Blak Insights Queensland Art Gallery 3 July - 30 October 2004
It seems like a poor choice for a title. The back cover poses one of the central questions the book promises to deal with. It reads:
"Why is contemporary art so in thrall to spruikers and promoters and why do their extravagant claims so rarely match the reality?"
With that kind of brief, it's difficult not to think that an antidote might be being proposed. Snake-oil of another kind. It's hard not to suspect that the author might not be just another spruiker from a tent of a different color. But the little knot of tents and caravans that make up the Australian contemporary art community all-too-often closes ranks against critics who wander in, without alignment, without a bastion of institutional support, and without claims of authority from some more highly valued elsewhere.
Keeping this in mind, it's hard to imagine to whom this title was meant to appeal. Or what kind of responses it might have been meant to generate.
On the other hand, a title like that could just as easily generate a mise-en-scene from a dusty past: perhaps an image of a curmudgeonly author in threadbare Grosby slippers sprouting vitriol from the dubious comfort of his Jason Recliner-Rocker.
None of which could be further from the truth. Timms has sustained a commitment to contemporary art that ranks him among the most involved, informed, amusing and self-deprecating of writers - one who has remained committed to an activity that is almost extinct in Australia - public debate.
There are those who would all too quickly dismiss the author - and this book - to the freak-show tent of reactionary crazies. Good to poke fun at, useful for generating an ersatz sense of solidarity looking at the outsider in the awful yellow glare of torchlight.
Timms knows the rules in this kind of identity politics, and he takes particular care to describe his position - as one 'outside the charmed circle' of contemporary art professionals, as someone who is now from another kind of elsewhere, away from the metropolitan zones, and as one who, in this publication, is proffering something that 'will not be just another attack on the various forms of contemporary art'.
Even so, the possibility of avoiding charges of being either reactionary or ineffectually sentimental requires a sure-footedness that is difficult to maintain. And from time to time in the course of this slim volume, Timms falters sideways into crevices.
In one of these incidents, he expresses his admiration for the camaraderie and shared idealism of the late 1960s at the Sturt Workshops for ceramics in Mittagong. All well and good. Until, at the beginning of the next section, he leads in with, "How remote those heady times seem today. How much has changed for the worst." You can bet that statements like this aren't going to go too far in garnering the interest of those generations who remain committed to the shared intimacy of internet chat rooms. Some of the younger audiences that could gain the most in really listening to some of Timms' challenges would have logged out by now.
Nevertheless, this book should not be too easily dismissed. Timms makes a number of valid points about the importance of craft, the hand-made, and communal traditions within contemporary Australian society. Many of the values that were generated by such collaborative ventures have been overridden by funding authorities' emphasis on the "experimental and the new." Another important aspect that gets left behind in this rush forward into the future is an emphasis on understanding the various histories of art practice. Timms' reiteration of the importance of history, of tradition, of aesthetic values is far from being fusty. Rather, it is spun from an insistence on the fact that we assess cultural production in terms of the time and place from which it emerged. However, when, from time to time, Timms seems to sigh with yearning for the days when aesthetes were suitably honored, the spirit of the book comes all too close to being tainted with an unproductive elitism.
No doubt the one theme that most readers will pin their agreement to in this book is Timms' criticism of the spruiking that gets between the experience of a work of art and its audience. And yet, this is the area that seems to be of the least interest. The least deserving of attack. All professions and interests need their spruikers; all emporia need their advertising, and all pursuits need their arcana. From sport to politics to education. And in Australia, the arts need their fair share of promotion too. Timms' assessments of the work of individual artists and of the state of contemporary art in Australia in general may be idiosyncratic, but they are inevitably informed and considered. It would be a shame if his writing were dismissed as one-eyed rather than to be met with what it deserves: counter-response and a flourishing of informed debate.
Pat Hoffie is an artist and Professor at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University