User “ElfQrin”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The frescoes in the villa, dated to 70-60 BC, are believed to depict a rite associated with a “mystery cult” of Dionysus or Bacchus—the god of wine, fertility, theatre, madness and ecstasy. Greco-Roman mystery cults were religious schools reserved for initiates known as “mystai”. The details of membership were not revealed to outside parties.

In the red paintings, we most likely have a bride who is being initiated into the Dionysian/Bacchic Mysteries in preparation for marriage, her elaborate costume being a wedding dress. We cannot know the exact meaning of the paintings. There have been several interpretations.

Frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries by User “Shakko”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Scenes 1, 2 and 3

In the first scene, a boy—standing before a priestess—reads from the scroll. The initiate enters in purplish apparel. She is also shown leaving in darker, slightly different clothes, now with a wreath and a tray of sacramental food.

In the second scene, the initiate, the priestess and an assistant weave a basket. On the right, Silenus plays a lyre. (Silenus is a folkloric figure of the forest who is a man with some features of the horse; he is a companion of Bacchus.)

In the third scene, two more characters appear: a satyr (drunken, male nature spirit) plays panpipes and a nymph (minor female nature deity) suckles a goat. The initiate is in a dramatic pose. She is probably in the process of establishing a close connection with nature, leaving the human world to immerse herself more in her animal side. This psychological shift is needed for regeneration and rebirth in ancient rituals. The initiate is absent from the next two scenes—which means she has undergone “katabasis”, which is a kind of journey or descent. From the country to the coast or down into the underworld.

Scenes 4, 5 and 6

In the fourth scene, Silenus holds a bowl. One satyr looks into that bowl. Another holds a mask (resembling Silenus). This is a strange and intriguing tableau. The bowl could be a vessel of divination, giving a vision of the future—possibly of death. Maybe the death of innocence and childhood that the initiate must submit herself to.

Next, in a damaged part of the fresco, we can see Dionysus leaning onto his mother Semele. In scene six, the initiate appears. She is wearing a cap now and has a staff, signs that she has reached a new stage in the initiation ritual. She is reaching for a long object covered with purple cloth, placed in a basket (perhaps a phallic symbol or a signpost of some sort indicating a new discovery). On the right is a winged figure—Aidos, the Greek goddess of shame, modesty, respect and humility.

Scenes 7, 8 and 9

In the seventh scene, the initiate kneels before the priestess. A female figure whips her, another one dances. It is as though this is some kind of final test of strength, and a cause for celebration is at hand.

Eight and ninth scenes show completion. The initiate is in new clothes, an assistant behind her. Cupid shows her a mirror. Then, she is enthroned, Cupid again by her side.

The logic behind mystery cults is interesting. In a book titled The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (2009), historian James S. Jeffers writes: “The state religions of the Greeks and Romans proved unsatisfying for some. Those who longed for a sense of salvation, and for a more personal connection with a deity, often looked for them in the mystery religions.”

The appeal of these frescoes lies in the very fact of their being beyond full comprehension. They attract the viewer with their sense of secrecy. They also engage as they exhibit a timeless human impulse—to achieve a kind of maturity, an elevation of the spirit, a connection with the divine in some form.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Eva Hesse, No Title 1963

In the early 1990’s, while working in a part time job with the installation team at the NGV, an artwork by Eva Hesse, No Title 1963, struck me as being a successful echo of some of my own struggling artistic preoccupations. It was unlike anything I had encountered before. Or rather, it has elements of things I had encountered before but scrambled together in a way I hadn’t seen, at least in the flesh. The explosion of new unbridled painting in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a lot of which can now seem dated and ego driven, had ended in a suspicion within the curatorial circles of the International and Melbourne art worlds of painting as a viable way to move forward. However with this explosion, the seeds had been sown.

Also at the time a small book of the work of the German artist Martin Kippenberger caught my eye in the NGV bookshop and I was instantly intrigued with this work that also scrambled styles, in a more brutal way than Hesse but with absurd humour and pointed intent. It seemed to be a way forward and at this time the Hesse picture, for me, joined the dots back in time to an idea of multiplicity and possibilities rather than the notion that an artist must choose a single branch in the great arc of art history.

Martin Kippenberger, Untitled (Krieg böse), 1991
© The Estate of Martin Kippenberger. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth. https://ocula.com/artists/martin-kippenberger/

Eva Hesse’s No title 1963, gives me the feeling that the artist has decisively chosen to not choose and has preferred to combine the orthodoxies of the day – gestural abstraction and hard edge colour field. Both in danger of becoming clichés and each burdened with their tribes of patriots. Hesse could see, possibly subconsciously, that to break this binary would open again the doors of perception. She brought a voice of Dadaism into the mid-century and as a female artist in New York’s heavily competitive male dominated art scene there was a desperate need for new voices to challenge this status quo.

No title 1963 is painted with oil on canvas, The texture of the ground and paint surface is fresh and directly worked- almost like a large work on paper. To achieve this fresh aliveness demands sure direction and confidence, remarkable here as Hesse was apparently quite unsure of her painting abilities and became more renowned for her sculpture- a form less reliant on the sensitivity of touch in the moment of making that comes to the fore in this painting.

Eva Hesse, No title. (1963), oil on canvas,  183.2 × 152.8 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth 
https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5356/

On close observation the gestural expanse is composed of rectangles of hand’s width sized marks resembling a scrawling handwriting in greys, ochres, whites and one rectangle in the lower right mainly in blues that pulls the eye down in a cascade from top to bottom. Squinting at the painting, similar to the Sansom painting I discussed last time, the stabbing black chunks punch holes in the surface and give tension and spatial definition to the murkier indistinct scrawling blather. With easy humour that challenges abstract expressionism’s claims to the sublime this dynamic gives articulation to something inchoate and absurd. The one element that completes and adds greater complexity to the chromatic and spatial world is the pinkish brushstroke running from top right to midway. This is echoed with a similar angled white line tucking behind a gestural moment and delving into a dark aperture. Directing this play of forces is the massive intrusion of hard edge wedges of industrial lemon yellow, white and warm ultramarine and cooler teal blues painted toughly yet with give at the top of the canvas. This is a wonderful play on one of the cornerstones of creating space in Western painting- the misty background of a Titian or the Mona Lisa cut over with a more sharply defined figure – here unsettled and topsy turvy.

Despite the vast history of artists pulling the language apart, the state of repose, or at least coherence, seems to be one of the most sought after qualities in art. It’s still really surprising to me that in No title 1963, the hot struggle to resolve the inconsistencies yet keep them living and breathing relaxes into such a natural repose. Contributing powerfully to this resolve is the way the division between the flat wedges and the looser paint below is essentially flat- the primacy of the surface, as the ruling critic of the day Clement Greenberg expounded, is insistent but sneakily there’s a blackish zone that appears to slip behind and under the leading edge of the white triangle.

Eva Hesse No title, 1964 Collage, gouache, watercolour, coloured pencil, and graphite on construction paper
45.9 x 32.4 cm,
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Hauser & Wirth
https://ocula.com/artists/eva-hesse/artworks/

In writing about this work I’m surprised how I feel like I’m writing about a painting concerns of my own, however it’s now almost 60 years since Hesse painted it and realise it’s more productive to think about connections and shared ideas and sensations than the delusion of originality. Hesse was a great originator about how the grotesque, awkward and absurd, both visually and psychologically, can be incorporated into a materially rich art. Surrealism, Dadaism, Automatic drawing and writing, the idea of the unconscious and more had come before her but she managed in her short life to bring threads of the play of these forces into an agreement with the demands of the highly tuned modernist mid-century New York art world. She proved that the idea of a single way forward is mere convenience amidst the flux and flow of our contemporary lives.

Written by David Palliser.

Windows and Portals: Looking Beyond 2020

A portal in a dark forest. (Credit: Pixabay)

2020, as we all know, has been a particularly strange year for those associated with the arts. While some have struggled and withdrawn themselves, being unable to process the situation, others have identified opportunities and announced innovative projects.

As the year passed by, I saw an explosion of paintings on quarantine life—toilet rolls, sanitisers, accumulated food and drink in tins, packets, bottles, jars. There has been a lot of straightforward “representational” art, artists just documenting what has been around them/everyone during the lockdown. But there was another kind of creative expression that caught my attention more—a “metaphorical” one involving a passage, a separation…but also an opening—the possibility of a new vision and state of affairs, maybe a whole different world. The literary and visual poetry of portals, windows, doors.

In April, I read an article in the Financial Times by Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) who saw the pandemic as a “portal”. I’d like to quote that paragraph:

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Later, I encountered two artworks shared, not inadvertently, by Jack Shainman Gallery (New York City) on Instagram that touched upon similar themes—a painting, “The School (Door)” by Ottawa-born Montreal-based artist Pierre Dorion and a painting-sculpture titled “The Universe is on the Inside” by Germany-born New York-based artist Leslie Wayne. Both are simple and meditative.

The School (Door) by Pierre Dorion (Fair Use)

In Dorion’s minimal painting, mostly white and grey, the door is big and heavy-looking. It is tightly shut, and the viewer gets no intimation of what might lie behind it. Danger? Wonder? We do not know. The only certainty is that of division. And there is a suggestion that one might have to make a real effort to reach the other side. The title of the artwork is fitting, given all the realisation and learning that we have undergone during the pandemic.

The Universe is on the Inside by Leslie Wayne (Fair Use)

Wayne’s painting-sculpture captures the spirit of the time in other ways. The window refers to the manner in which we are living at home—seeing the world of chaos and unpredictability from a distance with a limited view. Interestingly, the title of the artwork runs opposite to the form of the artwork itself. The latter projects outwards into the cosmos, yet the former goes inwards into human soul. The universe is on the inside…does this mean we have everything we need at the moment within ourselves already? Could it imply that, ultimately, we will be rescued not by some external force but by the disciplining of our own willpower?

The artwork makes its appreciator travel in two directions simultaneously. Whatever is out—the good or the bad—it seems to communicate, comes from whatever is in. The terrifying physicality of the pandemic has been a result, in the end, of humankind’s interior thought processes and choices. And the external world that we will see outside the window tomorrow, too, will depend on our internal order or disorder today.

Temporally now we are before another passage, opening and threshold. The new year—2021. And it is difficult to imagine the course of events that will unfold. Allergic reactions to vaccines, mutated strains of the virus, new hotspots—the drama goes on. A big question mark still hovers over our social lives, our professional lives. In this phase of continued uncertainty, may we take a moment to meditate upon the divisions explored by the artworks above—between here and there, between us and the world—and arrive at our own precious existential answers.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Aristotle’s Four Causes and How they Relate to Art

A sculptor at work in his studio. (Credit: Pixabay)

A particular topic that has remained very clearly in my mind since my MA days is Aristotle’s Four Causes. Change, motion, contingency, the coming into being of phenomena (and the mechanics behind)—these are subjects that one will find time and again in the ancient Greek philosopher’s voluminous and wide-ranging oeuvre. It is his treatises Physics and Metaphysics wherein he articulates an exhaustive account of “causation”.

The Four Causes are all-embracing in their application and provide a framework within which the proper value of things (from the entire cosmos to a tiny blade of grass) or acts (morality, art-making, virtually anything that is done) could be ascertained or decided. They are, namely:

  1. The Material Cause (the substance out of which or from which a phenomenon is made)
  2. The Formal Cause (the design or structure of the phenomenon)
  3. The Final Cause (the purpose or end towards which the phenomenon is directed or for the sake of which it is created)
  4. The Efficient Cause (the agent or condition that brings the phenomenon into being)

If we consider Michelangelo’s David through this four-fold lens—(a) the material cause would be marble, (b) the formal cause is David the Biblical figure, also a young athletic man, (c) the final cause would be the decoration of the Cathedral of Florence and (d) the efficient cause here is the act of sculpting, also Michelangelo himself.

Close-up of Michelangelo’s David (1501-04), displayed at Accademia Gallery, Florence. (Credit: pickpik.com)

When I think about late modern and contemporary art, and also visual culture broadly through the decades, I feel that somehow “formal” and “final” causes have gradually faded away from the practice of creativity.

The “efficient” and “material” are still around, that is, it is always important as to who has made the art and out of what. But (a) what exactly has been put up on exhibition in what kind of appearance or contour and (b) what are its consequences going to be on the psychologies of those who witness it—I am not sure if these matters are given enough thought today. Sure modern/contemporary art and visual culture have great scope for innovation—and much of it can be terrifically thought-provoking—yet somehow its practitioners find it too convenient to not take the trouble of deeply engaging with the two aforementioned issues.

A very common example of contemporary abstract painting retrieved from Google search that may be taken seriously and easily found on the walls of commercial galleries.

A loss of “formal cause” means that anything today is capable of being passed as very serious art meriting gallery representation or museum acquisition as long as the artist wants to do it that way, no further justification is required —think random splashes of colour on a canvas, an empty room with lights going on and off, a few words in neon. Such fairly undemanding works would have been absolutely unthinkable in medieval or Renaissance West when Aristotelian thought had a greater grip on intellectual circles and wherein cathedrals or manuscripts or frescoes would take years of meticulous research and precise effort. Today the standard for the “formal” constitution of artworks is entirely fluid, no fixed criteria remain.

Additionally, a loss of “final cause” means a lot of visual content is generated for a fleeting moment and within limited (immediately capitalistic) logic with a disregard for its long-term outcomes for the society in general. Modelling and advertising agencies—and the portrayal of women—come to my mind straightaway.

It is hard to have a sensible discussion on social media as to the repercussions of certain depictions of females. Where does the line between liberty/empowerment and objectification/enslavement lie? What is a marketer (of lingerie or cosmetics) eventually achieving by producing countless monotonous images of young women of a particular physique who are, so often, made to look as a mere collection of parts, devoid of personality, agency, thought processes, opinions, even emotions of their own?

Results for a random Google search on “Instagram models”. What’s the point of these images—produced in tons? In what way are they helping womankind as a whole evolve? Could there be more meaningful ways of exploring femininity, confidence, achievement, fashion, luxury and style? Such questions that probe a bit more are suppressed as soon as they are raised because they are perceived as attacks on the liberty of the subjects to “be themselves”.

What effects are these depictions having on young men or school-going girls? What message is it sending them about the capabilities of womanhood? It is extremely difficult to raise these questions in a civilised dialogue today as the wild individual will of the marketer reigns supreme and it won’t take any responsibility apart from profit-making for itself. It also quickly deems any suggestion (to adhere to a different level of quality) an assault upon its freedom of expression. Today the “final” rationale behind visual content isn’t an area many care to explore.

What Aristotle’s Four Causes have to offer is a more thoughtful, richer, challenging, multi-dimensional approach to the production of art or visual content. The philosopher affords recognition to the creator and the substance used. With that, through his emphasis on design and structure, he wants us to think more carefully about how things should look and be presented—so that they can be truly pleasing to the eyes of others and not just cater to own purely subjective whims. Furthermore, with his insistence on teleology, he encourages us to be more reflective about the gradual and ultimate meaning of what is produced—so that it can be genuinely useful and stimulating to the mind. These are suitable correctives for our culture that can be big on self-worship and reckless urgency.

Keeping Aristotle’s framework in mind, the artists and content creators among us may ask ourselves questions of this kind: (1). I am a painter who wants to explore humankind’s relationship with the natural world without being too figurative. Are the strokes and symbols that I am using definite enough to be identified by the viewer or are my themes getting lost and turning incomprehensible in a lack of proper outlines and colours, (2). I am an art/culture/entertainment journalist with a considerable social media presence. How many stories that I am posting tell people something that they haven’t already heard before in some way or another? Say, instead of a banal coverage of the latest Hollywood divorce (which the world does not need to know) could I inform my followers of some beautiful classic of world cinema the experience of which might delight them for years?

And so on…

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Grit and passion in a successful art practice

David Palliser, Mining, 2020, 138 x 153 cm

We welcome artist and teacher, David Palliser to share his art knowledge in this MAC newsletter, beginning with his discussion of a Gareth Sansom painting from the 2017 NGV retrospective. David, who has won the respect of many of our students whilst teaching abstraction at MAC, has committed some of his observations into writing. The article gives some great insights into Sansom’s work.

Over time, I’ve had several conversations with David about the ‘under-appreciated’ quality of perseverance in art practice. David once used another word which I also like, calling this same quality, ‘doggedness’. For me ‘doggedness’ reflects the act of painting with determination while being blindly stuck, progressing slowly and sometimes painfully. Sometimes it seem that we only advance when we finally abandon the known, so as to move forward into the unknown. This is reflected in Edgar Degas’ comment, “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” It takes grit to persist to a place where having exhausted what one knows, a door then opens to new possibilities. It’s a desperate act which we undertake as we seek to be a part of the creation of something entirely new. David has described it like this,

“Making something that has never existed before is exciting. We don’t often get it to feel right from the beginning- especially painting. Un-peeling the layers of what we have managed to put down, the picture demands that we give over to the process. You have to be tenacious.”

David’s own endless struggle with the aesthetic vagaries of painting abstraction attests to a life lived to create great art through sheer perseverance. Looking on, I know that David’s contribution to painting is significant but it has not come easily.

There exists in creative practice an inherent and constant need to push through to the next level, attain the next resolution from fragments of ideas, influences and aspirations that assail us. David has described the, “sheer perseverance and final understanding that failing and flailing are part and parcel of continually regenerating in the studio”. This rings true to me- that failure is an inherent part of a process of creating something new.  Faith in the practice, that persistence can build inherent skill, that each failure, is the foundation of a subsequent success- building something new, is to my mind a beautiful description of the creative process.

These aspirations can of course be shut down so as to pursue a more comfortable existence but many of us have concluded that not knowing what could have been, is too big a price to pay for comfort. So we toil, with no guarantee of financial reward, or that we will recognised, or that we will be remembered. We hope that our loved ones will understand why we had to do this and most of us do contribute and maintain responsible lives. It takes grit to do this for a lifetime. For an aspiring or professional artist in Australia, the numbers regarding income are sobering. Salt in the wounds also, are the extraordinary art prices and reputations touted in our media feeds. As Tulika Bahadur describes in her MAC article, Privilege in the Art World—and Two Ways to Circumvent it, success in an art industry of high prices and big names is fickle and in no way relates to talent. Tulika does offer two ways forward though- which I recommend you read.

A combination of grit and passion have also been described by professor of psychology Angela Duckworth as being the basis of success. Duckworth states,

“A bias towards finishing what you begin rather than leaving it half finished, is actually characteristic of some of the most successful people in the world,”

Duckworth also explains, while perseverance, hard work and resilience in the face of adversity are the best predictors of grit and therefore of success, there is also a need for passion. It is passion with grit that get us through the difficult seasons. It seems that it’s not talent rather our passion that will best facilitate eventual success.

There has to be a faith in the practice, that creativity is not capricious and elusive, rather, in searching, we will find. This faith is echoed in comments I have heard made by author Elizabeth Gilbert when she discusses the Roman understanding of the muses, as that which inspire, not from within, but from without. Creativity is bigger than us and it is not self generated, rather something we link in to- receive. I recently returned to reading, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron which shares with Gilbert, an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of our creativity. Both these writers point us to a place beyond our machinations and supplications to a place which has at its core a sense of provision.

While grit and perseverance keep us returning to work, we need this to be driven by passion to keep us creative and productive. Passion enables the joy of creating to continue in the midst of a working routine. Cameron warns that for an artist, grounding their self image in military discipline can be dangerous. She explains,

“That part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined, automaton, functioning from willpower… Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.”

Creative success comes through grit and perseverance grounded in passion and enthusiasm. Passion is a commitment, perhaps an act of faith, which is enacted when we accept our creativity, yielding to it, knowing that it is part of a more immense creativity. In short, we are provided for, if we believe in our creativity.

I left my job as an electrical technician at the age of 23 to pursue my dream of studying art. It took till that age to believe that if I took a step towards the vision that tugged at my heart, I would experience provision. As it turns out, that provision was far more complex and elaborate than I could have imagined. Had I not left my previous career, I may never have had the extraordinary creative journey I have had, including, meeting those I have met and realising that not only an artist lay within me, but a teacher also.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Gareth Sansom – A Forensic Possibility 2010

Gareth Sansom A forensic possibility, 2010; Oil, enamel and collaged digital photographs on linen; 183 x 244 cm; enquire
Gareth Sanson, A forensic possibility, 2010
Source: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

From the dense and wonderful Gareth Sansom survey exhibition at the NGV in 2017, A Forensic Possibility was one of my favourite works. Gary is a friend, mentor, and adventurous spirit that I have had the pleasure and agony of knowing since I started post-grad studies at the VCA in 1983. For me this painting shows a coming together of Gary’s searching intelligence, wit, appropriation of worlds and styles, craziness, fluent painterly technique combining a huge vocabulary of ways of putting paint down and an encyclopaedic sense of the history of painting.

A Forensic Possibility is spatially multidimensional with all its excavations pushing constantly back up to the surface. If you half close your eyes it appears almost black and white with a few blue and orange blobs and a hard zap of yellow at the top. The purple vertical smeary triangle thing harmonises the yellows with the inky dark blues. One sensation is always challenged by something mocking or at odds with it, such as the intentionally clumsy naïve drawing on viscous white threatened by the ultra sharp shards around the perimeter in their corporate yellows and array of flat office greys . The sharp white fractures, themselves a pure white abyss, on the far left lean with superiority into the brick red smear with its decidedly hand drawn rectangles that then echo the clunky steps in cool blues- a rhythmic metamorphosis with sensations of sharp control , badly lit stairwells and fleshy paint.

Highly focused, odd and intense, wrong handed with intent- what more could you want? Perhaps the loopy sausage stairs traversing the canvas, up or down who knows? So much pleasure from not knowing. It is essential to realise that Gary uses the “casual” but this is not a casual painting. The elements gain drama and the essential tension through their interdependency. The bigger truth is that paintings can contain anything, high and low. The artist strives to establish relationships between the parts. This is where the art seems to seep in.

Image: Gareth Sansom: Transformer exhibition at NGV in 2017
Source: Broadsheet

In the flesh much of the paint is luscious, physical, energised to a variety of pitches. This picture enjoys its own wild ride. Compared to many other pictures of Gary’s this resists a central focus- my eye can wander at will. Apart from the steps there is no definite image to hold onto. I love the list of things I initially thought was an absurd shopping list but apparently derives from a film’s murder victim’s forensic report. Each word in the wonky stack forms a clear and simple image with a tactile resonance in the viewer’s mind. Paradoxically the painting has almost no definite visual images….unless we look down at the bottom section and discover small collaged photos of the artist caught seemingly in the throes of some mad existential play. Nice to note the perfect match of the masked figure with arm resting on the edge of the modernist square complete with soulful drips in the right bottom corner. The switch of languages is deft and exciting.

This painting is an accumulation of things found in the process of making. It is not possible to plan such an adventure. The paint and possibilities of space, image and colour lead the way and the artist follows. Light is the great activating force. The putting down of elements in turn creates the picture’s own appetite for development or elimination and then finding another way. I see Gary opening and descending one trapdoor then finding another. The painting establishes its own desires, the artist must submit.

Windows, gaps, apertures, perimeters, an accumulation of lushly painted grammar never getting to one point but many. Time is elongated and materialised into the picture. The clues keep appearing yet an answer is very happily not revealed. For me, Gary’s lifelong passion for cinema seems to come to a palpable moment in this picture, especially with the pitch black surround- the painting like a bright white burst onto the cinema screen before the celluloid jams and melts in the projector -the audience collectively catch an image, of what they don’t know, in the dazzle.

Written by David Palliser.

Privilege in the Art World—and Two Ways to Circumvent it

“The system is rigid and hostile to new entrants who may not have the privilege of personally knowing an established player in the market.” (Credit: pxfuel.com)

Art is an industry unlike any other. It operates in strange, funny ways. It is an unregulated market wherein there are no ultimate definite criteria as to the worth of works. The value of a painting and sculpture depends, at the end of the day, not so much on talent (which is a notoriously slippery subjective term) but on the PR machinery of the artist or dealer. Talent—to the extent it can be universally identified—certainly has its role, yes, but prices are determined more by which dealer randomly discovers which artist and which collector randomly discovers which dealer, and how much he/she is willing to pay for what. Whichever individual or platform somehow ends up attracting money can invest further and capture space in the media to reach aspiring collectors, and consequently, keep generating more sales.

Works such as these by superstar artists like Takashi Murakami (back) and Kaws (front) appeal to wealthy individuals just starting off their collecting journey sometimes simply because they have been bought by other wealthy people before. (Source: ToyQube)

The current situation is that, globally, the art world is run by a handful of megagalleries (Gagosian, Perrotin, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin, Pace, a few more) and auction houses (mostly Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips) that regularly find themselves witnessing record-breaking numbers. They decide what will be displayed in important museums. A few artists (dead and alive) hover at the top—e.g., Jeff Koons, Kaws, Andy Warhol, Basquiat—and we find their names repeated countless times to the point of tedium.

But the fact is where value—material (of money) and intangible (of status)—has been once accumulated, there it remains. I see new rich millennials on Instagram who are keen on collecting art. They too simply go for somebody like Kaws or Takashi Murakami, whatever is readily available and already famous in affluent circles—having no great awareness or knowledge of the variety of art that is being produced worldwide. They do not have the time or motivation to search for some pioneering First Nations Canadian painter or a thought-provoking Cambodian sculptor or an important Ethiopian photographer.

The system is rigid and hostile to new entrants who may not have the privilege of personally knowing an established player in the market. Those emerging artists who do gain quick access to big galleries are very often relatives or acquaintances of seasoned art collectors themselves and come from backgrounds that can allow them the financial means to overnight promote content on social media and acquire a hundred thousand followers. If the work is mediocre, it doesn’t matter; it may still end up selling. Social clout—gathered on the basis of birth—rapidly turns into commercial clout.

That is the story at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom are thousands upon thousands of galleries that produce too much art, may represent enormous amounts of talent and hard work, but are barely able to gain visibility and buyers and build value for their artists—for lack of resources that can fuel the required level of PR. Rich people who can buy art prefer to approach the big, well-known names for advice and direction. As a result, at the bottom, there’s too much supply but little demand. Lower- and mid-level galleries that cannot guarantee sales, find it difficult to survive and have small rosters of represented artists are themselves regularly flooded with pitches.

This can sound very depressing and frustrating to gifted, diligent artists who have no prior connections in the industry and inherited wealth (for advertising). How can they make their work stand out and catch attention? It is not easy to break into the system, even at the very bottom. And what if you do not even have a good BFA or MFA from a reputed college?

I think those who exist outside the domain of privilege may start by opening profiles on various online art selling platforms (e.g., Saatchi Art, Artmajeur) and, of course, post regular content on social media (even if you can’t pay for followers, you never know who might someday find you). But beyond these, two strategies could be helpful, to an extent, in circumventing the unyielding and non-inclusive structure of the art world.

1. Expand your Network (but without Hard-Selling)

It is very important that artists take networking seriously. The more the number of people who are aware of your existence, the greater the chance that you will be able to sell more art. But one must be careful with communication. As I wrote in my article on COVID-19, you can introduce yourself to people without asking them to “buy” your work (or to represent you). Power dynamics in human relationships are extremely sensitive. If you are the unsolicited one and want to approach an influential individual (a dealer, collector, curator, publisher or a well-off businessman who is also an art enthusiast), direct and loud language will normally not serve your purpose. Hard-selling can be a huge put-off in an overcrowded world. A better way to make yourself known is to pursue another course of action/thought first and slowly reveal your creative identity. Dealers who are too loaded with pitches will give you more respect and attention if, instead of directly messaging them, you somehow befriend somebody close to them (who then shows your work to them). If there’s a businessman or cultural influencer you want to approach, find an article or video of theirs—then email them saying you enjoyed it and why the subject interests you. Leave your website and social media profiles in the signature. Chances of receiving a reply go up with soft-selling.

It is said that your network is your net worth—artists ought to take this seriously. (Credit: pixabay.com)

2. Merge your Art with a Functional Object or Experience

If wealthy potential art buyers and successful gallerists are not in your sphere, there are other avenues through which artistic careers could be built and advanced. These are certainly not easy, may require research, careful negotiation and some investment—but they can allow your skills to be presented before a good number of people.

If you find that people are unwilling to buy art because they do not want to put money in items they cannot use in a tangible manner—impress your art upon functional objects. Who doesn’t need mugs, suitcases, dresses, furniture? It may be a little difficult to find the right partners or platforms that allow this but I know artists who have build great businesses over time with such an approach. There are websites that turn art into fabric, either on-demand or with built-in marketplaces (e.g.digitalfabrics.com.au and shopvida.com, respectively). Finally, I feel that artistic knowledge could also be merged with “experiences”, not only objects. An experience that an artist may sell could be an evening for a group that includes a painting class and drinking of wine. Artists may also collaborate with professionals in tourism to act as cultural guides and with mental health professionals who administer art therapy.

There are many routes that one can adopt if one has an entrepreneurial spirit and is open enough to not be dictated by fixed notions of how an artist must use their talent and make money. If admission into the hallowed echelons of an art world run by a small elite is blocked for an artist, rather than being discouraged, they can consider themselves free to innovate. Far from taking one away from the desired goal of having artworks sold, these activities will increase its odds as they will bring exposure to the artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.