Thoughts Prompted by Alison Croggon’s Response to Jonathan Mills State of the Arts 2010 Address

I am not sure of the protocol, if any, regarding the posting of a comment to another’s blog on one’s own blog site. If there is one, and I have offended, then apologies in advance. The thoughts below were prompted by Alison Croggon’s insightful response ( )  to Jonathan Mills State of the Arts 2010 lecture.

‘All anyone needs to understand art is to look, to listen, to feel: all else follows.’ (Alison Croggon)

How true. But we are bombarded with words that seem designed to makes us feel lesser beings. The reviewers and catalogue writers, the program notes contributors have (with regrettably few exceptions) a tendency to confuse and obfuscate. Those in the visual arts world are the worst. The exhibition catalogue is designed to leave you scratching your head, saying 'duh. I don' unnerstand'. (Acknowledgement due to, I think, Paul Jennings). And don’t smile when looking at that Rubens in the  Old Masters gallery. Someone might get the wrong idea.

To step back in the continuum, replace the word 'understand' above with 'enjoy'. If we do not enjoy, there is no motivation to move to appreciation and understanding. And enjoyment unquestionably comes from allowing the feelings to flow. (This is the fear of the guardians of our morals, who think feelings are dangerous things. In their view understanding must be the precursor to confining feelings to what are perceived to be safe. Raw, emotional response is the devil’s work.)

The education system is blamed for much nowadays, and is often challenged for being too touchy/feely and insufficiently rigorous and pedagogical. But why not start with the focus on feeling at an early age? Who can argue with the power and excitement of together banging drums, or feeling wonderment at Alice in Wonderland? A little rigour later on can then lead to deeper feelings listening to, say, Taikoz, which may well, with careful nurturing, lead to an interest in the Shakuhachi, or even Haiku. The young may even grow up to understand those fine arts catalogues. Introducing a variety of influences is also important. Gamelan music, Chinese instruments, Middle Eastern visual art and dance as well as our own Aboriginal and Islander music, art and dance forms. Otherwise there is a risk that the young grow up steeped in a western only tradition, which can be a straightjacket in the context of feelings other than puzzlement when confronted by foreign or contemporary art forms.

There is an important circular relationship in ensuring ‘all else follows’: a sort of feedback loop. Unquestionably, knowledge and hence understanding can enhance both feeling and enjoyment. Peter Greenaway's deconstruction of The Last Supper is a great example. To observe his work is to open up new ways of looking at visual art in general. And it certainly enhances the enjoyment of, say, Bach preludes and fugues to have someone point out the multiple voices and their interplay. But these kinds of knowledge are not, initially, necessary in order to feel something in the Old Masters gallery or while listening to a classical radio station.

There is, however, a slight problem with the distinction, real or imaginary, between entertainment and art. This distinction was stressed by Simone Young in her recent Peggy Glanville Hicks address, and also alluded to by Jonathan Mills in his State of the Arts address. I believe there is a spectrum. To me, a Three Tenors arena spectacular or an Andre Rieu Strauss homage are both cultural events. They both build on a bedrock of the arts. They both engender feelings, in an atmosphere of pure entertainment, that are much the same as those we might feel listening to an Opera Australia performance or the Berlin Philharmonic playing Brahms. Listen, feel and indeed all else may follow, including, in some, a desire to learn more about the arias heard or composers with the name Strauss. Is romantic literature solely entertainment and not art? Having, against my better judgement, attended a Wheeler Centre event on the topic (the Mills and Boone variety) and listened to three highly intelligent and articulate women writers of the genre, I came away with a clear view that it is truly an art form (although not perhaps one where much understanding is necessary for enjoyment). Feelings are certainly evoked: even the inimitable moderator, comedian Alan Brough, admitted to having blushed at some passages. Feelings indeed!)

Perhaps we should demand of our politicians that they stop from time to time, to view or listen to some art form or other, and feel some joy, fear, discomfort, distaste or other pure emotion. Maybe then all else would follow, including perhaps a modicum of understanding and maybe even a desire for overarching cultural policy development.


About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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One Response to Thoughts Prompted by Alison Croggon’s Response to Jonathan Mills State of the Arts 2010 Address

  1. johnofoz says:

    This is a response from Alison Croggon to my original comment on the Wheeler Centre website. I am not the “author of this post”. Just the channel. I place it here in the interest of open communication.

    “Hi all – thanks for your responses! JohnofOz, the “all else follows” does, I agree, gloss some things. The next step is curiosity – what is it that makes me feel what I feel? – and that can lead in all sorts of fascinating directions, if properly encouraged. One problem is that critical thought is so often thought to be the enemy of enjoying art (or life), rather than its handmaiden and accomplice. And I guess the shyness people naturally feel in approaching something that is essentially so interior and private. It exposes vulnerability, after all.

    There is a strand of thinking about art that enjoyment or pleasure or delight is a secondary or unimportant or even decadent effect. I confess I’ve never understood it. But aside from the derogation of pleasure, that seems to me to take a very narrow view of pleasure itself. Engaging with a difficult and challenging work can be among the greatest pleasures – I often think of my first encounters with Paul Celan, whom I found both baffling and beautiful. The only way to work through that was to keep reading him, and I still remember how it felt when those poems began to flower into comprehension.

    The art/entertainment divide is vexed, for sure. I’m not sure why it’s a line that needs to be policed – not all entertainment is art, to be sure, but that needn’t mean it has to be mediocre or stupid; and at the same time, not all art is, or should be, entertainment. I’m not sure the rewards I can get from Beckett at his most stern come under the heading “entertainment”, but they are certainly rewards; the demand that art be entertainment can turn into a kind of tyranny, just as much as the other way around. I just wonder why it’s always presented as if one can only have one or the other, rather than both. The greatest art has always incorporated both vulgar and high culture, pace Dante or Shakespeare.”

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