If places like Paris of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, New York of the late twentieth century, Arnhem Land of the 1970s, and Singapore of the contemporary period, may be considered artistic and cultural hubs, for whatever reason, then Claremont Quarter is their antithesis. It is where art goes to die.
That is not to say there is no good art produced in Claremont, for there are many fine practicing artists in the area and the Quarter building itself is adorned with various fantastic murals. As an antithesis of an arts hub, however, Claremont Quarter is the site of travesties against art in general, where the very idea of art and all that it stands for is massacred and twisted to form capitalist dogma, to be nothing more than advertisements for commercial enterprises to assuage the conscience of the pseudo-cultural bourgeoisie of Claremont. The case is indeed that bad. The wrong done to notable and groundbreaking artists for purely commercial and “high-brow” purposes incites nothing more than the association with bourgeoisie of nineteenth century Paris, who were the focus of scorn for the avant-garde that is now so popular.
The two prime examples of this phenomenon, that of commercial appropriation and association with “high-brow” culture as status symbols, are the display in TM Residential and Executive Leasing, and the large Mona Lisa reproduction on the side of the Quarter building above the parking entrances. The display in TM Residential features two pictures of Frida Kahlo, adorned in vibrant pink to match the colour scheme of TM Residential’s brand, dolled up with makeup and fashionable clothes.[i] Frida Kahlo is particularly well known for her striking portrayal of her own sense of self in her works. The prevailing relevance of Frida Kahlo’s work lies in her refusal to conform to standards of idealised beauty, rejecting patriarchal social norms through a staunchly feminist stand. Kahlo’s self-portraits reflect the ways in which art served for Kahlo as a means of engaging with and overcoming personal traumas, portraying a distinctly personal history within these self-portraits as well an engagement with her social world.
Kahlo, as a member of the communist party in the 1920s in Mexico, was often overtly political in her works, or at least presenting some form of societal commentary. The subversion of Kahlo’s innovative pieces of self-representation by whatever artist, and then used by TM Residential, through the “prettifying” of Kahlo’s persona in the fashion of a well-attired and overly made-up executive, undermines all that Kahlo stood for and achieved through her artistic practice. The choice of how one presents oneself to the world should be their own, and forcing a certain presentation upon Kahlo’s image in the service of a distinctly capitalist agenda, creating an image or brand for a private enterprise, in the world of mass consumerism, strips Kahlo of her own subjective agency, relegating her to the realm of the object. Indeed, with her communist leanings, Kahlo would (I assume) have been horrified at such a depiction of her and such a use of her artworks.
TM Residential removes all meaning, relevancy, and poignancy, from Kahlo’s works in such a fashion, not only by presenting altered versions of her works, but, in doing so, engaging their over-wealthy and over-privileged clients of Claremont through their association with “high art”. This connection to what they perceive as high-brow culture reinforces their perception of themselves and their social status as cultured, but in such a fashion as not to disturb and offend their typically conservative sensibilities. A significant figure in the Global modernist avant-garde is consumed by these members of privilege without acknowledgement of the unpleasant associations of meaningful art.
It may seem like a devolution in arts writing to resort to a critique of capitalism and its structures, but after all, many of the best cultural theoreticians were Marxists, including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, T.J. Clark, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Rosalind Krauss, to name just a few. TM Residential’s appropriation of Kahlo’s self-imagery reflects Adorno’s argument about the Culture Industry: that the avant-garde does not remain so for long.[iii] In the consumer culture of the modern society, revolutionary works of art are subsumed into mass-consumerism, and TM Residential’s subjugation of Kahlo’s works is a perfect example of this phenomenon in action.
The Mona Lisa reproduction is just as bad. Whatever your opinions about Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1519), it is a fine piece of work. The intensity of the gaze, the impeccable composition, and its iconic silhouette make it one of the most instantly recognisable images throughout the world and an emblem of the Western art canon. So it is somewhat understandable that it was the piece chosen to be blown up to huge proportions and plastered onto the side of Claremont Quarter. Except that it isn’t. Claremont Quarter is an artistic dead-zone, a cultural black hole, where consumerism reigns supreme and vacuous people waste their time wasting their money on vacuous crap (thank you, Tim Minchin, for this delightful phrase). Putting a huge reproduction of a portion of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa screams at anyone listening that this is art. By association with the Mona Lisa, the Quarter is attempting to portray itself as culturally relevant, in touch with the arts and a place where artistic ideas congregate. Which is all very well – but it fails miserably. The very reproduction of the Mona Lisa that Claremont Quarter hangs causes its own undoing.
This display is clearly an attempt at an evocation of the aura of the Mona Lisa as a renowned symbol of Western art yet, as Walter Benjamin suggests, the aura of a work of art is lost in its reproduction.[iv] However, for Benjamin, the reproducibility of art reflected a necessary democratisation of art, art for the people, not just the wealthy. The Mona Lisa reproduction does not achieve this democratisation, for it simply demonstrates an attempt to gain prestige by association, association with the name of high art. Instead of becoming a symbol for the image that Claremont Quarter hopes to project, a symbol of cultural relevance, the Mona Lisa reproduction is a symbol of everything that Claremont Quarter itself symbolises: commercialist reproduction, consumerism, and a drain for imagination and art to fall down. Perhaps the fake Mona Lisa, or a portion of the Mona Lisa’s face, represents a drain of artistic production because it actually is just that. A drain.
[i] The question of whether the clothing of the Golden Triangle bourgeoisie may be considered fashionable is a whole other debate.
Karl Sagrabb | @ikarly31
Karl is an avid reader, bookseller, tea drinker and tweed wearer. He is writing a dissertation on 19th century German landscape painting. He is prematurely old.