Vernon Ah Kee, Connie Anthes, Mark Feary, Cheri Graham, Matthew Griffin, Grant Gronewold, Pamela Pirovic, Sam Stephenson, Michael Stevenson, Natalie Thomas, Jensen Tjhung, & Ronnie van Hout
20 January - 24 February 2018
Darren Knight Gallery
840 Elizabeth Street
I would like to begin by sincerely thanking you for taking the time to read this short reflection on the topic of good manners. It is greatly appreciated. Manners are the bedrock of our interactions with society around us, enabling us just enough linguistic and gestural lubrication to avoid antagonisms with strangers. Good manners are perhaps something apart, although related, to the idea of being polite. There is certainly nothing wrong with being polite, but to describe someone as polite seems to suggest an interaction that is all about courtesy over substance. I have had many polite conversations about things I no longer recall and with people I can’t remember.
Polite conversations are like interactional appeasement, within which no controversial or contentious subjects are broached, for fear of raising a topic upon which the mild-mannered conversationalists may disagree. Polite conversations are best oriented around subjects about which there ought to be no fundamental disagreement. Brief conversations regarding the weather can be a form of superficially connecting with strangers, collectively agreeing that it is alternately hot, cold, raining or sunny, depending on the obvious conditions of the moment. When someone enquires about how we are, polite conversation would suggest an answer that is brief and positive, such as ‘really good’ or even more appropriately, ‘very well thank you’. To honestly respond to the question would open up a can of worms with no potential to put the lid back on.
“Nice to see you, how are you?”
“I’m actually very depressed. I’ve really hit rock bottom. But enough about me, how are you?”
Honesty isn’t always an accomplice of politeness, indeed in many instances, being honest would run counter to being polite. This is especially the case with regard to questions of taste. If we consider the art world as more inclined toward considerations of taste than it likes to acknowledge, then we enter into ripe territory around the topic of good manners. Being polite can straddle across all classes, but good manners can connote something further, it can suggest a good upbringing and education, it can reflect one’s social-economic position. Many people involved in the art world are from middle class and upper middle-class backgrounds, so it can safely be assumed that most could demonstrate good manners. There are a number of notable and predictable exceptions however, which I will now turn to through a series of sweeping and subjective generalizations.
Collectors are a crucial component of the visual arts ecology, financing artists and the gallery system around them, abetting the circulation of works and thereby also contributing ongoing storage solutions. Collectors are avid supporters of many luxury industries, art included, and so are likely to be of good breeding and therefore likely to possess good manners. Some may have made their fortune in business, and may treat acquisitional negotiations with the same application of financial deal making, overriding the restrictive nature of being polite or good mannered. Business has a different set of rules.
Artists don’t really need to have good manners all the time either, even in spite of a privileged upbringing. It is almost assumed that they may fight with convention and challenge systems of the dominant order. Collectors love the sense of risk of being around artists. It can be quite true, many of them are crazy, and that is exhilarating for the well-heeled. For their part, artists can rebel from their upbringing, purposefully dispensing with good manners in an act of defiance. Artists are invited to events because they are supposed to be slightly odd, they are the creative loose cannons, the talent, the connection to youth. It is expected that they will not leave until the bar runs dry, that they will then continue on and potentially try to sleep with each other, no matter which night of the week it may be. Collectors love this kind of absolution from responsibility, and in moments, envy it.
Artists can also be very polite, especially to one another. This is particularly evident at exhibition openings. Firstly, it is polite to attend the opening and be seen to be supporting the artist, indeed it is important to be seen by the artist to be present. Regardless of who turns up, artists always remember the artists or friends who are absent. In the presence of the exhibiting artist, everyone displays good manners. People congratulate an artist even before they have seen the show. Everyone says polite things to the artist, even if one does not actually like the work. In this instance, one can praise the framing of the works, the amount of labour seemingly involved in the production of the exhibition, the size of the crowd in attendance, or even the artist’s outfit. Out of ear–shot of the artist, it can be an entirely different situation with respect to good manners. This is where the veil of good manners is cast aside in favour of honest opinion. This honesty can take the form of scathing criticism at one end of the spectrum or absolute indifference at the other. Such feedback rarely makes its way back to the artist, as that would be impolite and run counter to the supportive, encouraging and community spirit of the art world as it prefers to present itself.
So, it may be suggested that good manners can have a broad range of applications depending on the context and situation. This breadth is the realm given focus to in the exhibition Good Manners, bringing together works that dispense with the complexities of merely being polite. Tell Ronnie that is not good manners to stand on the bed. Tell Nat it is not good manners to reveal people’s private lives. Tell Vernon it is not good manners to make white people feel uncomfortable. Visit the exhibition and let the artists know what you really think of their work. Let’s cast good manners aside and see what happens.
– Mark Feary
(Vernon Ah Kee courtesy of Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Grant Gronewold courtesy of Hunger Rozario, Melbourne)