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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Illusion, truth and reality (Part 5)

I was sitting in my favourite recording studio at the UNE one evening. It must have been twenty-five years ago. I was having my first ever talk-back session in the series Talking to New England. This was primarily for my Distance Education students all over the state in my course The Great Traditions of Asia. Anyone could phone in and ask a question – it wasn’t limited just to my students.
    The talkback segment was about to start. Previously, I had recorded a twenty-minute lecture on the topic, which happened to be about the relationship between Indian art and religion. Wal Samut was my producer at this end, and Joe Gelonesi was handling the Sydney side of things, ready to channel the questions and comments to me. Both of them were very experienced, very good broadcasters and sound technicians. Wal’ s now retired; Joe has gone on to greater things with the ABC.
    I sat there, listening to the taped broadcast go out. It was going well. Aleisha Bonfield had taught me the ropes in the olden days in Brisbane. I had recorded scores of lectures in the UNE studios since then (we posted them out to the students on cassette tapes). Then came the moment of truth, though I didn’t realise just how literally truthful that moment was going to be. The adrenalin started pumping through my system. I hoped I’d sound as confident as I did on the recorded segment, but I didn’t feel it.
    My lecture segment ended. There was a Station ID, a bit of promo by Joe to stir up some questions (or give people confidence to phone in) and then the first call came through. This was it. Live talkback radio. You can’t run, you can’t hide. And I was no shock jock!
    ‘Denis – your first caller.’
    He identified himself. He wasn't one of my students for that year, as far as I knew. I had met them all at the First Residential School in Armidale earlier in the year, and it was usually easy to recall them by voice or know if they already knew me.
    ‘I have a question I'd like to ask you. Would you please tell me your definition of art.’
    My definition of ART!! I could hardly believe it. I was pretty well prepared in my mind for what I thought might come up, but I never dreamt that I was going to be hit with the most challenging question anyone could possibly ask as my first ever talkback question.
    If this were a question with notice about what art was, or what I thought it was, that would have been fine. I would take a week to think about it properly and come back with a considered response. But this was live radio, and the question had been asked, and I had to come up with something I believed in and could explain within two seconds.
    It must have been the adrenalin, that’s all I can put it down to, but what came to mind for me has always been my definition, insofar as art can be defined. This amazed me, as I had never before given the matter the attention it deserved.
    ‘Art,’ I said, ‘is an attempt to approach truth, or reality.’
    There was a silence.
    ‘Can you please explain what you mean?’
    Wal, manning the big tape deck, was watching me through the glass panel with a look that was either amusement or anxiety. I couldn’t tell which. Maybe it was both.
    ‘I’ll try’, I said. ‘But I have to keep it short.’
    Wal just grinned at that. I would like to have seen Joe Gelonesi’s face.


  1. I'm anxious just imagining it. Glad it wasn't me put on that spot! Very good answer, btw! Can't wait to hear the rest..

  2. For a definition to work, it can't define another other subject. "An attempt to approach truth, or reality" can be better applied to other human endeavours, such as philosophy or religion.

    Try again :).


  3. I unticked the box "stay logged in" and google worked. Go figure...


  4. Joan - re unticking the box - that's all part of illusion, you see.... on definitions, you have a point. I wouldn't have used the term 'definition' in asking the question, but that was asked, so I let it pass. I was too busy with the rest of the question. Now, from the moment you read this, you have 2 secs to come up with an answer for 'What is art?' Your time starts NOW! :) Remember, you're live to air, and this is your first ever talkback radio question.... go go go!!! :)

  5. Art is making your perceptions available to others. :)

  6. Someone asked Andy Warhol, 'What is Art?' He replied, supposedly: 'Isn't it a guy's name?'

  7. But isn't (or should I say 'wasn't') Indian art an attempt to depict truth? It points to truth, or evokes it.

  8. In fact any art does. It's 'a' truth, anyway :) Artists try to get you to see the world with fresh eyes, I would think,to see or sense a new truth almost in the way zen realisations do???

  9. Where you all when I needed you??? :) I now have this vision of you on the other side of the glass holding up sheets with these comments on, frantically trying to help me. But as you weren't around, you're going to have to put up with what I did say, warts and all.... It's coming. Bear with me!

  10. Denis, obviously you satisfied the questioner. That's the main point. There is no right answer to that question. Julie's right, too. A lot of artists do try to express some depth of perception or truth through their work, but then lots of art is just pure decoration or just for pleasure. These days a lot of art is meant to cause offense.

    You might remember that the first thing we did as lecturers in studies in religion in session one was ask the students to answer the question "What is religion?" and then give them 10 or 15 minutes to think about it and write down their answers. It always got a good discussion going and "broke the ice".

  11. Thanks, Joan. It wasn't so much about satisfying the questioner as bringing the question back to my topic, so there's much I had to leave out - practically everything in some ways. I agree that art can cover every mode of personal expression and doesn't have to be so 'lofty' in its intent. But in the Indian case, there is so much that is symbolic of higher things that it was worth returning to the theme of the programme.
    You are anticipating my next sections - I was going to refer exactly to such unanchored discussions as plunging in to 'religion' when I go on! Of course I still will. The confusion starts with assuming everyone's on the same playing field..... but more on that later.

  12. ps Zoe - I have to say, as an unrepentant Warhol fan, I dearly wish I knew then that he'd said that about art as I would have taken great pleasure in retailing that comment. But I wonder how many would get what I take to be his real meaning?

  13. It's probably a good thing, Denis, that you weren't aware of Warhol's comment, as it could be taken as an insult. If I sincerely asked an artist to give me some kind of definition of art and s/he said, "A guy's name", I would think s/he was putting me down, ridiculing my question, and taking the opportunity, at my expense, to appear clever and quick. Well, maybe that says more about what I think about Andy Warhol. :).

    You, of course, are right about traditional Indian art. If I can be really irritating here, can I suggest that you preface your definition with that qualification?

  14. I'm smiling at your comment, Joan, because it wouldn't work like that. I'd tell the joke, credited of course to Warhol as it would surely fall flat if I didn't, then go on to my version of the explanation that he was seeking, without, I assure you, leaving the questioner feeling belittled or offended. That's not my style. Of course, had I said, 'Next question!' after that one-liner, then it would have been all you say, and I suspect I would have got very few more callers.
    I am a Warhol tragic to the extent of his movies rather than his other art forms, though I like that they (his paintings) stuck other ways of expressing things right up there in Establishment faces. I was always especially intrigued by the quirky, carnal, neurotic, confused, loopy characters in movies like Heat, and Trash. But I'd hesitate to bring them into a discussion of Indian art and spirituality!

  15. It's been a long time since I paid any attention to Warhol, so I've forgotten his movies and most of his work. The only one that still sticks in my mind is his electric chair, which still moves me. The rest has disappeared with all the other ephemera of the 60s/70s pop art world.

    I was at art school at the time all this was so famous and paradigm shifting. I found myself staring for a long time at one of Pollock's drip paintings, trying to see something in it that made it so important in my art history class.

    In the sculpture studio at art school, a bunch of boards lay around the place, covered in drips of plaster and paint left behind by the various student projects. One in particular caught my eye as the drips of plaster reminded me of Pollock's work. I took it home to put on my wall as a work of "modern art".

    Years later I met someone who dared to say that Pollock was a desperate alcoholic who was fortunate enough to be supported by the CIA as an example to the Soviet Union that the west can produce fine art without Communism. It was such a relief to finally be able to admit to myself what I really thought both about Warhol and Pollock, as well as a number of other artists we were taught to worship at art school.

    I leave it to others to think what they want about that period in western art, but before coming to any solid conclusion, read Peter Fuller, the late British art critic. A lot of heavy cold war politics was involved in the creation and the transformation of the avant garde into the art establishment in the 60s and 70s.

    Some of these artists were very talented, and so some of their work has survived despite the shift in politics and fickleness of the art world. A lot just looks silly now; also many good artists, who should have been recognised, went unnoticed because they did not conform. So what else is new? :).


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