Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Beige and grey rule in a world in need of expression
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I don’t know much about God, not even what I like, but I’ll bet one thing; the Big Banana doesn’t do beige. Avalanches, absolutely. Mudslides, cataclysms, slaughters of innocents; these and much, much worse, but not beige.
William Blake, albeit in lesser vein, blazed with comparable romantic mania; staunch foe of abstraction (“to generalise is to be an idiot”), perpetual dissenter and visionary of such radical intensity that many of his works were posthumously cleansed of their strange and disturbing imagery.
Which makes it all the more disturbing that this year’s Blake Prize for Religious Art goes to a work that takes beige abstraction to a whole new plane; beige abstraction of the spirit.
You could see this as the point. The winner, Leonard Brown’s wallpaper of minutely changing cream and beige splodges, is after all titled If you put your ear close, you’ll hear it breathing to invite fatuous gushing. And this the judges obligingly supplied, describing it as “a work with an enormous spiritual presence … outstanding visual intelligence and … profound contemplative content”.
This old “infinity between the dots” jag has long been handy for the critic in a pinch; very contemplative, very non-judgmental, very Zen (Brown, a former priest, rejects this). Certainly, such unverifiable tosh can be just the thing when you’re stuck for a meaningless murmur about someone’s new screen saver or e-stationery. But religious art? Really? Is ours such a whitebread deity? Or do we just not give?
The fairyfloss is easily spun. For example. You can see Brown’s gridded field of small beige clones as a metaphor for the locust plague the Almighty is unleashing on country NSW, right about now. That in turn could represent the way eternity both embraces and impels nature’s ceaseless consumption.
Or you could see the splodges as forming the veil, that transparent screen of ephemera that stops us focusing on the eternal truths hidden in plain sight behind it. Or …
This Bring Your Own approach to meaning, as beers at a party, turns art into a game for bright-ish fourth graders concerned mainly to learn what nonsense they can palm off on teacher. But why dress it up? Why not just admit there’s a fashion for the truly, deeply, soporifically dull?
Not all the Blake entries are hung, of course. But the pinkie-lifting politeness of what is – like the several works, clearly by the United Nations Propaganda Council, designed to persuade us of the equality of world religions – suggests that simply having cojones was enough to mean rejection. To be hung is to be not-hung, if you catch my drift.
The New Boringness is not only detectable in art. Look at cars. Of any hundred cars on the road two or three are red, one is maybe blue, and the rest sit somewhere on the black-white spectrum. White, pale-silver, silver, dark silver, darker-silver, Harbour Bridge charcoal, black.
This is truer for late-model cars. Out in leaded-petrol land, the coloured percentage is more like 50, but on the Eastern Distributor it’s about 98 per cent silver and on the valet-parking level at Westfield Bondi Junction it’s a camouflage job; barely a Merc or Beemer is distinguishable from the slate-grey floor.
I mean these are people with serious choice, right? They can have anything they want, and what they want is grey, grey and grey. If you didn’t know better you’d think they’d had their senses numbed by four years at art school.
And it’s shape, as well as colour. Fifty years ago cars were as brilliantly various, as spiked and finned, plumed and bedecked, crowned, ribboned and bowed as creatures on some tropical reef. Now? Now, everything looks – forgive me – like a Toyota. Even Jaguars, even Astons, strive for that smug, smoothed-over suburban sedan look, like George Smiley, without the smile.
I know what you’ll say. These are cars designed by aerodynamics, by the ecologically correct urge for fuel efficiency, which is a Good Thing. But I say it’s like terrorism. If we let greenwash end our flamboyance, they’ve already won.
Architecture too has become a monochrome regiment, contradicting all our rhetoric about diversity, different drummers and niche markets. Even people who make a point of dressing with wild eccentricity tend to crowd-please in cars, houses and art.
There’s any number of possible explanations. Commodification is the most obvious; we care more about the resale value than any expressive power. But this still presupposes a shared love of the supremely boring, so really just shoves the question sideways.
We could blame democracy’s gradual attrition, as a kind of mob rule, or overwhelming political correctness or we could take Julian Huxley’s line as to the conformism of overcrowding (but then how to explain Tokyo?).
I put our increasing dedication to dullness down to the merger of insecurity and nice-ism to form timidity soup. Which reminds me of politics.
Apart from Julia Gillard, the entire country seems to be cross with the independents, as though standing for something, and keeping on standing for it, were somehow unconscionable. But personally, I’m grateful to them – if only for those two weeks when politics was intensely coloured, open ended and, for once, worth watching.