Comparatively few people in Australia will ever walk into a museum or art gallery. This is the cornerstone to the argument that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidise what is, essentially, an elite activity. And going to see the Hokusai and Dior exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria somewhat reinforces that view that our cultural industries are servicing a very privileged sector of the community.
On this point, I don’t just mean an observation on the sort of people who were attending the exhibition (although it’s true both exhibitions were crowded predominately with Baby Boomers), but also an observation on the way that information is presented to the audience. The exhibitions perform back to the audience a statement about themselves.
I have no cultural overlap with Hokusai. He is composing in an entirely foreign context: different cultural values, different religious narratives, and different social norms. What we need in order to appreciate Hokusai is a guide. But this guidance is mostly lacking. The information panels are only able to convey so much, and audio guides are frustrating. What we need is somebody to interpret the works for us, present an argument, and then challenge us to think about what we are seeing.
What we get instead is an opportunity to consume somebody else’s culture. There’s no shared discussion about the world or the ideas in it; it’s just privileged white people looking at pretty things.
Perhaps the problem was the sheer volume of the exhibition. It boasted that it held all the 36 Views of Mount Fuji, but it didn’t do anything with these views. And given that each image is not terribly large, presenting each image felt more like seeing insect specimens in a textbook than engaging with art.
Don’t get me wrong. Each image is spectacular and beautiful. They inspire awe. But it’s not an intelligible awe. It’s not meaningful awe. It’s the ‘This would look pretty radical on a cushion’ awe.
And look good on a cushion it does. You can pick up one in the gift shop.
The exhibition could have fixed this in two ways. The first would be to provide more context to the audience as an opening display. This could be done either through providing more biographical material about Hokusai or by providing more examples of the art to which Hokusai is responding. The second would have been to place pieces in contexts. Given that the images are so small, it would have been easy to place the individual pieces among items which inform the interpretation of the piece.
There is, perhaps, an aversion to introducing political aspects to an exhibition. This was definitely the case with the Dior exhibition — an exhibition which all but screamed out for a political argument.
This was my second fashion exhibition, although I don’t understand a damn thing about it. Last year, I saw the Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Each time, I’ve been with people who were majorly into fashion and could point out exactly what I’m supposed to be understanding.
The Dior exhibition appeared to provide the better opportunity for political comment, but the corporate sponsor (David Jones) would probably have disapproved. After seeing a bunch of dresses, shoes, and the creepiest goddamn veils you’ve ever seen in your entire life, there’s a short discussion about the import of dresses to Australia. What’s left unspoken is that the fashion trends reflect public intuitions about Australian identity: the desire to be included in European culture. Similarly unspoken is the way that fashion artificially creates those desires: marketing fashion to working class Australians to make them aspire to European ideals of culture.
Missing from both the Dinnigan and the Dior exhibitions was a critical engagement with issues of gender. There is something extremely strange about a group of men selling to women the fantasy of femininity. Even when the House of Dior presents the works of female creators or when we look at the Dinnigan exhibition, we see the same male-centred tropes repeated: the focus on breasts, hips, and bums, and the presentation of women for enjoyment by men.
The Dior exhibition spanned decades and yet the works never deviated from this conservative presentation of women. That was the bit that I found utterly baffling: as an outsider, I couldn’t see what the innovation was over the time period presented. I couldn’t see what was changing in the presentation of women.
Perhaps part of the problem here was the mannequins which were entirely uniform throughout the exhibition, subtly suggesting that the individual women who wore the dresses were both uniform and unimportant, and the way that their bodies were used even when they weren’t displaying a dress. Thus, the weird situation of having naked mannequins wearing nothing but a fascinator or a hat.
The emphasis is always on making the audience feel safe and intelligent, so nothing difficult is presented to challenge beliefs, intuitions, or understandings. It is this which is at the heart of the culture industry’s presentation of art: this is an activity to while away a Saturday afternoon with the idle pleasures of these days, not dissimilar from window shopping.