Sunday 6 August 2006

The Melbourne (Decorative) Art Fair

The Melbourne (Decorative) Art Fair?

‘The sense of distinction, an acquired disposition which functions with the obscure necessity of instinct, is affirmed not so much in the manifestations of self-confidence as in the innumerable or thematic choices which, being based on the concern to underlie difference, exclude all the forms of intellectual (or artistic) activity regarded at a given moment as inferior.’

Pierre Bourdieu Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (trans. R. Nice) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984 (orig. 1974), p. 499

The Melbourne Art Fair is an important event in the national visual arts calendar. A large number of galleries from both Australia and overseas fill the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Building with works commanding high prices. Collectors flock to the building to discover and purchase new and established talent. While it’s not the most crowded event ($22 a ticket), it is certainly one of the most lucrative in the cultural calendar.
Why do people spend such large amounts of money? According to sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu, an important motive is to distinguish themselves from others, and so identify with a class that is defined by a shared knowledge and taste. As well as celebrating art, it also inevitably defines itself against work that is considered inferior. It not only elevates, it also excludes.
The Melbourne Art Fair has a policy that excludes craft organisations such as Craft Victoria. Why would this be? Requests for clarification to the Melbourne Art Fair have been met with strategic silence. Is there perhaps something about the ethic of craft that threatens the story that the Art Fair attempts to tell?
While craft organisations are banned from the Art Fair, a few commercial galleries still include handmade objects. Here’s a survey of craft on offer at this year’s Art Fair, in order of importance.
  • Boutwell Draper Gallery: magnificent Ryoji Koie pots and Pippin Drysdale (Paul Draper is an ex-ceramicist)

  • Alcaston Gallery: Hermannsburg pots

  • Perth Gallery: Holly Grace glass vessels

  • Yumaki Art Gallery: Maashiko Tsubota

  • Lin & Keng Gallery: Zhang Hongtu

  • Legge Gallery: Catherine Hearse (crocheted heads)

  • Christine Abraham Gallery: just a few pieces by Prue Venables

  • Tim Olsen Gallery: Michelle Perrett (ceramic perfume bottles expanded to sculptural size)

  • Park Ryu Sook: just one piece by Hun-Chung Lee this year

  • Darren Knight Gallery: Noel McKenna ceramics (painted, but not made by the artist)

  • Tapestry Workshop: tapestries of paintings by artists (weavers not mentioned)

  • Niagara: no Stephen Benwell

As usual, it is the Asian galleries that provide most of the craft to the Art Fair.
So what is there instead? There do seem to be an infestation of rabbits and birds on display. Along with the hot pink graphic design for the Art Fair, the culture on display seems to be innocent of any great meaning. Here’s the irony. While excluding craft, the kind of art that is supported by the Art Fair seems to have become a decorative art.
Visiting the Melbourne Art Fair reminds us of the reasons why craft is necessary. Craft opens up an alternative system of value, based on exchange rather than exclusion, of shared humanity rather than refined taste. We need both, don’t we?

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