Hound in the Hunt

In the gallery at Mona, there is an exhibition-experiment taking place, called Hound in the Hunt. Read more about it here, and also – for the enthusiastic – watch the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, and get your hands on our big, beautiful book as well (online, in our bookshop, or in the library, for free).

The following is a conversation between David Walsh and Tim Jenison about Vermeer, Viagra, and the nature of genius. (Interviewed by Elizabeth Pearce, with a cameo appearance by Mona curator Jarrod Rawlins.)

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Elizabeth Pearce: David, in the exhibition catalogue for Hound in the Hunt, you write that even if you don’t give a shit about art you should watch Tim’s Vermeer, because it will teach you how to learn. What did you learn about learning from watching Tim’s Vermeer?

David Walsh: Tim’s process uses all the ways that you’ve got of acquiring knowledge. There’s induction – where you start with a fact and you build on it. He also uses lateral processes, and reductionism. I really like the way he thinks. He does things in a way that is structured to accrue knowledge faster than almost any other individual that I’ve encountered. In other words, I think he’s really fucking smart.

EP: Tim, were you attempting to adopt a scientific methodology when you made Tim’s Vermeer, or is that just the way you think?

Tim Jenison: It’s the way I think. I don’t seem to be any smarter than anyone else, but I was always a logical kid, growing up. My dad was an engineer and he would always talk technical to me, just assuming that I could understand everything that he was talking about. He had a really deep respect for rational thought.

EP: David, is this an exhibition about how to learn? Is that the most important thing?

DW: No. The subject matter is interesting to me, and obviously it is to Tim. But if he thought purely in a technical way, in the way he is describing, I don’t think he would have got anywhere with this project. The hardest thing to discover is the thing that, immediately after it’s discovered, everyone thinks is bleeding obvious. This comparator mirror device is one of those things. So I sit back and think, ‘Okay, it works. There’s no way it wasn’t discovered by Vermeer and others. And then I think, ‘But I’m assuming it was discovered because it seems so bloody obvious – but it wasn’t obvious to anyone else before Tim found it, discovered it, rediscovered it, whatever.’ But of course there aren’t a lot of people thinking about how to reproduce the great masters now. We tend to think that we’re smarter than people have been in the past and of course we’re not. If you’re trying to build a pyramid and you have ten thousand people sitting around for two or three hundred years, they’ll think of things that we didn’t. It is my contention that, even though it’s an obvious process, it was really hard to discover – but somebody did. And I would further contend that there are a whole bunch of ways of doing this [painting using mirrors] that Tim hasn’t thought of, and neither has anyone else, except someone in Holland or Italy or Spain hundreds of years ago. So yeah, it’s difficult to draw a conclusion about whether Tim’s right – which has nothing to do with the question, I think. Even though his process could have achieved what Vermeer achieved, it might not be the only way to do it. In fact, listening to [art historian] Roberta Lapucci, I see some ideas that might even be an improvement on Tim’s method, although the end point of her technology doesn’t interest me that much.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: I’m going to come back to that in a minute but I just want to isolate exactly what it is you are trying to learn. I think that it’s easy to misunderstand this project as being about, ‘Does this painting look like Vermeer’s painting?’ You’re not trying to say conclusively ‘yes, Vermeer and the other painters definitely did use this device.’ It’s more about, ‘Does the device work? Is it possible to use this device to accurately reproduce a live scene?’

TJ: Yes. It doesn’t look to me like there’s a way to prove that Vermeer used this device without additional information. But I think that Vermeer unintentionally left earmarks of a measurement process – because that’s what the comparator mirror is. It’s a measurement process. Our eyes are not good at measurement, especially in brightness. They’re a little better in dimension, but in brightness, our eyes are constantly distorting what we see. The brightness that you see at any point is based on the points around it. So that’s what I thought I saw in Vermeer’s pictures. Jonathan Janson and I argue about this. Janson, I think, slightly misunderstands my take on this. He says ‘People didn’t care about absolute brightness. Why would Vermeer do that?’ and I would agree, they don’t care. Our eyes don’t care. Our eyes are perfectly happy looking at the photographs that have a totally different brightness range than reality. But I think there are side effects of this process that look like they show up in Vermeer and some other painters – not that many, just a few. David Hockney got in trouble for implying that all the great masters of the late Renaissance were cheating. That’s a strong argument. He wasn’t really saying that, but he did think the use of optics was pretty widespread. I’m focusing just on Vermeer because that’s where I saw this effect [of absolute brightness] the strongest, but there are other artists that produce the same feeling. Janson says it’s just a hunch, that I am reacting emotionally to Vermeer’s verisimilitude, and projecting my own photographic sense on it, interpreting it as photographic. But I think it’s there. I’m not sure if I can measure it.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: In your catalogue essay you lay out your reasons for believing that Vermeer used absolute tonal accuracy. What Jonathan Janson says is that you base your whole argument on the fact that you believe that Vermeer paintings achieve that objectivity – but Vermeer did not paint objectively. He interpreted reality in a fantastic way. Do you see any merit to that criticism?

TJ: It’s an old argument – it goes back before Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge. Philip Steadman calls it mimetophobia – the fear of exact copying, that an artist doesn’t do that, that art is not a picture of reality. As Hockney points out, even if you’re using an optical process, it’s work done by hand, and you can’t get around that. It’s a work of art. I have gone farther than Hockney. I have said you can, essentially, paint an accurate photograph. Hockney couldn’t find a way to do that. Hockney said, ‘I tried painting on the camera obscura image and I gave up after ten minutes, and everyone would.’ Generally speaking that’s true. It seems like it should work but it doesn’t. But I would never claim that Vermeer was taking snapshots and that they’re haphazard and that they were somehow not composed. They are beautiful pictures and my argument doesn’t change that, it’s just how you go about it.

EP: It’s not that you’re saying, ‘Look at my painting, look at my Vermeer. That’s as good as his Vermeer. Therefore my device must have been used.’ It’s more that you’re saying, ‘If this is what I can produce, someone with no experience or training, imagine what someone of Vermeer’s obvious talent could do’?

TJ: Right. That’s the gist of my argument – that the comparator mirror works. It is a way to paint with a camera obscura that nobody previously had thought possible.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

DW: Actually it’s not clear Vermeer had talent.

TJ: Hmm?

DW: In my opinion it’s not clear he had talent. Other artists who probably used optics, like Caravaggio, actually painted. One of the things that’s emerging in this experiment already is that everyone who has a go, particularly people who have artistic experience, use the comparator mirror in a completely different way. You sit them down, you tell them how to use it, they start drawing. The drawing takes on the characteristic of the objects but it also takes on a sheen of the artist, right? Everyone does that, with the exception of Vermeer.

TJ: I am shocked at the variety of drawings that have come out of the hands-on table at Mona. Not one of them really resembles another one very strongly.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: So what does that tell us?

TJ: As it pertains to Vermeer, it tells you that there was some spark in Vermeer that is responsible for the look of his paintings. It’s not just the optical process.

DW: I think it’s in the exact negative of that. I think that Caravaggio, for example, adds a sheen of his own expertise. Titian, if he uses a similar process, [Georges] de La Tour, and so on. Vermeer is the negative of that. He adds nothing. That to me is what characterises his work and why it’s most identifiably optical.

TJ: He does stick to the knitting, I think, if he used the comparator, more than most, more than de La Tour did, for example.

DW: The only way you can do it more than he did it is if you have no artistic experience at all, so that the comparator mirror is the only guide you have – as was the case when you painted The Music Lesson. So I think the default hypothesis is now that of the artists that used it, Vermeer was the most inexperienced.

TJ: I would maybe have to agree with you because I had no experience and I stuck to the knitting. That was my rule that I made for myself. ‘I’m going to paint, as precisely as possible, exactly what I see at the edge of the mirror. I’m going to copy that.’ I knew that I was painting differently than Vermeer but Vermeer didn’t always do what I did and he changed his painterliness often. He would abstract things. He would paint big areas of colour that are obviously not areas of colour in reality.

DW: Absolutely and that’s what emerges from people with a little bit of experience immediately. Possibly the two reasons that it worked for you is one, you didn’t know anything about painting, and two, you had decided to follow the process. Caravaggio can produce a large work in a couple of days – there’s some evidence for this. Vermeer – well, if he could, he didn’t, because he didn’t produce many works. I think there are a lot of flagstones on the path to suggesting that he wasn’t particularly experienced. We know that the Dutch had an apprenticeship-type process where you studied with a master and there’s documentation about who they studied with. We don’t know anything about Vermeer, do we?

TJ: No, we don’t, but it’s not unusual to have that lack in a Dutch artist.

DW: Give me an example.

TJ: I would say – and I haven’t really delved into this deeply – in less than maybe half the cases, the identity of the master is documented. There were scores and scores, hundreds of Dutch artists. This is a time in history, the seventeenth century, when something like five million pictures were produced in Holland. Everyone had a picture on their wall. This includes etchings and things like that.

DW: Everyone had a camera on their phone.

TJ: So a lot of people like to point out that Vermeer must have had a master and he must have studied for six years because that was the rules of the Guild of Saint Luke, and you couldn’t sign a painting, you couldn’t sell a painting, unless you belonged to the Guild. I did find kind of a loophole in the Guild regulations in that if you showed up with a masterpiece that you had painted, it was at their discretion to allow you to join without proof of your apprenticeship. In my alternate history Vermeer shows up with maybe Girl with a Red Hat or one of his early pictures and says, ‘I’ve painted this’ and they go, ‘Okay, you’re good enough to be in, without the six-year requirement.’

DW: Is it established that the loophole has been used?

TJ: No, but it’s in there in the Guild rules, as they were in the seventeenth century. It says that. It was mostly used for foreigners coming into the area, where they couldn’t really prove their apprenticeship. So then it was just down to how well can they paint, and can they pay their dues? That was important.

EP: For this experiment, based on what you’ve learned so far, would you considering altering the terms to use painters that don’t have any experience or training?

TJ: Sure. Caravaggio – we know he had training but from what we know, which is a lot more than about Vermeer, he was painting for his master, flowers and still lifes and things like that. He struggled. He wanted to paint portraits but he wasn’t at that point in his apprenticeship. We don’t really have any of his earliest works but they were pots of flowers probably. His style emerges out of whole cloth, just from nothing. It’s pretty much there from the start, from his first pictures, like Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Some of his earliest pictures have the same look as his late work. It turned Italian art upside down, because look – you either hated him or you loved him. One of his biographers was a painter, Bellori, who hated him. He said, ‘This guy’s painting naturally. He’s painting the way reality really looks, and you shouldn’t do that.’ He criticised him because he couldn’t paint without a subject right in front of him. He couldn’t invent a picture like you were meant to do as an artist. Caravaggio painted basically in secret. He didn’t like people to watch him. There’re a lot of strange things about Caravaggio. We know he owned mirrors, several mirrors, including a curved one – and he was a crazy man. Well, it was a violent time, but he was a very violent man.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

DW: Which Lapucci put down to mercury poisoning.

TJ: Yeah, they called it ‘painter’s colic’, from all these chemicals that they were around – arsenic, mercury, lead. All these things build up in your system and make you crazy. The treatment, by the way, for painter’s colic, was alcohol. Mass quantities of alcohol would take the edge off it.

DW: I think you answered the wrong question.

EP: I meant – for this experiment at Mona, you got trained painters. Would you consider changing it in light of what you’ve learned, to use less experienced painters?

TJ: I see. I misunderstood the question. Tim’s Vermeer showed one guy, me, painting one painting, by one painter, Vermeer, and as such it’s just a first step. People said, ‘Okay, that’s interesting, but what does it mean in a more general sense?’ So when David asked me to do more experiments I thought that was one of the things we should look at. ‘What happens when people that can really paint use this?’ And I’ve got to say up to this point it’s early in the process. I’m surprised. After a week or two I figured out that I had to exactly copy what I saw in the mirror and that’s where I got the realism I was after. These painters that have been practising now for several months, they have an incredible amount of difficulty doing that. My friend Graham is a painter and I had him try it. He hated it and still hates it. He allows that it is very effective and it allows him to paint like Caravaggio, which he would otherwise not be able to do. But, for example, Graham sat down with a brush, and we had a live model – Carlo. Graham started looking in the mirror and then he would just sort of lean to the side and just start to paint. He started, he got the eye in the right place – but then that was it. He was off. I stood back and I said, ‘Graham, in the mirror I don’t see the bags under Carlo’s eyes. I don’t see that, but you’ve painted it?’ He says, ‘Well, they’re there’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but you can’t see them in the mirror, in these lighting conditions at least.’ It took two or three, maybe four portraits before I could get him to do it.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: Was that about that revulsion for absolute verisimilitude, the idea that if you’re an artist then you should be interpreting reality as opposed to slavishly replicating it?

TJ: I don’t think that’s it. That wasn’t the case in Graham’s experiment. Strangely enough it seems to be much easier for artists to do still lifes [using the comparator mirror] than a face. They just refuse to paint a deep shadow on a face. They know what colour flesh is. They know how to paint portraits. The mirror says, ‘Okay, this half of the face is in deep shadow’ because that’s how I set it up, and they just won’t do it. I will point it out to them and they’ll go, ‘No, that’s the colour.’ Sometimes I’ll use my smart phone and take a picture through the mirror. Then you can see clearly that there’s black, white – it’s just like night and day. But there is a part of our brain that interprets human faces – the amygdala, I guess. I don’t know how that relates to brightness sensation, but it’s almost like a different pathway when they paint faces. They don’t want to do it.

DW: That’s what we learn from prosopagnosia, a condition where you lose your ability to recognise faces. That ability is an algorithmic component of the brain that’s separate from other visual processes.

I’m going to push this point. What we’ve done is get a bunch of experienced artists to use Tim’s device, and we’ve learned something, which is that they all paint differently. We need a control experiment, which is to get a whole bunch of artists who’ve had the experience which you’ve had, which is very little, and see if they all paint like you, because I think that that would be evidence that Vermeer was at the early stage rather than the late stage of his experience as an artist.

TJ: My prediction would be that they would not paint just like me.

EP: You’re talking about controlling different variables. Do you see this as meeting a scientific standard of enquiry?

DW: No. Science has to have knowledge emerge cumulatively, as Sister Wendy put it, like rungs on a ladder. It has to work, despite the fact that sixty-five per cent of scientific papers contain fraud in them. It has to work, despite the fact that almost no one knows anything themselves personally, because of their own biases. And it does. But insights come from a whole range of ways of looking at the world, and they’re the sort of things that I was talking about when I said Tim was smart. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a better accumulator of knowledge than some others. It just means that he has more angles. We have produced a text [the exhibition catalogue], and that text does not read like a scientific document. We’ve got two acts of advocacy, one from Tim and one from Jonathan. They’re both saying, ‘Look, here’s what I believe.’ We have no way of coming out at the other end with, ‘Hypothesis A is falsified’ – where hypothesis A is ‘Vermeer used optical apparatus’. I mean apparatus beyond a camera obscura, which is pretty well established I would think.

TJ: It’s not documented that he used a camera obscura.

DW: For the sake of the argument both you and Jonathan are assuming it is?

TJ: No. I like to not assume that. I think it’s likely.

DW: But Jonathan is assuming it.

TJ: He is, yes.

DW: And the way you’ve set up the experiment includes the camera obscura.

TJ: Yeah, but it’s not building on a known fact. It’s another hypothesis.

DW: Yes, but it doesn’t seem we addressed it in our experiment very much.

TJ: No. And our experiment here is more like – Jonathan’s two paintings will be, as I see it, two demonstrations of two different techniques. It’s not supposed to be scientific.

DW: Hopefully, knowledge… Well, let’s not call it ‘knowledge’. Hopefully, some ideas will emerge. It’s unlikely, but possible, that something will emerge that makes it testable.

TJ: It would be cool if it did.

EP: Even just loosening the constraints of how you can think about art history is already a valuable contribution to make, in terms of showing that you are allowed to challenge received wisdom.

TJ: When I read art history it doesn’t read like science to me. It’s a very quirky field to me, from the outside looking in. It’s pretty homogenous even though there are wide-ranging aspects of it that come from totally different points of view. Modern art history is really only one hundred years old. In Vermeer’s time there were no art historians. They didn’t write about art. What they wrote about it was maybe half a paragraph about a painting. Jonathan, I think, kind of resents this intrusion. Maybe I’m projecting on Jonathan, but a lot of art historians – for example, with David Hockney, they just said, ‘Stand back Mr Hockney. I can’t see Vermeer from where I am.’ Susan Sontag said, ‘You’re implying that the great lovers of history were taking Viagra. They were cheating.’

DW: Taking Viagra is now cheating?

TJ: Yes, it is, absolutely, according to Sontag.

EP: Let’s come back to that in a minute. I know exactly where David’s mind’s going. Just hold onto that thought for a second. So these are the dominant strands of criticism from the art historical point of view?

TJ: Yeah. Particularly in Vermeer’s case, Walter Liedtke and Arthur Wheelock have written a lot on Vermeer and they, at most, would go with the ‘weak optical theory’ – that Vermeer may have seen a camera obscura projection and been inspired by it but not actually used it [read more about ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ optical theories in the exhibition catalogue].

EP: But the main objections to your project – are they represented by what Jonathan Janson says in his essay?

TJ: Yeah, this mimetophobia particularly. Jonathan thinks that Vermeer was a towering genius, that he understood light in a way no one else did, understood painting as a result of this apprentice system, and also due to his incredible intelligence and talent. He might be right. That’s of course what we’re all taught in art history. So Hockney’s argument, and my thesis, which goes even farther – they don’t like that. It’s an intrusion.

EP: We are talking about the production of knowledge and the way that our own biases can contaminate knowledge. You said – famously now, within these walls – that you have ‘no dog in this hunt’. Do you really think that’s true?

TJ: No. I certainly want to be right and everyone wants to be liked…

DW: Which one would you pick? I’m pretty sure you can only have one.

TJ: I would rather be right.

EP: I’d rather be liked.

DW: It’s possible to be neither.

EP: True.

TJ: Yeah, so I’m probably neither. But what I meant by that comment was that I’m not a professional artist, art historian or art theorist, and I have no financial stake in it or academic stake in it. I am an outsider.

EP: David, what’s your dog in the hunt?

DW: Listen, I read Hockney’s book a few years ago. It didn’t cause me to form an opinion. I talked to [former Mona Director] Mark Fraser about it. Mark’s a smart art guy. He said the book was crap. Mark now doesn’t think it’s crap but he did then. So I thought, ‘Okay, it’s probably crap.’ He’s the only expert I know – or the only one who doesn’t have his own dog in the hunt. If Jonathan is going to learn to paint like Vermeer in ten minutes after forty years of failure, he’s going to be pretty shitty at the world. He would be so barking up the wrong tree that it would really, really piss him off.

So, me. Two years ago I formed an opinion. I watched Tim’s documentary. I read a few books and I started to think, ‘Yeah, that’s the way history is.’ The comparator mirror is pragmatic. It uses all available resources. At that point I was thinking, ‘This is so simple, it must have been discovered many times’, but I’ve rethought about that, and – I wouldn’t say it’s ingenious, but it’s quite lateral, and it’s possible that it wasn’t discovered. But I’m actually talking about why I believe it. I should answer your question. Your question is, do I have a dog in the hunt, and the answer is yes, but I’m nowhere near as committed as Tim or Jonathan.

EP: Do you now feel convinced enough that you would like it to be true?

DW: Well, it would fuck Jonathan’s life if it were true. Tim has got quite a bit invested in it. He’s had a movie made, had a whole bunch of people see it. He’s written a catalogue essay – more effort. He cannot avoid being very thoroughly invested. But because of the nature of our biology he can be quite unaware that he’s thoroughly invested in it. His status now depends on it. And for the most part new ideas only displace old ideas when everyone dies. Then they just move on from the old idea. Stephen Jay Gould talked more shit than almost anyone on earth and he had to die before he stopped polluting the biological environment – I mean the biological theoretical environment, as opposed to literally shitting in the river.

EP: Justification for an intellectual assassination.

DW: The trouble is, if you started knocking off all the morons, you’ll occasionally knock off the fringe dweller that’s right. Basically you need the crazies because every now and then a crazy is right. You need crazies – but also an apparatus to determine that they’re crazy.

EP: There are also other problems with killing people for their beliefs, but other than that, yes. In that sense – Tim, you’re obviously putting yourself on the line. But Jonathan is being very brave in what he’s doing. Taking part in this experiment is actually an incredibly brave thing to do.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

TJ: I like Jonathan. Jonathan is open-minded.

DW: He doesn’t like you.

TJ: I don’t care. He’s more open-minded than most people in this debate. When I first started talking to him about it he just didn’t understand my technical points. I said, ‘You should come to San Antonio and try this’ and he did. He spent two weeks there.

DW: Compared to another guy who wouldn’t even watch the movie.

TJ: Another guy, whose name – Arthur Wheelock – will not be mentioned, refused to watch the film, apparently, according to a mutual friend of a friend.

DW: That’s an hour and a half of his time. He can’t afford that. When he knows without question that the hypothesis is nonsense, why waste and hour and a half? Makes sense to me, but I’d still punch him.

TJ: So Jonathan came and he tried and he came loaded for bear, as we say in Texas. He had his arguments lined up and mostly his strongest objection was about underpainting – that the Dutch would start with what they called dead painting, typically a brown and white image. Then they would work it up in colours. I had not done that in Tim’s Vermeer. I had done it in a previous experiment that was not in the film. I told Jonathan, ‘I don’t see there’s a problem here…’

EP: But isn’t that anathema to what you were testing? You were saying that the painters were possibly using a completely different technique.

TJ: It turns out that underpainting is still extremely valuable if you’re using this comparator system, and Jonathan discovered that too. You can paint very thinly if you have an underpainting. If you’re painting alla prima over this dark ground, you have to really pile on the paint, and it’s a waste – a waste of money.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: So he actually helped and enriched your hypothesis rather than disproving it?

DW: Not as far as he’s concerned.

TJ: At that point in time he said, ‘Okay, I see that I can make an underpainting and make this thing work.’ His basic stance was, ‘I thought that there were reasons that Vermeer couldn’t have used this, but no, I don’t see it as totally incompatible with what we know about Vermeer.’ On that basis he wrote this little article on his website and said, ‘I’ve been to Texas. I tried this thing out. It’s not incompatible with underpainting and it looks like it’s not incompatible with what we do know about Vermeer.’ In other words, ‘I was not able to falsify it.’ That article sat there on his website for a week or two and then all hell broke loose, a flame war.

EP: From his followers you mean?

TJ: Yeah.

TJ: Jonathan was in there too, debating the hypothesis. I think his level of believing that the comparator was used fluctuates, too, just like it does with me, although my belief level is generally much higher. In the film I said it was ninety per cent and occasionally there are things that make me wonder and it drops. Jonathan seems to be going down. He seems to be gravitating lower.

DW: When there’s more at stake, he – like all human beings – will exert his personal bias more. He doesn’t lose status by saying to you that it’s possible, but he does by saying it to the world, as he discovered. When I mentioned to him that flame war, as you called it, he said it wasn’t like that at all – there were only a couple of people that blogged hundreds of times. In fact he pointed out, legitimately, that of the three quotes I used in my foreword to the exhibition catalogue, two of them came from one person.

TJ: Mr Uppercase. Yeah.

EP: I understand that so well because sometimes, just in my own writing, I want to develop an idea that contradicts mainstream feminism, which is what I consider to be my group. I can leave that group to discuss my idea with my friends or colleagues, but to actually turn around and say it to that group – it’s almost impossible. It hurts. It actually physically hurts because they’re going to kick you out. It’s terrifying.

DW: Our exhibition On the Origin of Art addresses biological processes in art. When I get criticised I just send them Elizabeth’s introduction to the On the Origin of Art exhibition catalogue. One of the key theorists on the biological differences between men and women happens to be a woman. My critics say, ‘You said this!’ and I say, ‘Here’s the reference – Sarah Hrdy,’ and it stops them dead.

TJ: Well it is kind of interesting that you get into these weird, little factions of nooks and crannies of some technical, arcane detail of some field and there will be people who have been at each other’s throats for months and years, but they’re interested in exactly the same thing. They have so much in common.

DW: The standard Christian position that the father and son are essentially the same age was disputed by the Arians, one of the Christian offshoots. And reasonably disputed – because do fathers tend to be older than sons? It was, one would think, a minor point, but it managed to get the entire group killed.

TJ: Well, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

EP: So why isn’t there any definitive historical evidence for use of optics of any kind?

TJ: Not for Vermeer or Caravaggio or most of the people we’re talking about. The first kind of stronger evidence – but not airtight – is from Canaletto, much later, who painted Venice. It sure looks like he was using a camera obscura, and there is a camera obscura in a museum in Italy that has Canaletto’s name on it.

DW: They used Canaletto in sea-level studies because his paintings were so accurate.

TJ: Right. It’s like a view back in time.

DW: You might as well have had a professional measure.

EP: ‘Sea’ level, right, okay. I thought you were talking about ‘A, B, C-level’ art.

DW: It is sea/C-level art in both senses.

EP: Right. When was this?

TJ: Much later than Vermeer. In Vermeer’s time camera obscuras were around and they did talk about them in relation to art. Samuel Hoogstraten, a painter and a writer, said – to paraphrase, he said, ‘Yeah, you should look at this camera obscura. It’s going to be very useful to painters to see this.’ But, like Jonathan sometimes says, there’s no documentation about how to make a paint brush either. Not all aspects of art were documented. There was no internet. There were no newspapers. People were largely illiterate, and the painter’s studio was something of an enigma. A patron took pride in being able to visit the artist’s workshop. They didn’t like to just have people wandering in. Hockney points out that most modern artists don’t like to talk about their tricks. They all have their secrets. Norman Rockwell said, ‘I use the epidiascope but I don’t talk about it. It just saves so much time to take a photograph and trace it.’ But he acknowledged that there was a stigma, that it was not something he would openly talk about. But most painters that I’ve talked to will admit that they use photography as a reference – Jonathan Janson included.

DW: My sister did a picture of her daughter, Misty. My sister’s quite a talented artist. It’s a sketch but with painted eyes. It’s quite a beautiful thing. I commented on how beautiful it was thirty years ago and she said, ‘I cheated, I used a photo.’ For her, that was the end of it being art.

TJ: Yeah, and then there are the hyper-realists that just make a photograph with paint – a human inkjet printer. They’re copying every point on that photograph. But why don’t we know about Vermeer and others’ use of optics? Why wouldn’t this be written somewhere? The camera obscura at least is in the literature but there’s nothing about this comparator mirror.

EP: You don’t think that it’s necessarily the case that Vermeer and others were actively concealing it? It could just be that, like you said, they just didn’t document everything about the process of making a painting?

TJ: I don’t know, but it’s a really good argument. You would think it’s so effective, so powerful, that somebody should have said something, and when did it die out, and when did people stop using it? Leonardo is the first real, earliest case where I can find a reference to anything like this concept, where he said, ‘The mirror should be the master of the painter. You should look at your subject reflected in a mirror and compare it to your painting’ – which is what this process does, exactly. Now, he didn’t say, ‘Carefully match the colour right at the edge of the mirror.’ He does, though, talk about that basic edge-matching later in the same book. He says, ‘If I want to paint a mountain and I don’t really know what colour it is, I’ll put a little paint on a card and hold it up next to the mountain,’ and you’ve got to have light on it and so on. So he knew about that basic concept. Even if that’s not what Leonardo was talking about it’s possible somebody else read what Leonardo said and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try that. It sounds useful.’

Jarrod Rawlins: How does the Claude glass fit into that?

TJ: Most people think that Leonardo is talking about looking at your painting in the mirror. It’s not what he’s talking about there. He does talk about that later.

DW: It would be difficult for anyone to interpret it the way you have until after knowledge of your device. If you’re reading it with that information, you’re going to read it in a different way. I read it and thought, ‘Okay, that’s a description of the comparator’ and then I thought, ‘How could anyone not have noticed that?’ Because they didn’t know about the comparator. Right?

TJ: Well, Leonardo does amplify on it a little bit and he says, ‘Seeing the image in the mirror removes it from its context.’ He seems to be talking about a more general application, not trying to make a perfect copy, but a Claude glass is a similar thing. It’s taking the thing out of its context. It’s a black, curved surface. Our eyes have trouble seeing smooth gradients of a large area. We just can’t know that that is a five and that is a seven. We just don’t know that. We tend to see them both as six. In a Claude glass or a small camera obscura everything is compressed closer together and there, our retinas can see the difference better because they’re closer. If you bring them right together so they touch you have no problem telling that one’s brighter or darker than the other. The farther away you get in visual degrees, the harder that is. So the Claude glass helps you bring that together. I don’t think there’s any evidence that Claude actually used the glass to paint landscapes, or if it just had his name. But Leonardo was influential. His works were published in Milan, for example. Caravaggio could have seen them. He travelled in those circles. In my alternate history Caravaggio, and maybe a few other people, knew about this, and they’re kind of keeping it to themselves. They sometimes let other people see what they’re doing but it’s not widely known.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

EP: David, I know we’re not talking about proof here, but speculate for me. Why would Vermeer and others want to conceal their use of optics?

DW: Up until very recently I thought it’s because if you can do something that no one else can do it enhances your status, and status is something that we’re biologically compelled to seek. Conspicuous consumption. Viagra, big dick, you know. You said you were coming to this moment? Well this moment came. So, you’re having a one-night stand, perhaps you’re trying to impress each other. Is Viagra okay? Well it’s probably going to permute the way your partner interprets your sexual prowess. So it’s cheating – if it might develop into something more than a one-night stand, and if you haven’t disclosed it. Now…

EP: Hang on. Can I stop you there for a second? Why are we comparing Viagra and painting? At the level of argument.

DW: We’re just talking about the nature of cheating and sexual metaphor is always attractive.

EP: So you’re assuming that painting is something that we do to display our skills or our abilities to enhance our status in an evolutionary sense…

DW: Yes, I see your point. Normally the context of this, within our circles, is assumed, but it would sound strange to a lay audience or a non-Mona audience. Yes, it is my firm belief that art is adaptive, or it’s nearly adaptive. It’s either adaptive because it is biologically useful in and of itself, and people making art somehow enhances their reproductive status; or it’s nearly adaptive, in that it is among the things than can enhance your status, so it’s useful in a less direct way. It’s a way of showing off. We have a metaphor in English that is just so potent that it makes it clear that it’s part of our subsumed knowledge and that is, ‘Come upstairs and see my etchings.’

EP: This an idea that you’re familiar with, Tim?

TJ: Yeah, of course.

EP: Not the part about the etchings, the part about art being adaptive.

TJ: I have etchings if you’d like to see them.

EP: Go on, David.

DW: So, if Vermeer knew something that enhanced his status, there’s a number of ways that he might justify concealing it. He might not tell anyone so that no one else can create like he can. He might not tell anyone because it undermines the possibility that he can be treated as a transcendent genius, even though, apparently, he wasn’t. In other words he’ll do anything… This is an interesting thing. People, and particularly males, will do anything – including genuinely being good at things – to enhance their status. Mathematicians only ever do anything worthwhile until they’re breeding or while they’re of an age of likely breeding. They’re nerds, so otherwise they’re not going to get laid.

TJ: Caravaggio, you can call him a ‘swinging dick’.

DW: ‘A phenomenal root rat’, you would say in the Australian vernacular.

TJ: And Torrentius in Holland was another one. He took great pride in painting these extremely realistic pictures, still lifes.

DW: What about Casanova? Casanova was such a good writer that the ladies wanted to fuck him for the sole reason that they would then end up in his books. So he closed the circle.

EP: David – and I’m going to ask you this question in a minute, Tim – let’s just say that we have established that Vermeer and others used this system or something like it. How does that affect how you perceive his art?

DW: I think he’s a fraud and I think he’s a crap artist. Let’s assume Tim is right. If Vermeer did it exactly in the way that Tim describes then he’s a fraud and a nobody and we should take him out of the canon of great artists. But the exception is if he had to cheat for reasons that were outside of his control. I hadn’t thought of this – and it probably doesn’t apply to Vermeer because of where he was, in the Protestant world. But Roberta [Lapucci] pointed out to me something that I should have already known, and it was this. In 1610 Galileo points his telescope at Jupiter and he sees Jupiter, Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto. He then uses that as evidence that all bodies don’t go round the earth. It isn’t evidence – it’s completely conclusive. They’re going around Jupiter, so they’re not going around the Earth. Okay. What does that mean for what’s called the Ptolemaic system, that says the Earth is the centre of the universe? Well it means it’s bullshit. Right? But to say the Catholic Church had a dog in the hunt regarding this matter is the greatest understatement of all time. Galileo didn’t even manage to get the word out for thirty-something years and when he did, he was castigated – possibly for other reasons as well, because he also heaped shit on the Pope. It seems that in Italy, if you used any optical apparatus to do anything, you would have been roundly castigated. I think that’s a perfectly valid hypothesis for Caravaggio. Does it also apply in the Protestant world? Well, it’s pretty well known that the telescope was invented in Holland and that Galileo built it only after hearing a description from a guy called Hans Lippershey. Yeah, so we know that, and because we know that, that might be an indicator that it wasn’t anywhere near as undermining to the Protestant religion, and also we’re talking about 100 years later. In 1665 there was a book written called The History of Optics. Such things probably wouldn’t have occurred. That’s pretty close to Vermeer. I don’t think you could have written such a book in 1600 in Italy. When Bruno talked about such things he ended up being used to roast marshmallows. It’s an alternative hypothesis that has some merit. So let’s say Vermeer used optics but couldn’t tell anyone because he’d get his arse kicked. Well then that’s okay.

EP: He’s in?

DW: He’s in. He stays in the canon. But if he did it solely to be a big swinging dick then no, he’s out as far as I’m concerned.

EP: So we’re talking here about the possibility – as you say in your foreword to the catalogue – that when we look at a Vermeer painting, we’re looking at a 350 year-old, handmade, colour photograph of his studio. We don’t exclude photographs from the canon of great art. Assuming Tim is right, why can’t Vermeer still be considered a great artist?

DW: But we only consider photography great art when the knowledge of photography isn’t suppressed. It emerges in the 1820s and then suddenly it’s universal. Five years later there are photos of women being fucked by donkeys. So we moved on very quickly.

EP: So it’s the concealing of what Paul Bloom calls the ‘honesty of effort’ – that’s the thing that matters to you? We need to be aware of the kind of conditions under which an artist created their work, in order to appraise it?

DW: Bloom also talks about the doctrine of essentialism, the idea that an object has something embedded in it by its author. Why do I want an original letter by Albert Einstein that tells me nothing that I couldn’t have found out somewhere else, or indeed purchased a facsimile of it for a couple of bucks? I was down at Salamanca Market and I see a map, a Dutch map. I said, ‘I own that map’ and the stallholder said, ‘Yes, I’ve sold lots of them.’ What’s the difference between the one she’s selling for $5 and the one that I paid $100,000 for? They’re the same map. It’s very hard to know, but that’s the doctrine of essentialism. There’s something embedded in it, right? When the artist hasn’t embedded the knowledge that enabled him to create it, I think it undermines the essentialism. I got that idea from the same guy – Paul Bloom.

EP: Sorry Tim, I’m going to give you a chance to respond properly in a minute, but I wrote a little mini essay. Will you indulge me for a second?

DW: This is targeted directly at the audience? Is this what they call ‘breaking the fourth wall’?

TJ: No. That would be pointing at the camera.

DW: This is the second wall.

TJ: Yeah, exactly.

EP: My reason is, I’m trying to put myself in your brain here…

DW: You’re going to get squashed.

EP: So here goes:
‘Art, in an evolutionary context, is essentially a signalling system. Looking at it that way, it’s clear that Vermeer was cheating because he’s faking his signal. We don’t judge art objectively in and of itself. We judge it as part of a performance, a signal of the artist’s fitness. To accurately judge that performance we need to know how, when, by whom it was performed, what tools did they have at their disposal, how did they overcome obstacles and handicaps? For instance if we look at a painting and we think a two-year old did it, we think, my God, that’s incredible. But then we find out that actually her Dad did it for her, and we think it’s crap. We judge it differently according to the context.’

DW: Yes. It’s lost its essential nature.

EP: This is obviously not unique to art. It’s about any kind of fakery in any kind of human endeavour.

DW: Amotz Zahavi proved that in a signalling system the signaller and the signallee have to share the same information base. For example, I can’t interpret Chinese singing. I don’t know if it’s good. You just mentioned the signaller then, but if the signallee is deceived, then it’s not an honest signal and it doesn’t indicate anything about the fitness of the signaller.

EP: So you’ve been duped basically?

DW: Yes. You’re banging out of your league.

EP: So Vermeer is actually being immoral according to that code?

DW: Exactly.

EP: Yep, okay. Tim you write in your essay – it leapt out at me, and I couldn’t wait to ask you about it. You write that you actually don’t think Vermeer is cheating and that for you, beauty is beauty, however that beauty is produced. Is that still how you feel?

TJ: Yeah, and I don’t think we know that Vermeer would have thought that that would be cheating, even if he was hiding his use of the comparator mirror. One obvious possibility is that his patron, his first customer, did know about it, and then that was forgotten, in which case I think you’d agree that it wasn’t cheating.

DW: No, they’re both cheating.

TJ: But what if it’s forgotten?

DW: His patron and him share a signal that they’ve given to the rest of the world. ‘Come upstairs and see my etchings’ – it doesn’t say that you made the etchings.

TJ: I see.

EP: The patron is kind of piggy-backing on the enhanced, or faked, status.

DW: In fact, I believe that Tim may well be self-deceiving here. If he says what I say – which is that Vermeer was either a consummate genius or a piece of shit, and there’s no in between – his chance of having his hypothesis accepted is diminished. I don’t think he can easily take on that hypothesis.

TJ: Your point is well taken. But, Vermeer – he lived in his time. We can’t put ourselves in his shoes. We don’t know what their attitudes were.

DW: But we’re trying to put ourselves in his eyes. Why can’t we try to understand more deeply?

TJ: Nobody wrote about these things. We know that this was a turbulent time, especially with Galileo being persecuted for being scientific.

DW: He was persecuted because he put shit on the Pope. He used the name ‘Simplicius’ as the counter-argument to the Copernican system, right? Simplicius was also the nickname of the Pope. He was essentially accusing the Pope of being a moron. It had nothing to do with the argument being made, in my opinion.

TJ: There was another painter who probably used optics, named Torrentius, maybe forty or fifty years before Vermeer, in the town of Haarlem, not far away…

DW: Do you think he used the comparator?

TJ: I do, and he was a swinging dick. He was a man about town. He had orgies. He was adored for his art. He was an atheist. He may have been a Rosicrucian, which maybe could explain why the church was so exercised, but…

DW: He was atheist and it’s funny – people would now assume, if they didn’t have any insight into that period in religious history, that atheism was worse than having a weird brand of Christianity, but in fact it wasn’t. Atheism was pretty well tolerated. What wasn’t tolerated was not believing in the right brand of Christianity.

TJ: Isn’t that interesting. So Torrentius was tortured. All of his artworks were destroyed. They said that his pictures were so realistic that you couldn’t tell you were looking at a picture. He made two kinds of art. The other kind of art was pencil drawings, mostly pornographic – people pissing on each other, screwing each other and so forth, and they were not good drawings by all accounts. So you have two things that Torrentius did – these amazing still lifes, without people, that look like photographs – and in fact a lot of people a hundred years ago thought that maybe Torrentius had discovered photography but all the evidence was destroyed. There are no paintings. So he was tortured and all of his artworks were destroyed. He was spirited out of Holland into England, where he never painted again. The English King wanted to rescue him because they admired his artwork. Fast forward to the 1900s. Somebody’s in a grocery store in Amsterdam and they found a lid on a barrel that was an oil painting. They lifted the lid and said, ‘Why is the seal of the King of England on this lid?’ It turns out this is a missing Torrentius. One of his drawings exists, too. You can see the dramatic difference. That story would have gone around and Vermeer almost certainly would have known about it. He knew people from Haarlem. There was, by the way, a real streak of realist painting in Haarlem – still lifes. It’s possible that that gives you that religious out, and lets Vermeer back in the club.

Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, Johannes van der Beeck (alias Johannes Torrentius), 1614

Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle, Johannes van der Beeck (alias Johannes Torrentius), 1614

DW: So tell me, Torrentius’ paintings were destroyed because of his beliefs and behaviour, or because of the nature of the paintings?

TJ: Well, it looks like maybe they were just after a Rosicrucian but they said that it was other reasons. His lifestyle. He defiled God apparently. There was testimony that he said that the Bible might not be true. They trumped up all these charges. He was tortured and never admitted to any of the charges. He just said he was a guy that could paint – although before that he didn’t help his case, because somebody said, ‘How do you paint these amazing pictures?’ and he said, ‘It’s not me that paints. I lay the canvas on the floor, I hear the sound of buzzing bees and the painting paints itself.’ That sounds a little suspicious – like the work of the devil.

EP: So hang on, so it sounds to me like you’re coming more towards David’s position, which is that if you could establish that there were extenuating religious reasons that the painters concealed these processes, then you accept that they can keep their place in the canon. But if it was purely cheating, then they can’t?

TJ: I think my position is probably a little different. I think it probably wouldn’t have been that remarkable. They were using all sorts of machinery to make art. These perspective machines that Dürer put in his etchings… I mean, the whole book, Martin Kemp’s book, The Science of Art, there’s a whole chapter of these machines used to make paintings. Leonardo painted this perspective pyramid where you’re looking at a painted glass and you can actually trace and get accurate perspective on a piece of glass. ‘The mirror should be the master of the artist.’ That seems to be implying that it’s commonplace for artists to use aids and enhance their perception in one way or another. In Vermeer’s time we just don’t know. There was another contemporary of Vermeer, Fabritius, who lived in Delft at the same time. They almost certainly were friends. Most of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in a big explosion called the Thunderclap [when a gunpowder store exploded in Delft] and we don’t have many of his paintings left. But one of them is a little picture called A View of Delft and it’s sort of an anamorphic fisheye picture of the new church in Delft and it looks like it was made with some sort of optical process. Then there are all these others, such as Holbein and The Ambassadors, where you have this skull that you can only see from an angle and the table is covered with optical instruments. Vermeer painted two scientists in his work, The Geographer and The Astronomer, who look a lot like a portrait of Leeuwenhoek, the microscopist who was born in the same month as Vermeer in Delft and lived a couple blocks away. He was an optical expert, and ground the world’s best lenses for microscopes. I think it was just part of the wallpaper. It was like having personal computers today. Optics was the Pentium chip and it was everywhere. The telescope was the fastest-adopted technology in that time. Nobody had them, then fifty years later everybody had them. The lens that I used in Tim’s Vermeer was essentially a telescope lens. It’s exactly what you’d expect to find on the far end, the objective lens, of a telescope. They would have been around and they would have been extremely good lenses.

DW: But you said extremely good lenses weren’t necessary?

TJ: No, but they were good. People have argued that the lenses couldn’t have been very good but in fact they were.

EP: I think that, quite appropriately, you’re not committing that historical fallacy of pretending to know what it’s like to be in that world. But what about just for you, now, here today. When you look at a Vermeer or a Caravaggio – and let’s say you’re completely convinced it was produced using optics. How are you affected, emotionally, by that knowledge?

TJ: Well, I’m more interested in an optical-looking picture, but I apparently have a hound in this hunt, so that might be why I like looking at those sorts of pictures.

DW: But it’s a good question. Before you got into this were you someone that looked at Caravaggios? I remember seeing the de La Tours in the Louvre – the Mona Lisa didn’t do much for me, but they just floored me completely. Now I look at a de La Tour and they do nothing for me. You killed it. You killed my appreciation of art and I’m going to close Mona down and join a convent.

TJ: Is it for sale then?

DW: You can have it.

TJ: Yeah? Thank you. Did we get that on tape?

DW: Yeah. But you’ve got to keep it open.

TJ: That’s the catch, oh dear. Yeah, like David, I went to the Louvre and I saw Vermeers, I saw de La Tours. There is something that looks anachronistic about them, that they’re out of time, that they’re from the future, that somehow they got a Polaroid camera.

DW: Yeah. I get that more with the de La Tours more than anyone else. And even though they’re photographs, they don’t photograph well. You assume that the photo is an approximation, but it isn’t. I don’t know if you’ve answered my question. Before you were interested in optics were you interested in art?

TJ: Yes.

DW: What was your favourite picture? I know you’re a Rembrandt fan. Were you always a Rembrandt fan or did it become clear to you that he was the only genius who didn’t use optics?

TJ: I’m not sure he didn’t use optics, but yeah, Rembrandt went up a notch when I put him in the context with optical Dutch art because it looks pretty clearly like he was just a very unusually great painter.

DW: Imagine if you don’t know about something that everyone else is using…

EP: Imagine how ripped off you’d feel!

DW: No, but you’ve got to lift your game. You’re got to try to be…

TJ: I have a fantasy that Pieter de Hooch who painted pictures extremely similar to Vermeer and lived in Delft, was just tearing his hair out trying to figure out how Vermeer did it, sort of like the movie Amadeus with Salieri saying, ‘Damn him, how did he do that?’ and de Hooch did go crazy, apparently. But Vermeer just has this incredible look that de Hooch…

DW: Was he more successful than Vermeer at the time, arguably?

TJ: Well, he turned out a lot of pictures, and Vermeer was poor. We know that.

DW: Yeah, the Salieri thing. In the conception of the movie, everyone except Salieri believes that Salieri is better than Mozart, and Salieri knows that that’s complete shit.

EP: This is leading into what I wanted to talk about which was the idea of genius. You touched on it briefly before, when we were talking about Bloom’s idea of – well, the term he uses is ‘positive contagion’. That one of the reasons that we value authenticity in art is because it is seen to be imbued with something essential about the person who made it and the particular time and place, and that somehow you can kind of catch that by touching the real one. A copy of the original, one that looks exactly the same, but which is not the same, is worthless. It’s the same to talk about sentimental objects, like my child’s first pair of shoes. I keep those as a sentimental object – if you replace them with a completely identical pair, I don’t want those, they have no interest to me.

DW: The dish that had been on the Titanic is the amazing archetype of this.

EP: Through this process of ‘positive contagion’ – and this is more my take on Bloom’s work – somehow we’re brought into contact with the idea of genius, an idea we are endlessly emotionally invested in. In Tim’s Vermeer Penn says, ‘Unfathomable genius doesn’t really mean anything. Now he’s a fathomable genius’, which I thought was a lovely quote. I want to ask both of you – is there such a thing as genius?

TJ: Well, yeah. The word has a meaning…

DW: That’s exactly where I would have gone, but I think you know what she means.

TJ: Something ineffable, something not able to be understood. That’s what a lot of people mean when they talk about Vermeer’s genius – that it goes beyond understanding. You can’t describe it. You can’t analyse. It’s just there. To me that’s kind of a supernatural concept and I’m not a supernaturalist.

EP: That ties into that idea of unweaving the rainbow, how Keats said Newton was destroying the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it, and if you try to explain something mysterious then you kill it.

DW: And Newton was and is, many would argue, the most creative person of all time. But he said, famously, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ There’re about twenty-six reasons why that’s strange but one of them is that if he wasn’t so fucking smart he wouldn’t have been able to think of something that elegant. But in fact, a little bit of digging shows that we have completely misinterpreted that statement forever. The giants were the Greeks, right, and he was basically saying that he learnt nothing from Robert Hooke, his biggest competitor. That’s been misinterpreted by everyone forever, but it’s quite well known in scientific circles that he meant something completely different.

EP: I guess what you’re saying is that the idea of genius is tied somehow, even if it’s not explicitly stated, to something supernatural and you don’t believe in supernatural explanations. So it doesn’t have resonance for you?

TJ: Well, in the dictionary sense of the word, absolutely I believe in it, that it’s a measure of intelligence I guess.

DW: What’s the difference between genius and brilliance?

TJ: It’s a graduation…

DW: Schopenhauer said, ‘The brilliant hit a target that no one else can hit. The genius hits a target that no one else can see.’

TJ: That’s nice.

DW: It sounds like crap to me, though, and also it’s got the same problem that the Newton thing has. You can’t think of it unless you’re…

EP: Why does it sound like crap to you?

DW: I know what the word genius means, just like I know what the word infinity means, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to obtain either of them, because they’re nonsense. They’re not available. I’m a little bit better at table tennis than almost everyone in the world, but there are still probably twenty or thirty thousand people who can beat me. How did I get better? Because I started to get a tiny bit better and that got me interested. So I kept doing it and I got better and better and better. It’s a feedback mechanism. When Federer started playing tennis I suspect he was just slightly better than everybody else. And there’s also this thing that now we have access to everyone on the planet, outliers are given undue prominence, if there’s a reasonable distribution. You don’t talk about anyone that’s between average and pretty damn good. You cut out a big point of the distribution and it looks ridiculous. But also the closest thing to talent is to do something that makes no sense and then happen to get a statistical outlier. I talked about it in my book. There’s probably about the same number of tennis players and people who work in finance, about a hundred million or so, in the world. I would say that the average income of people who work in finance is higher than the average income for tennis by a mile. But the biggest incomes are in tennis because of that funny distribution. Genius is that thing that when you do it well, disguises the fact that you shouldn’t have done it at all. Tell me someone who’s described as a genius who was wrong about their essential argument – because there should be just as many of those. It’s essentially having a wild idea that has very little merit at the time you propose it and then turning out and being right and then having the retrospective analysis say, ‘He was right and he didn’t have any information’ and they don’t say, ‘Well, that was lucky.’ They say, ‘He’s a fucking genius’.

EP: It makes me think of the time I saw David give a talk and someone put their hand up at the end and said, ‘David, it’s possible that you have autism or that you’re on the spectrum in some way. My son has just been diagnosed with autism. What advice would you give to him and to our family?’ Instead of saying, ‘Tell him he can do what he wants, reach for the stars,’ what David said was, ‘I strongly recommend that you seek treatment and you see your doctor. You’re going to have a hard road ahead of you.’

DW: Yeah. The embedded question was, ‘How can I get my son to turn out like you?’ and I am this close to having sat in the corner all my life. That’s just not a bet you should make, and that was the answer I gave, essentially.

EP: It’s the same as if someone said to Federer, ‘What would you say to a young aspiring tennis player?’ ‘Quit playing tennis and go and become an accountant.’

DW: Agassi actually says that.

TJ: Well in painting, there is genius, and I tend to think of it like David describes. You seem to be good and you try to be better. In the apprentice system people start at a very young age and that’s critical in a lot of fields, probably in tennis as well. Four years old. Maybe the game’s all over by then.

DW: Yeah, pretty well. Particularly in women’s tennis, the commentators say things like, ‘Yes, you can see the weakness in her backhand, but then she didn’t start playing tennis until she was seven.’

TJ: Right, yeah. Took it up late in life. My idea of genius in that sense is JS Bach, who has never been surpassed and probably never will be.

DW: Hasn’t been surpassed – a fair argument. Never will be…

TJ: In counterpoint, in composing counterpoint. Counterpoint is a lost art now and largely because JS Bach…

DW: It isn’t lost forever, necessarily.

TJ: No, probably not, and probably some AI will prove us wrong sooner than later.

DW: They can beat us at chess now.

TJ: But he was the result of a long line of composers that all started young and they all built sequentially on that knowledge, and he was probably just a very smart guy and a very hard-working guy. But it’s intimidating to hear Bach if you’re a composer. And if an artist was cheating, and it is really not possible to sit down in a room and paint a Vermeer, then there’s a benefit to exposing that, because artists are thinking, ‘I will never be able to paint like that, so I am not going to do that.’ I heard Art Tatum play jazz piano as a youngster and I go, ‘I was thinking about playing jazz piano. Now I’m not thinking about it at all because I could never even get close to that.’ It’s been done.

DW: Yes. I call that the enabling and the disabling. In the enabling category, for authors, is Isaac Asimov, an unbelievably good writer – but anyone can write like him. All you’ve got to do is take away all the bullshit. That sounds simple. Or not so simple, but you can learn. Then there’s Vladimir Nabokov. When I read him I am utterly disabled, because he says things, and the words seem to have been handed on a platter from God. I wonder what technology he had that we’re going to find…

EP: Imagine if we find out he was cheating!

DW: Because he’s so disabling, I would be delighted.

TJ: I think Bach did it with mirrors.

EP: Tim, you’ve become involved in a project of demystifying genius, even if that wasn’t really your intention. David, you’ve had a long-standing interest in demystifying genius, whether that’s artistic genius or table tennis.

DW: I opened a bloody gallery and I don’t know anything about art and I put a few pictures on the wall incongruously, in a way that people with some expertise wouldn’t do it. The very reason that I have a crowd is because of my lack of expertise. Because I couldn’t compete as an art historian, I had to make up my own domain. That made it very successful and now people are calling me a genius. It’s the exact counterpoint to what I was attempting to do. I was attempting to learn the basics. I was at one end of the distribution. In fact I am wobbly training wheels for real museums. I can’t remember the number, but a higher percentage of people who have never gone to an art gallery in Australia visit Mona. No surprise, because it’s fun in here, but it’s only fun because I knew nothing.

EP: Do you think that there’s something essentially pernicious about the myth of genius?

DW: Essentially pernicious? I’m just going to think about the beauty of that phrase before I work out what the hell you’re talking about.

EP: Is there something that’s essentially worth demystifying about genius, or is it just because it’s fun to do?

DW: You don’t embark on things because they have value. The value emerges later. I kind of like these campaigns where you get people like Jolie or Pitt to strip their gear off and they’ve got a bit of flab or a birthmark or something. The idea of a role model disgusts me, that there’s something special about someone that you should attempt to emulate. It’s probably the same as essentialism – that intellectually disgusts me, but I can’t walk away from it. Why do I want to own a first edition of Origin of Species signed by Charles Darwin? Why? I don’t know. If I want to know something, I can read about it on Wikipedia. Tim mentioned Torrentius. The first time he mentioned Torrentius, I had never heard of him. What do you do? You go to Google Wikipedia. That’s where you start your research. I reckon everybody does that now. And no one thinks, ‘Gee, there’s no genius behind Wikipedia.’ What if I said, ‘I’m the guy that wrote Wikipedia’, and you believe me? I’d look pretty damn smart.

TJ: So it is a work of genius?

DW: It is a work of genius but it isn’t made by a genius, nor a set of geniuses. Knowledge emerges from falsification. There’s a foment of ideas and then there’s a sieving process from which knowledge emerges, that drops through. Then you go back and you say, ‘Okay, there are these four thousand ideas, and this one said the thing that we now believe. Holy Christ. How did he know?’ and it’s always ‘he’, that really shits me, too.

JR: So is collective genius possible?

DW: Well that’s what it is, yes. If you define genius as getting somewhere when you can’t see the steps – the ‘black swan’ versus a very white swan… The best example is Michael Faraday, an English experimenter, in electricity mainly, but also chemistry. He was self-taught. He was arguably – because he managed to achieve a lot in a number of fields – a pretty bright guy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, which is like the British tax collector, was visiting him, and he’s looking at this thing that is now called the Faraday Bridge – the sparks jump from one side to the other. William Gladstone says to him, ‘That’s very beautiful Michael, but what’s it for?’ and Faraday says – this is as close to genius as you can get – ‘I have no idea what it’s for, but I can tell you this, one day you’ll find a way to tax it.’

TJ: Beautiful and true.

EP: I’ve just got a couple more questions. Tim, you wrote in a marketing text for us that this exhibition scares you. What exactly scares you about it?

TJ: Well, with Tim’s Vermeer everything was totally under my control, with the exception of editing the film. Everything I did in my studio was my own work. But one of the questions was, ‘What if somebody else was doing this? What result would they get?’ And that’s what David said – ‘Let’s do some more experiments.’ I’m already surprised. It’s not what I expected, to see all these people using the same machine and getting incredibly different results. Scary but exhilarating. I guess what I meant was that everything I know may be wrong, and that’s disconcerting. I may have hallucinated this entire hypothesis. It may be utterly wrong, and if you read every other book on the topic, I am wrong, because the comparator mirror doesn’t exist.

DW: This harkens back to my genius, right? Tim’s essential idea is very, very good. The comparator works. People walk in and they draw something and you look at it, and there’s something essential – the other sense of essential – in the picture. I look at it and it happens to be that I’m one of the subjects and quite a lot of the drawings are of me. I look at them and I think, ‘Yeah, right. I didn’t see that before’ in my own face.

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Hound in the Hunt
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

TJ: Wow.

DW: Now. That this technology exists – it either existed before, in which case you’re only a re-discoverer and you’ll get credit. One day you’ll be a hero. Or it didn’t exist before, and he’s the first human being ever to think of it, which would deserve vastly more credit because then he’s triumphed over all of humanity forever. But no, this time, when he actually did something that no one ever thought of before, this time he’s a fucking fool because he was wrong. You’ve got to be right to be called a genius.

TJ: Another possibility is the comparator doesn’t work and I’m just a really great painter.

DW: It’s an uncanny coincidence that almost every good undiscovered artist has been to the gallery in the last two weeks and it’s all going to fall apart.

EP: David you wrote in the [Hound in the Hunt] catalogue – and I think it was just a joke, an off-hand comment – that in the unlikely event that this exhibition isn’t a complete fiasco, there’s going to be a second volume of the catalogue. What would constitute a complete fiasco for you?

DW: Yes, it was a throwaway line. What I was trying to do was not have the formality of ‘Volume two, with our conclusions, will follow’. In science, experiments that fail used to not be published, for the most part. They now do a number of things, such as citation analysis, meta studies. For instance we only have studies of cigarette smoking that show it’s dangerous, because the two or three per cent that should, statistically, have shown that it wasn’t dangerous, don’t get published. If you look back at the literature you can do the maths and you can find that in the 1950s exactly the opposite happened. So when you do a scientific study you have data and you publish a paper. You are committed to making that data available, right? Someone did a very – in my opinion – genius study of scientific fraud. They just picked thousands of papers at random and wrote to the authors and asked for the data. If they didn’t get it, they asked again. If they didn’t get it, they asked again. Sixty five per cent of people never sent the data. Conclusion? Sixty five per cent of papers are actual fraud – and that’s not the ones that are just self-deceiving. I was thinking when I wrote that off-hand remark that if we don’t prove anything we just won’t publish, like everybody else.

TJ: That’s not very admirable by the way.

DW: At least I admit it. Well, at least I’m conscious of it. At least when I’m a fraud, I’m a conscious fraud.

EP: If you had discovered this technology and you were in Vermeer’s place, would you have used it and tried to get away with it?

DW: Listen, I have discovered a technology that’s relatively simple, that’s made me outrageous amounts of money, right, and I don’t tell anyone how I do it.

EP: Are we about to get a scoop?

DW: And it’s not just because it made an outrageous amount of money. It’s also because, in fact, there’s not much ingenuity there at all. At the moment I’m a black box, a black swan box, and people go, ‘Gee, he’s clever’. They keep telling me I’m a mathematical genius. I employ dozens of mathematicians and they’re all better than me. Why would I employ someone who wasn’t? Yeah, so the mathematical genius thing is quite funny for me and occasionally I run with it.

TJ: But you thought of this technology, and maybe more importantly, you recognised it?

DW: I didn’t even think of it. Phil Turner, who’s a complete wastrel, thought of it, but because he’s a complete wastrel, no one will ever know, except for the eight people that ever read this interview.

TJ: Well, since nobody’s paying any attention, you can tell us what it is, right?

EP: Tim, I’m going to assume that you would also have indulged this technology, had it come to you and you had the opportunity.

TJ: And would I have hidden it? I’m not sure. I like to think I’m an honest person…

EP: Aha, so you clearly do think it’s dishonest.

DW: She’s slaughtered you. We might as well stop here. In fact, cut.

TJ: I try to do the right thing, like a lot of people…

DW: Here’s the evidence that Tim would have cheated. Apparently, if we believe someone who isn’t him – an art historian, Roberta – everyone did it. Titian did it, Velasquez did it. And there is no documentation of it. Now, I’m sure some of them were honest men. The reality is that Tim would have kept it a secret because we have statistical evidence that everyone did. For whatever reason, they did. Or, the whole thing is a load of crap.

TJ: I would say that they wouldn’t have perceived it as being wrong.

DW: And neither would have you.

TJ: Maybe. That’s stipulated in my premise. Had I known it would be wrong, I would have tried to do the right thing.

EP: You seem very hesitant to commit that kind of historical fallacy.

TJ: Anthropologists are famous for projecting their modern ideas on ancient cultures and I think that’s a real danger here.

DW: Have you read The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond?

TJ: It’s on my list.

DW: Well, he doesn’t do that. He is wonderful.

TJ: You have to keep an open mind and not just accept things that you can’t prove, when there’s not much information.

DW: If you’re one of the eight people reading this… now am I breaking the fourth wall?

TJ: Sure.

DW: If you’re one of the eight people reading this and you happen to have gone to the end first, don’t read the rest of it, just go and read that book, because it will change your life, and nothing we are ever going to say will.

TJ: So he doesn’t have a hound in the hunt?

DW: He’s got a greyhound in the poodle race.

EP: I read that book just after I had Jack and I wanted to reverse engineer justification for having him sleep in bed with me – everyone kept telling me it was dangerous to have your baby sleep in bed with you, but I read the parenting chapter of that book and it said, ‘Yes, you can do it.’

DW: I’m not sure if it’s relevant to our discussion but he looks at the parameters of human behaviour, various things you can do and be measured, and finds that the interesting thing about Western culture is that it is always at one end of the behavioural spectrum. So if you investigate one thousand cultures, whatever the parameter, we are either the most conservative or the most liberal, but never in the centre of the distribution.

TJ: Wow.

DW: And if it’s true it is such an incredible, important insight. He’s a fucking genius.

EP: Cut. That’s the end of my questions.

TJ: Those were great questions.

EP: Thank you.

DW: She’s very clever. If she were a bloke she’d be a genius.

EP: I’d be a big swinging dick. Or I’d have one, I don’t know. Speaking of being a genius, were you recording that? Because I forgot.

TJ: Oh dear.

DW: If you were a bloke you wouldn’t have forgotten.

TJ: You can remember all that, I’m sure. The strange thing is David probably does remember all that.

DW: No. I remember the bit where I said I was a genius.

TJ: I don’t remember that part.

Gilbert & George: a critique

Elizabeth Pearce

I’ve been trying to work out what I think about the art of Gilbert & George. There is much that should not be taken at face value of course, but the democratic element of the work – their desire to speak as clearly to taxi drivers and café owners as to snooty gallery-goers – is genuine, and it is successful. (You shouldn’t call it ‘work’ though, it’s too wanky; they insist on ‘pictures’.) You don’t need any special knowledge to look at the pictures, nor even to think very hard. Their desire to be anti-elitist is borne out in their art critic of choice: a guy called Michael Bracewell, who has been writing about their art for years, and whose essays – no less than eleven – can be found in the catalogue on sale in our bookshop (and here), along with an introduction by David Walsh and foreword by Olivier Varenne. Sometimes, so-called anti-elitist artists are pipped at the post when it comes to criticism of their work: they insist on art wank in their catalogues and so forth, because they think it legitimates them, or something. Bracewell eschews such wank for a warm (if sometimes repetitive) humanism. And – like the artists themselves with their suits and ties and their pleases and thank-yous – Bracewell’s texts can be misread as quaint; in fact, they are progressive for their refusal to bow to the taste and fashions of the moment.

This brings me to probably my favourite thing about the Gs. They turn the idea of ‘radical’ on its head. They say the reason they adopted their trademark ‘conservative’ look and professed their love of Maggie Thatcher was to beat their own path, away from their bohemian peers. I am similarly irked by the seemingly compulsory politics of the gallery-going demographic, parts of which confuse ‘radical’ with ‘left-wing’. Of course, often, the two overlap. But ‘radical’, to me, is not a fixed set of beliefs, but a willingness to think things through independently, and to entertain an idea on the basis of its merit and not its popularity. They are not really old-fashioned and quaint of course, nor are they true lovers of Thatcherite politics – beyond, perhaps, a belief in the creative capacity of the individual (this is purely my reading, they have said nothing to this effect that I am aware of). But it was important, back in the 1960s when they met, to mark themselves as outsiders – for two reasons. Firstly because it emphasised their desire to break out from the uniform modernity of their art-school generation: the muted tones, the circles and squares, the denial of emotion. It’s easy to lose sight – when you’re looking back along the arc of art history – of how brave it is to do something different. (The extent to which this ‘something different’ matters to them is borne out by a fifty-year commitment… More on that below.) And secondly, in adopting the suits and the faux-stuffy manner, they are making a simple but effective point about the way in- and out-group boundaries are policed in the art world. To belong to the cultural elite, you must meet certain criteria, such as progressive politics, bohemian manner, and love for difficult and densely theoretical art. (For a hilarious take on this, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word). This is set up in opposition, as Wolfe points out, to stuffy middle class values: pretty pictures, politeness, conservative politics. This desire for elite cultural status on behalf of the viewer, along with the artist’s desire to be more and more radical, creates a kind of feedback loop that has a real impact on the cultural evolution of art (and, as we will consider in an upcoming exhibition, can be traced to our biological evolution as well).

To stopper this feedback loop, and go against the grain, was truly radical of Gilbert & George. But that was in the 60s. What about now?

Around the time of the exhibition opening a few people commented to me about how the Gs are such a perfect fit for Mona. I can see why they would say that – the subject matter, the bright colours, as well as the desire to ‘piss off academics’ as David would put it. But for much of this process, I have been preoccupied by the way they are different to us. And in thinking more about this, I have reached my conclusion about the art of Gilbert & George: I respect it, but ultimately, it’s not for me.

In my capacity as writer for the Mona marketing team, I was a little slow to work out that the Gs wanted, basically, to colonise us: to implant their entire worldview onto Mona as a passive platform, in everything from text on our website, the style of font we use, eccentric punctuation, etc. This is part of their long-standing way of working: they design, curate and execute the entirety of their exhibitions, on the stated basis that they, not curators and gallery directors, know what the public wants. I found this a little bothersome at first but then I got the hang of it. It was good for us, I think, to try this different way of working: quite often we ask artists to join a choir in a sense, to let us sublimate (respectfully) their intention to the overall ‘experience’ of the museum. It was an interesting experiment, and one that prompted us to think more clearly about our usual methods.

But as the process wore on, I began to wonder why it was so important to them to be so unbending. It fits within the ethos of their work, which makes stasis (somewhat factiously) a kind of ideology. They famously eat at the same Turkish restaurant every night, and avoid cultural input like theatre and films, in case it distracts them from their distinctive view. And do the pictures themselves reflect stasis? The subject matter has changed a little over time, as has their use of colour and composition; they switched seamlessly to digital photographic processes in the early 2000s. But the essential idea remains the same. They pride themselves on this: ‘The world has changed,’ they tell us, ‘but our pictures stay they same.’ And I know what they mean. Think of the SCAPEGOATING PICTURES (they like it written in capitals) that dominate the space as you first enter the exhibition at Mona. Women in burkhas – neighbours from their home in London’s East End – stare at us or thwart our gaze, alongside the artists themselves, who are variously menacing, and/or fragmented into little pieces, as though destroyed by the ‘bombs’ that dot the pictures. They are not really bombs of course, but nitrous oxide canisters (hippy gas) that are apparently strewn around the streets near their home. In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, these pictures are breathtaking. They capture, for me, a central ambivalence at the heart of our western stupefaction in the face of extremism: How can we begin to reconcile our love of diversity and tolerance of difference with our creeping awareness that dogmatic thinking – including that which motivates religions of all kinds – closes down the free play of the human imagination, giving rise to totalitarianism and terror? I don’t know the answer but I am pleased the Gs are worrying about it with me. And I respect them for not running away from it – literally, in their commitment to live among and depict their multicultural and multiracial neighbours, and to inhabit all the hypocrisy and contradiction to which this gives rise. I sense, here, the beginnings of that ‘moral dimension’ they claim for their art.

Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London.
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

BOMBERS. 2006, Gilbert & George

BOMBERS, 2006
Gilbert & George
(Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London)
Mixed media
Courtesy of the artists and White Cube
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

But as I walk further through the gallery, my excitement wears off, and I start to be numbed by repetition. Perhaps this is part of their intention. I can’t help but ask: in not changing, are they missing something? Namely, the sense that ‘going against the grain’, beating your own path, means something very different today as it did in the 1960s. For a start, there is no ‘grain’ to go against. There are not paths of cultural evolution: it’s a web, in which we sometimes feel trapped, numbed by the words and images that surround us in the network era. Much of their work pivots on a juxtaposition and inversion of authorised and unauthorised discourse: graffiti and profanity alongside newspaper headings and government slogans. The distinction does not hold fast today. All writing is graffiti, and all is propaganda. No discourse is authorised any more than any other. And that is exhausting, to live in – and to look at, in art. I can’t help but be reminded of the guilt-ridden, social-media apathy that marks the moral landscape of my generation: torture, suffering, sign the petition; like, unlike, unsubscribe. They tell us their subject is the raw emotion of human experience: hope, love, sex, fear. But I don’t see these emotions so much as the idea of them. They are repeated and deferred, always just out of reach. They are speaking not (to me) of the human experience, but of the way that experience is abstracted and reiterated, spawning and breeding meaninglessly like AD Hope’s ‘teeming sores’. They don’t, in fact, speak to me at all, but only speak about speaking. But in doing so, they are, paradoxically, speaking about our modern malaise: about the way hope, love, sex, fear are trapped beneath the surface of the words and images, like a fly in a glass, trying to escape. This was prophetic in the 60s but now, we need to be shown the way out.

Gilbert & George Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016. Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Gilbert & George
Born 1943 in San Martin de Tor, Italy and 1942 in Plymouth, England; live and work in London
Gilbert & George: The Art Exhibition, on display at Mona until March 28, 2016.
Photo Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know the pictures better. The impressive scale of them, and of the artists’ commitment: this must be respected. But still, I want more. I think I’ve become a little old-fashioned. And I think Mona has the capacity to be that way, as well – to gravitate towards art that truly engages that moral dimension, even if, in doing so, it also shows us the darkest parts of ourselves.

More Mona

By Elizabeth Pearce

When the museum first opened, this artwork, by Jon Pylypchuk, was displayed alongside a ‘spin’ painting by Damien Hirst. It was an odd coupling, one that seemed somehow to demand that I think about the myriad reasons people make and look at art.

You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

Foreground: You asked me to come and see your routine, you call this a fucking routine?, 2006, Jon Pylypchuk
Back Wall: Beautiful Mis-shapen Purity Clashing Excitedly Outwards Painting (detail), 1995, Damien Hirst

We sold the Hirst and some other works recently, part of David’s scheme to raise money to make MORE MONA – another wing to house his James Turrell fetish.

There’s three artists – Hirst, Pylypchuk, and Turrell – who illustrate the trinity of creativity at the heart of the phenomenon we call ‘art’.

Turrell is a craftsman and magician, tapping into our innate preference for the numinous. If you’ve been to the museum recently you could hardly miss his rooftop spectacular, Amarna.

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Amarna, 2015, James Turrell

Hirst is hard. It’s so easy to dismiss him as a charlatan and to point out that he has approx. zero talent as a painter; no actual, nameable, hands-on skill or craft to speak of. But look harder – or in a different way – and he is a deeply traditional artist, in the sense that he is expressing his reality using the most relevant, up-to-date tools available at that particular time; what humans have been doing since they started making marks on the walls of caves with their hands. In post-Thatcher, empire-burn-out Britain (that is, in Hirst’s time), individual virtuosity was subsumed by the economic and nationalist nihilism of the era. In this context, the reverence with which we regard the figure of the artist – as a harbinger of authenticity, specialness, and truth about ourselves – was more than irrelevant, it was simply untenable. Art has always been packaged and delivered to us in a culture industry that stands in awkward (and sometimes arbitrary) relation to the fact of the artist’s actual talent. But for the first time, in turn-of-the-century Britain, the culture industry swallowed the artist and his talent entirely. Damien Hirst was clever enough to run with, rather than against, this sorry state of play, and in doing so made: a) A shit load of cash, and b) Us reconsider what it is we want from art. How far we are prepared to go to defend it. I posit that Hirst’s career ended with his debut as a traditional painter at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009. The public reaction to his exhibition of blue-themed, Francis-Bacon rip-offs – the Telegraph called it ‘one of the most unanimously negative responses to any exhibition in living memory’ – gave us a definitive answer to the question around which Hirst’s entire career had hitherto revolved. Are painting, drawing and individual skill important to us? Yes, they are.

What has this to do with Jon Pylypchuck’s collection of creatures doing unnatural things to trees? First, a little background. Pylypchuck came to art via laziness and apathy. At the time, he was trying to avoid getting thrown out of uni (University of Manitoba, Canada), and had ‘no interest at all’ in making art. Then he just started making this stuff he calls ‘scrap art’ with his friends, and thinking up stupid titles to make each other laugh. I don’t know. It just works. It’s weird and funny, that’s it. The weight of Turrell’s hope for humanity and of Hirst’s disorientating nihilism is crushed beneath its coolness.

David is philosophical about selling the Hirst work, but I am sad. Not because I loved that particular piece but because I have almost forgotten what it was like, in Mona’s early days, to have no set opinions on art, to be trying to work out what it’s all about. Thankfully I’ve still got Jon Pylypchuck here to remind me.

Goya and The Disasters of War

-By Elizabeth Pearce

We own one small etching by Francisco Goya, part of his famous series The Disasters of War. It has recently gone on display in the museum.

Esto es peor (This is worse); plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Esto es peor (This is worse);
plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

My colleague Jane Clark writes in her ‘art wank’ text that Goya is referencing not just the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain, but violent conflict in general. In our plate, she writes, ‘the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter is impaled like ghastly fruit in a tree’. The nude figure

derives directly from the antique: the Hellenistic marble Belvedere Torso sculpture which Goya had sketched during a visit to Rome years before.  Where 18th-century cognoscenti saw ruined antiquities as evidence of a noble Classical past, Goya saw ruin as ruin and human nature as unchanging. There is no glory here. War, he suggests, is as timeless and innate a human trait as art.

I know about Goya mostly via a pair of young-ish British artists called Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994), we recently sold. The Chapman brothers obsessively revisit Goya in their work; ‘like a dog’, as they put it, ‘returns to its vomit’.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

©Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994, Jake Chapman & Dinos Chapman
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!); plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!);
plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

Evidently, Goya is the kind of artist that makes a permanent mark on the mindscape of his descendants. What kind of mark? That’s impossible to say, because acts of creativity multiply upon inception, mingle and spawn, in ways that are not easy to discern.

I’ve recently been reading a great book (meaning one of universal significance) called The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, an account of the way man’s pleasure in his own skill and knowledge has drawn him ever upwards toward the heights of empathy and liberty of which he is capable. (We can talk another time about where all the women were during this ascent; I think watching Dr Phil). Bronowski’s is a nourishing, optimistic view of our kind, but he is at pains to point out that human cultural evolution is not a series of finished, polished cultural artefacts – the arch, the plough, the Theory of Relativity – but a ceaseless unfolding, a repetition and multiplication of ideas that infect the minds and behaviour of the human species as a whole.

Goya’s idea, here, is especially infectious. And that idea, as I see it, is not simply that ‘war is bad’, nor even that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence towards each other, although I agree that this is an important part of what he has to say. For me, Goya is telling us something astonishingly modern about ourselves, something he had no right to see so clearly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and something that is capable of fundamentally (gradually) changing who we are: violence is a kind of de-humanisation. I mean that in the general sense, in that to hurt someone is to deny their equal claim to life and liberty, their freedom from unreasonable pain. But I also mean that to be human is to be forever striving to balance what you want for yourself – the latent violence of your base desire – with what you want for the human race. It is in that way that being human is itself a process; a quick, and not a static, state. At our best, the spatial metaphor for the human condition might be a ladder, an ascent; at our worst – as we see, here, through Goya’s eyes – it is a dreary circle, terror numbed by repetition. Consider the titles of the Disasters of War etchings, sampled at random from the eighty-two in total:

The way is hard!
And it can’t be helped.
They avail themselves.
They do not agree.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There is no more time.
Treat them, then on to other matters.
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.

Goya began the series at the age of 62; it was only published in 1863, thirty-five years after his death. For him, the weight of human suffering was too great; his career in many ways marks his descent from firm faith in order and reason into chaos, fear and disillusionment. But in the process he shows us that which sits at the seat of the human ‘ascent’: self-knowledge.

 

Current exhibitions

Making fun: Mona and Buchel

– By Elizabeth Pearce

The Christoph Buchel exhibition closes next month. It’s notable that it made it thus far. Buchel was incensed at our decision to remove the ‘Are you of Aboriginal descent?’ faux-genetic testing, which he felt damaged the artistic integrity of the project; at one point, it looked like we might have to deinstall the lot: the Southdale shopping centre, the C’MONA Community Centre, and the installation in the south-west national park. (It was too late to consider pulling the Australian Fair for Freedom of Belief and Religion. Did you realise that was part of Buchel’s work as well?) Obviously we didn’t want to cut short the exhibition, not only because we think it’s excellent, but because its genesis was so painful for everyone involved. So I’m happy to say our curators, Nicole, Jarrod and Olivier, worked it out with him.

During the multi-phased debacle, David made it very clear the genetic testing would not be reinstated. I agree with that. However, I don’t think we should have taken it down in the first place. This is not because I’m concerned about Buchel’s artistic integrity (if he was so worried about that, he should have let us name him as the artist from the outset instead of letting David and the curators cop the flak) but because I think the genetic testing is satire, and effective satire, and that Aboriginal people and history are appropriate subjects for satire in some contexts, as I will explain below.

In the days after the exhibition opened, we were moved by feedback from some Tasmanian Aboriginal people that the genetic testing was hurtful because it objectified them, and shocking because they had not been consulted. I was (and am) deeply sorry for the offense. Buchel had high-tailed it back to Europe, our sense of abandonment assuming a distinctly postcolonial air. This – Tasmania – is our community, harbour of our dark history, much as we machinate our legitimacy with European art-world credibility. David did not deliberate: the work was taken down. I wasn’t asked for my opinion, but at that time, it concurred with his. (I’ve since changed it. Why is changing your mind considered a weakness, in our politicians for instance? As David points out in his blog post apology for the genetic testing incident, single-mindedness is an arsenal away from totalitarianism and dystopia.) When we opened the museum in 2011, we expressly wanted controversy, and as you know, we didn’t get any. But this was shaping up to be a thin kind of controversy, unsatisfying for us, in the sense that we were conflicted about parts of the project in the first place. If David had believed from the start in the artistic merit of the genetic testing, neither he nor it would have budged an inch.

So common among us at Mona was (and is) a desire for solidarity with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. But you and I know – as thoughtful, postcolonial citizens – that ‘the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’ is not a monolith, no more than ‘the Swiss’ or, indeed, ‘the staff at Mona’. If this slipped my mind momentarily, I was promptly reminded of it by the strong, varied response to the removal of the work and to David’s abovementioned apology. He was criticised on multiple fronts: for permitting the erection of the work in the first place (hurtful), for authorizing its removal (patronizing), and for censoring the artist’s message (draconian). Greg Lehman is right: the affair is a ‘measure of how tender the wounds left by the British ­invasion of Tasmania still are’. But so, too, is it a measure for the importance of representation of self and others in the process of healing those wounds. For me, this comes down to the right to engage with conventions such as humour, satire, hyperbole, irony, farce… no mere literary trifles, but rather, central modes of human identity-construction and expression. I believe it is appropriate to engage Aboriginal experiences in a satirical mode because those experiences are not tangential to, special cases of, the human experience. We should not be afraid to include Aboriginal people when we make fun of ourselves, and in doing so, come to see ourselves more clearly. Indeed, maybe ‘making fun’ is a measure of our humanity.

Further, the satire’s surrounding context establishes a productive, as opposed to malicious, intent. The Buchel project is about the nature of ethnicity; it pivots on the irony of Tasmania’s history of displacement and erasure (the fantasy of terra nullius was no where more bloodily enacted) alongside the dream, courtesy of one Critchley Parker, to replace the traumatised Jewish people in the wake of the holocaust. The Critchley story also feeds into the great Australia tradition of dying in the bush, itself a part of the man vs. nature drama at the heart of our national identity. In the past that drama has precluded Aboriginal presence, or subsumed it into the ‘natural’ forces to be overcome; the possession of the ‘empty’ Australian landscape has itself been cast as part of the natural and inevitable march of human progress. Buchel knows this and incorporates it into his broader intention, which is to juxtapose the absurdity of the Critchley dream with the silent horror of holocausts both near and far, the Jewish-inflected commercial imperialism of the shopping mall, and the ambivalent idealism of the community centre at the heart of the Mona enterprise – itself an impossible dream come true, but one that, some argue, has its own cultural imperialist implications for Tasmania. I believe, in this context, that the point of the satire is not Aboriginal identity itself, but the absurdity of trying to abstract, quantify, and objectify that identity – which is precisely what non-indigenous Australians have sought to do, in one way or another, since settlement.

My reading is consonant with my interpretation of other elements of the project. Consider C’MONA. On opening night, a colleague came streaming out of the Community Centre declaring offense on behalf of the persons participating (performing?) within. ‘They don’t know they’re a work of art,’ she said. ‘I am offended by that.’ She was referring to the people who had responded to our invitation to take part in what our website describes as ‘a fully functioning community centre… located on the bottom level of the museum’. ‘We seek to engage the full spectrum of the Tasmanian community,’ the brief continues (I know because I wrote it), ‘and invite proposals for workshops, events and activities representing a broad field of engagement and endeavor, including art and craft, discussion and debate, education, music and dance…’ There’s a St Vinnies, a library, and a children’s playground (my friend took her toddler there and sardonically enquired whether letting him wriggle down the slide was akin to artistic exploitation). The enthusiastic response includes groups like Students Against Racism, Community Health Knitting Group, the Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Community Network, and many more. On opening night, I was thrilled with unease as I toured the C’MONA ‘exhibition’. At first I thought it was because of the creepy-comical simulacrum of ‘the real’ that was taking place: C’MONA emphatically is a real community centre, and at the same time, a work of art, because what – after Duchamp – determines something as a work of art, other than its presence in a gallery? But my colleague’s expression of distaste – her sense that the participants were being objectified – has gradually revealed to me the depth of my ambivalence, and of C’MONA’s artistic significance.

It is in this way that controversy is valuable to us as consumers of art: because in the fallout, we clarify what is important to us. But is C’MONA art? Perhaps the question gives words too much power. It is what it is, whatever we label it. But then again, we need to answer the question in order to locate the power exchange that’s taking place. If C’MONA isn’t art, there is no abuse of power taking place, no exploitation or objectification; the people participating are not serving themselves up as fodder for us gawping art-world types. If it is art, that’s because it is located at Mona, and not in a town hall in Bridgewater (or wherever). The participants were not duped or blindfolded; they know where they are, and why. What makes us think they are not entitled to participate in their own objectification for the purposes of artistic expression? Why, again, is satire – or more specifically in this case, the use of metaphor – reserved for the elite? Or: does the permission to use and exploit the power of metaphor (C’MONA at once ‘stands for’ a community centre and actually is one) confer elite cultural status in the first place?

When it comes to a painful past – the fingers of which stretch out to hold us in the present and the future – satirising, objectifying, making fun, are fraught. But so, too, is not making fun, locking members of our (human) race into a stagnant, stultifying, straight-faced literalism; not permitting them the privilege to laugh and to be laughed at, nor to turn the painful joke to political use. I have a sneaking suspicion, and not for the first time, that the joke is on us – Mona. Perhaps this is overdue. And perhaps it is the kind of controversy we’ve been wanting after all.

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

 

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C'Mona - Community Centre)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (C’Mona – Community Centre)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)

Christoph Büchel, Land of David (Poynduk)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Just a story

By Elizabeth Pearce

Tessa Farmer’s The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum will be de-installed on Tuesday. The work is part of The Red Queen exhibition, which opened in June last year; it has taken me since then to find a way of putting into words Tessa’s startling, fun and funny way of looking at her role as an artist. It’s simple, really. She just tells a story. But the unique part, the part that makes it all so loveable, is the way she elides her role as the creator, watching the narrative unfold with the detached curiosity of any other bystander. In another artist, this might seem pretentious, a rhetorical trick to get attention. In Tessa, it’s a pleasure.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Her work revolves around an army of tiny fairies – made from the roots of plants found in her mother’s garden – terrorizing poor, stuffed critters: cats, hedgehogs, foxes and, in this case, a Tasmanian brushtail possum. I interviewed her twice, in London in 2009 and more recently in Hobart in the lead-up to the opening of the Red Queen. One of the questions I always ask in my interviews is, ‘How do you define success as an artist?’ Both times, Tessa told me her ultimate objective is for the fairies to take over the world. She says it with a smile – of course she knows they can’t really take over the world – but still, the objective of her art unfolds within the internally cohesive, closed-loop narrative world of her own making. The same goes for the fairies themselves. In 2009, I asked her: ‘Why are your fairies so mean?’ expecting an answer along the lines of, ‘Historically, the figure of the fairy has been anything but sweet and innocent. I’m interested in drawing out those more macabre elements’, or, ‘My work is a fable about the ferociousness and futility of human conflict’, or, ‘I am making a statement about the way we wage war on the natural world’. Instead, I got: ‘Because they’re ambitious, because they’re greedy. They’ve got to eat’. From that interview:

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you on their side?

Tessa Farmer: I suppose so. That sounds a bit mean, but – yeah, I suppose I feel responsible for them. I’m satisfied by their progress. It makes me happy.

EP: So you’d feel guilty if they went hungry?

TF: Oh, I wouldn’t mind so much…  I really don’t know very much about them, to be honest. It’s a bit frustrating. People keep asking me about their social structure.

EP: That’s their business, really, isn’t it.

TF: Yeah. Like do they have a queen? I don’t know. Do they mate? I don’t know, I don’t really want to know. It’s embarrassing.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

In The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum, the fairies are conquering a bees’ nest. ‘They learnt to control bees in Britain, and they seem to be controlling the honeybees here in Tasmania quite well, too,’ Tessa told me when I spoke to her in June. They are apparently using some sort of unspecified mind-control to do so:

TF: I think it might be pheromones, and maybe dancing – you know, like how bees dance to communicate where flowers are. Lots of insects communicate through pheromones.

Once enslaved, the bee-sting power is sublimated to more sinister use: the torture and destruction of a (taxidermied) Tasmanian brushtail possum. (‘Wouldn’t the wasps evolve behaviours to counteract the predation of the fairies?’ worries Tessa momentarily, before brushing the thought aside).

TF: I thought the possum would be quite easy to overcome, but they make these horrific noises and have these big claws. When it actually arrived [from a taxidermist in Launceston], I realised what thick fur it had, and wondered whether the bees would be able to get to the skin of the possum to sting it. It might all be completely futile.

Which bit, I wondered later, might ‘be completely futile’? Is this an existential, or entirely pragmatic matter?

TF: They’ve developed a mutation where they have – this sounds so ridiculous, sorry, I’m just mentally telling myself to shut up.

EP: No, don’t.

TF: The fairies have developed a mutation so they have crab claws on their heads, to grab the wasps with. We collected the crab claws a couple of weeks ago at Lewisham [Tasmania]. They’re really tiny because the fairies are only one centimetre in size.

EP: Amazing. And I’m correct in saying the fairies are anatomically accurate?

TF: Yes.

EP: I remember when I spoke to you last time you were worried because they didn’t have kneecaps.

TF: Yes, but I’ve gotten over that. I have to learn to stop putting myself down.

EP: Yes, I must say the lack of kneecaps is not a major issue for me. What are they going to do with the possum once they have it?

TF: Eat it and use its bones to make bigger, more elaborate ships and architecture, and probably use its fur, I think.

EP: Do you want the viewer to take away some kind of environmental or social message from your work?

TF: No. I wouldn’t mind if they did, but that’s not my intention. I’m far too involved in the story.

‘I’m far too involved in the story’, she says. I have recently encountered a theory (de rigueur in some circles) that has liberated me: we are more viable, evolutionarily speaking, when we create sweet stories about ourselves, and believe them. Others – both competitors and mates – are more likely to be deceived by us, to find us funnier, sexier, kinder and better parents than we really are, if we are deceived by ourselves. This gives me chills a bit. I didn’t really need to read it in a book to know that it is true. (To what extent it is useful to discuss in terms of natural selection I will leave to others to decide.) The notion has helped me accept the stories of the people around me, as opposed to trying to get them to ‘see the truth’: that their worlds are not autonomously animated by mysterious forces (God, the fairies, fate), but a result of a series of choices that seem natural and invisible to each individual because those choices obey a secret, powerful inner logic. Is the conflict we see all around us – most intensely between loved ones as opposed to strangers; those of overlapping but conflicting interests – the result of stories in collision? When others act outside our plot, refuse to play the part assigned to them, or, worse, call into question our own heroic role, this hurts and angers us; obstacles on the path to our true destiny (to ‘take over the world’, whatever that means on an individual basis). Interestingly, I have noticed that the traits people are most self-critical about are often not the ones that cause others the most pain (‘I have to stop putting myself down’, says Tessa). That’s the nature of self-delusion. The more you squint at it the more it recedes into abstraction, like those hidden-image stereogram patterns that were popular when I was a kid. The best we can aim for, I think, is a modest self-consciousness, an ability to momentarily see ourselves from without (‘this sounds so ridiculous…’).

Listening to the recording of my interviews with Tessa, they are full of laughter. I am laughing at her (gently) and she is joining in. This is the difference between the best and worst of us, I think. It is also the difference between a friend and someone who means nothing to us: the willing suspension of disbelief. Occasionally it has occurred to me to beg my friends to tell me what my self-deceiving stories are, but that’s not the nature of friendship. They might, perhaps, remind me when I’m a little ‘too involved in the story’; but mostly, I am lucky enough to have friends who laugh and cry in all the right places, reassuring me with their very company that it’s not ‘completely futile’ after all.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Consider the Fuhrer

By Elizabeth Pearce

Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? You probably did – or, conversely, you are spitting at the screen right now: ‘He was not a vegetarian, that is a myth!’ Indeed, type the key words into Google and you will find whole forums dedicated to discussing the Fuhrer’s warm-and-fuzzy or otherwise feelings for furry critters. Wiki says he was one, though (vego, not furry critter). It’s interesting to consider why it matters so much. On the one hand, it throws into starker relief the cruelties he perpetuated on his own species. But on the other hand – and more menacingly – it draws attention to the flimsy and contingent nature of any moral system. We want to draw the blanket conclusion: monster: but his sensitivity (imagined or otherwise) to the lives of some, and not others, mirrors back to us in monstrous form our own hierarchy of species. A question stirs somewhere: is there an inherent cow-ness or pig-ness that throws open the door to these creatures’ slaughter? Or is it just because we can? (The question stirs, but only for a moment. Hitler’s abstinence from animal flesh is swallowed whole by the holocaust, which unites us in our horror.)

The reason I am compelled to consider the Fuhrer is because I am researching Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia on display as part of the Red Queen exhibition at Mona. I heard from someone at some stage during the installation of The Red Queen that Olympia is ‘a documentary about Jesse Owens and Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’. That’s an interesting distillation, but an inaccurate one. The film is actually not a documentary but a highly stylised work of creative non-fiction. The ‘non-fiction’ part is the fact that the subject of the film is, indeed, the ’36 Games; but these events are shaped by Riefenstahl into a form as exquisite as the bodies on screen: these finely honed fetish-objects, fit for the mythical apotheosis of the human form. Jesse is there, amid the other Gods. Hitler is, too.

If you’re not clear on the significance of ‘Jesse Owens, American negro, the world’s fastest sprinter…’ (as put by the commentator for the men’s 4x100m relay) basically it is this: Owens won four gold medals at the Games and was its most successful athlete. Born in Alabama in 1913, at nine he moved with his family to Ohio, part of the ‘great migration’ of 1.5 million African Americans from the segregated South to more prosperous parts of the country. At Ohio State University he broke track-and-field records willy-nilly but was compelled to live off campus like other black students and also was not permitted to patronise the same hotels or restaurants when he travelled to events with his teammates. (I find myself given to the temptation to rehearse these Wiki-facts with tired shock: we’re well versed in the realities of racial segregation but still that reality has the capacity to amaze me). In one day (actually, according to Wiki, in the space of forty-five minutes), May 25, 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied for a fourth at the ‘Big Ten’ college athletics event at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The ’36 Games were set in his sights.

But here, Wiki and I say our goodbyes: Owens apparently ‘countered’ ideologies of Aryan racial superiority ‘by winning four gold medals’, irking Hitler. But surely his superb athleticism could be conveniently explained away by the belief that ‘primitive’ peoples inhabit their bodies more fully – devoid, as they are (according to ‘master-race’ theory), of the need to direct as much energy as whites to higher intellectual, social and moral functions? Apparently Hitler muttered something like that into his moustache as he turned away from the field in disgust. I made that last bit up. And someone else, apparently, made up the well-known story that Hitler refused to congratulate Owens after his first gold-medal win, storming out of the stadium in a terrible huff and going home to fondle his guinea pigs. (Sorry, it’s just that I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that read ‘Justice for vegetarians: Hitler was no animal lover’).

(And on the vegetarian issue: I have recently partaken of flesh – I think some drama is appropriate – for the purposes of nurturing my unborn child i.e. I’m normally a vegetarian but my obstetrician told me my iron is too low. This is the first of many instances, I sadly concede, when my broader vision will be obscured – obliterated – by my desire to bolster in any way I can the wellbeing of my progeny, in some sort of bizarre, compulsive faith in the belief that as my child thrives, so the world turns. One of the caricatures of a bio-cultural approach to human psychology is that we are puppets moving on the strings of our genes – a caricature, I say, because good bio-cultural explanations do not in any way displace the importance of culture, environment and personal choice in favour of ‘genetic determinism’. But in this case, I feel a bit puppet-ish, I admit. At exactly sixteen-weeks pregnant, which was when I felt my baby move, I started to feel near-hysterical levels of anxiety in regards to its safety – I’ve since been told this will never get better, which is terrific, thanks. And when I say ‘near-hysterical’ I mean signing up to Choice Magazine, itself an appalling act, and compulsively scanning articles on pram and change-table safety, and hence managing to be both a lunatic and hideously boring at once. This new me sits outside of me, somewhere apart, totally disintegrated with what I consider my character. I am not enjoying it. The sensation is captured in a beautiful book by Anna Goldsworthy, Welcome To Your New Life, in which the narrator attempts to take her husband and new baby on holiday ‘from sleep deprivation, from hyper-vigilance… from ourselves’. At their coastal holiday house she is horrified to discover a long-drop toilet, a repository – or suppository, if you’d prefer – of maternal anxiety:

Quickly I close the lid, but it is too late. I have seen how you would fall. That moment in which clumsiness ticks over into disaster. The dense plummet of your body; the viscous splash…
The baby must never go in there!

That night, so fearful is she that her husband will succumb to the toilet’s ‘sinister gravitational pull’ and offer up the child as sacrifice to its ‘moist and malodorous’ belly, that she builds a fortress of suitcases around him as he sleeps, so that if he wakes he will rouse her as well. Recently David wrote a blog post about his daughter Grace’s accident which many of you read. One comment on our Facebook page in response to his post read: ‘A very nice example of why a scientific world view can, and does, help us deal with shit of the emotional kind’. This made me feel cheerful because it is something I have learned, and I’d like to think that it has come across to those who engage with what we do at Mona. So, science consoles. Something I have always known, have never had to learn, is that so, too, does literature).

Yes: so while it’s true that Hitler did not shake hands with Owens, neither did he shake hands with any competitor that day. Initially he had decided it was appropriate to congratulate only German victors on the podium; the Olympic committee gave him an ultimatum: shake hands with all of them or none. He chose the latter. Which I find a little amusing. It reminds me of a recent failed attempt at a veiled ultimatum for my husband’s eight-year-old: ‘If you don’t go for a walk with Dad, I might find some jobs here at home I need help with’. ‘Good. I like helping’. (His reward for piercing my pathetic attempt at manipulation was that I let him off the hook, which he would have appreciated because no one likes helping. It’s something our mothers made up to wreak revenge on the human race for the pain of childbirth).

The artistic and historical significance of Olympia is twofold. Firstly, it exemplifies many cinematic techniques – such as creative camera angles, tracking shots and use of non-diegetic sound – that were, for its time, groundbreaking. Its release brought widespread acclaim for Riefenstahl, who beat Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to take the grand prize at the 1938 International Film Festival in Venice. During a tour of the United States to promote the film, she was received by Disney and publically praised by him for her achievement. But there in America, awareness was growing of the horrors gathering in Germany. In November that year, Riefenstahl was asked to leave the country.

It seems clear that Riefenstahl was to some extent consciously participating in a Nazi propaganda campaign, especially when you consider Olympia alongside an earlier film, Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg Rally, as well as her close personal association with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. But whether or not she was really conscious of what she was collaborating in – how could we possibly know? In her autobiography she claims that she learned of Nazi Kristallnacht attacks against Jews from American reporters, and was shocked. The historical debate could go on forever and is not super interesting to me. Much more interesting is the relationship between artistic intention and outcome the film generates.

Firstly, is there any propagandist purpose evident in the film itself? I find it impossible to say. I watched it without knowing much about the historical conditions of its production, and I didn’t find that it dwelled in particular on German athletic supremacy. You could argue that the shots of Hitler looking calm and sane in the face of racially diverse athletic success are terrible visual lies, but they are not in themselves propaganda (i.e. they obscure, as oppose to champion, his true agenda). Secondly, and more importantly: does it matter whether or not she ‘meant’ for the film to carry any special message? Is what the artist wants or intends to express a priority, when considering the value of a work of art to us, the human race?

I made out like that was a hypothetical question. The truth is that I’ve already made up my mind. Artist intention does matter, but not that much. I might not have meant to pull the trigger, but I did, and now you’re dead. The fact it was not a malicious murder matters, sure, but you’re still there on the floor, gathering your own meaning as the blood pools behind your head. In less violent imagery: there is no perfect transmission of intent. The space between my words and their echo in your ear is the engine of social interaction, the imperfection that perfects the system. Reading is always misreading, listening mishearing; art is art, by definition, when its message gets lost in translation. Otherwise, it’s just advertising. Olympia is art, then, and not (just) propaganda, because it takes us close to the Fuhrer, and then onwards, elsewhere. Indeed, that is the power of the arts, to exercise the human double-bind: that we are infinitely malleable, amenable to past and future, but also share a common nature, ‘that which binds us,’ and that which ‘literature [and art] has always, knowingly and helplessly, given voice to’ (Ian McEwan). And it is also to remind us, more urgently perhaps, that ‘no one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced … is the suppository of all wisdom’ (Tony Abbott).