Michelle Ramin | in real life

Michelle Ramin, 'Mona Lisa IRL' [Oil on Canvas, 26" x 38", 2016]

Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University and received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has appeared in New American Paintings, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, Beautiful Decay, 580 Split, and is included in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of Ramin’s work opened at the Duplex Gallery in Oregon on 2 June 2016.


Williams: I was in the Louvre probably decades before you, and before the space in which the ‘Mona Lisa’ is hung was renovated. Nothing important about the experience appears to have changed. There were no ‘smartphones’ then, but there were lots of cameras. A large group of people, which seemed to be moving as a pack from room to room, ignored every other picture in the Denon wing. Your painting, ‘Mona Lisa IRL’, does a number of interesting things with this scene, which must now be familiar to most tourists who visit Paris. To my mind, the most important thing you do is confidently announce that paintings are as good or better than photographs at contemplating our now surreal relationship with images and art. The virtual ‘Mona Lisa’, one we might see on the Louvre website, is somehow more real than the ‘Mona Lisa’ in real life.

Michelle Ramin
Michelle Ramin

Ramin: Yeah, I think that’s interesting—the idea of the ‘Virtual Mona Lisa’ vs. Mona Lisa ‘IRL’. She’s more famous as a replicated digital or printed image than as an actual painting. When I got into the room, I kinda stopped caring about the painting itself. In that moment, I was able to check it off my tourist list of things to see. I didn’t get very close and could honestly barely make out that it was the ‘Mona Lisa’, except for the huge crowd around her. It mattered to me more to be experiencing the way in which people experience her rather than getting close to the actual painting and observing the brush strokes, colors used, composition, size, etc. I studied all of that in school but all that knowledge didn’t mean a thing when I got into that room. It was then that I realised I wanted my next body of work to be about crowds of people observing famous pieces of art. It’s interesting to me that some people find the need to check certain famous pieces off of a list—as in the Louvre brochure—while others spend minutes or sometimes hours studying the same piece. It’s like this at concerts, too, and other cultural institutions and happenings. Something about hype and fame—the bragging rights involved—that really draws people, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Then again, who am I to judge how people should and should not experience something?

Williams: Digital photography has become the standard method of certifying experience in a way that seems more reliable and objective than memory… until the drive fails or your cloud is hacked. Your paintings of subjects inside the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are also about the spectacle of art and the hype surrounding it. To experience this as a tourist or art lover is one thing, but artists experience the spectacle and hype of the art world in a different way, as I suspect you are finding now you have several exhibitions of your own coming up.

Ramin: Hype is a very real and intimidating phenomenon, especially now with the advent of social media. As young as I am (thirty-four), I still remember the days without computers, cell phones, internet, etc. Word of mouth and the printed word were the only way to get information out there. Now, there are so many ways—so many websites, blogs, apps, etc.—I can’t keep up, nor do I want to. The popular way to virtually socialise changes constantly. A week out from the opening of my solo exhibition ‘Jet Lag’, at Duplex Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and I find myself full of anxiety over whether or not I sent press releases to the right people. Who are the ‘right’ people? Even a few years ago, it was so much clearer. All I’ve been seeing this week is an ocean of faceless art blogs and Instagram accounts. I find myself feeling very much like I did in the congested museums of Paris—alone in a crowded room, and very overwhelmed. This is all part of the process, of course. The art making is the easy part for an artist. It’s everything else that is so difficult.

Williams: The recent gallery paintings are unusual in your body of work because they have not edited out the architecture and environment of the subjects. In much of your other work, for example ‘Ben and Travis Find a Tube’ [Watercolor on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2015], the setting is missing and only the subject and action is left. Something that may have started out being a photograph or a memory, or both, ends up being a pictorial distillation. Can you tell me something about your editorial process, about how you decide what gets left in and what gets cut out, about how you decide what your real subject matter is?

Ramin: I’ve always been a very focused person. I have a tendency to focus so much on one thing that I miss all the details surrounding the thing. Most of my work over the past five years has been intentionally editing out the background or surroundings of the figures—mostly because I, myself, only really cared about the subjects and their actions. The rest seemed superfluous. I wanted the viewers to see what I was seeing, which was the interaction and relationships between the figures, and nothing else. My newest body of work is about something a little different—still about people, their interactions with each other, but also their interaction with the unique space that constitutes a museum. There’s so much weight to a museum—historically, of course, but also architecturally. It’s contextually important for me to include this unique environment in the paintings. I didn’t want to introduce backgrounds again until I knew for sure it provided something important and relevant to the works’ content.

Williams: Some of your other projects, from 2011 and 2012—the installations ‘Mask Booth’ and ‘Try it on’—appear to invite or challenge people to try on something that in Australia we call a ‘balaclava’. It makes everyone look like a criminal, or like they’re on a polar expedition. What is this about?

Ramin: When I was in graduate school, I took up the mask, or balaclava, as a multi-layered, politically-charged symbol representing various identities. I used this metaphor as a way to discuss hidden identities, subcontexts, in each of our personalities. By putting on the mask, one takes on a new and very different identity. The body of work relating to masks centered around private vs. public personas and the existence of this doubling in everyone. This theme can be extended to include social media personas and public branding as well. At the time, 2011–2012, the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area was ramping up, the punk band Pussy Riot was very active politically and the film ‘Spring Breakers’ had come out. When I began the mask series, these cultural icons weren’t present, but by the time I was in the midst of the series they were. A form of the collective unconscious, I suppose. It seemed like the balaclava was on everyone’s minds, so it felt like a very relevant representation of that moment, especially following the 2008 recession and being an election year here in the U.S.

Williams: Yes, and by the time this zeitgeist filters through to your watercolor and pencil drawings, something else has happened. The hidden, masked self is perfectly domesticated and comfortable on the sofa. ‘Three aliases’ [Colored Pencil on Paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2011] is both funny and disturbing.

Artists have to be concerned about what other people think. At one end of the spectrum it’s ‘Will they like my work?’, and at the other it’s ‘Will they understand what it means?’ Are you a worrier? Are you on the side of authenticity or on the side of sincerity?

Ramin: I am absolutely a worrier! —In all aspects of my life. At this point in my career I care very much about what people think and how the work will be received. I want it to be accessible to everyone but I also want it to function on a higher level, where artists, critics, historians, etc., can gather more information from the work. I don’t want to choose sides. I want it all, really. Doesn’t everyone?

Williams: Maybe. The path we take to get to where we are seems less important at the start than when you get to near the end. That’s the difference between being thirty-four and fifty-eight.

We’ve touched on how technology now mediates how we experience art. This means that art is made by people who have seen more art than ever before. What have you been looking at recently? What have you discovered?

Ramin: The last art I went to see was at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and California College of the Arts (CCA) MFA thesis exhibitions. They are the annual displays of graduate students’ work. I love checking out the work of emerging artists coming out of graduate art programs. A lot of the work is missing steps but some is extraordinary. There’s such a refreshing feeling to young (in career, not necessarily age) artists’ work: the best of the showings can be invigorating and inspiring, like Laura Rokas and Robin Crofut-Brittingham. The worst is still really intriguing because it’s candid in its failure: no censorship, just letting it all hang out. I appreciate that on a lot of levels. That’s what graduate school is for… Experimentation and failure: something that should be encouraged more in post-graduate work and, honestly, in our daily lives.

Related links on other sites

Conversations

  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Santiago Cañón Valencia | interview - Santiago Cañón Valencia is a cellist. An emerging solo artist of great technical brilliance, he was born in Bogotá, Colombia, completed his bachelor degree with James Tennant at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and advanced studies with Andrés Díaz at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Winner of many awards, he has performed with orchestras in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, and Hungary.
  • David Hensel | interview - “I cheered on reading Brian Sewell’s scathing article about the Summer Exhibition, because I read it returning from going to the preview, where I’d hoped to find my own sculpture. Instead what I found was the empty base, without the sculpture. We know the art market prefers obscure art as somehow more advanced, and anything …
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | Art~natomist - Artnatomia is a tremendously clever use of Flash and a great educational tool. It is the inspirational work of art teacher and artist, Victoria Contreras Flores, who, with a contrary view of the demands of the art market, has decided to concentrate on using new tools and media to express herself and teach her students. Her …

Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence

Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.


Williams: Victoria, it has been about ten years since ARTNATOMY. It is a beautiful and practical tool for students, artists and illustrators. Has it been doing well, and getting the attention it deserves?

Contreras Flores: Yes, ARTNATOMY will celebrate its ten-year anniversary in September [2016]. I’m preparing a celebration! My little virtual pedagogical toy fulfilled and exceeded all my expectations: it is still selling an offline version, although it remains free online for students. It has also led to derivative commissioned works, interesting collaborations and international contacts and friends. It has exceeded the user target I predicted and the application is avowed useful not only by artists but by psychologists, neurologists, plastic surgeons, coaches—even criminologists. It has received international awards, been featured in magazines and cited in books and academic papers. I could not be more satisfied. For it to be a more popular site and tool I would have to overcome my laziness for business and social media marketing. But I have other interests, too.

A screenshot of ARTNATOMY by Victoria Contreras Flores.
A screenshot of ARTNATOMY by Victoria Contreras Flores.

Williams: You refer often in your correspondence, sometimes by way of apology, to what you call your ‘dilettante-ism’. To be an amateur is not such a bad thing. But you have made it your style to be a professional non-specialist, a dabbler who is also a discoverer of new things. I can see an advantage in this, if a way must be found to pay the bills. It also means, does it not, that some of the brief artistic commitments do not work out the way you planned?

Contreras Flores: Let’s see… First, I distrust works that ‘need explanations’. I produce objects, works, music that do not belong to the realm of language. They can simply thrill you or not, make you feel, identify with them, or not. When a work comes to us, we do not mind the author. I am much worse than my best works and I should not matter.

Victoria Contreras Flores
Victoria Contreras Flores

I understand, since I am also a spectator, other people have an interest in the person behind the art. When I have to introduce myself, to define myself, to be honest, I can only do it from the dilettante-ism which is neither more nor less than the result of my curious nature and my heterogeneous interests. I tend to emphasise—not in a cynical way—I work hard and humbly in learning everything I try. I’m a professional player. I accept me as ‘numerous’ and enjoy it. In this way, I think people understand why my production is so diverse.

This makes me an outsider within the art market. It is a sign of the times because ‘experts’ frown on unskilled labor, but I am sure that culture is the antithesis of specialisation. In any case, in me, this is not a theoretical starting point, not an a priori, but the result that I work by passion and curiosity: there is never much planned and the result always surprises me, and in a positive way.

None of my inventions, it is true, manage alone to pay the bills.  I have to accept commissioned work such as programming, or teaching. There are other costs, too: being free of children, luxury and property. I prefer to live this way to dedicate my life and efforts to make a business from my creations. I do not serve as a businessman. I did not choose that profession. I could, perhaps, get better economic results devoting all my efforts to a single thing … but only by being as bored and as sad as if I were working in a bank or living in a jail forged with my own hands.

Williams: … “Mientras voy, y vengo, por el camino me entretengo” [“I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy”] is the phrase you have mentioned. It seems like a good philosophy, and one way to prepare for any surprise from the Nietzschean demon.

Your interest in putting new technology to work in artistic projects appears to have led to the creation of some beautiful necklaces. They are made with 3D-printing, I think. The project combines the decorative, the literary, and a little eroticism.

Contreras Flores: They were created playing, by mixing things I love: reading, calligraphy, typography, arabesque, and ajouré. I suppose I am not immune to the fact that my birthland mixes seven centuries of Muslim heritage with Spanish baroque. I design working on paper, getting a single, quick piece that must be legible. After that, I order the laser-cut from a supplier, and finally I hand-mount it. This is one of those inventions for those I would love to find a producer. I am interested in the field of jewellery because it mixes again l’objet d’art and applied art and allows sculpture in small sizes, experimenting very freely with materials and shapes.

I hope I will not be lost in translation but I am flattered to be related to ‘the smiling and playful’ Nietzsche. He aims and encourages us to be free from time-calculation—the furthest thing from a megalomaniac—facing our ephemeral insignificance should help us to live more freely, more calmly, and to enjoy more. In this way, too, I am just an ‘amateur’ who will die learning. So, I am glad if you find some eroticism—another of the simple good things of life—in my necklaces, which I could not prescind from formal exuberance to transmit their passionate messages.

The phrase ‘I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy’ has a good dose of black humor, by reducing life—‘el camino’—to a short, and not very serious, trip. This idea is also in the Spanish reflexive verb ‘entretenerse’, which is more like ‘to amuse oneself’.

Nietzsche is a key philosopher for me. It is interesting you mention him though we have never spoken about him before. People sometimes refer to Nietzsche as a severe, permanently angry, megalomaniac. Very different from the Nietzsche I know. I am flattered if you associate, at some point, some of my statements with the Nietzsche of ‘gaia scienza’: ‘superman’ is an ideal of courage to face life, which is facing death;  active thinking, not-condescending. A ‘logos’ strengthened in the consciousness of its insignificance, should manifest itself in a rigorous ethical demand, auto-immune to self-deception and, paradoxically, liberate us from false responsibilities and illegitimate ambitions. This makes life light, encouraging us to live in a more lucid, more laughing, and more vital way…

I will say that the human is my only theme and my inexhaustible source. The senses are instruments of knowledge for me (in Spanish, ‘sentido’, can mean ‘sense’, ‘felt’ or ‘meaning’ ) and I’m glad if you perceive any kind of sensuality in my work.

Williams: Yes, there is something about the choice of quotations, and the writers, that invites that interpretation. There is also the simple fact that in order to read the text of the necklaces it is necessary to gaze at the bare neck of the wearer. Imagining this moment invites erotic interpretation.

When you wrote to me of ‘the brief trip by which we amuse ourselves,’ I was reading The Gay Science. The allegory of the demon is a striking idea. I wonder why it is not taught in schools. (It may be because it is a dangerous idea; and perhaps because we now have a complicated relationship with the character that Nietzsche has become in our imaginations.) I am thinking of ‘eternal recurrence’, now, not in terms of its meaning to our isolated selves but as either rebuke or praise of the way we treat other people. Am I prepared for the violence, judgments, and wrongs committed against others to be endured, by them, over and over again?

In Australia it seems a majority of the voting population supports harsh measures—I would say inhumane measures—to prevent asylum-seekers reaching our shores.

Contreras Flores: Valencia is a wide-open mediterranean sea town, but there are no boats of people arriving on the beach. The refugee situation remains ‘someone else’s problem’, in Valencia as for most of Europe. I could not be more ashamed by our politicians—applying inhuman laws on our behalf, fomenting fear and nationalist discourses that only conceal ignorance and fear of ‘the other’ and the unknown. As a political subject—as we all are—I try to ‘Think globally, act locally’, I am involved in civil associations, and personally try to fight with my humble weapons, which are just pencils and thinking. It is always insufficient.

Williams: What are you working on now, Victoria?

Contreras Flores: I have been focused on music, learning amazing software that allows me to record and produce my own music with an acceptable quality. In the realm of soundtracks and music for shorts films I collaborate in projects by talented people and continue to mix all the disciplines I am interested in—films, literature, images, and music.

Contreras Flores’s necklaces can be bought directly online from her website, where there is also a short list of retailers, information about her experiments with 3D-printers, and other design objects for sale.

Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.)

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.

Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”

Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant. Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art. Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive. Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time. It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea. Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.”  I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means. What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien. Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.

With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…

Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.

The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.) The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers. Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself. To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe. Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions. Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?

I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer. Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing. Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief. I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy. At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face. The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).

Asylum Seeker Resource CentreMore information about refugees (links)

Not a threepenny opera

“Why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?”


Toner-gate, Victoria’s little arts scandal, revealed some interesting facts about government and administration of the arts.

Firstly, public sector employees working in the arts believe that going to arts events is “a fundamental obligation of their professional life”. Penny Hutchinson, Director of Arts Victoria, rejects the idea that free tickets to arts events should be registered as gifts. The Ombudsman concluded, “a lack of management and auditing at Arts Victoria contributed to a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

Secondly, the Director of Arts Victoria told the Ombudsman that department employees keep a diary of their attendance at arts events. However, neither the Arts Victoria website nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) annual reports of Arts Victoria’s activities contain statistical information gathered from employees or arts organisations about the numbers of tickets given away, for this or any other purpose. Detailed statistical information about attendance at arts events comes mainly from Australian Bureau of Statistics data from census interviews. The Arts Victoria website is an analytical wasteland. Sure, you can find out how much money the government spent and on what projects. When percentages and dollar figures are provided, they all point to the munificence of the public purse and the crucial role of the arts in the economy. They are statistics served up like comfort food to make the public sleep.

Third, though Toner-gate is trivial compared to other public sector governance problems (annual expenditure on ICT in Victoria is around $1.6 billion), the numbers are not trivial to artists themselves—especially artists, like writers and poets, who are not part of the ‘color and movement’ industry. Chris Flynn, who organises writers’ events in Melbourne, posted on Facebook the day the Toner-gate news broke, “Thank God I didn’t get those Arts Victoria grants after all—turns out they needed 80 grand to buy toner.” I suspect this reaction would be mild among writers.

The ABC’s comedy series ‘Angry Boys’ was viewed by “just” 569,000 viewers on Wednesday 15 June 2001, when it went head-to-head with broadcast of a state of origin rugby union match. Chris Lilley, the comedic artist in question, must think that such contests are a harsh proving ground.

Go the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) website and look at the 2010 annual report and you will find that in 2010 the total audience for 2010 was 181,387. The total “paid attendance” was just 121,330. It’s not clear from the report whether any of these figures includes free concerts in the park (40,000 in attendance) or other outreach programs. Using the two available numbers, 33 per cent of seats at concerts are given away.

The Victorian Opera annual report includes the tantalising remark that audience figures are prepared according the standard Arts Victoria methodology. Gosh. Arts Victoria has a methodology for counting audience numbers? —Its annual report does not say what it is. Neither does its website. And this is strange because performing arts publications make so many remarks about audience numbers, it would be handy to know if there is a ‘special’ way of counting them.

The VO says that the total audience in 2010 was 41,799. This number includes dress rehearsals, educational and promotional events, and even 6,500 at free concert in The Bowl with the MSO. Leave all free seats in, and any others that may or may not be free, and divide it into the total of government grants (including a small sum from the federal funding body), and it appears that every single seat at an opera event is subsidised to the tune of $91. This figure is closer to $150 if you exclude seats given away for whatever reason; but, because we don’t know how many seats are filled by arts administrators for the purposes of “professional obligation”, there is no way of telling how high the figure goes. To be fair, the numbers should look better if one took into account that public funds also pay for modest administration, marketing and other expenses.

None of this even touches on the extraordinarily generous donations received by the operatic arts by various kinds of patrons, though it is interesting to note that the VO annual report has two not-quite-full pages of these donors’ names, some of whom gave over $20,000 and at least one (I wonder who?) who came up with $2.

The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.
The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.

And the numbers were especially healthy in 2010 because of the spectacular success of Kurt Weil’s ‘Threepenny Opera’. More than ten thousand people attended 22 performances, about two and half times more than the next most attended opera and about five times more than most.

Why is the writer beating up on the euterpean muse? (I didn’t even look at the statistics for the ballet. My pure heart would be too beaten up!)

Arts Victoria’s and DPC’s websites used to bulge with business plans and targets related to the ‘Creative Capacity +’ framework for arts development in Victoria, a document that, now, even Google can’t find in the Orwellian memory hole of documents published on the Internet.1 I used to look into them to wonder, as I do now after Toner-gate, how little light these numbers, goals and performance measures throw on the ironies of arts funding.

Why, if nearly a third of seats at some concerts are unpaid for, is there no detailed information about how the seats are filled?

Why, if public taxes pay for astonishingly expensive artistic productions, are these productions not televised?

Why, considering apparent waste and inefficiency, can no public funds be found to support a poetry recitation prize for Victorian secondary school students? And why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?

Why, if arts administrators can have free tickets to attend arts events, can we not provide the same advantages to artists themselves? I could, within a week if asked, provide a list of several hundred creative writers whose artistic education would be enhanced by nights at the opera and in our concert halls and theatres, myself included.

Penny Hutchinson’s tortured responses to the Ombudsman’s report demonstrate, amongst many other things, that she has no imagination. Maybe that’s what it costs you when “professional obligation” takes you out for a night on the town.

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  1. The document can still be found in Pandora, the government repository of stale, public websites: Creative Capacity +

Victoria Contreras Flores | Art~natomist

Artnatomia is a tremendously clever use of Flash and a great educational tool. It is the inspirational work of art teacher and artist, Victoria Contreras Flores, who, with a contrary view of the demands of the art market, has decided to concentrate on using new tools and media to express herself and teach her students.

Her web site is at http://www.victoriacontreras.com.

Victoria Contreras Flores' animation 'Another Day' can be viewed at her web site.
Victoria Contreras Flores’ animation ‘Another Day’ can be viewed at her web site.
From Victoria Contreras Flores (in very expressive English) to Stephen J. Williams:

In fact I begun to project this ARTnatomy tool just by necessity, as a ‘war tool’ for my pupils, by the time I taught at a little University which had not any subject in Anatomy (during a five years career!). In order to provide them the minimum information, and also make my job easier, I begun this work, which finally I have presented as an academic investigation.

I don’t have any agent or gallery. I broke my relation with last one two years ago.

By the time I was a fine arts student, abstract expressionism worked as the real academicism at the Universities and the Art Market. In this lineal and scientifist (and mistaken) conception of progress applied to art, figurative art was despised as old. Nevertheless, I have always be interested in the representation of the world and the human being, and my readings, in the tradition of heterodox thought. I have always been an outsider (I don’t like vernissages… [A ‘vernissage’ is a private viewing of paintings before a public exhibition—SJW.]) very critic with the art market: as you see, this is not the best way to become a successful artist.

By the time I discovered digital tools, I begun to find another way to pay my bills and a powerful medium to experiment and mix all of my other interests (music, narration, movies). Nevertheless, as guarantee of ‘seriousness’, the ‘modern critic’ tends to demand to the author a specialisation, for me narrow and suspicious: it is supposed that if you make oil paintings, you cannot be a good escultor, or work with computers, or vice versa; nevertheless, the incursions of Leonardo or Picasso in any scope are well understood as virtues and richness… Far from trying to compare myself to them, nevertheless, I do not put any limits to me, because I work by passion and curiosity (the rest, concerns nothing to me and I am sent to results). Rather than this, I brush often the most unconscious audacity, putting me in lands where still I am only an apprentice (3d or writing, for example. The section ‘Toxtexts’ in my web is where I put my ‘essais’ and my ‘poems’, sorry just in Spanish).

As you see, in this way, I have preferred to have my name forgotten by art critics (as I forgot theirs), to work in freedom. I think the Internet is much more alive than the market of the traditional arts and less won by the ‘intermediaries’. Find more interesting artists in the network than in Arco or Basel, and I do not have any doubt that if Leonardo da V. were raised again, he would be hooked to his computer, ‘playing God’ gladly, with tools that include supports, brushes, pencils, music and movement. If to similar playful possibility we add the reproductivity and accessibility advantage to him to be—not only economically—for any bourgeois, the computer opens for the creation a new door of revolutionary consequences: the real possibility of insurgency of ‘I do all by myself because I don’t need anybody else’. As always, another thing is the use that everyone does of the instrument: the new tools raise the challenge to combine with sense creation and technology, to produce an art of quality that assume applications, utility; the objective would have to take care of recover for the creative activity the place and the function in the society (more natural, less sacred) than narrow dichotomies and bad interpretation of history, snatches to him.

—Victoria Contreras Flores

What are galleries for? Artists as indentured servants

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it. A gallery is for showing pictures, of course. Let’s be liberal, and say it is a place for displaying works of art, or where people go to view works of art.

I’m not referring to museums of art, or state galleries. The question is really about commercial galleries. The visual artists I know appear to be, now, in a situation something like the position poets were in twenty-five years ago (not much has changed, everything has changed) when there were, in Australia, literally no major commercial publishers of poetry and a few writers I knew got together and formed a small, private press to publish each other. Over the course of the following fifteen years this small unincorporated association published twenty books and had some success. By the end of it, though, it was still publishing slim volumes—we believed in quality—to deafening silence from reviewers. One of its last books was an anthology of more than a dozen writers that did not get a single review. When we asked the editor of a nationally distributed review magazine why no article was arranged, we were told the anthology was “obviously good”. Well, thank you, we said, and the conversation ended there.

Perhaps we failed to be interesting or controversial enough. Self-reliance is not newsworthy.

Visual artists could hardly claim to be in same situation. There are galleries galore. The public listings are full of openings to attend. Opportunities are everywhere. Or, are they?

It’s not as though writers or poets can claim there is no publishing going on. What we can claim, I think, is that publishers are interested only, exclusively, in their bottom lines, in seeing their accounts written in black ink. You can’t blame them. There is no profit in poetry. And there is no profit in some difficult visual artist whose work cannot quickly establish a market value that buyers are willing to match with dollars. It does not matter if he or she is a genius. Genius doesn’t pay the bills.

The principal difference between writers and visual artists from a commodity point of view is that writers create a product that is the art world’s version of fast moving consumer goods. Buyers literally take literature off the shelves, in shops that resemble supermarkets. Decisions are made pronto! A book is a standard gift option. Visual artists don’t normally make products of this kind. Purchases are considered. The visual arts are not bought to be consumed, and set aside, in the same way books are bought and shelved. This demeans the relationship readers have with literature, but there is a kernel of truth in it.

Commercial galleries plot a course between what one must suppose is a genuine interest in art and the mundane worries of their pockets. Welcome to the world as we know it.

There is nowhere for visual artists to go that is not smell of commercial relationships. Writers, by contrast, are the piece-workers of the art world, huddled in their garrets, earning a pittance for every thousand words: the smell of money rarely reaches their rooms.

Above all else, it’s disatisfaction that they share; and isolation from the very people who want to make contact with them.

Commercial galleries, if the system that the galleries describe were to work as perfectly as everyone hopes, offer more than representation. There is supposed to be much else that comes with the relationship: the problem is, really, whether or not this “much else” actually materialises.

Commercial galleries are supposed to:

1] Represent artists—that is, speak for them, and about them; negotiate for them; promote them.

2] Provide exhibitions or shows at least every two years.

3] Maintain up to date records of works held on consignment and try to sell these works.

4] Help to build an artist’s reputation by promoting scholarly and other writing about their art.

5] Generally, manage the relationship between the artist and the market to maximise the artist’s opportunities to profit from his or her work.

If galleries actually achieved this for more than a handful of the most prominent visual artists, artists would think, no doubt, that the galleries were doing a good job.

But they are not doing it.

A mid-range artist in Australia, for example, exhibiting 30 works at a significant commercial gallery once every two years, and selling perhaps 20 of these (a successful show!) for an average price of AU$4,000, brings $80,000 to the cash register. Forty per cent of this goes to the gallery: $32,000. This leaves $48,000 for the artist. A pittance for two year’s work. It’s no wonder they have to have second jobs! (Let’s not even mention the tax situation.)

No-one attacks the galleries. Why would anyone want to? Even if there were any public discussion of commercial galleries, surely artists would not have anything bad to say about the galleries that are, of course, the very arteries through which the life-blood af art courses…

Absence of discussion and debate does not mean absence of comment. It is well-known, of course, who the bad apples are. (Who knows, we might even get around to naming them here in future episodes: stay tuned…)

It’s the relationship between artists and galleries I’m interested in. Now, do you notice anything odd about the following statements quoted, verbatim, from the ACGA website:

Vision:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association seeks to contribute to the visual arts in a way that enhances understanding of and support for the primary market while cultivating sound entrepreneurial ethics and an ever-strengthening national and international market for Australian art.

Mission:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association exists to represent, promote and further the interests of Australian commercial galleries whose core business is the ethical representation of living Australian artists. A dual aspect of the Association’s mission is to develop Australian artists’ livelihood and reputation while contributing to an enhanced public understanding of contemporary Australian art in the primary market.

I think there are several strange things going on in these quotes, not least of which is that the vision statement does not envision anything (unless it is that the national and international market for Australian art is “ever-strengthening”). I wonder, for example, why this organisation is so obsessed with ethics and ethical bahaviour. Has someone accused it or its members of something terrible, or do their consciences need to be salved?

I mention this obsession with ethics in the vision and mission statements of the ACGA because the point at which the code discusses a gallery’s right to receive a commission on all sales of an artist’s work strikes me as being distinctly unethical.

The partnership between the gallery and the artist establishes commission as payment by the artist for the gallery’s intensive ongoing work and representation in the development of the artist’s career, reputation and livelihood. As such it should be recognised as an agent’s fee, earned by the gallery in return for the type of ongoing services listed under item 4.

Item 4 in the code of practice lists a whole heap of things that galleries barely do at all for most artists, and do very badly most of the time. (Read the whole sad catalogue at the ACGA website.) The code is, in fact, a strained attempt to justify a claim that artists, particularly struggling, unknown artists, but also middle-rung artists, have little or no power to deny to galleries.

Artists, in fact, have to put up and shut up in the face of galleries who do nothing for them between annual or bi-annual shows but still want 40 per cent of sales they haven’t been involved in.

Wouldn’t it be fairer, more ethical, as a starting point in negotiations between artists and galleries, to say that galleries were entitled to up to 40 per cent commission on any artworks they choose to show, or choose to hold on to between shows?

You can hear the director-fussbudgets of galleries around Australia huffing, puffing and moaning already, can’t you? Oh, dear, how will they ever earn a living if they only get commission on the works they really want to sell?

The services these fussbudgets (don’t go off to the dictionary: it means one who is overly particular about unimportant things) offer to artists are described in terms that make their gallery businesses sound like retirement homes for librarians. They promise to be monitoring, archiving, maintaining and pursuing. And when they’re not doing that, they’re cultivating, collaborating and recording. All very important stuff, I don’t doubt. Meanwhile, it is the artist who is doing the real work.

The list of services that galleries perform to earn their commission is a furphy, a wild rumour, a tall story, and everyone knows it. Artists make their reputations by sticking at their work. It is a hard slog that, even for artists of acknowledged brilliance, goes on for years. To pretend this isn’t the case, and instead put about that the development of an artist’s reputation and career is something that is strategised by whispers and nods between gallery directors and clients with too much money in their pockets, is simply to lie. And there’s nothing ethical about that.

What is going to change, though? How can the system be changed? Important questions, to be answered in a later post.