I Blame Duchamp: My Life’s Adventures in Art

October 1, 2009

I Blame Duchamp: My Life’s Adventures in Art
By Edmund Capon

This is not the book many people have been expecting. After more than thirty years as director of the Art Gallery of NSW it might seem that Edmund Capon has earned the right to publish a lively, candid, slightly scandalous memoir. There is a brief tradition of such books. One of Capon’s predecessors, Hal Missingham, described his years at the AGNSW in a memoir called They Kill You in the End (1973). John Rothenstein wrote about his directorship of the Tate Gallery in a book with the equally cheerful – albeit Shakespearean – title, Brave Day, Hideous Night (1966).

Capon, however, has chosen to eschew the role of memoirist in favour of a collection of essays. This may be because he has no immediate plans for retiring, despite the futile speculation that attends his every move nowadays.

As I began to read this volume I was reminded of something one of Capon’s curators, Barry Pearce, said about Sidney Nolan’s big Gallipoli diptych of 1963: “its saving grace is only that it is the kind of work Nolan painted to please nobody but himself.” That is a fearsomely accurate summary of this strange anthology, which is far too scholarly to appeal to the mythical man-in-the-street, but too flippant and self-centred to charm the art historians.

This must be one of the most handsome books Penguin has ever produced. It is the text that is worrisome: the long-delayed testament of a scholar manqué, who has often been forced to put aside his genuine passion for art in order to perform his public duties as a museum director. So well has Capon played this role that he has made the AGNSW into the most popular art institution in this country. The National Gallery of Victoria, with two buildings to its name, claims to get more visitors annually, but one suspects this is a statistical miracle. The AGNSW always seems to be full of people while Federation Square can be as empty as a resort town in the off-season. Both Melbourne galleries are now closed for one day each week.

Few would disagree that Capon is the most successful museum director in Australia. He leads from the front, has boundless reserves of energy, and has been responsible for a formidable exhibition program over the past three decades. He is also a bit of larrikin, an irreverent individualist who has occasionally got himself into trouble with an ill-considered remark.

Apparently he likes to appear unpredictable, and this is almost stated as a credo in the first chapter of this book. At times one can admire that maverick, non-conformist impulse. On other occasions his behaviour comes across as merely willful and capricious. “I find inconsistency a natural state,” he crows.

All the time he has been running the AGNSW there has obviously been a part of Capon that would have preferred to be writing books. However, his writing style has been strongly influenced by the showmanship that is a natural part of being the gallery’s Great Helmsman. He wants to appear a man of the people, writing for the general public not an intellectual élite, but the way he goes about this task is to fill his essays with personalised, off-the-cuff comments that would be more at home in a lecture. The effect is jarring rather than seductive.

Although he takes every opportunity to attack the pretentions of academics, he manifests an unmistakable desire to be seen as an intellectual. At the very beginning of the book he denounces “Bernhardian despondency” – a reference that is bound to bamboozle many readers. I presume it refers to the great Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard, who is far from a household name in Australia, but much admired in certain circles. Those who love Bernhard find nothing despondent about his books.

Many of Capon’s quotations are incisive, but did we really need Walter Pater’s “To burn always with that hard gemlike flame…”; or Shakespeare’s “A tale told by an idiot” and “Some are born great..”? These are among the most over-used lines in the English language. Pater is not even quoted correctly, but it would be petty to harp on small errors when there are more pressing matters.

Throughout these essays, whether he is writing on the artists of the Renaissance, ancient China or the present day, Capon continuously refers to the “humanity” of a work or an artist. There is the “human condition”, the “human spirit”, and dozens of other ways to use the word “human”. So what’s wrong with this? Apart from being repetitive, it is a very slack way of accounting for any quality whatsoever. To be human is to be good, bad, indifferent, to err, to strive, and so forth.

Capon’s other favourite terms are “individuality”, “mystery” and “modernity”, which recur with amazing frequency. Once again these are soft concepts when used too readily. Ever present is the first person singular, stepping onto the stage to tell us a brief anecdote, present a little homespun wisdom, or say something such as “I reckon”.

For the most part this results in an art historical narrative punctuated by self-indulgent jibes. Much of this material, especially in relation to Renaissance artists such as Masaccio, Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Raphael and Antonello da Messina, can be found in recent publications. A piece on Giorgione’s Tempest is virtually a summary of a small book by Salvatore Settis, which is acknowledged in the text.

Writing about the modern era, Capon’s enthusiasm for Cy Twombly is so over-the-top that it denotes a man who has worked hard to convince himself. His comments on Marcel Duchamp, which give the book its rather silly title, are superficial. He refutes the famous urinal in the same manner that Dr. Johnson ‘refuted’ Bishop Berkeley’s theories, with a simple, ironic denial. “It is not art”: end of story. But the point of Duchamp’s famous gesture was to undermine all definitions of art.

The most convincing parts of the book are the essays on Chinese culture, in which Capon displays a respect and gravitas that reveal his immersion in the subject. The most striking single essay is a meditation on the contemporary art museum, in which he makes the crucial points that the importance of the arts is not measurable by “industry” criteria; and that government should not pose as a “sponsor” of the arts when it has a responsibility to support these activities.

The personal touch works better in the concluding section devoted to autobiographical stories and reflections. It is always wrong to review the book that should have been written, but one regrets the relative scarcity of such essays. This is where Capon shines as an original character and thinker. In most of this anthology he gives us a long-winded recital of art historical knowledge, leavened by a dash of shallow philosophy. As everyone who has known him for a few decades or a few days would assert: he is a lot smarter and more engaging than this frustrating anthology suggests. At one stage he quotes Sidney Nolan’s assertion: “I am a loose cannon”. This would have been an appropriate title for these “musings” on art.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, October 2009
John McDonald is the Herald’s art critic, and will probably never be allowed to enter the AGNSW again.

I Blame Duchamp: My Life’s Adventures in Art
By Edmund Capon
Lantern (Penguin Books)
Ha
rdcover; RRP: $49.95; 385pp.