With friends like these... ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 18, 2008

With friends like these...

Via Skepticlawyer, Ms TN this morning read some astoundingly crass comments by the Age's art crrritic, Robert Nelson, which were published in the print edition. Mr Nelson was, not so long ago, in the news defending photographer Bill Henson (and Nelson's own wife) against charges that they were child pornographers. And some of his comments sadly justified the average arts-hater's view that artists are chardonnay-addicted ponces who consider themselves superior to ordinary mortals.

At the time I thought Nelson's defences of Henson's art were odd, since comments he made in a 2005 review of Henson's work in fact sounded very similar to the criticisms made by those who wanted to ban it. He accused Henson of displaying "a vulgar relish in depicting naked, pouting youngsters" and said his "good landscape work is discredited when used as a backdrop for rehearsing the lubricious display of nubile or pre-pubescent children". Henson's work, he said, "is an aesthetic of spying, granting you an illicit glimpse, as in all pornographic genres, a teasing sexual spectacle with ocular impunity".

I don't agree with Nelson's analysis here, but that's beside the point. He's perfectly within his rights to think what he likes. But it made me wonder if his very public defence of Henson was a matter of protesting too much... Who knows? Who cares? There he was, out defending art's essential superiority to every other aspect of life, rather than its profound and vital investment in life itself, and making the rest of us look like noodles.

And last week he was at it again, this time attacking sport as "the antithesis" of art. One quote will do - as Skepticlawyer says, this man is impossible to parody:

The social role of sport is to provide an outlet for intelligent people to behave like brainless people. Everyone knows there’s no intrinsic point in shifting a leather ball from one post to another, no matter how energetic or invested the contest. Nothing is achieved outside the game; no one is wiser or can add a benefit to the world beyond the fury of the struggle.

Contrast this with the markedly brainy Roland Barthes' beautiful meditation, What Is Sport? Speaking of watching a soccer match, Barthes says:

To watch, here, is not only to live, to suffer, to hope, to understand but also, and especially, to say so - by voice, by gesture, by facial expression... in a word, it is to communicate. Ultimately man knows certain forces, certain conficts, joys and agonies: sport expresses them, liberates them, consumes them, without ever letting anything be destroyed.

All art, Nelson says with enviable certainty, has a "purpose behind the work". Untangling this one is a complex business beyond the range of this snark, but Ms TN suggests that Robert Nelson should, for a start, have a careful read of Susan Sontag's classic 1963 essay, Against Interpretation.

It certainly seems to me that Mr Nelson understands very little about either sport or art. The poets of ancient Greece, who thought both were essential celebrations of human possibility, would have found his attitude mystifying. Next on Nelson's reading list could be the Odes of Pindar. Pindar, who died in 442BC, is credited with inventing the Ode, a form of lyric poetry. And most of his Odes were in praise of athletes. The oldest was written to celebrate the victory of the runner Hippocleas in the double stadium race in 498BC. The final, written when Pindar was supposedly 72, was in praise of a wrestler, Aristomenes.

PS: Just to add a theatre spin... it's worth mentioning that Samuel Beckett is in Wisden. As a spin bowler.


TimT said...

I think Nelson is definitely attention seeking. The Art Monthly cover thing was an obvious example of controversy for the sake of controversy; he even held a press conference with his daughter after the publication of the AM issue.

Sometimes, it's not necessary to say insightful or original things in order to be noticed and published widely. All you have to do is be controversial.

This, unfortunately, is what Nelson is aiming at.

(My two bob).

Alison Croggon said...

Nelson's motivations are beyond my ken or purview. I'm assuming he means what he says...

Anonymous said...

For contrast, it's worth reading Chris McAuliffe's piece on the topic from a couple of weeks back. McAuliffe is the director of the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne Uni, which is currently hosting the Basil Sellers Art Prize (for representations of sport in art) which I assume Nelson was reviewing(?) Far more even handed and entertaining.


Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks for that one, Nick. (For those interested in McAuliffe's piece, a live link here.

Of course art and sport are not the same. I'm not sure anyone would want to say they were the same, just as it would be silly to claim that dance and poetry are the same thing. However, I find it a bit odd that people think that sport is essentially meaningless or somehow base, or that it can't be (like flower arranging, or making shoes) an art - ie, something more than skill or virtuosity, something that can reach towards an articulate communication of human desires and joys and conflict and hopes.

Anonymous said...

I've thought Robert Nelson a halfwit and dickhead for years but he has really exposed himself with this latest foray.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame, because Nelson's art reviews are absolutely second to none (now that Smee has hightailed it to Boston, at least).

Anyway, in response to the attacks on sport, I can only link:


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the full article, but as Matthew says, Nelson is a superb art critic - as well as a habitual ironist whose provocations shouldn't be taken at face value. See his attack on suburban gardens in a recent issue of Arena magazine for another example.

Alison Croggon said...

Fair enough. I have moments myself of deeply superb irony that embarrassingly gets taken at face value - so take the point. But I'm prodding hard to see irony here...

And many thanks Matt for those links.