Several months ago I reviewed Ruben Ostlund’s ‘The Square’ which received the Golden Palm at Cannes last year. The film addresses elitism in the visual arts and is a parody which transmutes into a moral tale. I had some criticisms of it. Perhaps they were underserved?

After all, who else on a global scale is addressing the issue? Nobody dares! ‘High’ art and those supporting it are considered sacred. People who may have completed one or two fine art subjects at university consider themselves experts and if you have completed a PhD on the subject need I say more?

Art critics, some of whom pride themselves on intellectual rants relating to the context in which certain art exhibitions occur can ruin careers.

I have just returned from the Baldessin/Whiteley Exhibition ‘Parallel Visions’ at the National Gallery of Victoria. I was in awe. It reminded me of the book I had read recently by Gabriella Coslovich ‘Whiteley on Trial’ published this year. It won the Walkley Award for Journalism in the Arts. I felt it was very well researched but did not deserve the award. Coslovich states as a journalist who had previously fantasised about being an artist ‘…. I grew out of Whiteley. The next time I watched the documentary re Whiteley ‘Difficult Pleasure’, in my fifties, I guffawed at Whiteley’s pretentiousness …. I was reassessing him, looking again at his work, really looking, and rediscovering his extravagant gift for both the glorious and the gaudy. Not everyone admired Whiteley. Critics’ assessments ranged from the superlative to the withering …. Christopher Allen called him ‘hopelessly superficial’. John MacDonald dubbed his later work ‘slick and wristy, his colours blandly decorative’. Patrick McCaughey pronounced his career a ‘story of squandered genius’. Robert Hughes refused to write an obituary for the artist, saying he had wasted his talent. Sasha Grishin fairly summed it up: ‘A huge and uneven oeuvre’. (p.16)

Coslovich was writing a book about an artist with an international career: an artist with works hanging in the major galleries around the world. Seeing that she had ‘grown out’ of Whiteley, why did she write the book except to make a handsome profit? Art fraud is inescapable and ubiquitous. Australia hasn’t addressed the issue with legislation, neither have many other countries. We’ve all known that for years.

The above extract illustrates how art critics and journalists (with an inferior knowledge of art) can diminish an artist, even one with an international reputation! If they do this to Whiteley, imagine how they make fodder of lesser artists or those trying to establish themselves once they have trained! Critics are a dangerous breed. Some are failed artists who compensate for their lack of creativity by demolishing those who have talent.

Meanwhile most artists with degrees in visual arts starve in garrets (as is the tradition). Few become successful and make a living. Many work part-time in menial positions so that they can continue to paint. Some end up on social security entirely dispirited and suffering chronic depression because of the criticism they have received from art consultants, commercial ‘high end’ galleries and individuals who consider themselves experts. They never paint again. Too demoralised to pick up a brush.

I know because I mix with them. I study art (life-drawing and sculpture) but my skills are limited. I don’t regret that I didn’t pursue an artistic career because it would have meant life-long pain and suffering.

To really make it as an artist requires not only outstanding talent but also the ability to self-promote, to play to the glitterati, to articulate well, to be very confident and to be resilient. Many artists are highly intelligent but can’t articulate or are introverted and therefore go unnoticed. Occasionally a couple by tint-of-chance make it: they have mentors or there is a serendipitous occurrence. The rest rot.

Meanwhile in the great halls of galleries around the world the rich gather in support of art. Participation in fundraising dinners at $500 or more a head enhances their reputation and improves their credibility in social circles. They feel they have manipulated their way into the halls of that sacred thing ‘sophisticated, high-end art’. Some are cringeworthy, superficial snobs.

Philanthropists worth billions, some of whom have made their money avoiding tax (like Trump) give millions to art galleries. Gallery directors must engage in obsequiousness in order to extract the funds from these titans of industry.

Some of these philanthropists actually sit on committees which engage in determining where funds will be channelled. They influence policy. This is dangerous. These people do not have the qualifications to sit in such positions nor do they have the sensitivity to understand artists. We operate under capitalism where each of us is a commodity with a true market value. To some of these captains of industry, artists are commodities. In fact, in the visual arts industry many treat artists as commodities.

I once met Jeanne Pratt, a philanthropist who has contributed millions (or indeed more) to the National Gallery of Victoria. I had dropped out of academia and was working in a middle-of-the-road antique shop in Armadale, Victoria whilst studying art locally. She made a grand entrance with a friend, surveyed the scene, looked at me and said ‘this shop offers me nothing’ with that exiting in fits of derisive laughter. I thought, ‘you will pay for that’. I rest my case.

Recently I purchased a book produced by the Heide Museum of Modern Art. It was on the subject of Charles Blackman’s ‘Schoolgirls’. I was placing a poem by Victor Hugo on my website. The poem related to child labour in factories in France after the revolution. I ascertained that one of the images in the ‘Schoolgirls’ series would enhance Hugo’s message on child exploitation. Heide owned copyright of the book and the painting was owned by a private collector. In emails I made it clear that the site related to social justice issues and that the magazine was free online. I requested permission from the copyright owners to reproduce the image. Both refused. The owner of the painting said I could have permission if I paid $250. I could not afford that.

‘High End’ art is not available to the masses and those with the power restrict access. This is immoral. The artists who produced the works would, in the main, not restrict access. There is no hope for the socially disadvantaged to educate themselves via exposure to artworks. It is too expensive. The cost of entry to major art exhibitions precludes many from the privilege of viewing major works. In Victoria there is a very small reduction in cost of entry to exhibitions for pensioners. Membership of the National Gallery of Victoria is too costly for many qualified artists who earn meagre incomes. Others who are more militant simply will not engage with all the ‘social shit’.

Major galleries beware! The revolution cometh! The troops are uniting in solidarity. There will be a call to action.

Dianne Edwards


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