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After Observing the Working Methods of a Very Important Artist

The aging fool stands deep in dirty water,
Cradling the carcass of a native fowl
To his bare chest like a tired, suckling daughter.
He wears cheap sanctimony like a cowl.
With eyes closed tight in solemn meditation,
He draws a breath in glib anticipation
Then, with a sudden, violent exhalation,
He smears the bird in muddy desecration
Across the paper spread along the bank.
This feckless skid-mark later comes to float
Upon a wall in some vast gallery,
Now worth ten times the monthly salary
Of the attendant in her borrowed coat
Who wonders if it’s all a cruel prank.

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Shaun C. Duncan is a picture framer and fine art printer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia.


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33 Responses

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Ha! I wish I could say I made it up but this is based on a true incident.

      Reply
  1. Paul Freeman

    I was at school when the single colour canvas was in vogue. On a trip to a London gallery our art teacher camouflaged her incredulity by saying it must take some skill to get the yellow paint so uniform.

    Thanks for the read, Shaun.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      My pleasure, I hope you enjoyed it.

      When I was studying photography, we were told that modern art was so, so good and so, so sophisticated that the plebs needed academics to explain just how wonderful it really was.

      Reply
  2. Sally cook

    Dear Shaun,
    Good work in a good cause! As you say, you couldn’t make it up.
    I have experienced this so many tunes. What’s on the walls of your illustration was new in the 1950s, even earlier; now it’s just a ho hum.
    It is why I left New York, but it followed me; it is a big reason I returned to the figure; it is what enabled a university to “lose” my application materials; it is legion in third rate galleries.
    But in another way, it was an inspiration. Nothing wrong with the study of a movement or participation in one, but there is something very wrong about staying in it once your eye is opened.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, you went through the wringer in that Greenwich Village art scene. But a great artist emerged.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Dear Joe —
        It is truly awful to rush straight to the avante-garde expecting a great tornado of diverse ideas, only to find instead a gaggle of callow conformists hoping to “make it” by narrowing their sites to follow along with the latest theory.

        I do think there was a germ of a good idea in abstract expressionism, but no one would discuss it. If you persisted, you were sent to artistic Siberia.

        As to my status, well I don’t know and can’t say. Only time will tell. But thank you for the great compliment. .

    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Sally. I can only imagine the sort of nonsense you must have dealt with as an artist in New York. I’m not sure how much state money is thrown at the arts over there, but here in Australia there’s a particular style of art that can only exist in a marketplace saturated with government money. It’s often comically third-rate, even by the standards of the contemporary art world. The piece described above was part of a video installation at a major retrospective of this artist’s work. I was there in a professional capacity and couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the sheer pomposity of it all. The air of ridiculous self-importance combined with the complete artlessness of the execution is something I could never adequately convey. You just had to be there.

      Reply
      • Morrison Handley-Schachler

        Hello Shaun
        A great vivid poem about the ludicrous not-very-creative process here. I don’t think it’s just state money. There’s also a lot of corporate sponsorship out there and I wonder whether it’s always well spent. There’s good and bad modern art out there, some of it more abstract, so less so, but I’m not sure that state functionaries, industrial magnates or corporate PR committees are necessarily the best arbiters of artistic value.

  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is just wonderful, Shaun! “He wears cheap sanctimony like a cowl” is absolutely brilliant! And the thought you express in the last three lines is very insightful. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Cynthia. I’m glad you liked the closing lines. I originally wrote the poem a few years ago but set it aside because I was unhappy with the original ending.

      Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Painting with a dead chicken, using mud. Is that what pompous curators call “mixed media”?

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      I believe so and on top of that the scene above was presented as a video installation. It was a multimedia experience.

      Reply
  5. Jeff Eardley

    Shaun, this is great. There are many great lines but I love the contrast with the “artist” and the attendant in her borrowed coat. Rhyming “salary” with “gallery” is genius. Great stuff.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Jeff. I struggled a bit with the ending before I was finally happy with it. Sonnet form is a tight fit for the subject matter!

      Reply
  6. David Whippman

    Well said. There was an English representative artist called John Minton who dared to say he didn’t rate Jackson Pollock. Basically the art students drove him into exile.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Sadly it’s something which has happened across nearly all art forms in the same time span. It’s not so much the championing of the new and novel that bothers me, but the hostility to our great artistic traditions is appalling and reeks of an agenda. It’s remarkable to think that beauty and form are now subversive.

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Doesn’t it strike you as odd, even perveted, that ugliness, dirt, foolishness and more of the same are now glorified, without any justification? How can it be that humans have had such a surfeit of beauty that it became trite?
        I don’t think so. I do think that they have been taught to look at things upside down. And who might want that? Must be those who want power. And if you cannot find, or earn it in a normal way, well, then you must create an opposing group.
        Divide and conquer, wise words.
        Observe how divided we are becoming as a nation, and think how divided the Western world is becoming, and how weak that must appear to other countries. Not good.

  7. Joshua C. Frank

    Well described! I remember a white canvas with some strips of old, grimy, colored duct tape on it, from a high school field trip to the museum of modern “art.” So, I know exactly what you’re talking about. This is exactly what happens when classical form is abandoned, just like with poetry.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      It’s funny how the great unwashed see through all this immediately. There’s so much fretting about how the public have become estranged from the arts but when a gallery hosts an exhibition of old masters you’ll see lines around the block. I’ve noticed something similar when I tell someone I write poetry. Usually they’re momentarily repelled, but when I add that I’m a formalist I’m suddenly met with more interest. When I tell them I’m primarily a satirist they ask if they can read some of my work.

      Reply
      • Joshua C. Frank

        Good to know, about how to tell people I write poetry. They probably picture me sitting in someone’s attic in beatnik clothing, writing grammatically correct nonsense.

  8. Julian D. Woodruff

    Then there’s stuff like the meticulous recreation of discarded shipping containers, meaning that the originals should not be or have been discarded, or that human skill can do once what industry can do a zillion times, thereby turning the purely functional into art (something we want to look at). The world of art is now poisoning the eye gleefully, if not yet quite so casually as that of architecture.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Architecture is definitely leading the pack as far as assaulting our sense of aesthetics is concerned. The ideology which lurks behind modern architecture is quite sinister too.

      Ugly art can only exist in an elitist environment though. As a picture framer I get to see what ordinary people actually buy and for the most part beauty still trumps everything.

      Reply
  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Shaun, I love everything about this poem. Firstly, the fine craftmanship. I’m intrigued by the rhyme scheme… it works perfectly in that it trips off the tongue with a sing-song musicality that belies the unpalatable message within… employing a sort of cognitive dissonance that is most certainly at play when it comes to “art” such as this. It is obvious to all that you didn’t smear vile and muddy words across the page to leave a stain of horror in our midst. Your words speak mellifluously and beautifully, and the message is loud and clear. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you so much, Susan. I think an ugly subject matter demands musicality and a more liberal use of poetic devices and I’m humbled that you think I rose to the occasion as this is something I admire about your own work.

      Lines 4 to 8 seemed to invite the repeated rhyme since they describe a very brief moment and I’d like to think it adds an element of tension.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Yes, the repeated rhyme does have that effect… these lines shine. I was so enthralled with the construct of the poem that I forgot to mention that your powerful words and the accompanying chosen picture reminded me of a trip to the Royal Academy of Arts for an Anish Kapoor Exhibition. A black cannon shot out blood red wax at intervals. The wax spattered the walls and gore-like gunk piled up in a door entrance. It was breathtakingly disgusting. On the stark white wall opposite this “artistic” horror was a lacewing. It shone emerald-green in a shaft of sunlight that lit its iridescent wings – an exquisite creation that was breathtakingly beautiful. That contrast in images remains with me to this day. It says everything.

  10. Roy E. Peterson

    Shaun, my disdain for modern art matches that of my distaste for modern poetry! You have captured the “deep in dirty water” side of modern art, which I understood you observed. Once upon a time I would have been amazed. Now I just read the stories of each in horror.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Roy. It’s sad that the same veneration of ugliness and loathing of form and beauty has come to dominate all our arts. Still, it’s quite cozy here in our little marginalised community!

      Reply
  11. Margaret Coats

    Ai Wei Wei! The poem is very well done, Shaun, and almost as much I like your comment on “hostility to our great artistic traditions.” This includes not just hostility to art shown in the fake “artist’s” final product, but in his ignorance of working technique and materials. Underdeveloped personalities thrive only on underserved attention. As long as their worthless work blinds government grant givers and wins academic adulation, they despise art itself and their taxpaying patrons.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Margaret. Yes, there is a hostility to the very notion of a perceivable quality in art, which is part of an attempt to give more power to those “experts” who now act as the official arbiters of taste. You can’t make it on talent or hard work these days but only by submission to the whims of the gatekeepers.

      The attack on quality goes hand-in-hand with a campaign of censorship to remove the tradition from our view with the justification that it’s no longer relevant or that it’s insufficiently diverse. It’s harder to do this with the visual arts which have an enormous presence in popular culture, but it seems to have been more successful with poetry. I had an argument a while back with a French academic with a PhD in literature. I told her I thought most modern poetry was worthless and little more than badly-written prose arranged to look like poetry on the page and that it had more in common with type-setting than the tradition of Chaucer (who she’d never heard of). I was told I was not qualified to say such a thing.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        “Gatekeepers” — yes, that’s absolutely the right word. In the art world, in publishing, in academic hiring, in major funding, and also at websites (not here), where certain self-appointed watchdogs make sure that offending opinions and inconvenient questions are immediately deleted.

        What irks me is that all this gatekeeping censorship is applauded by many people as “meritocracy.” They never ask “Who gets to decide what is meritorious?”

  12. Paul W Erlandson

    Perhaps of relevance to the discussion here is painter Norman Rockwell’s take on the work of Jackson Pollock, in his painting “The Connoisseur”, which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post (Jan 13, 1962).

    He entered part of the abstract painting which appears within his painting (clearly a direct aim at Pollock) into an art contest under an assumed name, and won.

    This video is about Rockwell’s painting:

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      I didn’t know this about Rockwell – thanks for sharing the video. I actually don’t mind some abstract art and I also like some modernist poetry. In retrospect though, the move away from formalism opened the floodgates to a tsunami of bad, bad art and also created a marketplace where all objective standards have been demolished and the value of a work is determined by a self-appointed expert class.

      Reply

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