I have been enjoying a road trip through Tasmania. For an island of startling natural beauty, it is ironic that one of the state’s greatest tourist attractions, certainly in the capital Hobart, is its bizarre Museum of Old and New Art, MONA.
I have mixed feeling about MONA. On the one hand, most of it is crap. On the other hand, it’s a privately financed crap. I would love to see a lot more of that in the world of art – even better if not crap.
MONA is the creation of the Tasmanian-born millionaire David Walsh who made his money developing gambling systems. As such, it is a throwback to the good old days of robber barons, who tried to buy the public good will – and perhaps in some cases genuinely repent for their cut-throat, buccaneering business ways – by spending their fortunes on museums, galleries, libraries, universities, hospitals and other public institutions. Walsh’s museum lives off the profits of its winery, restaurants, brewery and hotel, as well as ticket sales (Tasmanians can get in for free; charging them per head would have been deeply unfair). I can only applaud someone who put his money where his mouth is and does not expect the government (i.e. the middle-income taxpayers) to subsidise his hobby.
For to do so, in this case, would be a double sin. Even some of the staunchest and driest right-wingers can recognise the need for a public subsidy to preserve the cultural heritage of our and other civilisations. There is a timeless and widely acknowledged beauty to ancient Greek sculptures, the Old Dutch Masters or the Inca jewellery. On the other hand, while beauty – and art – might indeed be in the eye of the beholder, I doubt that many people genuinely enthuse over most of the modern art exhibited at MONA, or that any of it will survive and still be viewed a century from now.
Don’t take me wrong: I consider my $20 entry to be money well spent and I would recommend to anyone coming to Hobart to visit MONA – but consider it to be a modern faux-sophisticated version of a side-show alley freak show rather than a sublime experience akin to walking through the Egyptian Museum or the British National Gallery.
Perhaps the only thing of genuine beauty is Sidney Nolan’s “Snake” – a giant vision of the Rainbow Serpent of the Aboriginal mythology made of over 1600 individual paintings. Pretty much everything else on display (at any given time a small selection of the 1900 objects in the entire Walsh collection) is a gimmick. MONA website, which displays some of the highlights, has a section “Stuff David bought when he was drunk”, which could, in all honesty, cover the whole of MONA. You do get the impression that at least to some extent Walsh and the curators are having a joke at your expense. If that’s the case, more kudos to them.
Take Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca Professional”, an art installation that stimulates a digestive system. This artwork is fed twice a day, and it shits twice a day, the food being broken down by bacteria and enzymes in a series of suspended vats. But at least Delvoye’s “art” is a joke too, of sorts, if we hopefully believe critic Ben Lewis:
Delvoye’s work satirises the art world, with its inflated prices and daft intellectual cul-de-sacs. Cloaca makes the ultimate criticism of modern art – that most of it is crap; that the art world has finally disappeared up its own backside. ‘When I was going to art school, all my family said I was wasting my time, and now I have made a work of art about waste,’ he told me happily.
Amen to that. Greg Taylor, on the other hand, seems quite serious. His “C–ts… and other conversations” is 150 porcelain “portraits” (not casts) of vaginas of real women of all ages and walks of life – all 40 running metres of the wall of it. I haven’t seen that many since I saw the photo gallery on the wall of the Labor party room at the Parliament House. The point of it, aside from creating a controversy that is? Your guess is as good – or as bad – as mine. But you can always make money out of it; in the museum giftshop for as little as $40 you can buy either a small plastic cast of your favourite exhibition(ist) vagina or – how cute! – a little shopping basket with three miniature vages. We have had “as ugly as a hatful of assholes”; now we can have “as endearing as a basketful of vaginas”. Speaking of assholes, MONA, unfortunately, can’t claim another one of Delvoye’s masterpieces – “‘anal kisses’ – a series of prints, which, over the years, Delvoye has convinced various acquaintances to produce for him with a lipstick imprint of their anus on hotel notepaper.” Well, maybe one day.
The rest of it – the objects, the installations, the multi-media displays (there are preciously few exhibits you associate with more traditional museums, like drawings, paintings, or sculpture) – are more of the same, but without the benefit of being unintentionally funny. Most is New as opposed to Old Art, and likely to send you into a deep depression about the state of the modern art, or what goes for art these days. How representative is it? MONA is, after all, one rich guy basically saying: this is some of the shit (sometimes literally) that for one reason or another took my fancy. Even with this caveat, however, the vision is dispiriting. Do people really spend their lives creating this sort of “art”? Are there really people who buy it? Or governments which subsidise them? Does everything have to make a statement – overwhelmingly a negative one – about our society? Can’t at least some art if not elevate then at least please our senses as opposed to confronting our sensibilities? Has there been a time in history with a bigger chasm between what a small coterie of artists and hangers-on considers to be brilliant and worthwhile and what the great unwashed masses do?
The art world has a long time ago given up on society, both in the sense of having anything nice to say about it and trying to in any way appeal to or touch an ordinary, average person. The Gramscian “march through the institutions”, in this case galleries, hasn’t however resulted in a successful subversion of the capitalist society but in an ever-shrinking circle jerk. Any commercial case for art (as heretical an idea this remains to most artists), like pornography, rests on the inflationary spiral of shock value and notoriety. In order to attract publicity and visitors, institutions like MONA have to rely on being more bizarre and more outrageous than the next guy and than the last year. The result invariably is not more excitement but merely more ennui. Walsh himself describes his creation as a subversive adult Disneyland. But this description misunderstands what Disneyland is all about. In the Magic Kingdom you laugh with, not at, Mickey Mouse. In the end, MONA is more Walsh’s Believe It Or Not (He Spent All That Money To Buy This Shit). As a statement about modern art it is all too disheartening; as a subconscious exploration of the decay of the Western civilisation it is unmissable. It’s not just the single exhibit – the whole museum is a giant, multi-million dollars, brilliantly designed and executed cloaca. You feed it your dollars and your time, and it shits on you in return.
Five turds out of five; I heartily recommend it.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk where this piece also appears.
Image taken from the video for Map of Tasmania by Amanda Palmer, ©2011 Liberation Music Australia.