Perhaps this will be the last time anyone will be silly enough to go to court to ask a judge to adjudicate on a work of art. As The Agereports, Sydney artist Tony Johansen has lost his legal challenge against the awarding of the 2004 Archibald prize to Craig Ruddy.

Johansen had mounted a case in the New South Wales Supreme Court alleging that Ruddy’s portrait of actor David Gulpilil was ineligible for the prize because it was principally a drawing, not a painting. In his judgement against Johansen, Justice John Hamilton made it clear that, in his view, the courtroom was an inappropriate venue for settling artistic disputes.

“There is a certain appearance of strangeness in courts making determinations concerning the qualities of works of art. The matter is better left to those in the art world,” he said.

Johansen could now be facing a legal bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But to be fair to Johansen, his challenge is not the silliest legal fight ever mounted over the Archibald. That prize goes to the old Australian Journalists’ Association, now an arm of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Back in the early 1980s the AJA went to court trying to get its hands on J.F. Archibald’s bequest. In his will, Archibald, the legendary editor of The Bulletin, had left instructions that 60 years after the establishment of the Archibald Prize a determination should be made as to whether it was still a worthwhile bequest. If it was determined to be no longer worthwhile, Archibald wanted the money to go the Journalists’ Benevolent Fund, controlled by the AJA.

Ignoring howls of protest from its members, me included, the AJA went to the Supreme Court arguing that portraiture was no longer a valid art form. Thankfully, the case failed. At least Johansen is an artist but the idea of a journalists’ union purporting to know what constitutes art was completely absurd.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey