The Tarnished Prizes

No nation on earth can match Australia’s enduring love of art prizes. It reflects our obsession with sport (which is something we can do as well as anybody), allied with the perennial Cultural Cringe (the sense that we suffer from a lack of Old Masters and ruined temples).

The Cringe was named by A.A. Phillips in 1950 but it has been around since the early days of colonisation. The first concerted rebuttal arrived with P.R. Stephensen’s polemic, The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936), which made a forceful case for the value of Aboriginal culture and landscape painting.

This provided only limited reassurance for a country that liked to think of itself as a bastion of western civilisation, albeit on the wrong side of the planet. There remained the lingering fear that our artists didn’t measure up to British or European standards.

The Archibald Prize for portraiture, judged by the respectable gentlemen who served as Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), offered a form of certainty. The winner was obviously the best painting. It was just like a horserace in which the winner was first past the post, or a footy game in which the winning team was the one in front at the final siren.

We’ve grown more sceptical over the years but the fascination with art prizes has continued to flourish. There are hundreds of art prizes in Australia today but the Archibald is still the most coveted – even though the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is worth an extra $50,000 in prize money; even though it’s widely believed, in art circles, that the award is an anachronism which tells us nothing about the quality of art being made in Australia today.

After writing about the Archibald Prize for more than thirty years I’ve come to the conclusion that one shouldn’t take the whole affair too seriously. Our affection for the Archibald is based on pure sentimentality. It has become part of local folklore, like Anzac Day or the Melbourne Cup. Visitors enjoy arguing about the winner, pitting their views against those of the judges.

The peculiar aspect of the 2018 Archibald was the number of works selected as finalists. In 1998 there were twenty-nine works in the show, this year there are fifty-seven. In addition, the 2018 Archibald runs for an entire month longer than last year’s exhibition. One suspects that the AGNSW has extended the duration of the show because: a. There was a hole in the exhibition program, and b. The Archibald is a reliable crowd-puller and the gallery needs the revenue.

I’ve written many times about the AGNSW’s obsession with fundraising for its Sydney Modern extension and its lacklustre exhibition program. I’ll refrain from revisiting that argument.

The larger number of works suggests an attempt to enhance the variety of the show, but this was achieved by the inclusion of numerous small works that stood no chance of winning. Some well-known artists, who I’m reliably informed had been solicited to enter, tended to send whatever they had in the studio. The expansion of the list of finalists made it seem that being hung in the Archibald was no longer like being part of an exclusive club. It was a free-for-all in which few works stood out from the crowd.

The very process of selection entails a curatorial intent but the Archibald owes much of its popular appeal to the belief that anyone at all may enter a portrait and get it hung. This year’s show felt as if there were a degree of premeditation in the selection of works, as if certain artsts has been guaranteed inclusion. Some of those who had been rejected felt the field had devolved into an unhappy division between insiders and outsiders.

The impression of curatorial intervention was made stronger by the deliberate tactic of devoting the central exhibition space to Indigenous entries in the Wynne Prize for landscape, relegating the Archibald to the side galleries.

The fact that Angela Tiatia, who judged this year’s Sulman Prize, had a self-portrait included in the Archibald, was also viewed as an act of favouritism. The Trustees may argue that they included the work solely in the grounds of merit, but perceptions are not always susceptible to argument.

If the Archibald ruffled feathers in the art community the Wynne caused a seismic disturbance. By using the Prize as a showcase for Indigenous painting for the second year in succession, the AGNSW sent a signal to non-Indigenous artists that they probably need not apply next year.

One couldn’t argue against the quality of the Indigenous work, which was uniformly impressive. Neither could anyone fault its bona fides as landscape painting. The problem was that by turning the central gallery into an enclave of Indigenous art – with the exception of a painting by John R. Walker, and one by John Olsen (included in that room as a private joke on an outspoken critic of last year’s Archibald?) – the Trustees created a racially segregated exhibition.

This may have passed for affirmative action in 2017 but to repeat the process was to diminish the efforts of non-Indigenous artists. The fact that one Trustee, Andrew Roberts, felt moved to establish an entirely new sub-category of the Wynne Prize for Indigenous artists, with prize money of $10,000, made the hegemony of Indigenous art seem irrefutable.

The intentions were obviously good, with the prizewinner being a sensational painting by Wawiriya Burton, but the new award begs the question: Are we going to have sub-categories of the Wynne for Anglo-Celtic artists? For Chinese artists? For Middle-Eastern artists?

The domination of the Wynne by Indigenous painters may have been orchestrated, but it may also be a historical inevitabilty. At the very least the Trustees should have been sensitive enough to create a display in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous works were integrated, not kept apart like opposing sides in a Culture War.

If I had to describe in one word the most prevalent response I found with this year’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman, that word would be: disenchantment. Too many pictures suggested confusion, not a greater sense of inclusiveness. The Wynne felt like a political statement rather than an open competition.

The entire event was bathed in an atmosphere of serious intent that seemed vaguely ridiculous when applied to an exhibition like the Archibald that is no longer generally believed to be an arbiter of the very best in Australian art.

In this day and age the show is popularly regarded as a circus, and nobody goes to the circus to listen to a lecture. If the Archibald and Wynne are to retain their popularity the trustees must learn to relax their grip and stop trying to stem the tide of cheerful anarchy that is, after all, the most appealing feature.

*** This article was originally intended to be one half of an exchange with Ben Quilty, who agreed to write a piece for Artist Profile in defence of the Archibald and Wynne from a Trustee’s point of view. Ben changed his mind as our deadline approached, which is something we sincerely regret, as there is such a quantity of backbiting and paranoia in the Australian art scene and so little genuine debate. If an exhibition policy was worth acting upon surely it’s worth defending in public. To treat criticism as pure ‘negativity’ is to suggest that the AGNSW, like the Pope, must be presumed to be infallible.
This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018
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