October 2009

Arts & Letters

C'est la vie

By Sebastian Smee
Edmund Capon’s ‘I Blame Duchamp’

No one ever seems surprised by Edmund Capon’s success, for he is charm incarnate. He has led one of Australia’s most visited art galleries, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, since 1978. You watch the way he floats, like pollen, from engagement to engagement – opening this, dropping in on that, giving his blessings to this other – and you can’t help but marvel at the way he does it, alternating articulate sincerity with bursts of mischief, inappropriate face-pulling, theatrical vamping, flippant loquacity, disarming brevity.

It’s a delicate game, and Capon is a master at it. Yes, he can be breezy, and his breeziness can get him into trouble. But he is also a stalwart champion of the things that matter. Above all, he cares deeply about art – a virtue that is rarer than you might think in the elite world of museum directors.

Capon, of course, is an employee of the New South Wales government, which makes his success and, more to the point, his longevity remarkable. What stupendous self-control, what unnatural forbearance it must have taken, as a representative of culture, to stay on the right side of the thugs, opportunists and fools who have held power in NSW for so long now. He has done it, and he has made a success of it: three decades on, the Art Gallery of NSW is a vastly improved institution.

Charm in the social and professional realms does not always translate to the written word. It’s hard to account for this, since a paradox is at play. On the one hand, expressing yourself in prose allows you to adopt a kind of mask. You never sound as authoritative, as composed or as in control as when you are writing. No one interrupts. If you lose your train of thought or can’t find the right word, you can simply leave off and resume when lucidity returns. And, of course, you can revise to your heart’s content.

And yet, something about the way ‘voice’ works in prose (perhaps it’s to do with the intimacy of one person receiving, in silence, the carefully honed thoughts of another) means that false notes, loose logic and lazy in-fill are never quite so apparent as they are in writing.

The 40-odd essays by Capon, collected in a handsome new volume called I Blame Duchamp: My Life’s Adventures in Art (Penguin, 388pp; $49.95), reveal to the world the author’s best aspects: his love of art, his wide-ranging interests, his verbal facility. But they also expose the flank. Attractive and, yes, charming though Capon’s writing is, you feel it relying a little too heavily on force of personality.

The essays range from lengthy pieces on Renaissance painters to reflections on Australian and Chinese artists, and there is also a handful of more personal meditations (on football, on favourite museums, on eccentrics). The essays are almost all loaded with facts and drenched in personal experience. But the imparting of these facts veers at times toward the incontinent, while the harnessing of experience is sometimes less illuminating than it might be.

Presumably some of these essays have been published in catalogues, while others have been delivered as lectures. But it would have been interesting to know precisely what occasions prompted these entertaining and erudite excursions.

Given his position and longstanding popularity, Capon could have treated us to a memoir or an autobiography. In fact, he says he was approached by publishers to produce just such a thing, and declined. He explains:

Right now, even my most modest and private thoughts about leaden bureaucracies and their cacophony of acronyms, tedious meetings and pointless committees, and the art world’s oft-preposterous posing and pretensions are enough to bring me to a high state of vexation and even moral outrage; my occasionally voiced views on such things have caused more anguish than expiation and so the idea of committing such heinous thoughts to proper analysis and clarity in the written word would, I fear, spell deportation and quite possibly eternal damnation.

I quote the sentence in full not just because it’s such fun, but because it’s representative. Even when Capon is trying to sound scholarly about, say, Raphael’s The Entombment (a painting which gets an essay to itself) or Antonello da Messina (an essay rakishly subtitled ‘Small But Perfectly Formed’) or ‘The Fine Art of Drawing’ (as another subtitle goes), he’s always up for a bit of a joke.

Thus, a piece on Piero della Francesca describes one of the figures in Piero’s The Baptism of Christ as “resplendent in his very mod Calvin Klein knickers”. The piece on Raphael begins: “When in Rome, go to the Borghese Gallery.” And an essay on the Bellini family of painters begins, less originally: “Take my word for it, the best Bellinis are to be had at Harry’s Bar in Venice”, before going on to wonder why there aren’t “Titian” savouries or cocktails called “Tintorettos”.

It’s all very droll and not a bad approach when you are making public speeches or trying to whip up interest in a subject you’re not convinced others will be interested in. But a lot of the time, in print, this sort of thing loses its fizzle. Never mind. When Capon eases back on the theatricality, his prose has a pedagogical rhythm and a fluency that are extremely attractive. Occasionally, we’re arrested by a striking construction – we hear, for example, of Sidney Nolan’s “contumacious inquisitiveness”. And, frequently, Capon’s authority on an artist is enhanced by his having known them personally. Bill Henson, Jeffrey Smart, Cy Twombly and Sidney Nolan are each examples.

What of the bellicose title? Capon blames Duchamp – and he is hardly alone – for the current state of contemporary art or, more precisely, for “the pale horizons of so much conceptual art to which little but the vaguest, most superficial and indulgent, fleeting thought has been given.” Stirring stuff, and yet the essay on Duchamp is disappointing. Duchamp was a more intelligent, more enlivening figure than Capon gives him credit for. Yes, he was a precursor for so much that is second-rate in art today, but he was also a fascinating and provocative figure who opened up vast realms of creative potential. Simply to state that his works do not meet one’s definition of art – as if dictionary definitions settle anything other than schoolboy debating matches – is a little cheap.

Capon gets sidetracked early in the piece by the issue of creative spontaneity, which seems to have little bearing on the subject: Duchamp’s art was calculated, not spontaneous. A moment later, he quotes Jasper Johns to further his line of argument, without acknowledging Johns’ utter indebtedness to Duchamp. And, although he makes passing reference to Zen painting, he fails to make any deeper connection between the spirit of Zen and the spirit of Duchamp and Dada. (Both are iconoclastic, both reject reason.) It may be true, as one art critic has pointed out, that to think too long on the implications of Duchamp’s work is to have an abyss yawn at one’s feet. But this, too, could be a recommendation if seen from a Zen point of view.

One of the many pleasures of this book is the deft way it knits together East and West, so that, for instance, an essay on the seventeenth-century landscape painter Dao Ji (titled ‘Scattering Ink Among the Mountains’) is followed by a piece on Whistler, Oscar Wilde and The Peacock Room; and later on, in a section devoted to patronage, power and faith, a piece on Renaissance Italy is followed by terrific essays on Buddhist art along the Silk Roads and the art of Song China.

Elsewhere in the book we find a few poignant moments of self-revelation. The essay on Nolan, for instance, contains this:

I always sensed in Nolan’s restless pace and curiosity a fear of stillness and contemplation; I suspect I may share that trait with him. He was a restless soul who tended to believe in the ultimate transience of all things; a belief which inevitably left melancholy in its wake.

We are left wondering whether to surmise melancholy behind what Capon elsewhere calls his “incurable optimism”.

But the most revealing passages of all come near the end of the book, in an essay called ‘On Guilt, or Not My Fault Guv’, which is really a confessional disguised as a polemic. A meditation on idleness and guilt, it’s a fine piece of writing, and it ends thus: “The one that never got away was the work ethic. I still live in fear, and guilt, of idleness, knowing that it could so easily overtake me.”

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

@SebastianSmee

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