Crikey was forwarded some intriguing correspondence this week. It seems there’s a tiff brewing between some of the nation’s best known art writers, after the near-universally poor reviews of John McDonald’s recent art book Art of Australia. Artworld insiders will know that McDonald doesn’t enjoy the warmest reputation amongst the nation’s notoriously cliquey contemporary art aficionados after a couple of decades of biting reviews and a controversial tenure as head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia.

Now its payback time. A number of critics have rounded on McDonald’s recently published, handsomely-bound coffee table opus. “The literary tone lacks gravitas,” sniffed art historian David Hansen in the Australian Book Review.

“While McDonald often shoots for the Hughesian witticism, the effect is usually both forced and anachronistic … The book’s scholarly pretensions and credibility are finally undone by the unremitting parade of error.”


Writing in The Canberra Times, Joanna Mendelssohn was equally damning. The book’s “strengths”, she wrote in a review which dripped with the disdain of the salaried art academic for the professional critic, “are those of someone who has spent much of his adult life reading exhibition catalogues and press releases before writing short essays for newspapers.”


“Its weaknesses are that the scope of a book is significantly greater than that of a short review, and for all his reading and looking at exhibitions on gallery walls he still cannot give sense of how and why art was made in this country in the first century of European colonisation.”

Biff! Bang! Pow!

Unlike the average visual artist, who generally has to take poor reviews lying down, McDonald went on the counter-attack, firing off an email to Gia Metherell at The Canberra Times.

“Congratulations!” McDonald writes.

The Canberra Times managed to print the most venomous and dishonest [review] to date.”

McDonald enclosed an open letter he wrote to Mendelssohn way back in 1998, in which he attacks the University of NSW art professor for calling him a plagiarist on the judging committee for the Pascall Prize for art criticism.

McDonald and Mendelssohn, it turns out, have some history. Back in the 1990’s, Mendelssohn and McDonald regularly sparred in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The Bulletin; Mendelssohn even claims she took a complaint against McDonald to the Press Council (though no record of the search terms “Mendelssohn” or “John McDonald” appear in the AustLII archives of the Press Council).

When The Canberra Times‘ Metherell replied to McDonald, defending Mendelssohn’s review as “honest, professional and disinterested,” McDonald really did his nana.

“Your reply is dumb and insulting,” he thundered, writing of Mendelssohn that “this is a person who has consistently told lies about me and my work.”

At this point the correspondence made its way to Crikey.

It’s always amusing when critics get a taste of their own medicine. But the dispute also offers a window into the unusually vicious world of Australian art criticism. Despite his patent paranoia, McDonald is an outsider in this world: a neo-classicist who refuses to write in the modish pseudo-babble typical of academic art writing. And for all the well-honed barbs and polysyllabic adjectives, artworld politics can be very petty and personal indeed — as this unedifying dispute all too plainly shows.

Ben Eltham commissioned this month’s Special Issue of Artlink magazine on the topic of time.