André Breton wrote of the Readymade in the Surrealist Dictionary; “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist”.(10 Duchamp himself said  the opposite; “I wanted to do something that was not art, had no reference to art, and could never be mistaken for a work of art.  The name Readymade came to me then.(1) 

Today, in large numbers of peer-reviewed trials worldwide, the artist’s choice has consistently failed to elevate common objects to the dignity of a work of art. It’s now an established principle that it is not the artist’s choice that creates art, it’s  their vision and effort, and only when that vision is transcendent and the effort is successful; art is a valuation and excellence is its calling card, for who praises mediocrity? A pile of trash at the Tate remained trash for weeks no matter how often the artist came by to elevate it to the dignity of a work of art. Huffed. Puffed. No art. No dignity.

Poèm Objet by André Breton, 1935.

Andrew Witt reviews Geoffrey Farmer’s show in Venice using generic talk spun by the yard on the art-marketing machine, made to wax brightly on dull art. Not to deny Witt’s abilities as wordsmith but it misleads an innocent public who will walk away from Geoffrey’s show with broken hearts, crying hot tears of bitter disillusionment.

Witt’s review is called A Disobedient Object(2) but Jerry Saltz does it better; “Anarchy Lite; It’s everywhere, and it all looks the same. Those post-minimalist formal arrangements of clunky stuff, sticks, planks, bent metal, wood, concrete and whatnot leaned, stacked, stuck, piled, or dispersed. There’s usually a history straight out of Artforum or the syllabi of academics who’ve scared their students into being pleasingly meek, imitative, and ordinary.”(3) 

While Farmer and the National Gallery claim broken sticks are works of  art, they remain in fact a sorry pile of broken sticks with curatorial pretensions. To claim them to be anything more and to call them art is a metacognitive insensitivity to the complex iteration of sensations. It is a failure to grasp the creative unconscious that psychology has documented and peer-reviewed. Even if King Canute were to command it, this rubble would fail as art, just likes the waves failed to ebb.

Duchamp said of found objects that “they’re not art, could never be mistaken for art, and have nothing to do with art”. If Farmer based his found object practice on Duchamp then that entire section of his work is annulled . When you make “non-art” you literally have no art. Geoffrey Farmer then is not an artist, he’s an illustrator of art mythology, he acts out the rules of contemporary art like an actor on stage.

Mt favourite painting: Roger Scruton.
the Tempest (oil on canvas) by Giorgione, (Giorgio da Castelfranco) (1476/8-1510); 82×73 cm; Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy; Cameraphoto Arte Venezia; ITALIAN

We often hear “my child could have done that”.  Still, there’s hope; any artist who perseveres beyond their juvenile attempts will,   in time, produces sophisticated art. Unfortunately some never get  there; Benjamin Buchloh and even Jerry Saltz were urging artists to de-skill, Sol Lewitt said an idea is already art. Why then bother with effort when everything  thought and done was  already art?  As with any  narcissistic disorder,  we must now put the academy on the psychiatrist’s couch and speak truth to power.

Michel Foucault  advises this honesty, this parrhesia. We can legitimately say Beuys’ work, like Farmer’s art, consists of posing as an elite to follow the money. What else was Beuys doing?  His   work was based on a story of his wartime pilot service, when his plane crashed and villagers saved him by wrapping him in felt, fat, and fur, which formed the material in his art.  It later turned out Beuys had invented that story because “people need myths”.   Farmer’s formal practice consist of a counter-aesthetic act, for example collecting trash from the streets or else gathering old wooden school desks, coupled with a very expensive treatment of the work.  The desks were burned in a $60k fireplace, the trash was piled till it reached the gallery ceiling, then worked broke a hole in the ceiling so the pile could grow.  And so with the work in Canada’s pavilion in Venice,  it’s minimalist but expensive.  The Pavilion simply looks as if a wrecking crew had started work and demolished things. To consider this a work of art is ambitious indeed! Oh, I forgot. They raised the roof in Venice by a few inches. This was announced on Facebook  followed by exclamation marks! The roof was raised, but obviously not high enough to reach the dignity of a work of art.

Still, any curator having spent their budget on what they assumed high art would be loyal for life rather than confess they’ve been had and blown a bundle. Does the curator’s choice raise the artist to the dignity of being an artist? Do Joseph Beuys’ lies raise him to dignity? Anarchy Lite in Venice is  a misreading of art history, when art should look like anything but art.  I’ve mentioned Roger Scrutton before but his views  deserve repeating. His article for the BBC, “How modern art became trapped by its urge to shock”, says that “it is now an effective requirement of finalists for the Turner Prize in Britain to produce something that nobody would think was art unless they were told it was”.  So  with Canada’s Sobey Prize, recently awarded to a 2 meter length of metal fencing rented from home hardware.  Scrutton notes that understanding this phenomenon is integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.(4)  

We should also note that Sol Lewitt’s statement that an idea can be a work of art contradicts itself; a work of art requires work. Some have said art is process and not product but even then that process should be outstanding instead of   mundane, which is why making mundane art is a lousy strategy.. Farmer’s aura is based on a postmodern strategy of obscurity, and meant to loudly  signal that  he’s denying tradition.

Anyway Lewitt was wrong; the dictionary says  an idea is not art, it is  science; “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe”.  These are ideas.  Art  describes both a process which is above professional,   and a product that meets those standards. We are now at those rare moments when art history sloughs off a skin, old heroes unravel like used sweaters, auras fade as we realize they made no sense.  Geoffrey Farmer excels at the role, going through the motions that please academia: illustrating art theory, acting out the rules, disrupting tradition by cleansing art of any trace of passion, talent or inspiration.  However he is a bad actor who has convinced his audience that bad acting is all the rage.

It is my deepest conviction Canadian art needs a wake up call. Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments.

Miklos Legrday

The Canadian art system is a monotheist pyramid, funding coming from the government at the top. Then it trickles down through the academic-curatorial complex of curators, professors, peer artist juries. If you’re not plugged into the network you’re not getting a feedbag, and you won’t be an artist for long. There are exceptions; inspiration fuels vocation, but mostly peer pressure forces everyone into a polite convention.

Today’s art, smarter than you.

One of Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibitions years ago at Catriona Jeffries Gallery consisted of bringing trash found on the street into the gallery, and piling it up until it reached the ceiling. At that point, workers cut a hole into the ceiling exposing the open sky, a hole big enough for Farmer to keep adding to the pile till the pyramid of trash extended a ways above the roof.

That hole in the roof could be seen as  a potlatch. In New York Leo Castelli did the same with Walter de Maria’s Earth Room, a massive spending on prime Manhattan real estate; a status symbol and pissing contest of how Castelli pays the highest rent then fills the rooms with dirt. The credit should go more to performance artist Leo Castelli who, in so doing, dispels any doubts clients may have at paying $135 million for a Warhol. Shock pays for itself. So with Catriona Jeffries who was willing to pay the tens of thousands to have her roof breached and then repaired, the construction costs are small change compared to her dealer’s commission when the trash pile  is purchased by the National Gallery.

Of course the optics are fascinating; bringing trash into the gallery till it blows a hole in the roof, symbolic of how trash sold to the National Gallery blows a hole in Canadian culture.

The semiotic statement that trash is art  is really about the system that can enforce that decision and the reason that decision was made.  The motivation is to stand out from the crowd,  the process shows the channels of power in the Canadian art world.  Farmer, Catriona Jeffries, and National Gallery curators promote work that denies art, aesthetics, meaning, and culture, by which act they appear conceptual.  

High culture is being corrupted by a culture of fakes  was Roger Scruton’s warning in The Guardian.  Faced with  counter-aesthetic work   one cannot but question why instead of the best we’re shown the worst. It’s called a postmodern art strategy.   Winners write history (surely then writing history is a prescription for winning). Now science says art plays a biological role and it’s a question what happens when that’s cancelled.   Which is why in 2018 we find neither artist nor a curator, but a high priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine.

If we have not seen as far as others it is because we are standing on the shoulders of cross-eyed and very short  giants. Else the giants are standing on our shoulders.

Miklos Legrady, Toronto Editor


[0] André Breton , Paul Éluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme– [Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism] 1938.

[1] Pierre Cabane, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, A window into something else, p48, Da Capo Press.

also in  Francis Naumann, Chapter 112, The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp, Readymade Press, 2012. 

[2] Andrew Witt, A Shattered Mirror: Geoffrey Farmer’s Disobedient Object in Venice. – comment-22191

[3]Jerry Saltz, Art’s Insidious New Cliché: Neo-Mannerism, Vulture magazine,

[4] Roger Scrutton A Cult of Fakery has taken over what’s left of high culture


9 thoughts on “The Corruption of Canadian Art: Geoffrey Farmer in Venice, 2017.

    1. Thanks Lori for the heads up. I cannot deny that some people call it art, but I see no art in it; in my opinion it’s a collection of objects gathered in a room. Art historian and critic Barbara Rose complains of similar artists whose thinking stops at the idea of putting a found object in a museum. I wrote a review last year of Ydessa Hendeles, an artist who also gathers objects, but whose talent makes a big difference; her work has an almost religious quality that shakes the soul, where Farmer’s strategies illustrate art theory and give us an intellectual moment but no heart.

  1. Hi Miklos,
    Do you know if Farmer transported the bricks and wood from Canada or if it all was locally sourced?

    1. The Canadian government had slated the country’s art pavilion in Venice for an upgrade, new architecture was going up, the building was to be torn down. So ya, locally sourced.

  2. Thanks Lori Taheem for the heads up. Please forgive me ior my advantage here, I’m passionate at fighting against what I call Farmer’s “non-art in drag”. I cannot deny some people call it art, this “Grass and the Banana”, but I see no art to it, nothing but a collection of objects gathered in a room. Art historian and critic Barbara Rose often complains of ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops at the idea of putting a found object in a museum. I wrote a good review of Ydessa Hendeles, but her talent, oh! The work has an almost religious quality that moves the senses.
    Ydessa pictures:
    Ydessa review:

    1. Hi Miklos,
      I appreciated the links to Hendeles’s work and also your second article on her after the one here in New Art Examiner. You are quite a prolific writer!

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