Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fight or Flight

Tatlin demonstrates the Letatlin

A bizarre little wrangle on The Art Life about whether there is an avant-garde has finally crystallized some thoughts that have been brewing away ever since mayhem’s not so recent posts on the current precariousness of art, communities and intellectual life, here and here.

We all have a major influence hidden away somewhere in our skeleton closet like a long lost first great love, and mine is Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin, for me a far greater artist than Picasso or the current conventional favourite, the court fool turned king, Marcel Duchamp. Of the three, only Tatlin with his slogan “Art into Life” dared to step beyond the art world. By embracing utilitarianism in his designs for workers clothes and his stove and his aeroplane designs he extended the debate about the nature of art beyond anything that we have been able to grapple with until now.

Ultimately his whole project faltered because its ambition ran headlong into Stalin’s tyranny. At that point he deftly stepped sideways into his own version of the artist fool by producing the Letatlin, the winged bicycle that would give every worker the freedom of flight. Its lovingly constructed inadequacy and its obvious inability to soar to the heavens neatly encapsulated both his own history and the absurdity of the failed Bolshevik state. It is hard to believe that the authorities were so lacking in a sense of irony that he got away with it and survived the purges of the 1930s. I see his final years in the decade after the second world war, painting apparently conventional flower paintings, as a sort of consciously Voltairean ending, (“Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin”) an apparent surrender that still triumphed by celebrating the most fundamental joys of life in the face of totalitarianism. It’s a solution that still appeals. In other words Tatlin is the artistic patron saint of the times to come, or the times that are already upon us.

Which brings us back to the present. Most of my life I have despised the very idea of an artistic avant-garde just as I despised notions of a vanguard party leading us workers to revolution. It has been an easy position to take given the way the whole idea (like “subversiveness” and “transgression”) had been appropriated by the art business as a marketing slogan. But I have become increasingly uneasy about dismissing it. For starters, the wonderful Susan Buck-Morss has demonstrated how complex a concept “avant-garde” was in the cultural political ferment of post revolutionary Russia. And over the last decade I have become aware of numerous artists and groups all over the world working in marginalised collaborative groups and communities on uncollectable highly politicised projects, so many in fact that it must now be clear that they do constitute a sort of avant-garde again. Or at least they do as long as they continue to work for the communities where they live rather than becoming content providers for the art corporations like the biennale franchises.

And don’t get me wrong here, we all should make money out of our art, it is just a case of that subtle distinction between being the master or the slave of your own work and the art system. But mayhem rightly points out how inevitable commercialisation is, and the best of intentions will become overwhelmed by the mendacity and greed of many who will jump on the bandwagon – already social art is the buzzword and it will be used to justify endless banalities - trust me, in my lifetime I’ve had to sit through hundreds of hours of abysmal "workers" theatre. So this new radical art will only have a limited life span before it is destroyed by repressive tolerance and capital’s ability to commodify anything.

But before that happens I think we could have a lot of fun.

And on the subject of great minds think alike, go and have a look at this.


Blogger Gricegrocers said...

I tend to think that there most definitley is an avant garde and it's not as easily attainable as doing an installation or reading glossy humanities theory and randomly pointing a video at something. But this is really just decorative and if we're lucky, eye candy. A lot of people have bought into those things and while they do have value along the lines of sociology for example, they really are deluded enough to think that (nudge nudge, wink wink) "it doesn't look like art", therefore it truly is an elite ahead of it's time.

To me, the real avant garde requires committment and wit and resources and often organisational effort to do things that will shape our world. It's things that are happening in the computer game world and the visual legacy that major scientific efforts of our time, like human genome mapping. Art isn't always something that can be bought through a gallery, or brought to you by your local government.

Today's avant garde simply doesn't belong to parsiminous inner city dwellers, yet other genres of art might do.

2:16 pm  
Blogger Ian Milliss said...

Just because it's incomprehensible doesn't mean it's meaningful. If you get what I mean. I agree with you completely and it's always obvious in your posts and comments how wide ranging your understanding of cultural activity is.

I work on the principle that any medium is valid as long as it works and is effective and thats why I've argued that cooking has been the great australian art form for decades, the medium where the fundamental issues facing our society like immigration, multiculturalism, internationalism have all been thrashed out and resolved in the process of making a beautiful and utilitarian artifact ie dinner. That was an avant garde although unfortunately cuisine also has become a bit blanded-out-international-style in the last decade.

So, just incidentally, I've been wandering around today with a warm inner glow after getting a comment on my website from Patric Juillet. He was one of the great Sydney originators in the early 70s of that Australian cuisine with his then wife Chrissy, Tony and Gay Bilson, Damien Pignolet - all great artists. (And Patric follwed it up by becoming an important film producer as well). I still remember with great affection his first restaurant in Macleay Street in 1971, before Le Cafe, it used to be our special treat whenever we had a bit of money. Its sad that the visual arts became so abjectly derivative and bureaucracy bound during those decades that we failed to make any equivalent contribution to our culture.

3:32 pm  
Blogger Gricegrocers said...

I wouldn't like to eat roast Mike Parr.

5:23 pm  
Blogger Gricegrocers said...

Spiv would be quite an unusual pastrami.

5:28 pm  
Blogger Ian Milliss said...

I see Spiv more as one of those very smelly wormy fungusy cheeses, one for the afficionados. Takes great courage to take that first bite and the smell remains on your fingers despite repeated washing. But the taste becomes addictive.

5:56 pm  
Blogger Gricegrocers said...

First I would pour myself a glass of port and then I would have some Spiv. Then I wouldn't want the port - maybe something like watermelon or a plain SAO , but then if I had the watermelon I would be fine - just if I had the SAO I'd feel like it was too much.

Ideally a big drink of water or some weak cordial before Spiv.

6:15 pm  
Blogger Gricegrocers said...

Hmm, come to think of it I don't think i like today's artists as much as good food...

6:51 pm  
Anonymous jon rubin said...

I appreciate you mentioning the ISA in your blog. How did you come to hear about us? I'm interested in the notion of an open sourse art school. Do you mostly function via this blog?

Jon Rubin

4:31 am  
Blogger Gricegrocers said...

This blog is the discussion of the Opern Sorse Art Skhool. Wer'e yet to migrate to a more versatile internet space.

Thanks for writing to us. Perhaps we could add a link to your site? I'm not sure where Ian first heard about ISA.

7:50 am  
Blogger Ian Milliss said...

Jon Rubin
I noticed the post about ISA on Sal Randolph's InTheConversation and recognised the same impulse at work but several years ahead of us. This blog was the idea of two of the contributors, (the reader and David H) during a discussion on another blog about the inadequacy of local art education. Right now it functions a bit like a Quakers meeting, we all sit around in silence until the spirit moves one of us contributors to make a pronouncement on some art related topic. In the process an amazing amount of information sometimes comes to the surface through links and comments. Anyone can become a contributor, just contact the reader to be added to the list. To our amazement the blog has stayed alive, slowly percolating along. We are planning to move to a more flexible web site in the near future which will allow us to begin a wider range of projects.

Your project is impressive and we should keep a bit more in touch, see how we can collaborate a bit.

9:49 am  
Blogger Gricegrocers said...

Ian, nice bit of kudos you got from Patric Juillet. Good on you.

7:09 pm  
Anonymous varp said...

That was a good read Ian.

I did not know that about Tatlin. It makes me feel, in my own inconsequential way, a bit Tatlinesque in these Tatlinesque times.

That quote from 'Candide' has always been a favourite too. I think we may be in step and I look forward to more.

7:26 pm  
Blogger Ian Milliss said...

Thanks varp, I really enjoyed your contributions to The Art Life, they had a genuineness that is often missing in the comments there.
Why don't you email the reader (click on his name at the top of the blog, his email address is in his profile) and get yourself put on as a contributor. You don't have to do anything but if you ever want to write something you can then do it as a post.

8:25 pm  
Anonymous Jon Rubin said...

Certainly feel free to add a link to our site. I will check back in to read your future posts. Are you all based in Australia?



5:08 am  
Blogger Ian Milliss said...

Contributor's are all Australian so far, but we are only just getting started. Feel free to encourage others to join in. We'll add a link on the new website. Incidentally I've sometimes had problems getting your site to load, it stops after the main image and doesn't load the logo in the centre. Any ideas?

5:42 pm  

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