Risk

Nausea © Samantha Groenestyn

Nausea © Samantha Groenestyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A government employee once said to me, upon learning of my aspirations to make a career of art, ‘Oh, so you’ll be getting used to a life of applying for and living off government grants.’ He said it so off-hand, as if this were a completely unremarkable way to earn one’s living. I had never considered applying for a grant, and didn’t know this was really considered a viable lifestyle choice.

In fact, I was disturbed that anyone could consider it unremarkable that I could leave my livelihood to chance. That I could work full time, ever more skilled, and merely hope to get awarded a prize, or a share thereof, rather than simply be paid what I’d earned. I was utterly disgusted that as a painter, producing good work might not be enough—I must also grovel to the government, who pays its staff $50 000 to $100 000 (perhaps more) to agonise for days over the specifics of selection criteria in grant applications for a share in a few thousand dollars. After a more senior government colleague and I spent a week on one such application and our department awarded us $3000 between us for the effort, we finally awarded the measly $3000 grant to some struggling community-led organisation with a whole swag of conditions. I spent my share on books and beer. The thing about getting paid for your work is, you spend your money as you please. The thing about getting a grant is, the government wants a say. And it’s far less money than a regular wage. Even some of the best awards are less than working part time on minimum wage for a year—and at least part time work is more or less guaranteed.

'But how can I possibly choose just one?' - Nationalbibliothek, Wien

‘But how can I possibly choose just one?’ – Nationalbibliothek, Wien

 

 

 

 

 

 

One likes to think a good government would support the arts; that it would conceive of its cities as shining cultural milieus, filled with clever and productive citizens in a whole variety of fields. It doesn’t have to be out of the ordinary to go to the ballet of an evening after work, nor does it have to be out of the reach of even the unemployed. Vienna certainly worries after its unemployed folk, and ensures their entry to museums, galleries and operas should they desire it, so as not to forcibly disconnect them from their city’s proud cultural heritage. Hell, you can bring your fold-up chair and sit and watch the opera in the square on a big screen, live, free, of a summer evening.

Wiener Staatsoper

Wiener Staatsoper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the idea that the government has a hand in how art is conceived, produced and viewed is a little bit worrying. There is something undeniably prescriptive in the grants offered by the Australian government, which demand strict budgets, stipulate that projects must be interdisciplinary, and expect full proposals of what will be produced. One must conceive one’s artwork from the perspective of that faceless entity of the government. And there is one thing the government does not abide: risk. The most frightening thing about government involvement in your creative project is that ‘creative’ and ‘risk’ might just mean the same thing.

A recent development in the largely funding-dependent world of physics is the Fundamental Physics Prize, established by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner. Unlike governments, Milner has no qualms about handing out millions of dollars at a time to people of excellence to dispose of as they please, and he annually awards multiple physicists with $3 million each, plus some other negligible amounts far greater than any artist dares contemplate more than momentarily. The Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation’s website declares that the organisation is ‘dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the Universe at the deepest level.’ The prizes are awarded to ‘provide the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments.’ Significant discoveries might snap up the award, as might promising young researchers with less results under their belts. In an interesting twist, each year’s collection of winners chooses the following year’s recipients.

Milner is an entrepreneur. He takes risks. He knows that no one ever achieved anything out of the ordinary by playing safe. And it’s extremely unreasonable to expect that people with limited resources will achieve excellent things in a predetermined (and limited) timeframe. An archaeologist can’t guarantee she’s going to make the most significant discovery of the decade on her next dig. A playwright can’t determine whether or not the play will flop in advance, or there would be no bad plays. Every time we try to bring something amazing into the world, we expose ourselves and set ourselves up to fail. Every creative person knows that their work takes time, effort and persistence, and that it doesn’t pay off every time. Government asks the impossible of us, demanding to know the (positive) outcome at the outset.

Nationalbibliothek, Wien

Nationalbibliothek, Wien

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If artists must take risks and governments must minimise risk, the funding paradigm seems fundamentally flawed. We want our governments to appreciate art, and to instil such an appreciation in the population insofar as they are able. But perhaps to get the freedom we need, we’d be better off financially supporting ourselves, or finding entrepreneurs who believe art can ‘advance our knowledge of the Universe at the deepest level.’ And just you try to sit in front of a Vermeer and say he didn’t advance just that.

Vermeer

Detail of The art of painting, Vermeer; Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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Grand old things

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I had the recent good fortune to be introduced, through physicists, to Heinz Letuha and his incredible piano workshop, Die Klaviermachermeister. With a neat shopfront on Burggasse, the workshop sprawls through an old, sturdy Viennese building, huge piano shells wedged into tight hallways, hidden Steinhauser practice rooms tucked beside leafy courtyards, the workshop itself backing onto a cobblestoned side street.

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While his shop houses some new pianos, his main business is to lovingly restore these stately old creatures, and many are close to a hundred years old, some older, most Austrian made. Each is an individual—grown to its own dimensions, housing a distinct metal heart of a harp frame all its own, and outwardly styled with deco trimmings or flourishes or wooden filigree. It’s incredible to see them disassembled; oversized puzzles, but so intricate and demanding such precision and attention.

We’re offered fresh Austrian mineral water, direct from the Alps through the taps (it is especially delicious), and we duck into the second room where Vienna’s preeminent boogie piano player happens to be hanging out. He gives us a little spiel; I have a little groove. Grand pianos are tucked into every corner, and we get to hear the distinct voices of them all—the more mellow and touch-responsive tones of a grand old lady next to the more jubilant and springy timbre of a youthful 1970s jazzy grand.

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The workshop itself is flooded with the scent of glue and varnish, and dismembered keyboards are arranged on table tops, receiving individualised attention. A metal frame has just been re-lacquered. A case sits stripped of its innards down to its soundboard. We learn about the smallish pieces of hardwood that sit near the keyboard and that the strings are pegged into. This piano has had its peg-holes broadened a fraction so that newer, larger pegs can be fitted more snugly than the old wearing ones. This piece needs to be fitted so precisely, because it supports the metal harp frame across which the strings are strung—and when tuned, they put a vast number of tonnes of pressure across this frame. Incorrectly fitted, it can break, and danach ist deine Klavier kaputt.

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We watch the little key mechanisms, see how they are fitted differently in an upright (there is a sliced piano in the window demonstrating just this, in fact), and inspect the density of the felts. One felt has been sliced down the middle, and it’s impossible to force back together. The immense pressure in every part of this instrument! The careful balance of heavy parts and huge tensions, all in search of the perfect sound. And so much of the work is down to the tonal abilities of the craftsman himself—he trickles out little scales to listen to the piano, like an attentive doctor listening to a heartbeat, detecting tiny imperfections with his naked ears, getting back in under the bonnet and making careful adjustments. He works just like an experienced painter who uses his eyes to make comparisons and detect the red in the blue, or the green of the yellow.

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The passion for his craft sparkles in Heinz’s whole being, in his large eyes shining behind thick glasses, in the richly descriptive explanations that flow from his mouth, perfectly delivered—a performer keenly aware of his audience. It’s thrilling to meet someone so enamoured of this beautiful instrument, who has made it his whole life, who chases after perfection in every component, every material, in the way he reconstructs each one. It was an honour to meet such a craftsman. ‘When it comes from your heart, people see it and they respect that,’ he explains humbly.

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The devil

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

It’s undeniable that the Dutch and Flemish painters particularly relished detail. When I look at their paintings I see the glee that sparkled in their eyes, thinking of the heavy texture of a rug and the crystal gleam of glass, the rumpled satin and copious strings of pearls—almost without a thought for their sitter. Every corner of the painting is precious space to be maxed out in all its textural glory. One squints in wonder at the precision with which paint is applied, with, one presumes, unimaginably tiny brushes. I’m a sucker for this. I don’t care if it’s showing off. I want to discover more and more.

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens

Holy fuck, detail of Peter Paul Rubens

There is a point, though, when detail becomes garish and visually distressing. It’s one thing to satisfyingly distinguish between course woven carpets and soft skin and silky garments, but another to be forced to train one’s eyes on pores and individual hairs and knuckle wrinkles. Hyperrealism is a visual torrent of truthful information that our eyes, when grappling with the real world, graciously blend into one viewpoint. We can’t concentrate on everything at once, and such paintings ask the impossible of us, forcing our eyes to train, hawklike, on every aspect at once. I’ve seen ceiling-high paintings that are like frightening projections of microscope slides of old people’s noses, and I have to say that I don’t think they are very clever. Has the artist a scientific interest in dermatology? Are they a failed biologist?

A broad simplification of this matter is summed up in the dichotomy of detail versus structure, which Nelson probes with some scepticism. Whence this dichotomy, he asks? Does it have its roots in ‘romantic versus classic? Instinct versus discipline? Liberal versus anal-retentive? Modernism versus tradition?’ (p. 145). I’m reminded of this Western inclination to equally partition things, divide them into ‘us and them,’ as Alice Jardine (in Walker 2009 p. 46) notes: ‘The question of “the couple” has become the object of contemporary philosophical fascination, where all metaphysical couples are in the process of being discoupled, recoupled differently and urgently: active/passive, form/matter, speech/writing, conscious/unconscious.’ Whether or not this coupling project is useful, it seems to hold our fascination, and has certainly been in my mind as I flit between the Dutch-German-Flemish and Italian-Spanish-French wings of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, unable to help engaging in comparative study.

Wöllflin (Nelson 2010 p. 145; 148) put forward this particular artistic and culturally ‘normatively informed’ coupling. According to his proposed division, Renaissance artists of the northern and more liberal regions are swamped in a glittering frenzy of detail, while their southern counterparts soberly attend to the structure of the entire image. Or perhaps the stiff and accurate detail is sober, and the giddy motion grows out of a compositional frenzy. In Nelson’s (p. 145-6) summarisation, ‘Whereas artists like Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin and Dürer fill their busy rectangles with copious detail in an even and democratic spread, artists like Giotto, Masaccio, Piero, Michaelangelo and Titian are interested in a single spatial proposition, with a key volumetric argument, usually centralised and tending to command a perspective of an ideal and single viewpoint.’

My own investigations have led me to believe it is not so simple as this. Certainly, I was amazed at the stiff simplicity of Titian’s (non-fur) drapery—the simple and ungraduated laying down of three tones in awkward triangular shapes. Where his faces were careful and smooth, his compositions focussed and kind to the viewer, his textures seemed sometimes a mere afterthought, an irrelevant feature that would only distract from his main pictorial assertion. And there is no denying the narrative motion inherent in a stunning painting by Strozzi, of the widow and her son with Elias, in which the textures are dampened and softened to great effect, letting the eyes marvel over the weight and presence of the subjects. And the Dutch brazenly flaunt the golden weave of baskets and the pink sheen of satin, and carefully delineate every leaf of a tree. Nevertheless, it seems more a question of degree and emphasis.

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Where Van Dyck paints incredibly subtle yet expressive faces and positively floating angel garments, the detail in which he revels is supported by a strong and intentional composition. I am in awe of his Vision of the blessed Hermann Joseph with Mary, the centre of which forms a diagonal rectangle between the faces, with a three-dimensional convergence of the arms of Mary, Joseph and the helpful angel. The fourth head to the left completes a satisfying arc through the four, closing off the design in a tight fashion. Detail does not interfere with or stand in isolation from the structure; the two function far more dependently.

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

And when one considers the phenomenal Rubens, and his overwhelming visual cacophony of flying babies and intense if idealised character types, with their cascading hands, lavishly surrounded by exotic fruits, it seems that composition is equally in his mind, only with grander, more complex visions, interlocking countless tiny narratives. The voluminous flesh of his figures demonstrates more of a virtuosity with respect to the human form than a strict adherence to the truth of perception. His detail seems largely driven by questions of motion, unlike the more believable individuality of Van Dyck’s figures. A Rubens hand is above all engaged in some action, and mightily idealised; a Van Dyck hand belongs to its owner alone. As Nelson (p. 147) argues, the northern artists isolated by Wöllflin ‘nevertheless organised their fields fastidiously.’

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Veronese expertly directs the viewer through the narrative of the painting, but not at the expense of lavish decoration—heavy brocade, gleaming jewels, deftly-woven golden hair—his Judith and Lucretia are in fine murderess getup (homicide or suicide), and this brings a certain theatricality to the tight but expressive compositions. One’s eyes feast on the jewels at their shoulders, drawn to the most brightly-lit part, and unquestioningly follow their arms—symbols of action, I speculate—to the bloody acts at their fingertips, cloaked in darkness.

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Nelson wisely draws our attention back to the fact that the decisions we make as painters are based on perception, but ought not be enslaved by it. Every painter makes those decisions not only based on preference, cultural affiliations or schooled traditions, but in response to the stimulus itself. Perceptual art, he argues (p. 150), ‘is a poetic process of interpreting perception in order to make paintings and drawings. … The interest will always be in the strength of the image, the consistency of vision, the poetic agreements between the technique and the perception.’ Whichever camp sways you, your debt is to the subject alone.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2009. ‘Writing couples: Reading Deutscher on Sartre and Beauvoir.’ In Crossroads IV(1): pp. 45-52.

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