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. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.

@SebastianSmee

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Frank Sinatra & Bob Hawke

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Bad behaviour

‘Barley Patch’ by Gerald Murnane

Giramondo Publishing, 320pp; $27.95
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Death notice


More in Arts & Letters

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture


More in Art

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

Emily Kam Kngwarray, Anmatyerr people, not titled [detail], 1981

A clear view: Emily Kam Kngwarray at the NGA

A major exhibition of the late Anmatyerr desert painter is welcome, but the influence of the rapacious art market on Aboriginal art is inescapable

Image of Agnieszka Pilat with robot dog, in front of painted wall

The rule of threes: NGV Triennial

The sprawling show’s exploration of technologies and pressing politics takes in artificial intelligence and deep-fake photojournalism

Overhead photograph of car spinning in red desert, inscribing spirals in the dust

White walls taken Blak: The art of Reko Rennie

The Kamilaroi multi-disciplinary artist’s spectacular works bridge contemporary and ancient traditions


More in Books

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

Black and white close-up photo of Sigrid Nunez

Animal form: Sigrid Nunez

The celebrated American author’s latest book, ‘The Vulnerables’, completes a loose trilogy of hybrid autobiographical and fictional novels

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajasthan, circa 1990, walking witha a camel and three women

An open heart: Robyn Davidson’s ‘Unfinished Woman’

The author of ‘Tracks’ takes stock in middle age, in a memoir encompassing her mother’s tragic early death, mental health, and her relationship with Salman Rushdie

Detail of the cover of the first issue of The Phantom, published September 1948

Purple reign: The 75th anniversary of ‘The Phantom’

The longevity of the world’s first costumed superhero reflects an Australian publishing success story


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality