You go to a café, you pick up a paper. Flip to the arts pages. It’s a Saturday. The last bits of the summer holidays are evaporating. There’s a full-page review of a museum show you happen to have seen, and then you read this:
You can tell a lot about artists from the audiences they attract, and here it was overwhelmingly young women.
You read on, and gradually, you realise that it’s not just the exhibition that’s being excoriated, but you. You ruined the show, just by being there. You can tell a lot about artists from the audiences they attract… it was like a giant set for selfies.
At this point, I have to ask myself whether there’s any point in being overly bothered. Does anyone care what a conservative critic has to say about a major feminist artist? Did he like it? No. Did he understand it? No. Why even respond to such misplaced rage?
I suppose because it's not misplaced. Allen isn't a fringe voice. He's one of the only national art critics in Australia, with a massive platform. Despite this platform, he is most well known for his lack of insight into contemporary arts practice. His writing tends to be guided by personal vendettas, rather than critical insight, and this time, the target is young women. At nearly 30, I'm also part of that demographic, going by the creepy, stalker-ish pictures published alongside the online version, and so my annoyance is personal. I'm pretty sure I could alphabetically fart a better review than this, given the chance. But I don't need to bother. I am a ‘young woman’, which means my endorsement automatically deems something an embarrassing piece of shit.
Why is everything women like generally considered to be worthless?
It's well known that sometime after pre-school and before pubes, the word 'girl' goes from being benign to describing something that is basically 'lame'. For many women, the aversion becomes ingrained. It's not really about breaking a person's self-confidence, as suggested by manipulative tampon commercials, but divorcing them from their own reality. Ultimately, derision is a tool of control.
Michelle Cliff, a Jamaican-born writer and activist, wrote that ‘the obscuring and trivialisation of what is real is also speechlessness’. Ridicule, even when you know it’s unfounded, makes you question yourself. It says, ‘what you see as important is so unimportant that it’s laughable’. It’s gaslighting. It's a way of forcing a person’s gaze inwards, making them doubt themselves. Why else are so many commentators intent on ridiculing women who talk about their bad or coercive sexual experiences? Women's pleasure - aesthetic, sexual, intellectual, physical - is always beside the point. Don’t step out of line.
It's interesting, given that the aim of ridicule is the policing of the self, that Allen’s main criticism of young women is the fact that they took selfies. He describes that through selfies 'girls learn to construct themselves as objects of the desire of men while believing that they are doing it for themselves.’ But it’s simply not possible to construct oneself as an object. What he describes as 'female narcissism' (I don't know why women need a special category), could also be described as female subjectivity, something totally alien to patriarchy. The lack of nuance also completely dismisses girls’ intelligence. You don’t even know how ridiculous you are.
In one of Rist's works, Ever is Over All, a woman viscerally breaks out of a kind of self-policing mode, brandishing a large, long iron flower and smashing car windows with a big fat smile on her face. If it sounds familiar, it's because the work was referenced by Beyonce in the video clip for Hold Up. In Beyonce's version, she takes a baseball bat and stomps on cars, flames erupting in her wake. To me there's a sense of tension that isn't there in the dreamlike original, pushing right to the edge and beyond it. Needless to say, this homage escapes Allen's notice.
Why declare that girls' opinions are worthless? It's Rist that Allen finds the most odious. He bizarrely describes the 55 year old artist as ‘a rich girl who has convinced the international art world to take her seriously’. Actually I'm kind of impressed by the way he manages to construe a successful decades-long international art career as a negative:
For the past 20 years or so she has been on the standard shopping lists used by biennale curators all over the world, and because such curators are always in need of content to fill up their exhibitions, she is likely to be recycled through quite a few more international shows before she is eventually dropped for a newer or more edgy name.
There are some valid criticisms that could be made about the show, and about the use of cameras in museums, and even about the expensive blockbuster season, but Allen didn’t make them. Instead he denigrated the artist and took potshots at women who’d paid their $20 to be there just like everyone else. This is the same demographic, by the way, that accounts for the majority of Australian arts workers, curators and trained artists. It’s also the audience that overwhelmingly forks out for tickets with their hard-earned cash from 87 cents in every dollar.
Ironically, for all his blustering about female narcissists, Allen’s inability to understand the works revealed the weakness of his own brand of criticism. Instead of a rigorous and compelling engagement with art, what I read was a portrait of a redundant critic enjoying the mirrored echo-chamber of his own opinions. Each sentence searching vainly for relevance. It’s a shame that this context-free, egotistical display passes for criticism.
You can probably tell that I would have reviewed the show very differently, and not just because I would have tried harder to get my facts straight. Sometimes it’s good to just enjoy something, though. Drink it in without the overhanging fun-sponge of evaluation. Sip My Ocean reminded me of childhood – when the best navigator was curiosity, rather than judgement.
I will say that when I saw Sip My Ocean, I too was disturbed by the behaviour of some of the younger girls there. Not by their iPhones, but by their reactions. One girl, maybe 14 or so, told her friend how ‘disgusted’ she was by a video showing a woman with pubic hair and menstrual blood floating in water. She made the pronouncement with the self-satisfied air of a critic, identifying something amiss in what would otherwise be considered art. Maybe she had already learned that having a serious opinion was all about what, and how best, to hate.