Melbourne Now: The defining moment for a century of art schools?

Juliette Peers looks at the big picture of the NGV homegrown blockbuster Melbourne Now and finds its origins reach back in time.

I once saw a vintage German postcard perhaps from the 1970s with a young couple in resort wear sitting rather glumly in their living room. All their friends had gone off to those various resorts at every corner of the Mediterranean and even in Thailand and Bali that are so heavily promoted in packaged deals to German tourists - indeed W.G. Sebald suggested that once having been bombed out of their homes, collectively Germans had not stopped moving since the early 1940s. If by choice or by circumstance one stayed home one was serviced with postcards to send to friends. The old children's book The Saturdays also explored this idea of the holiday at home, that to change perspective meant that the home-grown could, if seen from a different perspective, offer the same pleasure and the same riches as the Other. Equally Melbourne Now repudiates the belief current for at least six decades that a significant art show has to be bussed in from elsewhere in order to prove its significance.

Whereas Sydney with the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman trio as well as the Biennale, GOMA in Brisbane with its cycles of major overviews (and their lavish inservicing with space and catalogues of chosen artists a clear precedent of Melbourne Now) and Adelaide with the visual arts surveys associated with the Festival have built up an ongoing rhythm of periodic examination of salient trends in contemporary art, Melbourne has only managed a more interrupted tradition of smaller broken cycles. Yet ironically Melbourne has boasted an intellectual consistency in educating artists and designers and in collecting and curating art that is greater than that of most population centres in Australia, but has served that consistent achievement poorly in documentation and self-analysis. Melbourne Now fills that gap at least in documentation if not in self-analysis. What we have is the aggregated summary of over a century of professional art and design education. There are currently at my rough count nine senior level art/design schools public and private in Melbourne – given that definitions of the private training institutions as art schools per se are a little flexible, I am under rather than over estimating. This is a vast show that covers both a numerical strength and an extremely diverse range of local practices.

The general manner of the work also tells us much about what has been taught at these various art schools – particularly the definition of art that is current. Pure painting on the whole seems dead – Max Meldrum and Jackson Pollock are equally victims. The object, installation, thought rendered concrete by arrangement of diverse material substances dominates. Narrative as taught and expected in art schools also dominates, given that a student can’t make progress in art school without being well-informed and explicit about where and what one’s position is. Each work has either an implied narrative or a very tangible wordscape attached to it at least by way of the artist’s statement. This insistence upon the authority of the artist’s interpretative voice leads to one of the weaknesses of the show in that the narratives themselves are sometimes weak and essentially trivial, relying either upon the vagaries of sometimes half-educated and narcissistic makers or fashionable templates such as postcolonialism; it is the ritual and perception of doing the right thing that is a dominant element of the whole show.

Given the size of the art scene in Melbourne, it is surprising that it has taken so long for the NGV to invest so much time and energy into the largest show in its history with the largest range of artists. Although it is self-constructing, this attempt to proactively drive historical memory and the understanding of the artwork has long been a part of the NGV mandate from at least the time of The Field or the Great 18th Century Exhibition or even Golden Summers which positioned the gallery as defining not only its own past but a transinstitutional, shared past during a flow tide of public and private collecting of Australian art. When did the 'now’ begin that Melbourne Now celebrates? – from Roar Studios, from Martin Grant at the Pavilion du Louvre, or Susan Cohn’s work for Alessi, from The Field, from the appointment of John Brack to the Art Gallery School, or Roy Grounds to design the new building, or Victor Greenhalgh’s strategic work in making RMIT the most professionally resourced and expansively motivated art school in Australia, from the establshment of the Herald Chair of Fine Arts, or the appointment of Daryl Lindsay as director, or the acquisition of the Sticht Collection of European master prints, or the Connell Collection of Decorative Arts, or the short-lived publication of a magazine of architecture and decorative arts written and illustrated by Melbourne based creatives in the 1890s? These are also defining moments of a sort of globally and materially integrated definition of creative potential in the context of sense-making institutions not only for Melbourne but for Australia – given that Melbourne has always been marked by newness and luminous forward thinking, although perhaps never the loudest voice in self-promotion.

Yet what we see is not without its problems.

How does the curator of today grasp a scene that is vast and shows every sign of being livelier and more elusive than anything that a curator could absorb or process and in fact greater and more eindrucksvoll than the gesture of those who are charged to make sense and draw order of the whole shebang. Digital gadgets, and their easy to use tool boxes for capturing, editing and upcycling imagery and the vast opt-in sites of self-publication such Facebook etc have made the creation of cultural content more accessible and more prolific than ever before. The curator’s traditional role of grasping and shaping and interpreting becomes harder, the vast slurry of not quite amateurism and not quite forgettable demands attention but energy and time is lacking. The vacuity and opportunism of some of the work produced in response to the curatorial invitation grows repetitive as too a sense of conceptually close familial relationships. We have ‘design’ work that essentially serves to eulogise its maker and no other market.

People have been given a lot of money and have been documented with more lavish detail than before in their careers. That is a good thing – but whether all thus favoured have risen to the challenge is another issue. Also Melbourne Now will be as empty as a petulant rich kid’s birthday party if the whole exercise is not repeated regularly in the future to create a sense of movement, development and expansion.

If no curator or team can do justice to a vast field, what happens to those who did not gain the essentially personalised favour of the curators – the law as firmed up here is essentially the cruel and trivial one of playground friendships; that which I like becomes therefore meaningful and important. The pinhead upon which curatorial judgment pirouettes becomes smaller and smaller and more arbitrary whilst claiming to be open and representative. Modern social media gives an illusion and expectation of porosity and permeability. There is a constant talk radio nattering of hyperactive events, workshops and inclusivity which throw up a smokescreen upon the actual discriminatory basis of the event – even as the gallery welcomes more and diverse visitations.

Curating and art writing in Australia since Bernard Smith’s toxic Christening gift of narcissistic self-congratulation has always accepted the vacuities of the modern celebrity system and its according of power to its favoured subjects. The chosen are better and thus they know more and therefore their voices alone must be heard.

Juliette Peers is an art historian and Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT, Melbourne.