Newsletter 506

Published August 28, 2023
Will this moment be immortalised in bronze?

Roughly six weeks ago I found myself sitting next to Sam Kerr in the Qantas lounge in Brisbane. The Womens World Cup was still about a month away, but anticipation was high. Every ten minutes someone would ask the poor girl if they could take a selfie with her. Showing superhuman patience she agreed to all requests, producing a smile on demand. Following the Matildas mania that has engulfed the nation, the selfie seekers would probably form a long queue in front of the soccer star.

Like everyone else I watched the games compulsively, although that was the limit of my fandom. We can be proud the Matildas made the World Cup semi-finals for the first time, and proud of the way they played. Yet we have to remember, they came fourth – a thoroughly frustrating result. It did, at least, put paid to the idea that Albo should declare a national holiday to celebrate their success. Had Scummo still been in charge he would have declared a holiday after they won their first game and stalked the dressing room looking for opportunities to be photographed with the players, probably wearing a headband.

Albo was bad enough in his daggy way, but his sporting enthusiasm seems sincere. Besides, no politician can resist the siren call of sporting glory. At what other time do we find the nation so united and engaged? If the Voice succeeds, the celebrations will be as nothing compared to those that followed the Matildas’ nail-biting victory over France. At present, the yes vote seems to be at longer odds than the Matildas winning the World Cup.

It’s inevitable that sport will absorb more public attention – and public funds – than the arts. That lamentable statistic forever being bandied around, that more people go to art galleries than sporting contests is disproved every time one turns on the TV on a Friday night. Sport is a mass preoccupation, art – when it is not simply a pastime or a hobby – is a more élite affair.

I use the word deliberately, because one cannot tune in and watch an exhibition on Friday night, feeling a tribal thrill when a nice passage of brushwork appears. Art apprecation requires time, patience, and a genuine willingness to educate oneself – both in terms of knowledge and taste. When one gets an emotional charge from a work of art, the next feeling is a desire to learn more about the work and its creator.

Those who see works of art as trophies, status symbols or simple decorations are only partaking of the most superficial experiences. It’s like being a footy fan and not knowing the names of the players in your team.

Sport appreciation is laid out on a plate, but art appreciation is aspirational, if one wants to go beyond that Aussie mantra: “I liked it”.

On those occasions when art meets sport, they rarely know what to say to each other. There have been a few brave attempts to bring these worlds together, such as the Basil Sellers Art Prize, or the Cricket Art Prize, but most sports fans are not attracted by the arcane observations of contemporary artists.

The usual meeting place comes in the form of a statue to a famous sporting figure. Such works have their place, although they are never going to impress the art cognoscenti. This hasn’t daunted QLD Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, who is warmly touting the idea of a pubiic sculpture devoted to the Matildas out the front of Suncorp Stadium; or NSW Premier, Chris Minns, who is commisssioning a mural for Stadium Australia. Even if one discounts the high probability of such works being embarrassing pieces of kitsch, there’s a real issue in over-hyping the players’ achievements to capitalise on short-term popularity. To devote statues and murals to a team that came fourth reeks of a desperation to succeed. It would look ridiculous if the Matildas were to win the World Cup next time around. It would look even sillier were they to sink into obscurity.

Erecting public artworks at the drop of a hat is akin to getting a tattoo on a drunken night out. The ecstatic moment recedes, but the bad decision leaves an indelible blot on the landcape – or the forearm.

If we really must erect a statue to the Matildas, let’s do the decent thing and wait until they’ve won something.

The Herald has published the Darwin column this weekend, or rather what I can only describe as the redacted version. The cuts have become so frequent, I’m more-or-less taking them for granted. One small one, however, was eyebrow-raising. I’d written that Adam Worrall had taken “a principled stand” in relation to the APY saga. For some unknown reason, the word “principled” was removed. I wasn’t previously aware that saying someone had principles might be legally actionable.

The new art column, which has yet to appear in the newspaper, is devoted to Art in Conflict, a show of mainly contemporary work from the Australian War Memorial, being hosted by the S.H. Ervin Gallery. It’s a lively selection, but almost too lively for its own good. With 50 artists involved, it feels more like an art competition than a thematic show. It is, however, of interest to see what the AWM has been buying and commissioning over the past decade or two.

Like every other institution there has been a concerted effort to acquire more work by women artists and Indigenous artists. In this exhibition, those works are easily the most engaging parts of the display.

At the movies, I’m writing about yet another ‘product’ film, but this time it’s not a tale of unalloyed triumph. BlackBerry charts the rise and fall of a mobile phone that was everywhere in the early 2000s, and nowhere today. Canadian director, Matt Johnson, has created a sophisticated film that still feels rough around the edges; a comedy that constantly threatens to descend into tragedy. Had Canada erected a statue to the BlackBerry, when it was a world market leader in early 2007, it would look pretty forlorn today.