Monday, October 19, 2009

Bravura piece

The New York Times published an op ed by Denis Dutton last week. As most of you know, Dutton is professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, founder of Arts & Letters Daily and author of recently published The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution which argues our response to skill and beauty is innate. Professor Dutton was also one of the few – if indeed not the only – tenured academics we know of to challenge the integrated, populist model developed for Te Papa. His stinging critique was widely published and was certainly a key factor in the museum redeveloping the way it presented art. The absurd “Is it Art?” thumb up / thumb down signage was removed, for example, and the attempt to pair household goods (e.g. Kelvinator refrigerator) with significant art works (e.g. Colin McCahon’s Northland panels) as a Nationalistic narrative was abandoned.

Dutton’s NYT piece sums up his argument in The Art Instinct and takes the opportunity to dis conceptual art and its ascendancy in the market. Where is the personal skill, the craft of the artist? Instruct a studio assistant to rouge up the cheeks of cherub – good; put a couple of vacuum cleaners inside a Perspex box – bad. Trouble is that value is a slippery concept and we’re not so sure that playing with ideas can be so neatly distinguished from playing with technique and that it is the latter human beings have evolved to respond to. Be it Damien Hirst’s high concept pharmacy cabinets or Vermeer’s virtuoso canvases, fashion has its own way of sweeping them in and out of museum storerooms, private collections and auction houses, bravura or no bravura.
Images: Professor Denis Dutton (apologies to Joseph Kosuth).