An interview with Anthony Gardner about biennales

Crowds outside a lecture presentation featuring Kazuyo Sejima, Venice Biennale 2010. Image: Luke Kakizaki

I’ve been away on holidays over the Christmass – New Years break, but with 2011 well and truly underway, it’s time to dust off the WordPress passsword and get blogging again.

Kicking off this year is something I’m very excited about: an interview with University of Melbourne researcher Anthony Gardner. Gardner came to my attention as a outstanding early career researcher who late last year was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council grant to study the international visual arts biennale circuit.

It’s a subject I’ve covered peripherally here before, and one that has been dealt with by some important recent books I’ve mentioned here such as Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World and Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

I emailed Anthony before Christmas with some questions in bold; below are his responses:


Anthony Gardner in 2010. Image: Anthony Gardner.

Can you tell me briefly what you’ll be researching?

The main and overt subject matter is the development of so-called “mega-exhibitions” worldwide since the Second World War: the biennales, triennales, quadrennials, quinquennials and so on that have emerged in places as diverse as Dakar in Senegal, Tirana in Albania or Guangzhou in China. These perennial exhibitions – perhaps we should really call them perennales, no matter how uglythe word – have been one of the main driving forces in the display, production and thinking of art in the last 40 years or so, and what I want to track with this project (together with my co-investigator, Charles Green at the University of Melbourne) are three (maybe even four) waves of biennialisation that have emerged since the development of the Venice Biennale in 1895. This wouldcomprise a first wave in the late 19th century, a second in the 1950s to the mid 1980s, a third from the early 1990s on, and if there is indeed a fourth, then it is only in recent years as biennales have supposedly begun to decline and become discursive, have reflected on their own conditions, as they age.
The more meaty subject, however, is the shift and changes that histories of exhibition and curatorship have brought (and on occasions wrought) on art history, and how the ideologies driving these exhibitions signify important shifts from “world art” and its grounding in internationalism, to globalism and globalisation in art and culture, and the re-emergence of regional and very localfoci amid the global. What complications do histories of art’s display present to our usual understandings of the history of art works as discrete entities? And how can a broad yet thorough understanding of these waves of biennialisation provide us with a richer of art’s globalisation through the twentieth century?

Continue reading

The legacy and troubles of the Warburg Institute


Pages from Aby Warburg's Mneomysyne Atlas. Source: Mathias Bruhn


In The Burlington Review, Christopher S. Wood has a careful dissection of E. H. Gombrich’s famous 1960 opus Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.

Gombrich was a prominent member of the Warburg Institute – but is the famous London institute under threat from savage cuts to British higher education funding. Anthony Grafton thinks so.

The value of the Warburg Institute to the study of art and ideas has been a recurring theme in my studies. Works such as Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology and Frances YatesThe Art of Memory have remained touchstones in fields such as art history and form a large part of the intellectual inheritance of currently important fields such as cultural studies.

But apparently the Warburg Institute and its remarkable library face significant funding and administration issues, no doubt as a result of the ongoing crisis of the British public sector and the UK university system. There’s an excellent interview with Grafton from ABC  Radio National here.

The heritage wars heat up

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler in 2007. Source: Victoria Anderson

Well well, who would have thought an essay about cultural policy would generate so much heat?

A book chapter for the Centre for Policy Development by Marcus Westbury and myself has started to gain some serious attention in the high arts in Australia. I’ve already covered Richard Mills’ reaction to it here. But today in The Australian, there is a long article from Rosemary Sorensen about the debate, which includes the first formal response from Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele:

Australia Council chief executive Kathy Keele agrees that the dichotomy is unhelpful. “It’s not either-or,” she says, “it’s about doing it all.”

While she welcomes the debate, Keele does say that Westbury, who has created festival events under the Australia Council’s banner and also helped write one of its arts guides, has not done his homework well enough.

“He’s talking about an Australia Council that does not exist,” she says. “This whole conversation about heritage is not relevant: it’s really that we need more funding for the arts across the board.”

Keele laughs off the idea that an orchestra playing Bach or a theatre company performing Shakespeare is somehow out of date because the composer or the playwright is no longer with us.

“The people going to see it are not dead,” she says.

“Those performances are still about today.”

Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that this is in turn a misrepresentation of Marcus’ arguments, and I humbly suggest Keele should have a careful read of our essay. In it, we don’t actually say that Shakespeare or Bach are “out of date” because they are “no longer with us”, but we do point out the Australia Council’s overwhelming funding bias towards a small number of cultural organisations and a narrow range of cultural expressions.

As we point out in the essay, while there is substantial funding for organisations to perform works by Bach or Shakespeare (including funding for an entire company devoted to Shakespeare), only 2% of Australia Council music funding goes to contemporary music, only 5% of the arts funding in this country is devoted to living artists making new work, and the Australia Council gives five times as much funding to one opera company as it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

The debate is set to continue, so stay tuned.

Richard Mills tries to defend the heritage arts; fails

I couldn’t let this one go … distinguished composer and WA Opera Director Richard Mills had a wonderful defence of the heritage arts in The Age last week. Sounding like a critic trampled in the riot on the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mills thunders on about the new media arts in a tone that would be shocking if it were not so risible:

Some recently emerging mumbles in the national conversation appear to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding to various enterprises seen as exemplifying greater diversity of engagement, relevance (to whom or what is never stated) and, of course, innovation. I suppose I should begin by nailing my colours to the mast through making this confession.
I was a member of the Australia Council for the Arts in the 1990s when the New Media Fund was set up. I opposed it vehemently – and in vain – as it seemed to me just another example of meretricious, self-serving claptrap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak-minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds might happen to drop from the perch of government.
To educate and enlighten my misguided ways, I was taken to an office in Melbourne by an earnest, believing colleague. This office was the hub of revolutionary “new media” enterprise. I was ushered in and shown, in an atmosphere of hushed reverence, some examples of “new media” which, so far as I could tell, consisted of pictures of yellow flowers changing and moving about a bit on a TV screen.
“Humbug,” I exclaimed, “this belongs to the visual arts” – only to be howled down by the entire clutch of councillors of the day (except, if my memory serves me correctly, Christopher Pearson).
Thankfully, this nonsense, and other things like it, were recognised in their true colours some years later when my esteemed colleague Jonathan Mills (no relation) encouraged the abolition of the New Media Fund with enthusiasm – and final success.

Apart from the important new revelation that we can sheet home some responsibility for the abolition of the New Media Arts Board to Jonathan Mills, the article is an amazingly short-sighted defence. I’ve responded over at Inside Story:

Like the best satire, Mills’s essay skates close to the ridiculous. (When was the last time someone cried “humbug” in a policy discussion?) As spoof, Mills’s essay is a near-masterpiece. As sincere argument, it’s a train wreck. Mills gloats over the destruction of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board in 2004, as though it were some victory in the culture wars. He advances factually wrong statements – for instance, that grassroots music depends on musicians trained by symphony orchestras for the supply of expert teachers. He makes frankly embarrassing comments about jewellery and computer programming. More generally, in his rage against the dying of a light, he reveals himself to be as reactionary and ill-informed about other artforms as he is proficient in his own.

Mills’s essay is destined to become an important source document for those studying the current shape of Australian cultural policy. Sadly, one of Australia’s finest living composers has shown himself to possess a narrow critical mind. But Mills has also done us a favour, because he has been honest enough to reveal a widespread attitude among influential decision-makers in the Australian arts: the attitude that some forms of art, particularly their own, are more meritorious than others.

Special series on innovation theory: 2: Paul Stoneman’s Soft Innovation

Paul Stoneman's Soft Innovation is a major new monograph on innovation as it applies to the creative and cultural industries. Image: Amazon/OUP

I haven’t read the book, but you can read his previous discussion paper on soft innovation for NESTA. Relevant quote:

We define ‘soft innovation’ as a concept that reflects changes of an aesthetic nature. Such changes are considered significant if they are economically important. We show how important are new books, films, plays and video games in markets which exhibit regular novelty. Such innovations can also encompass a new line of clothing or the redesign of a car or a new advertising campaign. No-frills budget airlines or cosmetic surgery are further examples of markets in which firms rely on changes in aesthetics more than changes in technology to thrive or survive.
In short, we are concerned with changes in goods and services that primarily impact on sensory or intellectual perception and aesthetic appeal rather than functional performance. Soft innovation mainly concerns product innovation and, with that, product differentiation. Emphasising product differentiation allows that innovation may involve differences from the status quo and not just improvements, which is quite different from the standard approach where innovations in functionality require any new product to be an improvement; soft innovations may involve reductions in quality rather than just improvements (if price falls more than quality), as with budget airlines.
We identify two main types of soft innovation. The first involves changes in products in the creative industries, which are worth 6.4 per cent of UK gross value added, and include new books or movies. The second relates to aesthetic innovation in goods and services that are primarily functional in nature, such as new furniture or a new car model.

What’s new in the International Journal of Cultural Policy? The IJCP’s special book review issue

A classic cover of Raymond Williams' classic study, Culture and Society 1780-1950.

The first issue of the International Journal of Cultural Policy for 2010 is a refreshing departure from its more typical, research-0based fare: an issue of book reviews by some of the leading thinkers in the field – many of whom I’ve discussed on this blog.

So, for instance, there is Jeremy Ahearne on Michael de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life,  Franco Bianchini on Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilisation, Bennett himself on Raymond Williams’ classic Culture and Society, and Eleonora Belfiore on  Janet Minihan’s The Nationalization of Culture: the development of state subsidies to the arts in Great Britain. Interestingly, given the strident debate that has developed about the “neo-liberalism” of the creative industries school, Stuart Cunningham has opted to review that capitalist classic, Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Editor Oliver Bennett writes that:

This special issue gathers together some personal reflections on the intellectual influences of many of those that have contributed to the development of cultural policy as a field of academic enquiry. Each contributor was invited to write a short review essay on one book that had influenced his/her thinking and which s/he would want new students of cultural policy to read.

The collection thus serves a twofold purpose: it offers a fascinating insight into the intellectual force fields within which the study of cultural policy has grown up; at the same time, it provides a valuable resource for teachers of cultural policy, their students and all those with a general interest in the field.

For breadth and diversity, it’s one of the best issues of the IJCP for some time.

10 books that have influenced me

A grander library than mine ... photograph of Sir John Soane's library. Source: Sir John Soane's Musuem.

Tyler Cowen is blogging it. Matt Yglesias is blogging it. Bryan Caplan is too. So I thought I’d post my list of ten books that have most influenced my intellectual development. Behold – no Ayn Rand!

In no particular order …

1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.  Because it’s a Tuchman book, it’s beautifully written and flawlessly narrated. But the big take-home message for me was how quickly the best-laid plans of the various combatants of 1914 came to grief, and how bereft they were of a plan B once “mobile warfare” had solidified. A brilliant case study in unintended consequences.

2. The Nichomechean Ethics by Aristotle. Aristotle’s supple wisdom still rings true today as he analyses the human virtues as way of good living.

3. In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Taught me about love, and obsession, and human changeability, and the Dreyfus affair.  Also taught me that ploughing through a difficult multi-volume novel for months can be intensely rewarding.

4. Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama. The best book about art history I have ever read, by one of the grandest contemporary historians.

5. The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot. Perhaps one of the most intense works of literary criticism of all time.

6. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Still the best introductory collection.

7. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Straw Dogs by John Gray. I conflated these two as together they represent two of the most incisive critiques of humanism, as well as two of the best-argued.

8. Essays by Montaigne. And for the defence of humanism, we have Montaigne, whose literary generosity has perhaps never been surpassed.

9. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Still perhaps my favourite ever comic novel. Contains multitudes.

10. The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. Glory in the broad-brush sweep of contemporary history, marvel at the quality of his judgment, wonder at the scope of his compass.

Neuroscience of music: why we like surprising melodies

From one of my favourite blogs, Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex (and by the way, someone that smart should not be that good looking. No fair!) comes a post about a fascinating new piece of research on the neuroscience of music. As the authors write in their abstract:

In this study, we investigated melodic pitch expectations elicited by ecologically valid musical stimuli by drawing together computational, behavioural, and electrophysiological evidence. Unlike rule-based models, our computational model acquires knowledge through unsupervised statistical learning of sequential structure in music and uses this knowledge to estimate the conditional probability (and information content) of musical notes. Unlike previous behavioural paradigms that interrupt a stimulus, we devised a new paradigm for studying auditory expectation without compromising ecological validity.

What does all this mean? Lehrer explains:

The paper consists of a computational model and and an experiment. The model essentially demonstrated that statistical predictions based on our personal listening experience – because I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I’m able to predict the melodies of John Mellencamp – was much better at simulating the mind than a rule-based model, in which our expectations are fixed and inflexible.

The experiment was more compelling. The scientists measured the brain waves of a twenty subjects while they listened to various hymns. It turned out that unexpected notes – pitches that violated the previous melodic pattern – triggered an interesting sequence of neural events and a spike in brain activity …

There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.

The second takeaway is that music requires surprise, the dissonance of “low-probability notes”. While most people think about music in terms of aesthetic beauty – we like pretty consonant pitches arranged in pretty patterns – that’s exactly backwards. The point of the prettiness is to set up the surprise, to frame the deviance. (That’s why the unexpected pitches triggered the most brain activity, synchronizing the activity of brain regions involved in motor movement and emotion.)

Fantastic stuff. ScienceBlogs is going from strength to strength at the moment.

The philosopher in the business school

Alladi Venkatesh. Source: Paul Merage School of Business.

One of the supplest minds I’ve yet encountered in my cultural research is Alladi Venkatesh (not to be confused with his more famous name-sake, the sociologist Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, author of the justly celebrated Gang Leader for a Day). Venkatesh’s research ranges across many of the fields I blog about here, including cultural economics, cultural studies, aesthetics and even semiotics. His breadth of reading is constantly surprising, typically bringing insights from many different academic traditions to bear on the questions he researches.

And yet he’s not a philosopher or cultural sociologist. He’s a Professor of Marketing at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. He’s also Associate Director of CRITO – the Center for Research on Information Technology in Organizations – and the principal investigator of Project Noah. As his bio records, his research focus is on the impact of new media and information technologies on consumers/households. But that doesn’;’t begin to scratch the surface of his work, which pokes its nose into all sorts of fascinating areas.

Today we’re going to take a look at one of Venkatesh’s recent publications in the journal Marketing Theory. Entitled “Arts and aesthetics: Marketing and cultural production”, and co-authored with Laurie Meamber, it’s nothing less than a wide-ranging review of the literature in many of the fields we cover in this blog – all from the perspective of marketing.

As the paper’s introduction explains,

The purpose of this article is to discuss the notion of cultural production within the context of marketing. The position taken is that aesthetic meanings associated with cultural practices are related to the way in which individuals and organizations negotiate commerce and consumer culture. The main contribution of the research is to enlarge our understanding of the cultural production processes as they pertain to marketing and consumption of aesthetics. In this context, we also examine how emerging developments in postmodern aesthetics and posthumanism have augmented new ways of thinking about related issues.

The broad research question underlying the article is: Is it possible to view marketing as providing both a context and an institutional framework for the cultural production system in the contemporary postmodern world? If so, what does it entail in terms of our conceptualization of the elements of the cultural production system and their specific relationship to the institution of marketing?
Specifically, the following research questions will be addressed:
1. What is cultural production and who are the actors involved in it?
2. What are the current approaches within the field of marketing for the study of the cultural production system?
3. What are the significant developments in the area of cultural production that marketing should be concerned with in considering cultural products?
4. What is the role of aesthetics in the cultural production processes?
5. How do the new epistemologies based on postmodernism and posthumanism influence the cultural production processes?
6. What, finally, are the implications of the cultural production processes for individuals, organizations, and consumer culture?
The paper lives up to all of these aims, and in the process delivers a tour-de-force introduction to this fascinating intersection of fields. Recommended.

Duran Duran and Brad De Long on rivalry and excludability in culture



Roxy Music in their prime (source: Last FM)

Duran Duran bassist, John Taylor, has an excerpted speech at the BBC in which he explains the stunning impact of Roxy Music on his teenage musical taste. For the cultural economists out there, note how he explains so succintly the importance of the fact that Roxy Music’s single was excludable:

In September 1972, Roxy Music appeared on prime time TV in the UK. It was their first national TV exposure, a three-minute appearance performing their first single.

And the way they looked and sounded stunned me, and a generation of mes.

But we had no video recorders, and of course there was no YouTube. There was no way whatsoever that I could watch that appearance again, however badly I wanted to. And the power of that restriction was enormous.

The only way I could get close to that experience was to own the song. I lived in the suburbs, so I had to ride my bike for miles before I could find a store that sold music, let alone one that had the record in stock. It was a small trial of manhood and an adventure.

But once I had that song, I could play it whenever I chose. I had to go on a quest of sorts to get it, but my need was such that I did it.

The power of that single television appearance created such pressure, such magnetism, that I got sucked in and I had to respond as I know now previous generations had responded to Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, or The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix. I believe there’s immense power in restriction and holding back. Continue reading