Brancusi and Duchamp and Heller

On Thursday 15 July 2021, when the Covid 19 ‘pandemic’ had again had a direct impact on the freedoms, lives, expectations and excitement of everyone in New South Wales, Rod Bathgate ( ) still gave a Workshop at our Gallery.

To witness the masked ‘normal’ of a high quality Pastel Art Workshop guided by this major artist was to be diverted from the melancholia of the day, uplifted by the colour, artists, intensely involved ‘makers’, light-filled Gallery setting, enrichment of the day by, for and through the visual arts. Liveliness. Covid screaming: silenced.

By ten o’clock with due correct observance of anti-Covid masked social regulations, men and women gathered at Easel Art Space within The Station, Newcastle ( Commitment maximum.

From this casual, distracted observer at the door, the question ‘why?’. The artistic, central creative, ancient importance is at once obvious. But: why?

From the door, the visuals: exhibited works on walls, many easels, pastels ready, attentive men and women setting out on a day’s hard work, skill development, mutual communication, colour, frustration, resolution. Turn the head: seen from the door that active harbour, rain likely, distant traffic normal, sketches of distant beaches, people at work. Together. Which of the two is the obverse? No pastime here: art at work. Realities at work.

How to understand such a day? Do not Covid 19 and its ‘variants’ rule the world?

Obviously, correctly: No. Never. Courage can be found.

Even so now approaching two years onwards the world has seen once again that banality is its own excuses, its own penalties. In a time of plague – Covid 19 and variants – banality rules. “We are all in this together…” Every media attempt over a year and more to explain the plague, ‘lockdowns’, black political oppression, house confinement for millions: banal. The auto da fe ( mediaeval excuse: “We are keeping you safe…” from yourselves. The Salem excuse: “we are only what we always were” (Arthur Miller, The Crucible 1953), sadly, desperately.

Even optimistic equilibrium comes at a heavy price. Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his Love in a Time of Cholera 1985 ( regrets that wisdom comes too late to be useful at last. “He was still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” And “Take advantage of it now, while you are young, and suffer all you can, because these things don't last your whole life.” And “Humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest.” How to understand and withstand social desolation? Modern plague? What will guide us back?

At mid-2021, Niall Ferguson (Doom: The politics of catastrophe. Allen Lane UK 2021 ( asserts that

“Plagues do not halt progress if progress is happening. The same London that suffered the last great bubonic plague outbreak of 1665 (and the Great Fire the following year) was about to become the central hub of an extraordinary commercial empire, a humming hive of scientific and financial innovation, the pivotal city of the world for roughly two centuries. No pathogen could stop that. Our plague is likely to have the biggest disruptive impacts on places where progress has already ceased and stagnation has set in….” (Pp 381-382).

In the vital, worldly field of the visual arts close by and close up, was progress really happening already before Covid 19? In the work of those in the Gallery, above, in July 2021 mark-by-mark progress was visibly and visually exciting. But beyond the gallery and those canvases, the brushes and the pastels, had progress already ceased and stagnation set in? Well before Covid -19? Retrospective and ‘tradition’ do not carry the weight of today and tomorrow morning.

Indeed globally December 2019 to today so far has been shockingly different, perhaps an historic period though by no measure the worst pandemic experienced by humankind. Nonetheless so much obvious loss, so much lost. Yet it cannot be ignored that banality has abounded; optimism conditional; pessimism attractive; sanctimonious ‘hides’ constructed; lace curtains ruffled; fear embraced. PPE coloured courage correctly recognised. Devastation by weight of human numbers one cost of poverty, not solely impoverishment by lack of money. Day by day so many disappointments; so much “giving in”.

Where now are the Australian Brancusi and Duchamp of the modern Impasse Ronsin? (

“Brancusi and Duchamp upended traditional notions of the artist, and in so doing extended the limits of what was possible in the realm of art…” (Paul B Franklin Curator Museum Tinguely. 2021.)

Where are their present heirs and successors in Australia: “upending and extending?”

And where are the visual arts satirists in our Hunter Valley? Johannes Leek ( is here acknowledged unreservedly. But better to focus the question: Howard Jacobson ( in his Foreword (2004) to Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1955; Vintage UK 1994) discussed how Catch-22 became recognised, was needed, entered the language, changed the zeitgeist:

“…Catch-22 was always going to be a problem for the critics…Maybe, for a novel that was to go on to sell in excess of ten million copies and become one the most beloved books of the twentieth century, the first notices could have been more enthusiastic, but it was quickly being hailed as one of the greatest satirical works of all time…” (Page vi).

Where are the contemporary visual arts interpreters of Covid 19 in all the variety of response, not just satiric, available to the world and to the Hunter Valley? Are they only in New York and the United Kingdom? How do those numerous ships loaded with coal, and grain, minerals and vehicles with little whale-watching craft sliding by, keep coming and going at Newcastle, despite crews confined to their ships? So enterprise and character keep food on the table for millions, keep governments in funds, and yet there are persistent State-made lockdowns?

What are our available meanings? Where are the carefully made, carefully finished visual arts that critique these Covid times? We all need to know, to see and to understand. When?

Art as always. Courage constantly.

Peter Cornish

August 2021.


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