Giles Auty: Money Culture Notes

Giles Auty

This was the last piece Giles submitted to The Jackdaw. He died suddenly in September, aged 86.

It’s all about the money honey. When I awoke to see the front cover of the weekend Australian’s review section on June 20th it was rather like being thrown back into some weird and most unwelcome dream. Did I really read “POLE POSITION: up close with Pollock’s $430 million masterpiece by Rosemary Neill?”

Regrettably I did. Should we also bring back Gough Whitlam if we could? Sadly he’s as deceased as the inflated reputation of Blue Poles really ought to be. But what the hell? Ever heard of Clement Greenberg a leading critic of Pollock’s day and Pollock’s most consistent supporter? Clearly not because we have Greenberg’s word that Pollock considered Blue Poles a failure while Greenberg himself thought Blue Poles “an absolute failure and a ridiculous thing to buy”.  (See Patricia Anderson’s biography of Elwyn Lynn my predecessor as art critic at The Australian). On the basis of the definitive exhibition of Pollock’s work I saw at the Tate Gallery in London in 1999 there were quite a few better Pollocks than Blue Poles. But they are not in Australia so cannot possibly be as good.  In April 2006 I wrote a 4,000 word essay for Quadrant which dispelled the miasma of nonsense which continues to surround this entire subject. But Australia will sadly never grow up in some ways, which is why we lag behind so markedly in terms of our whole culture. That essay forms part of a 50 piece anthology of my writing Culture at Crisis Point (Connor Court 2016) if you feel inclined to dig it up. The man who actually flogged Blue Poles to the then Australian National Gallery, New York-based Australian Max Hutchinson, proposed that Blue Poles along with Picasso’s Guernica and Monet’s Waterlilies is one of the five or six great works of art painted since the Renaissance. So what other pair of works might Mr. Hutchinson have picked to make up his handy half dozen?

The task of choosing between the lifetime productions of the likes of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Tiepolo, Goya, van Gogh, Manet, Matisse and Picasso – to name but a handy ten – would be a daunting one even for someone who knows the complete works of all ten quite intimately. God alone knows what students are taught on art history courses these days even if such courses still exist. The National Gallery of Australia has a very poor record even in more recent times in its purchasing; for example, it made a colossal error of judgment in buying David Hockney’s very weakly conceived A Bigger Grand Canyon – and paying an inflated price for it  (over A$ 4 million) when it could have bought Australian William Robinson’s even bigger and infinitely more accomplished Creation Series: The Ancient Trees for $250,000. I was prepared to put myself in serious debt to buy the latter but lost out to a Sydney doctor who very wisely snapped it up and built a special room to house it.

I have never of course served on the board of any public gallery in Australia although prior to coming here I reviewed art in more than a score of different countries. Rhetoric as we know describes language designed to persuade and impress. Its natural habitat is politics and advertising but in both of those fields long acquaintance has persuaded intelligent minds to recognize its nature and dilute its effectiveness. Regrettably the toxicity of such language still has a fatal effect in areas where the ubiquity of its use remains unrecognized. In no area is this truer than the visual arts. The 20th century, which was dominated by 

Modernism, saw the rise and fall of about 40 readily identifiable and significant art movements in the Western world alone. Can there really have been an art movement for every two-and-a-bit years of an entire century?  But who can even begin to tell you what Orphism, say, or Rayonism were? Yet many people believed that both were vital art historical movements. So why have we shown such a continued obsession with novelty?

Right from word go Modernism liked to portray itself as a liberating force but was never anything of the kind. Sadly all too many made a naïve connection between what was happening in art and the genuine breakthroughs which were happening in technology.  And art very cleverly annexed a similarly favourable rhetorical language. In short to situate yourself on the side of ‘progress’, ‘advance’, ‘evolution’ and ‘experimentation’ was to grab a positive propagandist language by the throat. Like Pollock, many artists are not especially bright or literate and evidence exists that if Pollock had not effectively killed himself (and someone else) when drunk he would have reverted to more of a directly surreal way of working.

Blue Poles is the sole work by Pollock most Australians will ever see so all rely on writers such as Rosemary Neill to put the work in some realistic context. $430 million did you say? Australia is a money-conscious country which has yet to educate itself in any other form of evaluation. The real reward of very good art is inherent because true artists are not bankers and do not think as such. In days when I wrote for The Australian I was hauled before the editor for describing Australian culture as ‘rather less than effervescent’ in another publication. In a recent issue of The Spectator James Delingpole, whom I know, talks of his growing affection for Australia. I came to Australia a quarter of a century ago with very similar feelings and resisted an invitation from the then Spectator owner Conrad Black to return home. For a country of its size Australia has performed very poorly in terms of almost any sort of culture and the example set by official bodies such as our museums for sure do not help. Rosemary Neill’s article on Pollock takes a long step backwards which we can all really do without but will surely not cost her her job.