This previously unpublished text is a buffed-up version of a talk I gave over lunch at the Melbourne Club in 2002. These are the sorts of things you do to bring your museum to the attention of the ‘big end of town’. Given the context, I thought I’d approach it in the manner of a nineteenth-century ‘smoke night’. I wasn’t invited back for ten years.
In a report on ABC Radio National, 14 February 2014, National Gallery of Australia curator Christine Dixon noted that Lucian Freud’s ‘After Cézanne’ is the most-complained about work in the museum.
It’s not often you see a penis on the front page of a national newspaper, is it? But, in late May , when the National Gallery of Australia announced its purchase of Lucian Freud’s After Cézanne, there one was, in full colour—a little shrivelled and blotchy—on the front page of The Australian.
Nudity in the daily press is no great surprise. Sex sells, as the old saying goes, and nudity—usually relatively discrete and tasteful—is a staple of art direction and advertising. For all that, having grown up in the heyday of the page 3 girl and the Truth, I think today’s newspapers—especially the self-styled quality press—traffic less in the nude. In the age of the lifestyle section, other forms of sensuality dominate; our fetishes are more consumerist than carnal. We’re satisfied with the soft core porn of food, fashion and electronic gadgetry.
But a page one penis is still noteworthy, perhaps all the more so here in Melbourne, where, not so long ago, the Myer department store was obliged to cover plaster copies of Michelangelo’s David on instructions from the police.
I’m not opposed to members on the masthead. In fact there have been moments in recent years when I thought they were warranted. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for example, the government appointed special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, made President Clinton’s wedding tackle a matter of public interest. (And remember, a precedent, of sorts, had been set in 1985 when the White House circulated photographs of the inside of President Reagan’s colon.)
But the press let me down on that occasion. Starr’s report generated no artists’ impressions, digital reconstructions or identikit collages. Steering clear of Clinton’s crotch is the mark of a quality newspaper. But so too is reproducing Lucian Freud’s painting of his son’s. What resolves this apparent contradiction is that the Freud is Art (with a capital A), giving the quality press the opportunity to establish Cultural Standards (capital C, capital S).
Now cultural standards are what we assume museums are all about. Gatekeepers to history, custodians of heritage; they resist, rather than invite scandal. What’s interesting about the purchase of the Lucian Freud is that it shows how naïve such an assumption now seems. Here is [Federal Arts Minister] Senator Richard Alston’s endorsement of the purchase:
‘[I]f the gallery has a targeted strategy of going for major works by major artists, then I think that’s what brings people in. You can talk as much as you like about having a broad spread [unfortunate turn of phrase given there’s a naked woman on the bed next to the male model] or . . . having a hundred thousand pieces, but people don’t come along to see a hundred thousand pieces, they come along because they’ve heard about works. [T]hey might be very controversial . . . But at the end of the day, that’s what brings the crowds in, that’s what art’s all about. The great beauty of art, I suppose, is that we’re all experts.’
This is, admittedly, a radio grab. But it says some remarkable things about art, museums and audiences in the twenty-first century. Museums are about headline-grabbing art, art is about controversy, everybody (not just museum professionals) is an expert on art.
Now I have my own nudes at The Potter, the largest collection of Norman Lindsay paintings outside of the dedicated museum at the artist’s home in Springwood. On this logic, I should dust off the ones with the highest NPM (nymphs per square metre), remind the press of Lindsay’s reputation as a debauched pornographer, then retire to my office to delight in the cries of ‘Phwoarrr’ echoing up the atrium.
As it is, we don’t exhibit the Lindsay’s with any fanfare. This has to do, in part, with a conflict over expertise, of the kind Alston hints at. In the eyes of art experts, Lindsay has fallen from favour. To a different kind of connoisseur—whom my staff refer to as the raincoat brigade—Lindsay still measures up. Unfortunately, the readings seem to be taken with something called a peter meter.
So, the issue returns to cultural standards, and who gets to set them. Locating the fine line between tasteful and distasteful representations of the penis—or any other component of what Lindsay coyly referred to as the ‘reproductive apparatus’—brings us, in the first instance, to the classical distinction made by the British art historian Kenneth Clark: that distinction being between naked and nude. (This distinction is enhanced if you pronounce the word ‘newd’, not ‘nood’; I think because it grafts high culture and upper crust accent—still an unbeatable combination.) Naked, the unclothed human body is, to use the language of the late-lamented Truth, ‘starkers’. Such an unclothed body has shed the trappings of decency and modesty, no doubt in preparation for what the Truth always referred to as a ‘nude romp’. (As in, ‘Abigail in nude romp’.) Nude, following Clark’s argument, the body had no inhibitions, no modesty, no clothing to shed because it existed in a pre-lapsarian moment, prior to consciousness of nudity, of shame, of indecency.
It’s this sort of logic, that allows editors to run reproductions of the Freud. Civic duty demands that the quality press champion the ‘newd’ and stave of the naked. In Clark’s terms, it’s wrong to think of After Cézanne as post-coital (the suggestion that it was is what had brought Senator Alston to the barricades). No matter how robust and tactile their forms, these bodies are somehow other-worldly.
This sort of thinking also underlies the NGA’s website, which offers a full colour reproduction of the Freud with the added benefit of details. Shifting from full to close up views you can, so to speak, toggle the model’s todger. But the accompanying text refers only the painterly distinctions made between male and female flesh. Seriousness of purpose marks this as a cerebral, rather than sensual, work. The pictorial and conceptual density of the painting staves off the erotic, which is apparently a mindless and relatively simple pursuit. (If only that were true. Just as an aside, it’s interesting that pornography plays this card too, though in reverse. Have you ever noticed how in pornography everyone just gets down to it, with little preamble? Both sides are exercising, in their own ways, what philosophy calls mind-body dualism; alternately, I think therefore I am, and I bonk therefore I am. You haven’t noticed? One of the curiosities of working in the art business is that porn is considered part of the landscape. . . . kind of the aesthetic equivalent of it’s okay I’m doctor.)
I say all this with a tone of surprise because it’s very difficult to find a culturally legitimate nude on the Internet. You can’t just plug in the word ‘nude’ as a search term. You have to go to the advanced search module and, in the section headed ‘sites must NOT contain the words . . .’ fill in a litany of exclusions—red hot, teenage, supermodel, XXX, horny etc etc—before initiating the search.
The internet and the press are just two areas in which distinctions are made between legitimate and illegitimate nudity. The good nudes are ‘newd’, representing the highest cultural aspirations; the bad nudes are pornographic, representing base, fleshly desire. The advantage that the art museum has over the media is that it is adept at legitimizing nudity. It has the cultural, historical and institutional wherewithal to fend off any accusation of immorality. Any of you who followed the official announcements around the Freud purchase will recognise the key strategies:
Institutional authority: The National Gallery, the nation’s peak art museum, endorses the painting. And notes that Freud has in turn been endorsed by like institutions internationally.
Historical authority: The work is legitimated by the construction of a genealogy linking it with Cézanne (a modernist Old Master) and with the tradition of avant-garde experimentation
Scale: The physical and financial stature of painting and purchase price are a guarantee of quality. This is blue chip, not cheap and nasty.
Reputation: Since conventional art history is the history of artists, the critical reputation of the artist ratifies the content of the work.
Put all this together: A big picture by a big name artist in a big museum means a world historical painting.
Even if we’re all art experts, there’s presumably no arguing with that. There’s an implied appeal here to the word ‘masterpiece’ in something like its original sense; as testimony to Freud’s mastery, the painting’s content, in an abstract sense, is achievement in and of itself. The bodies are there to demonstrate mastery, rather than to encourage the masturbatory.
Now these strategies work well enough, if everybody plays the rules. The problem with this argument is that it works far less effectively within the less controllable, daily operations of an art museum. Visitors to art museums don’t check their libidos at the door. Recent research by an Italian psychiatric association has shown that significant numbers of museum visitors are sexually aroused during the course of their visit. And furthermore, that a surprising percentage of visitors are prompted to engage in an unplanned sexual encounter. (The latter generating the perhaps appropriate acronym; USE.) The research reveals what museum professionals have long acknowledged among themselves: art museums are great pickup joints. It was assumed that this was because museums were safe, public spaces, with high quality pickings. And, if you didn’t get lucky, at least you got educated. (A strange distinction for the director of a University based art museum to make; the ideal for most undergraduates, after all, is to get lucky and get educated.) But no one thought that museums were good pickup joints because the art works themselves were working like a kind of visual Viagra. (I have to confess that I’ve never got lucky in an art museum. This is a pretty pathetic admission; given the amount of time I spend in art museums I ought to have, just on the law of averages.)
This is just one more sign of the ambiguous character of art museums. In Australia, at least, major art museums are public institutions, with an air of civic endeavour to them. Museum activities are undertaken for the common good; they are interpreters and educators, they establish benchmarks that help visitors make sense of their larger experience, they traffic in excellence, posterity and national patrimony. But these benevolent ends are achieved through procedures whose tone appears quite different. Museums regulate access to objects, set parameters based as much on exclusion as inclusion, present art works in carefully orchestrated, didactic installations. The museum’s mission and the values it enshrines are necessarily pursued with rigour, but with such rigor that it is a commonplace for visitors to liken art museums to churches (and, of course, for critics to liken more liberally structured museums to theme parks and shopping malls.)
The most difficult task for a museum, therefore, is to appear welcoming and inclusive, to manipulate a visitor’s experience without being accused of social engineering.
In this regard, my own experience, at the Potter, is telling. With a large collection, a vast reservoir of research on my doorstep, and a public expectation that University’s educate, (not to speak of an academic background), my inclination is towards didactic exhibitions. But my colleagues occasionally remind me that this is an art museum—not a seminar room—and that sometimes we should just let the art be art.
If I, perhaps shamefacedly, acknowledge the research (whether formal or informal), I have to accept that audiences are not coming to the museum to improve themselves, or rather are not coming to the Potter to extend themselves intellectually but physically.
If my response to this is to lock the Lindsays away, I confirm the suspicion that, however benevolent and inviting their public face, art museums are, at heart, rather narrow, elitist and Puritan. I know what Lindsay’s response would be; as he once said, ‘One might as well expect an erection under a drench of cold water’.
If my response is to show the Lindsays, and to let the visitors have their way with them, raincoats and all, then I give ammunition to those who see culture through the lens of a siege mentality. This would involve abandoning standards in favour of populism. And if you cast your mind to the debate around displays at the new Melbourne and Canberra museums, I think you’ll get the gist of the debate.
I could always temper the Lindsays by placing some prophylactic barriers between them and the public. By which I mean, not washable perspex, but information of the biographical or social-historical sort. This might steer attention away from nymphs and satyrs and into Lindsay’s idiosyncratic philosophical stew of Nietzsche, libertarianism, bohemianism. Freud—Sigmund that is, Lucian’s grandfather— would call this sublimation. I would call it didactic signage. And Lindsay would call it another cold shower.
Maybe the solution is to come clean, to tell the visitors why museums are so uneasy about Lindsay. Perhaps suggest that we’re not as sure of our cultural standards as they think, that we don’t have a lock on history, that we trust the audience enough to let them off the leash. We might even admit that audiences can make their mind up, if they’re given the means and the opportunity.
As it stands, a museum director can find himself in a situation where his peers are embarrassed by the art works, the audiences they attract and the responses of those audiences. And simultaneously be told that any scandal arising from audience response is to be exploited as a marketing tool; a tactic which only exacerbates the tension by requiring the museum to decry negative response even as it invites it.
But because museums should be places of reflection, where a visitor might undertake a little cognitive mapping (as Fredric Jameson calls it), the experience should be complex and contradictory. Ultimately, a museum ought to allow visitors to ask ‘Why Lindsay?’, rather than laugh him off.