Critics’ Silence Adds To Walsh’s Cabinet Of Curiosities

David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art is an extraordinary achievement.

The art, distributed through an artificial cavern in a Hobart hillside, is surreal and otherworldly. We’ll get to it in a moment. But adding to MONA’s surrealism is the fact that the museum exists entirely outside Australia’s cultural bureaucracy.

MONA does not haggle for support from government budgets, and it is not curated by committee. Cabinet ministers cannot put their friends on the museum’s board.

Private museums are common globally but rare here. Australians expect their major cultural institutions to be wards of state and federal governments.

So the strangeness of the art is amplified when visitors realise they are not in a public building, but are instead guests on the private property of an eccentric billionaire. Before visitors even get to the artwork, they have already been treated to a vision of a different world – one where state and culture are not so perversely intertwined.

Hopefully Walsh’s dispute with the Australian Taxation Office does not put it all at an end. (As an aside, it has been great theatre to see Bob Brown stand up for an accused tax evader.)

All that said – MONA’s very existence being a triumph of private sector culture and free markets and capitalist patronage and so on – we ought to give Walsh the respect of taking his museum seriously. And MONA has some deep problems.

The clue is in the title. There is a broad range of new art in the Museum of Old and New Art. But the curators have a very particular idea of what constitutes “old” art. And their choices betray a strange sort of anti-intellectualism – as if modern art has nothing to do with history, or even its own heritage.

All curation decisions make implicit arguments. And most surveys of modern art are arranged chronologically and thematically. This has the advantage of showing those with only a casual interest the rough logic of modernism and post-modernism: how Paul Cézanne’s landscapes could have led to Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings, or how Dadist surrealism could have led to Tracey Emin’s soiled bed.

There is, no question, a big distance between the Mona Lisa and Damien Hirst’s shark, but it is a distance Western art has travelled, and the journey was intelligible.

MONA rejects such stodgy determinism, and tosses together art from all eras. The “Theatre of the World” exhibition, which opened in June, is the essence of MONA’s eclecticism. The pieces in this large show span 4,000 years of history. The curators jumble up everything from Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman to the vertebrae of a snake. The most striking room has its walls covered in Pacific Island bark-cloths, and features in the centre an Egyptian sarcophagus and one of the stretched human figures of the mid-century sculptor Alberto Giacometti. That is, ancient North Africa, the 19th century Pacific, and 20th century modernism, all in one hall.

But notably absent throughout the exhibition is any significant showing of Western art before 1850. The old art in the Theatre of the World is almost uniformly non-Western.

That observation may seem churlish (there are many outlets for European paintings, Walsh need not provide another one) but this curatorial decision suggests contemporary art arose from nothing; as if modernism and post-modernism exist entirely outside the Western tradition. Yet modern art is the direct heir of classical art.

Yes, many modern artists have been inspired by non-Western art. Picasso spent a lot of time looking at African tribal craft – a point the exhibition makes. But he also used to brag he was the best classically trained draughtsmen of the 20th century. Bluster or not, he and his contemporaries drew upon the artistic heritage of centuries.

When MONA pairs a modern work – more often than not from an artist living and working within the “West” – with a metal mask of a boar from India, the sole point is to disorientate. And the desired reaction is not much more than: art is weird. With this approach, MONA struggles to be more than a cabinet of curiosities.

That’s fine. Walsh does not have to make modern art comprehensible. He is under no statutory obligation to teach. He can alienate his visitors because he, not they, paid for the gallery in the first place.

But, still. One of the arguments made by radical critics of Western art is that it looks at the rest of the world with a patronising eye. In his famous book Orientalism, Edward Said claimed the West “colonised” the East through art before it did so with muskets. Said’s book was highly flawed but highly influential. It launched a thousand PhDs. Said argued European artists infantilised the Orient by imposing on it a sense of weirdness; that everything outside Europe was alien and inscrutable.

That critique has a strange parallel at MONA. The Theatre of the World typically shows a classic modern work – such as the video of an artist who cut a house in half – and contrasts it with, say, a collection of Fijian weapons. Cultural Studies majors would call those weapons representative of “the Other”. They conjure up archaic and condescending ideas about the Noble Savage. And the comparison suggests modern artists are discovering the sort of raw, violent purity that exists only in foreign lands.

So it’s curious to see our cultural critics unwilling to deploy their poison pens against Walsh’s museum. They’re usually proud to be iconoclasts.

But then, since MONA suggests modern art has little to do with the inheritance of Western Civilisation, perhaps it is not that curious.