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Newsletter 314

Published November 25, 2019
The AGNSW has its demons

Sydney felt a bit like Beijing last week with grey smoke from the bushfires hanging in the air. The difference, so I’m told, is that the air quality in Beijing is a lot better nowadays as the government have quietly but prudently responded to growing public unrest. It takes a lot to rouse the Chinese to action because so many citizens remember just how bad it was during the last days of the Mao era. What they have today is so inestimably better it hardly matters to them if their leaders adopt increasingly authoritarian attitudes, but they can’t ignore the toxic stuff they’ve been breathing.

Naturally there are Chinese that care passionately about their political freedoms but unless the overall quality of life becomes unbearable they will remain in the minority for a long time to come. Is it much different in Australia? For all its anti-Chinese sentiment the Federal government has a marked distaste for transparency and accountability. Scummo prefers those “quiet Australians” who take it on the chin and don’t complain. He would like a little hush from people who lose their disability pension; or farmers being forced from their homes by water policies that are handing the land to big corporations; or even arts companies that have had their annual grants curtailed. He’d like less chat about climate change and freedom of speech. He wishes the Aborigines would stop asking to have a “voice” to Parliament. He’d prefer the Auditor General kept his mouth shut instead of pointing out massive irregularities and conflicts of interest in a much-vaunted $220 million regional jobs scheme.

One wonders if the catastrophe of the bushfires will awaken people to this government’s inactivity (or worse!) in areas where it really matters. It would be nice for the PM to discover that the  population isn’t as stupid and gullible as he obviously believes them to be.

Speaking of secrecy, I wonder when the Art Gallery of NSW will tell us how much it paid for the massive painting by Takashi Murakami that they’re presenting as the centrepiece of the Japan Supernatural exhibition. When James Mollison bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for the National Gallery in 1973 for a then-record US$2 million (ie. AUD $1.3 million, in the days before devaluation) Gough Whitlam told him to disclose the price at once – even though the disclosure added fuel to existing attacks on the extravagances of the Whitlam government.

The AGNSW has admitted to a seven figure sum but that could mean $1 million or $9 million. Judging by Murakami’s auction prices I’d imagine it’s closer to the latter, but even $9 million would hardly raise eyebrows given the prices paid for paintings in today’s international art market. So why the secrecy over something that will be revealed sooner or later, possibly in the gallery’s annual report?

I’ve written a second, more considered piece on Japan Supernatural for this week’s art column, but another look at the show didn’t lessen my disappointment with the Murakami, or my admiration for the ukiyo-e prints. I can’t accept the claim that the big picture will be a “destination work” attracting viewers from far and wide. It has no organic relationship with the collection or with Sydney, while the artist may be a darling of the art market but his importance is yet to be confirmed by history. I can’t even understand why they had to buy such a work – let alone commission it – which effectively guaranteed the sale no matter how perfunctory the outcome. The gallery has taken every opportunity to congratulate itself for this purchase but it has left many people, not just spoilsport me, puzzling over its acquisition processes.

This week’s movie, The Report, is another examination of obsessive secrecy – this time within the CIA, which was not pleased when a young political staffer, Daniel J. Jones, compiled a 6,700 page report on their use of torture on terror suspects. Even today the full report has never been made public, making it even more elusive than Donald Trump’s tax returns, but a summary version proved devastating enough.

The movie is timely, not only because its release coincides with Presidential impeachment proceedings, but because it shows how fragile and complex democracy is when our political masters choose to obstruct unpalatable truths and bend laws to their own ends. In politics and art there’s a lot more concealment than is necessary or desirable.