Monday, July 29, 2019

Reflections on my visit to the 2019 Archibald exhibition

Established in 1921, the Archibald Prize is Australia's oldest and best known award for portraiture in Australian art. The Archibalds are associated with two other prizes: the Sir John Sulman Prize  awarded each year for the best subject/genre painting and/or murals/mural project executed during the previous two years; and the older (established 1897) Wynne Prize  awarded for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists completed during the previous twelve months.

You will find the 2019 winners and finalists displayed here for the Archibald Prize,  here for the Sulman Prize, here for the Wynne Prize.have a browse and see what you think.

I try to go each year to see the finalists on show at the NSW Art Gallery. Having missed last year, I was determined to make it this year, so trooped of to the Gallery this morning with a friend.
Jun  Chen's Mao's last dancer - Li Cunxin. Not a winner, but my personal favourite. I rarely agree with the judges! 

There were 107 finalists across the three prizes. That's a lot of pieces of art to absorb in often crowded gallery spaces full of generally well behaved school kids. They were very well behaved, but there were a lot of them!

I no longer pretend that I am capable of making fine judgements on the quality of the finalists, but in broad terms I thought that the quality and variety of the Archibald finalists was up on previous years, that of the Wynne and Sulman finalists down.

That's just a personal view. Others may well disagree.

As in previous years, I was struck by the continued presence of what we might call message pieces, where the supplied description of the paintings reflected current popular political and cultural angsts such as feminism, gender roles and differences, Aboriginal rights and dispossession and the environment.

 I don't have a problem with the idea of art as politics, but I would recommend that you look at the art works as art works before reading the descriptions. I have a bad tendency to quickly scan the work and then read the description before looking in detail at the work. I find that this distorts to some degree because the description affects my independent judgement of the work.

Recognising that space for descriptions is limited, I would also like more information about the artist, especially for the Wynne and Sulman prizes where this was noticeably lacking.  I have a particular interest in art and artists connected in some way with the broader New England. This was significantly down this year. I only spotted four such artists. More broadly, and this reflects that fact that I am out of the art scene, I couldn't work out how the artists and styles might fit together.

Perhaps it's just a volume question. There is so much more Australian art now with that it's become a very crowded palate.

If you are in Sydney, do have a look. If outside, browse the links I have above. I plan to go back again and this time spend more time just sitting and looking.  . 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A new project firms up - launching an introductory course on the history of Australia's New England

For the last few months I have been working on a new project, an introductory course on the history of Australia's New England. While in some ways I need a new project like a hole in the head, this one has the advantage that it pushes forward with some of my major writing projects.

I am trying to do it properly. Delivered through U3A Armidale, it is a full semester course involving 16-18 lectures plus some tutorials.

The first course will run over semester 1 to test interest and develop course ware. I would like to make it available externally - a quick initial market test attracted 35 expressions of interest - but am not sure how to do this easily. Any suggestions would be gratefully received!

If you would like to find out more, this post on my history blog provides further details.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Falling out of the zeitgeist

I have often called myself a social analyst and indeed I am. I am also an historian. Over time, my focus has shifted from economic, policy and social analysis to the more historical. That's actually become a bit of a problem.

As a social analyst, I need to be in touch with the current. I have used various techniques to try to achieve this including talking to people, monitoring economic and other statistical data and reading widely including both current media and other people's research and analysis.  I also use other social media including Facebook and Twitter.

Just recently I realised  how badly out of touch I had become. I was listening to an ABC Radio National Program called Stop Everything presented by Beverley Wang and Benjamin Law. The program bills itself in this way: tune in for a savvy, critical look at pop culture and what's in the zeitgeist. Join our panellists each week for a discussion about what they’re reading, watching and listening to.

I have often found the program mildly annoying because the presenters' emphasis on the need for diversity seems really to mean anyone but me, an older heterosexual white guy. I never thought of myself as a "white guy" until quite recently when we became such a target for criticism. Now I have become a racial stereotype. Increasingly, I didn't properly understand what on earth they were talking about in particular segments. Yes, I could understand the words and indeed some of the tropes, Youngest does give me a window into their world, but the detail meant nothing to me.

Around five years ago, my old TV broke down. I was broke at the time and could not afford to replace it.. I decided that watching TV was a bit of a waste of time when I should be reading or writing, that if I wanted to watch a TV program I could look at it on the computer. That decision has had all sorts of side-effects.

I largely stopped using the lounge room. I used to go in there to watch TV some times for a break, sitting comfortably on the lounge. I used to watch TV while ironing or tidying, including sorting books. That stopped. I spent more time at my computer, adding to the curve in my back since I was now watching some TV there in addition to my other computer viewing. And with my size screen you have to sit to watch, you can't wander unless it's a podcast. Most importantly,  I got out of touch.

To explain this, consider Game of Thrones. I have never seen it. Indeed, I have rarely seen Netflix, never Stan. I am not going to subscribe to a streaming service when I have to watch it on my computer at my desk. Equally importantly, I stopped dipping in and out of TV programs in the way that I used to. This is quite important, for that was the way I identified new things, things I might want to watch.

It's not all bad. I have become a significant fan of YouTube even watching the ads! There are some good ones with high production values. I also mine the ABC and SBS sites for specific things I might want to watch. But these choices are all based on my current interests. My knowledge of things such as the prehistoric past has expanded, as has my knowledge of past aspects of Australian culture. However, my knowledge of the current has greatly diminished. I know nothing of most current programs. Yes, I could browse and check, perhaps I should, but I already spend far too much time stuck in front of my computer.

I have, it appears, dropped almost entirely out of the current zeitgeist. Should I rejoin, or should I just accept my new role as a boring old white guy, leaving social analysis to others more in tune? Perhaps not, because I have increasingly come to think of my research and writing as equivalent to an archaeological rescue dig seeking to preserve and present aspects of history, society and culture before they are submerged by the new cultural and historical high-rises. That's not a bad aim.

Still, I do want a new TV.. I hate being out of touch. I miss just sitting on the couch and watching TV. And I think that it helps to know the "enemy." I don't begrudge Beverley and Benjamin their views, nor do I think that those views are evidence of "progressive" bias within the ABC.

To my mind, my cultural warrior friends on the right miss the point in responding because they present stereotypes to match stereotypes. Both right and left go for the big hit, the re-assertion of views that will appeal to their own base and get the other side riled.

Twitter has not helped here because of the way that it has trivialised discussion. I may be unfair, but it seems to me that simply retweeting every story that agrees with your position, sometimes adding divine right pronouncements, is not an aid to discussion. Worse, the time spent is time taken away from substantive discussion that could actually advance the causes in question or, at least, ensure that issues are clarified. The sugar hit of instant response has replaced the hard thought that is really required to develop and present argument.

We live in a cluttered world. How we respond to that is a matter of individual choice. For my part, I will keep trying to make a difference on matters that are important to me, accepting that I may be out of tune with the times. That may sound pretentious, but it is all that I can do, regardless of whatever the current zeitgeists may be.

I ma still going to buy a new TV though!

Monday, July 01, 2019

Passing of Bob Quiggin, 2tanners: a memoir

Regular readers on this blog will be saddened to learn that Bob Quiggin - 2tanners - died in Canberra on 14 June 2019. He was only 61.

Some months before his death Bob emailed me privately to explain that he had a melanoma that had escaped discovery, the prognosis was bad while the combination of pain and medication made it difficult for him to comment coherently. This meant that he might not be able to comment.

In fact he did continue for a period and then, suddenly,.he stopped. I feared the worst.

Bob's email was characteristic of the man. He wanted me to know the reason if he dropped out, but did not want me to tell anyone. He preserved his privacy. At one point I had remarked in a comment that 2 tanners equalled a bob. Bob got quite cranky because he felt that I was breaching his privacy, his ability to comment freely.

Bob and I first met in, I think, early 1984 when he came to work in my branch in the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce.  He had completed a degree in economics at the Australian National University and was completing add-on studies that would give him a degree in Political Science and Philosophy. Later he would complete a Masters of  Science in computing at Deakin University

In thinking of this early period, I tried to find some of the comments where Bob talked about it but without success in the time I had. This blog has attracted 10,000 comments, so searching was time consuming. So my response here is working from memory.

We were trying to find a new approach to industry policy that would break through the mind-deadlock between the old protectionist school, neoclassical economics and the emerging neo-liberal forces. We believed that Australia could have a global future in the new communications,  computing, electronics, system and software based industry areas that were emerging but if, and only if, we could break through the dominant mind-locks. And that was hard.

It was Bob, I think, who coined the term the Belshaviks to describe the group. Later, he would paint a picture of me as a pirate attempting to storm the citadel. There was some truth in that.

After I left Canberra I kept coming back for work and marketing reasons, seeing Bob on many trips. The last time we met was in the early 2000s when Bob helped organise a lunch for the old Branch. That was when I learned about the Belshavik tag!

Meantime, Bob's career had gone in new directions. He moved to Finance. There. among other things, he managed the Solomon Islands' budget as part of the RAMSI mission. Later he would do the same in Timor Leste.. From Finance he moved to Foreign Affairs and Trade and then into the private sector as a consultant specialising in PFM (Public Financial Management). This brought him back  to Timor Leste, this time to help in the health sector.   

I lost contact with Bob after the Branch lunch. We came back into contact during the RAMSI period because Bob discovered this blog. For a time, Bob maintained a blog on the Timor Leste period - I'm sorry, I have lost the link.- which gave a fascinating insight into that country at a very human level. I still laugh at the description of the official emu parade!

In Timor Leste, Bob was actively involved with building Rotary and with Rotary projects. I saw but cannot re-find some of them.

Bob was a lovely man with an active mind and a commitment to service. I am sure that you join with me in sending wishes to Diana and all the family. There will be a memorial service for Bob in Canberra in late July. 

Update 2 July

kvd found the Bob kept on his Adventures in Timor Leste. And he added this comment that I thought that I should bring up in the main post. We did talk a lot about cooking!

 "And it was most remiss of Jim to note tanners' other Masters degree - in cooking - to whit, from February 2016 in this blog:

I take a shinbone of beef and slash it with a sharp knife. In the cuts I insert wild garlic and basil. I take three large onions and cut them as finely as possible, then fry them in strongly flavoured olive oil, with pepper and herbs. I wait till the onions are golden brown and melting, then I add a little Douro Shiraz. I have some thin, delicate prosunto which I also chop finely and add to the gravy that is forming. At some stage, everything starts to bubble together and some one says, "Let's just eat that! It smells so good."

That is a signal. The rest of the bottle of wine goes in, along with two carrots (roughly chopped), a sweet potato, peeled and roughly chopped and some pieces of parsnip, along with the beef shin.

The beef shin is covered as much as possible by the mixture, the heat is set to extremely low and for the next four hours the house fills with the smell. It's glorious torture for everyone. The weather is cold (this is always best served in the cold) so I warm up the plates. When the last plate is warm I throw in a handful of snow peas. Two minutes later, I ladle out everything into the plates except the meat. Using gloves so as not to burn myself I strip the meat to the bone. It's so tender I can literally do this with a plastic spoon. That leaves the bone itself. Many love to suck the marrow from the bone, but sometimes the cooking has already done it.

If there is no marrow in the bone, say "Sorry, it's already in your meal." Put the empty bone in the bin. If there is still marrow in the bone say "Sorry, it's already in your meal", zip out the back, suck it out and put the empty bone in the bin. Do NOT get caught doing this.

It is a glorious way to spend an afternoon, with house full of cooking smells and a delicious meal at the end of it.

But, I've told you the old fashioned, really good way. You can get something ALMOST as good with the same ingredients. Fry the onions, pepper and prosunto for a few minutes and throw them and everything else in a slow cooker for six hours while you go out, get some exercise, visit a modern art gallery, write 20 pages of a thesis or do unpaid work for your employer.

This meal has red wine in it and some alcohol remains, but you should always drink strong red wine with it. 

2tanners was a fine contributor who taught me many things, or at least explained exactly how and where I was wrong (on the very odd occasion :)"