Newsletter 355

Published September 7, 2020
The arts are not immune

Last week I received an extraordinary document in my email which read like a User’s Guide to Nepotism in the Australian (read Melbourne) Art Scene. It wasn’t simply a list of perceived conflicts of interest, it was a devastating indictment of the way art prizes are awarded, academic positions filled, and decisions made as to who gets to represent this country in major international art events.

It was pretty disgusting to read, aside from the unworthy pleasure of having one’s worst suspicions substantiated. The full set of accusations went beyond doing favours for mates, and included allegations of fraud with the prospect of criminal charges. If this actually happens it will be a big step-up from the usual approach to arts scandals which are largely ignored by politicians and press because it’s “only the arts”. If equivalent things happened in the world of politics, business, law or even sport they would be front-page news.

I won’t name names, although it’s not hard to figure out the culprits. It may be too much to imagine that those who casually indulge in criminal behaviour might actually have to face the consequences of their actions, but it would be good to see a few changes in the art hierarchies to ensure the game isn’t simply rigged for the benefit of a few players.

Although there is a hard core of knowing offenders, for the most part it is sheer complacency that allows a small art subculture to flourish at the expense of the rest. Too many people are ready to believe that everyone who shows at a trendy gallery must be some kind of genius, or that jobs and official appointments are made on the basis of superior abilities.

I was reminded of the contemporary art herd instinct – or perhaps it should be called the Will to Conformity – when reading the obituaries for artist, John Nixon, who has died of leukaemia, aged 70. It’s always a tragedy when someone succumbs to cancer, but the hyperbole lavished on this self-styled local avant-gardist says more about the human capacity to suspend disbelief than it does about the quality of Nixon’s work. Thirty years ago I felt that his repetitive production of monochromes was dull, derivative and pretentious. I’ve seen nothing since that has obliged me to revise that assessment.

Some of the statements about Nixon’s profundity and importance as an abstract artist give the impression the speakers have never heard of artists such as Robert Jacks, David Aspden, Roger Kemp, Gunter Christmann, Paul Partos, or a dozen others whose career overlaps with his, but resulted in a far more impressive body of work. It’s understandable that people rave about someone who has just died, but there needs to be a reality check, even among the ranks of the dead, let alone among those who are still around and spreading mischief.

This week’s art column looks at two artists who are very much alive & kicking: Angus Nivison at Utopia Art, and Paul Higgs at Defiance Gallery. My criteria for selecting these shows was simple: two artists of integrity who have produced some of their best work. There’s no mythologising involved with Nivison or Higgs, no self-conscious avant-garde impostures. Am I describing a moral choice? Perhaps, but it’s also an aesthetic one.

In search of a notable film to review I’ve turned to the streaming service, Stan, and come up with I Am Woman, the Helen Reddy bio pic. Although Babyteeth gave me a glimmer of hope that Australians might be starting to make decent films again, I Am Woman is a lemon – a poorly made movie that wants us to see Reddy as a feminist icon but forgets to make her an interesting person.

At least the real Helen Reddy had talent, and a successful career that wasn’t simply a product of having friends, colleagues and relations in the Melbourne art world. To clean up the institutionalised rottenness I described at the start of this newsletter we need to be a more rigorous in asking whether those who rise to positions of power and influence have made contributions to Australian art that are in any way commensurable with the contributions they’ve made to themselves.