Ode to Art History


for Ron Padgett and Ian Wedde


Beloved ditch or heavenly ridge
on which we go

for minerals, and behind whose silhouette
the dustbin-lid sun

spins and coils – on you, Art History, I bestow 
the laurels of Greece, the gold chain 

of Amsterdam, the beery teeshirts of Long Island.
Chronicle of both the excesses

and the pointless austerities of the human spirit,
you have your bowls 

of fruit and your raging bulls, your
exceptional beauties scudding into view

on seashells. Art History, you are certainly 
opinionated, if not always comely –

you have your seasons, your plummeting leaves
and in winter no shortage

of compost. Neither exactly learned nor
intoxicated, you rarely know what day it is

yet you are a devourer of dates – you love
your epochs, the pristine 

packaging of each century, but it is
your blindnesses that will endure, 

your upside-down slide talks, your fake Gauguins
your cheap reproductions.

Art History, you have sullied centuries of
the most impeccable surfaces

with the foulest of inscriptions and the occasional
lyrical flight, with your English

education, your French accent, Italian style and a manner
of dress that is entirely

Zambezi. I would have you know that for your lesser cousin, 
Art, I have leapt up the steps of the Tate Gallery

three at a time, scoured the graveyards of Paris 
to sit beneath Brancusi’s ‘Kiss’ 

cradling a poor reproduction. I have scattered the sheep 
on Peggy’s Hill to sit where Colin sat

and I have distressed the custodians of the New Museum, 
New York, transfixed by the paintings

of Pierre Tal-Coat, my nose almost touching
the flecks of pigment. All this for something

that is almost but not quite
you. I have played a long night of 

ping pong with Tony Fomison. But you, you do not
seek the company of painters –

or is it painters who do not seek your company?
Alas, Art History, you are not often enough

found in the beds of artists, it is the beds of
businessmen and vice-chancellors that claim you.

Sometimes it almost seems you have been sent to punish 
those of us who still love Art,

to make us pay for our transgressions. 
But we will reinvent you

as we reinvent the wheel each uncomplaining day.
And if Art is a living compost 

of birds, insects, putti, burgeoning lettuces and 
those exquisitely rendered

pears that will be falling for all time, then I think of you as pure
light source, an endlessly fading or darkening arena

in which I crane my neck or close my eyes,
night air grazing my 

freshly shaven cheek. Art History, on whose
chalky ground your disciples write 

with wet fingers, or ply their quills, or count the
brilliantly timed rotations of

their ballpoint pens – and the less reliable
bearings of their mind –

you are perfectly capable of celebrating the tawdry
and woe-be-gone. At a certain junction

your facts break loose from your grand narrative
and begin ascending a shade-dappled

slope, beyond which they are never heard of again.
But, Art History, you box on

regardless, never less than sure of your highly critical
selves. Your most spectacular descriptions

are married to the most base matter – fallibility is
your virtue. As the cricket commentator

says – and you would do well to listen –
‘you can’t make a BMW out of

Mini parts’. And how many Giottos does it take
to make a Giorgione, and how many

Rembrandts add up to a Rubens?
Such powers of invention you might bring

to your conundrums. Just as William of Nassau at the siege 
of Grol was killed

by a fragment of spoon – the besieged folk 
were reduced to loading their cannons with

kitchen utensils – who wouldn’t mind being bowled over
by a well-rendered implement. 

More than your smudges, smears and frail outlines –
such arresting detail. Such accuracy. 

But, finally, Art History, you are many things and you are
more than that – sublime tower, 

crumbling outhouse, Taranaki fence or Southland 
crib, surf club or mobile library

box of birds, nest of ninnies,
can of worms. At your very best, I suppose you are

a room in which we might discuss these things
or, on a good day, marvel at them. Yet

no matter what the weather does, can it ever
reproduce your skies? We glory 

in you, bask in your
ordinariness and splendour,

your seriousness – so often on the brink
of uproarious laughter.

Art History, under whose disapproving nose 
the cigarettes of another generation

of bohemians light up. And on whose 
shapely knee

we bounce our angriest babies. Oh sight for sore eyes
replenish me.


Gregory O’Brien writes poems and essays mostly. A collection of the latter is forthcoming from VUP in March 2002. He is curator of John Drawbridge; Wide Open Interior, an exhibition opening at the City Gallery Wellington in December 2001.