Australians’ reaction to art can be very immature
This piece was co-authored by Carrie Miller and fellow Punch contributor Catharine Lumby.
If only Australians could bring the same level of focus and nuance to debates about art that we bring to debates about what the ref did in last weekend’s match.
Not that art trumps sport. They both matter. It’s just that – if you happen to know anything about the history of art – it’s really boring to hear the same debate repeated endlessly in the media. It’s a lot like watching Barry Hall punch the same guy in the head again and again. Quite rightly, fans want to see him punch different people in the head to keep things interesting.
The recent debate about Sam Leach’s Wynne prize-winning landscape- which involves a landscape that quotes from another landscape- is a great example of this banal and reductive debate.
Anyone who was around in 1973 will remember the furore when Gough Whitlam – that socialist bohemian subversive - authorised the federal government’s purchase of a now priceless artwork – Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. There was widespread outrage that so much public money had been spent on something that looked like it had been painted by ’barefoot drunks’.
The same opposition between art history conservatives and contemporary art progressives lives on today and is a furphy. And herein lies the real issue at the heart of the Wynne Prize beat-up. What makes Sam Leach’s work so interesting is precisely that it complicates this banal dichotomy by managing to combine contemporary ideas with an almost obsessive reverence for traditional technique.
Even his current critics haven’t denied his technical virtuosity – not something most of us associate with contemporary art these days. He draws on very established art historical traditions. In fact, his work sits in a long tradition of Australian landscape painting that is inextricably wedded to earlier European tradition.
Eugene von Guerard, one of the foremost Australian landscape painters in the 19th century, drew heavily on landscapes painted by artists who went before him. He drew, often in great detail, on the European conventions of landscape painting which required careful attention to where one placed trees, spectators and vistas and palette.
You only need to glimpse a von Guerard to realise that Leach’s picture does not breach the rules for the Wynne which state that the award is for “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours”.
Just as Indigenous artists have depicted our landscape in terms of their own, unique relationship to it, the early colonial painters of our landscape rendered it through the eyes of European experiences and aesthetic interests. The history of art is a history of repeating – and occasionally breaking – with ways of portraying and seeing things.
The notion that there is one original way of portraying “Australian scenery” is misguided. Leach has created an imaginary Australian landscape – it says so in the title of his work – Proposal for landscaped cosmos. He intentionally quoted from another work to make exactly this point.
It’s heartening to see that many of the commentators that have come out against Leach over the past couple of days have moved away from the argument that his work constitutes “plagiarism” – a completely incoherent concept when applied to art. But it’s even more gratifying that these commentators have proven just how successful Leach’s work is in achieving one of its main aims: to encourage people to reflect on what it means to look at or depict a landscape.
In the end, the only controversial thing about Leach’s win is that yet again the AGNSW trustees have chosen a work that is deeply bound to art historical tradition.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…