There’s a universal acceptance that the art world is the undisputed world champion when it comes to bullshit, (and of course fraud). A canvas painted black with say a single red stripe down the middle, if by a name artist, will have critics swooning. Many famous artists have either financially exploited this or alternatively sent it up. With the latter sending-up category I own a small painting by one of New Zealand’s greats, Michael Illingworth, who died three decades back. It’s titled ‘the art opening’ and shows a couple chatting away, wine glasses in hand while behind can be see the “works”, all canvases divided into two, one half painted say yellow, the other black, significantly, all bearing red sales stickers.
Picasso in his latter years set about industriously belting out thousands of 2-minute “art works”, usually a simple line profile of say a woman’s face but often a mere scrawl. But he took great pains to have his all-important signature very clear. Annually a few are plucked from the highly secured warehouse to provide a few million for his heirs, to make ends meet for the year.
50 years ago, while my home was being built, I flatted with the late Jim Webber, then the local newspaper editor. Jim, a Maori, came in one night excitedly bearing a couple of dozen inky sheets. It transpired he’d popped in to see his mother who was chairwoman for the regional Maori Women’s Arts and Crafts Society and encountered her busy at the gestetner machine, copying out the notice for the forthcoming AGM.
If you don’t know what a gestetner is, ask someone over 50. Every office had one. It was a bulky reproduction machine necessitating first inking up through a tube of black gung, a roller. To reproduce a typed page required initially running through 20 or 30 sheets to get a clear copy not covered in blotches.
We signed “W.E Wilson” at the bottom right hand of each page, gave them titles such as “Dachau Spectre”, “Euphrates Dialogue” (to be found today in my Wellington office) and such-like art world nonsense, had them framed, wrote up W.E Wilson’s impressive biographical notes with the usual hogwash and a Wellington gallery staged the opening. Local MP, the late Gerald O Brien stood in for the late Eddie Isbey, then shadow Arts Minister who at the last minute couldn’t make it. Gerald explained why W.E. wasn’t there, he being tied up in Prague for his blue wash exhibition (back then in the cold war days that added a special frission) and generally waxed enthusiastically with the guff we’d provided to the 100 plus audience in his opening address. By then the entire exhibition bore red sales stickers and one, snapped up by one of our universities is still hanging there today. Both the Evening Post and Dominion art critics wrote praising reviews.
It nearly cost me my life. When Gerald was in full flight I looked round the room and noted the audience all lapping up the nonsense we’d written about W.E; whereupon I spotted my mother. She sent me a very loud and clear twinkle-eyed message, “you’re at it again you bugger, I know.” I couldn’t control my laughter but was fortunately near the door so feigned with a handkerchief a sneezing fit and fled outside. Now hysterical with mirth I literally fell into the gutter and thought I was going to choke to death. Some pedestrians helped me up and eventually steadied me back to sanity.
I’m currently putting the finishing touches to a comic novella, the last of four to be published together. It’s set in Glasgow, still today Britain’s art capital as it has been for over a century. It sends up art reviewers and their propensity for writing sheer nonsense with flowering gibberish about so-called installation art, which I did in a different format in my novel “Degrees for Everyone.”
All of that said, there’s another activity which is subject to unmitigated verbal bullshit possibly exceeding the art world. I’ll describe that tomorrow.