Sydney Ideas is a program of public lectures presented each year by Sydney University. The Art Student* and I have attended sporadically, always to our benefit. Tim Flannery on global warming, Sara Roy on Palestine and Margaret Levi on trade unions and social justice in the US and Australia, for instance, stand out. All of those lectures were at the Seymour Centre, on the edge of the university’s sprawl. This year, the program seems to have migrated across City Road into the grounds of the University itself. On Friday night we went to see US photographer Gregory Crewsdon in the new Law School building. At least it’s new to me, and as I approached it from the west, I was gobsmacked by the way it opens out onto a view of Victoria Park and the city.
This was probably the best attended talk that we’ve been to in the series., possibly because it was co-hosted by the Power Institute and attracted Fine Art students, possibly because Gregory Crewsdon is a celebrity among those students. Certainly, it was a young crowd.
The talk was interesting, with slides of Crewsdon’s work and books on sale in the foyer. His photographs were described in the publicity for the talk as ‘disturbingly beautiful, large-scale, small-town American landscape narratives’. He chatted interestingly about them to an Art Professor and then answered questions. We left half way through the inevitable question using words like eidos and had an animated conversation over dinner about artists and entitlement.
You see, ‘large-scale, small-town’ images require enormous resources in the making. Crewsdon started out with what he called a ‘renegade’ process. Without any kind of permit, but with the cooperation of the local people, he took images from a high crane of people doing odd things: laying turf in the main street, planting flowers like traffic calmers and so on. He moved on to creating works on sound stages, that had David Lynch or Hitchcock–like neurosis hovering in the frame. And then, he took ‘the work’ outside again, and here’s where questions of entitlement came up for us. To create the image he wants, he might need to have a house on fire – the local fire brigade supplies him with a dozen houses they are willing to burn down for his purposes. He needs snow but not enough has fallen, so he brings in a snow machine. To create a single image, he has a huge crew, including a Director of Photography. The ‘renegade’ work involved engagement with a community. Once he had official status and access to more resources (no one said where the money came from, but he is a professor at Yale), the process looks much more like big business – all the paraphernalia of a movie set. The Art Student and I had been listening earlier in the day to Naomi Klein’s TED talk about advanced capitalism’s reckless plundering of resources. It was hard not to see Crewsdon’s artistic process as part of that recklessness: ‘I want this image to show a certain psychological state of alienation, and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make it.’ Carbon footprint? Social impact? Cost–benefit ratio? Not relevant. I remember Richard Wherrett saying decades ago – yes, I am a Baby Boomer – that theatrical productions like Jesus Christ Superstar were of dubious morality because of the human cost of mounting them: more than one person died building the sets of the Sydney production. As far as I know no one has died for a Gregory Crewsdon photograph, but houses have been destroyed in a nation where homelessness is a significant problem. But then, how do you calculate the cultural benefit created?
Sadly, the Art Student, for whom these concerns were most vividly in mind, was too cranky to put them as a question rather than an attack.
* She insists that one journalist calling her an artist doesn’t change anything. She’s still a student, and arguably still in kindergarten.