Populism and Spectacle - its connection with Art?

Temporal public art, art as "spectacle" and a growing appreciation of Art. Much to celebrate and behold, but does it build awareness and appreciation of the work of artists more broadly?
The recent “Incredible and Phenomenal Journey of the Giants” featured at the Perth International Arts Festival was received in spectacular fashion by the inhabitants of Perth. The gigantic puppets moved through the streets of Perth over a three-day period, deftly articulated by a large number of puppeteers from the French street theatre company, Royal De Luxe. Amazing what you can do with millions of dollars - $5million for the Festival perhaps - not sure what the puppets cost.

The “little girl” edifice was perhaps the most well-described and publicised. She was engaging in both the mechanism by which she transited her route through the streets, but also her human-like movement as a child both lost in the city and at one with her audience.

The Giants in Perth

Click on the image for a video of a local news story on the "Giants". No mention of its artistic value.
Photo from

How well these works represented the intended curatorial narrative associated with the story of Western Australia, a little girl ‘giant’ dropped into an Aboriginal community - the story of the Gallipoli landing; commemorating the centenary of the Anzac - is maybe a little less clear and has us both intrigued and challenged by the worth of such endeavours outside of their sheer ‘spectacle’ value. We weren’t there though, so maybe there is something that we are missing from what we have seen in the media!

Despite the wonder of these works and the success with the public, does this form of art somehow form a bridge of appreciation with other forms of visual and installation works of art?

Does the spectacle of such endeavours somehow elevate the understanding of the populace with the ‘worth’ of Art and the work and mind of the Artist - in other forms and other avenues by which they may be experienced?

We are really not sure, despite there being a programme of exhibitions and events housed in galleries and other venues as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.

MONA in Hobart perhaps is a good example of where the blend of spectacle and appreciation of visual Art coalesces perhaps more demonstrably. The gallery itself houses an enviable collection of artworks in auspicious spaces that are, in themselves, spaces of illumination of the artworks that they accommodate and are also - in themselves, in many cases - microcosms of spectacle - as are some of the individual artworks.

Heavily themed in death and desire, works form a sustained narrative throughout the venue of wonder, controversy and novelty that play into a strong identity - or is it “brand” - for the museum?

Then there are the public works - the festivals and temporal public art that take place with MOFO and DARK MOFO that engage the populace of Hobart more holistically. They extend the gallery/museum and its works, although the artistic integrity seems well connected to the work and themes that lie within MONA. It is also about spectacle and popularising both Art and the enterprise that is MONA as well.

Here, it does seem as though appreciation for elements of works associated with the ‘festive;’ may actually connect back to an appreciation of Art housed and exhibited more conventionally within a building. It also seems to be very much about clever ‘branding’ and marketing, but in suggesting this, we do not wish to take anything away from what such endeavours do for Art and its appreciation in Hobart.

So what does this mean - if anything - for the work of regional galleries, festival organisers and other advocates of the Arts in regional areas. Our own experience suggests that appreciation of the Visual Arts seems to be limited to a very small proportion of the population. This is in reference to the diversity of visual arts on offer - contemporary works and even works that hark back to modernist styles of the early to mid 20th century. A lot of people still seem to have trouble with any artworks that present anything but a pretty picture of ‘something’ - a landscape, a still life, something that is able to be viewed as representational of something else - something known. There are also a few art-as-decor types, with nigh a thought in their heads about anything other than how a particular piece may enhance and respond to an existing decor.

Art does need to fit the person and the chosen space for its viewing in the home or business-place, but ‘fit’ is not just about its colours and textures - and the “picture”. Art surely is more than that.

In Lismore, we have a Regional Gallery that continues to balance the ‘comfortable’ and easy-on-the-eye-and-mind with more challenging exhibitions of contemporary works. This is all done in a totally inadequate building for this purpose and as a Regional Art Gallery - yet this gallery persists and presents so much more in ideas than its physical confines. There are artists’ talks as well that endeavour to educate and articulate the minds of the artists involved - and lead to some form of appreciation or understanding of the work - even if that work is not particularly ‘liked’.

In Lismore, we also have the Lantern Parade and Festival, a public celebration of spectacle and works of ‘light’ around the time of the winter equinox. These works are constructed by volunteer workers under the direction of Jyllie Jackson and are a major contribution to the social and cultural life of Lismore, but again we question, how do such endeavours relate to the breadth and appreciation of Art? How do they consolidate local artistic endeavour and the integrity of contemporary artistic thought here and the continuum of artistic thought elsewhere?

Do they even need to?

The answer to the latter, is no, they don’t, but we just wonder how much more interesting it would be if the Lantern Parade was curated and somehow linked with artistic advocacy that is manifested and undertaken by the Lismore Regional Gallery and others - like Serpentine Gallery and even ourselves. How might we all contribute to something bigger - celebrate the spectacle and collective affection we have for the creative works of the Lantern Parade, but draw it into a better understanding and appreciation of visual Art?

Does the Lantern Parade - just like the “Giants” in Perth - contribute to local arts in ways that extend beyond the event, or is its reach limited to the happening, the media exposure in the lead-up and following, and social media sharing of ‘happy snaps’ and collective celebration of doing something ‘different’ in town?

The LIsmore Lantern Parade

Photograph by Natsky. From The Lismore Lantern Parade website - www.lanternparade.com.

This is not intended as critical AT ALL of any such endeavours. They are very important in so many ways to the local economy, cultural identity and our sociability. BUT can they be MORE in relation to the Arts more broadly and connect us more with an appreciation of what Art is and can bring - beyond the object or collection of objects? Can these endeavours be more meaningful, perhaps, in terms of a curatorial framework for both the works of art and the ideas that they weave together and communicate?

Or, do we just get our ‘cultural fix’ with the spectacle and the ‘feel-good’ nature of enjoying something collectively out of our usual hours of doing something in a regional centre - or anywhere, really?

Art is more than that. Our artists deserve more appreciation than what they are (thankfully) given by a special few. How can we respect, celebrate and extend our local cultural resources beyond populism, while doing the same for endeavours that are very much about the spectacle and collective “party-time” that they contribute in so many ways to our local region?

In a region that proffers its creative and cultural credentials, how can we actually consider and action these things in terms of artistic integrity and quality? How can we bring the public - both local and visitors along with us?

How can we extend the appreciation and audience of the artists working across diverse media and genres - new and old - in this region and encourage and mentor both artists and audiences as well?

We think that we really need to. This comes from our own experience with artists, their audiences and the general public that enter our doors. We know that our artists deserve better - more acknowledgement and more than a fleeting glance of their work. Despite our best efforts, we also know that we can’t be alone in this. Our responsibility does lie with our own artists, but the broader ‘conversation’ about the Arts, their potential meaning and value to us all as human beings and a society, lies with all engaged and advocating for the Arts - here and elsewhere.

This is just a conversation. It's not about favouring or not favouring one artistic endeavour over another. It does maybe question our engagement with Art as an audience - and as 'consumers' - a terrible term that we are loathe to use, but one that must rear its head in this milieu of a contemporary paradigm of 'economics' - a context well and truly set in the dialogue of the news video associated with the "Giants" and the first image/video in this post.

It all has a place - for local economic development, local cultural identity, local social cohesion and capital - using temporal public art works, 'animated sculpture' and costume in 'festival' mode. It would just be nice to connect it better with other forms of Art and lead to a broader appreciation of Art, including 'fine art' and the stuff that resides in galleries, whether it is painting, sculpture, installation or new media. It just requires a little cross-pollination and curatorial collaboration … maybe.