Cultural Exploration via Art

One of the things I like to do when I visit or revisit a new city is to check out the art galleries for signs of cultural exploration and pathways to the future.

It is one way of learning more about a culture. Art once collected by a gallery often tells us as much about the journey as the road. It can also be a form of time travel as we look back at what was collected earlier and try to understand the context and debate around particular acquisitions which become social makers of a sort.

On a recent trip to Sydney I saw that the National Gallery in Canberra had a guest exhibition of Egyptian Antiquities on loan from the Louvre in Paris which was all the excuse I needed to get to Canberra for the day. Arguably this doesn’t tell us much about Canberra but quite a lot about ancient Egypt without going to France or Egypt where the best of these objects are on display. To quote:

“The Department of Egyptian Antiquities is the most popular at the Louvre. The permanent display of around 5,000 exhibits from the 60,000 housed by the department gives visitors the opportunity to discover this age-old civilisation, the works of art of which never fail to fascinate and generate admiration.
On 15 May 1826, a decree created the division of Egyptian monuments in the Royal Museum of the Louvre in Paris after Jean-François Champollion, an Egyptologist, convinced King Charles X to collect precious relics of ancient Egypt…”

So what we saw was quite dramatic and stunning collection of ancient mummies and related afterlife items dating back thousands of years. Well worth the trip if you are in Australia where the exhibition is on tour at present.

While also at the NGoA, I took the opportunity to see the Blue Poles Number 11 painting by Jackson Pollock caused a bit of a stir in 1973 when it was bought by the gallery. Now we are so used to thinking of art as an collection of ideas that we can bring our own meaning to that it doesn’t seem that unusual. There are also quite a few other international paintings at the gallery which is probably good for some carbon credits, in that a Monet in Canberra is worth two in Paris (not really but…) but more significant is just which local artists are celebrated and how.

Back in Sydney I wanted to see some Sidney Nolans (Ned Kelly iconic series) and so went to the main NSW gallery which has a room dedicated to him.  Perhaps what people like about those paintings is the larger-than-life story of Kelly the outlaw. From this historical distance it seems an inexplicable  cause for celebration but the paintings do connect you to the story in a clever way.

Every city has a few galleries of treasure that forms some kind of emotional shorthand for the political and social landscape of times gone by. The very best offer a platform for thinking about the present and the future.

Brian Eno expresses this resource idea very well and much more that is worth pondering about the place of art in our society.

“What is cultural value and how does that come about? Nearly all of the history of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories, and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: no, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

The piece goes on to link to an interview with Eno where he develops his theory of culture in a more eloquent way than I might. Enjoy – and do get to a gallery once and a while to explore some of the these ideas in a more visual way.

Also worth checking is a very recent quote at the same site where Brian suggests a reason for optimisim and echoes some of my thoughts about cultural development.

“Which brings me to my main reason for optimism: the ever-accelerating empowerment of people. The world is on the move, communicating and connecting and coalescing into influential blocks which will move power away from national governments with their short time horizons and out into vaguer, more global consensual groups. …There is a real revolution in thinking going on at all cultural levels: people comfortably cooperate to play games for which the rules have not yet been written with people they’ve never met, listen to music and look at art which is emergent, not predetermined, and accept the wiki model of the open-source evolution of knowledge.

All these represent dramatic and promising changes in the way people are thinking about how things work, how things come into being and how they evolve”.

And the feedback loops for all of this – in my view are cultural and show up in our art and all other forms of expression as well.