Giles Auty: The Vital Value of Dissent

Giles Auty

From the raised kitchen window of my house I can see most of the birds which regularly visit the garden. In summer these are mostly magpies, currawongs and cockatoos while in winter quite large flocks of pale green female satin bowerbirds arrive which are often accompanied by an all-black male.

The latter is, in fact, the only bird which could possibly be mistaken for the much more regular but somewhat furtive year-round visitor which is a male blackbird – a species of English thrush which was first introduced into Australia in 1862. In their country of origin such male birds are probably the most prolific creators of endlessly inventive birdsong whereas in Australia my particular example avoids drawing attention to himself now by never singing at all. In short, much larger and angrier indigenous birds of a territorial disposition clearly believe they enjoy sole rights to my garden.

I do not suggest for a moment that my situation and that of the blackbird are directly analogous yet are perhaps just sufficiently so for me to feel rather more than passing sympathy for his plight.

I came to work in Australia more than 20 years ago now but had hardly written a word here before an extremely hostile half page appeared in The Age which was composed almost entirely of comments made by known opponents of mine from the English press.  Quite a lot of thought and effort must have gone into preparing that particular form of welcome to these shores. Not to be outdone, Australia’s ABC television shortly concocted a lengthy, similarly abrasive and most dishonestly edited program which likewise made not the slightest attempt at balance. Indeed not long afterwards when my name was recommended by a friend to a well-known ABC radio interviewer she stated: “I can’t possibly have people like that on my show”. Like what exactly you may be tempted to ask? I would still quite like an answer to that question myself.

Purely by chance I have subsequently heard that particular person interview two of the more vacuous and self-serving people known to British art with an attitude of total reverence. Australia can indeed be a strange and sometimes perverse country. What is of rather greater interest, however, is exactly why that should be so.

I raise these matters now getting on for two decades after the event not because even a jot of resentment remains but simply because I do not think that large sections of the Australian media have really improved their act noticeably from those somewhat distant days to this. One thing which that does, in effect, is lock Australia into an unnecessary time-warp which reflects very poorly indeed on this country’s desire to be taken seriously on any international cultural stage.

Typical of such complacent but somewhat parochial blundering, in fact, was the expensively produced, would-be blockbuster exhibition AUSTRALIA which ran at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from September to December 2013.

Those who carry some knowledge of recent art history in their heads will know that the latter show was designed to build on the goodwill first created by Recent Australian Painting which had been shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London way back in 1961. That was also the show which virtually opened the door for Australian artists keen to establish themselves internationally rather than just locally: Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams were typical beneficiaries of that historic Whitechapel show.

So just how well was the much more comprehensive follow-up exhibition AUSTRALIA received? When that show ended, a panel of senior British critics voted it the worst major exhibition held in London during 2013. I had formerly been a member of that panel myself while still working in London for The Spectator. Why, then, exactly was a panel of highly experienced critics so disappointed? Should I mention here perhaps that the latter disappointment was not reported particularly widely – or indeed at all – in the Australian media?

I have been an Australian citizen now for eight years and so feel saddened by any kind of completely unnecessary national flop – let alone one which is artistic in nature. With even a modicum of wider consultation the foregoing reverse could have been avoided very easily. Later in this article I will explain precisely why.

For the moment, however, I need to return to the little matter of why I was once considered some kind of monster here by at least some authorities. A need clearly existed in certain quarters to silence or at least sideline me – presumably because I was believed not to comply with some form or other of political or cultural orthodoxy.

I  am a very frank and outspoken art critic I agree but probably no more so than John McDonald from the Sydney Morning Herald, nor the late Robert Hughes who was then writing for Time, nor indeed the late Brian Sewell who was then making a major name for himself as a dissident voice while writing for London’s Evening Standard. All four of us were largely in agreement about some of the more obvious follies of Late Modernism as well as about the extremely unfortunate subsequent effects of judging art by its political conformity or correctness rather than by its intrinsic merit as art. That said, the true and – apparently unforgivable nature – of my personal crime was to be perceived as a political conservative which formerly enjoyed a popularity roughly on a par with rat poison in what some believe to be ‘proper’ art circles in Australia.

As evidence for those prosecuting my ‘crime’ I had admittedly worked in London for a number of years as visual arts spokesman for the Conservative Advisory Committee for the Arts and Heritage as well as serving on the Art Working Group for the National Curriculum for English and Welsh Schools where my appointment was even rumoured to have been prompted by former British PM Margaret Thatcher.

It could be pointed out however that a Conservative government was in power in Britain during all my years of working there as an art critic. Clearly if I hoped to contribute at all to government arts programs and policies no other option existed for me at that time. In short I tried consistently to help to create government art policies rather than merely to endorse them.

My precise political views aside, my lengthy professional experience was at one time evidently welcomed quite widely on matters relating to the arts. Indeed, I had not been in Australia long before I was approached by the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne to advise on improvements and refurbishments to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the event I personally commissioned the bronze there of Archbishop Mannix by English sculptor Nigel Boonham (see opposite) as well as a number of other works on the then Archbishop’s behalf.

Before coming to Australia I had reviewed major exhibitions and events in more than twenty different countries including such widely varied venues as the former USSR, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, the USA and even Trinidad & Tobago. One truly amazing experience included the unveiling at a private house in Germany of a superb portrait bust of my host by Arno Breker – Hitler’s favourite sculptor – who astonishingly was then still alive.  Although perhaps best known as the creator of the massive neo-classical sculpture for the notorious Berlin Olympics of 1936, Breker was also instrumental during the war in saving a number of French artists in Paris from the unwelcome attentions of the Gestapo.

At least some of my early experiences of Australia were hardly less bizarre and unexpected than the foregoing. Indeed, on a first trip round the offices of my then employer The Australian a colleague pointed out a fellow journalist in the following manner: “She comes from a very fine old communist family of course”

That certainly did come as something of a shock to me partly because a section of my compulsory military service had been spent hard up against the front-line of the Russian forces which formerly occupied a large area of Northern Germany. Many years later at a drinks party at Tbilisi in Georgia I met a Russian ex-serviceman who had also served in exactly that same sector. In days past we had been separated, in fact, by only a few hundred metres of ice and snow and thus years later rather enjoyed a few civilised drinks together to celebrate ‘old times’.

Twenty years ago The Australian was certainly more ambiguous in its political stance than it could be said to be today. Even so, it was probably even then this country’s most conservative serious newspaper so far as its politics, at least, were concerned. But what about other areas of that paper such as education and the arts? Were such sections of the paper formerly allowed to be more or less autonomous thus contributing to the strongly left-leaning bias of both disciplines in Australia’s general life? Indeed, if they were allowed to be so was that because the arts generally were once held – largely by political editors and writers – to be of little or no account? Although my appointment here was very poorly received indeed by the Fairfax press, for example, and by ‘our’ ABC, a substantial section of my new readers at The Australian clearly felt very differently – as did quite a number of very senior Australian artists. One such strongly urged me to apply, in fact, for the then vacant post of director of the National Gallery of Australia – a position for which I was shortlisted.

Over the years I had also been approached in Britain to join the ranks of arts bureaucracy. One such occasion involved the offered directorship of the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford – a post occupied by the late Nick Waterlow, former director of Sydney University’s art gallery, when I turned that particular appointment down. 

Unfortunately while it is certainly possible to retain a dissident voice simply as a critic and writer, such an independent stance is probably much harder to maintain within publicly-funded institutions.  

What shortly became apparent to me while working here was that it was my fellow journalists rather than the general public who were most opposed to some of the less orthodox and politically correct opinions I expressed.

Ironically, in view of the extreme hostility which greeted my arrival here I found myself named  some eight months later by English historian Paul Johnson as “one of only four outstanding British art critics of the past forty years” (The Spectator, February 17th, 1996).

The arts in general have been one of the major victims of what passes here for post-modernist theory. Regrettably for us such thinking also takes root and flourishes most notably in ‘young’ countries such as Australia which generally lack any form of inbuilt self-righting mechanism almost entirely. Basic commonsense can thus often seem to take rather a long holiday from our shores.

It was my believed opposition to the evident excesses of Late Modernism and then of Post-Modernism in the arts which undoubtedly accounted for much of the strong initial local opposition  – to which I have referred already – to my appointment at The Australian. The tactics employed by my opponents may have seemed a trifle crude yet I suggest that merely showed the depth of their desire that any hint of open opposition to any of their particular artistic codes and beliefs needed to be shut down as quickly as possible. For if I  managed to attract any degree of public support at all who knew where such matters might lead? Perhaps the political left’s iron grip on arts funding of all kinds might even have been marginally loosened?

In theory the public funding of art of all kinds sounds almost entirely admirable and dates back in recent times, at least, to the theories and enthusiasms of John Maynard Keynes who was the guiding light behind the founding of the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) in Britain shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. That led in turn to the setting up of various kinds of Arts Councils immediately after the war including, in time, the Australia Council.

While public support for orchestras, opera and ballet companies, theatres and such often appears to serve some worthwhile social, artistic and logistical purpose, other forms of support, such as that of favoured individuals, opens the door so obviously to cronyism that the practice becomes very hard indeed to justify whatever safeguards are supposedly put in place.

Almost all of the foregoing is because most arts funding has by now become politicised in ways which should have been easy to foresee. As just one consequence of this the public often becomes obliged now to support precisely the kind of art and art forms it most dislikes and distrusts. Yet all such art’s funding exists, of course, in the public’s name.

Just one of the problems afflicting many present-day critics, curators and even art gallery directors is that while being highly trained in Marxist analysis, for example, and other equally arcane and politicised practices, they possess hardly any ability at all by now to use their eyes. That is precisely why, in fact, the huge exhibition AUSTRALIA was basically such a flop. Before going on to explain why, I would also like to extend some degree of sympathy to all Australians involved in the visual arts. Our land is so isolated and travel from it so expensive and tiring that it would be extremely difficult for most Australians to see even a fraction of the major art from all times I have been lucky enough to see myself, largely from my former base in London.

Much – but by no means all – of what I believe is based on that wealth of experience. I have also seen poor exhibitions here, notably of Turner and Monet, which did little or no justice to their causes. Great tomes and catalogues can also only tell us so much – for to be in the presence of great art can often be an utterly transforming experience. I think here of the greatest exhibition I have ever seen, for example, which was of nearly eighty works by Velazquez in February 1990 at the Prado in Madrid.

The failure of AUSTRALIA was not just a matter of lack of knowledge – especially of international conditions and expectations – but no less so one of confidence. In the absence of both knowledge and confidence what transpired was both a muddle and a compromise. Fifty five years ago, the Whitechapel show introduced much that was totally unknown to a British public starved of knowledge of international art and starved also of the books which might serve as some valuable form of introduction to it at least.

Aboriginal art aside, much of the art which Australia produced in its early days was largely a matter of topographical curiosity when marsupials and dingoes, emus and man-eating sharks still shared the value of strangeness at least. Much of the early work in AUSTRALIA therefore became a kind of plodding history lesson for the five people left in the world who were not quite sure who Charles Darwin, William Bligh and Ned Kelly were and similarly had little grasp and understanding of the world-wide history of plein-air painting which was internationally inspired by a short-lived Frenchman, Jules Bastien-Lepage (see illustration), whose influence during his lifetime was greater than that of Manet. Was that interesting fact personally known to you?

One problem was that the kind of painting exemplified by such as Roberts and Streeton had many exemplars elsewhere in the world with whom reasonably sophisticated gallery-goers would have been thoroughly familiar. I personally like the art of Roberts and Streeton very much but no more so than that of the early Newlyn School artists with which I have long been familiar. When still a full-time painter myself, I formerly rented Stanhope Forbes’s old studio in Newlyn.

So what else could Australia have showcased that was not only world-class but which was virtually unknown to a British audience? Nolan and Boyd – who both subsequently lived in Britain – were already very well-known in that country – as was the former’s Ned Kelly series around which much of the publicity for the London show was centred. But the latter dated from the late 1940s of course. Had Australian artists achieved nothing of world-class or consequence either since or before that date which would be novel to its audience?

Much of the art in the most recent section of the show – weirdly named ELIZABETHAN POST-COLONIAL 1950-2013 – was extremely weak and derivative by international standards and artists around whom the whole show could have been built were each represented by only a single, often ill-chosen work. This is where lack of what used to be called aesthetic judgement utterly crippled the show.

During the years when I still wrote regularly in the mainstream Australian press I pointed out the extraordinary world-class merits of various Australian artists: William Robinson, Lloyd Rees, John Olsen and Kenneth Macqueen to name but four. Robinson and Olsen who are two of the finest Australian artists of the 20th century also have the advantage of working on an epic scale. Rees and Macqueen, by contrast, possessed a lyrical sensitivity that was truly timeless.

Rees’s pencil drawings of the mid-1930s are perhaps the nearest equivalent that exists to the famous Shoreham paintings of Samuel Palmer from more than a century earlier. Palmer is one of Britain’s best-loved artists but is virtually unknown in Australia. Both he and Rees went through quite brief ‘transcendental’ periods, while the visual poetry of Macqueen at his best is sublimely but unquestionably Australian.

If you do nothing else this year, source and buy William Robinson’s The Transfigured Landscape (co-published by Queensland University of Technology and Piper Press) which illustrates among many other masterpieces his six-part Creation Series in full. Each work is seven metres or more in width and absolutely world-class in its execution, imagination and spiritual force. Olsen at his best is also unmistakeably Australian in his execution, subject matter and uniquelyAntipodean sense of humour.

To sum up, what an utterly marvellous visual treat was denied to Britain and what cold, colonial porridge was served up instead. 

If ever a need existed for the mimsy, left-wing stranglehold on the arts in Australia to be broken, the exhibition AUSTRALIA surely supplied it.