Oct 7, 2016

James Paterson’s sledge of Pollock painting is jingoistic dog-whistling — and it’s wrong

Senator James Paterson says the Australian government should sell Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles. But it would mean selling more than a canvas.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

Liberal Senator James Paterson has got tongues wagging with his proposal to sell off the painting Blue Poles. Jackson Pollock’s Number 11, 1952, better known as Blue Poles, is the most famous artwork in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. "Some people feel like they've got a real attachment to Blue Poles, and I understand that," Paterson argued this morning. "But I don't think it's a good enough reason for the Australian government to tie up such a significant amount of money in a single painting which is hung in a gallery in Canberra most of the year, and which most Australians won't ever see face to face in their lifetimes." "Think about the Australian work that we could buy if we just quarantined half of that money to be reinvested in a current Australian artist, or Australian art for the gallery." It’s easy to dismiss Paterson’s gambit as a stunt or a troll, and of course many have done so this morning on social media. But I think Paterson’s proposal is worth considering carefully. Most galleries own many more works than they can feasibly exhibit at any one time. The National Gallery is no exception. Indeed, it has less space than it used to. In recent times it has closed one of its spaces -- ironically because of funding cuts imposed by the Coalition government. Galleries do "deaccession" of works from time to time (removing an item from the gallery in order to sell it), particularly those they deem of lesser art, historical or curatorial interest. The proceeds are generally used to buy new or different works that can add to or enhance their current collection. In a time of real austerity for Australian culture (austerity imposed by Paterson’s government), we owe it to living artists working in Australia right now to consider whether the sale of an asset like this could help fund more local and contemporary expression. There are a number of problems with this proposal, however. Do we really know that the proceeds of the sale would in fact be re-invested back in Australian culture? Would the National Gallery get to keep the cash, or would a grateful Mathias Cormann dump the money straight into consolidated revenue? Even if the money were re-invested by the National Gallery, there are still many uncertainties. The gallery is currently struggling to keep the lights on, after years of efficiency dividends imposed by both Labor and the Coalition. The temptation would surely be to use some of the proceeds of such a sale to ease the crushing burden of the current austerity. Selling off a masterpiece to fund recurrent activity is the very worst possible outcome. And then there is the issue of the National Gallery’s independence. Under former arts minister George Brandis, the Coalition has regularly meddled in the affairs of cultural institutions that are supposed to be independent and at arm's length from the government -- most notoriously, by taking $105 million off the Australia Council in 2015 to set up a ministerial slush fund. Given this recent history, Paterson’s intervention is another example of a worrying pattern of Coalition politicians fumbling in the affairs of statutorily independent cultural bodies. There is a reason why governments appoint people like Gerard Vaughan to manage the nation’s iconic cultural institutions. The widely respected director knows a thing or two about art history and the visual arts market. Surely any decisions about the National Gallery’s collection are best left to Vaughan and the gallery’s board, rather than a first-term backbench senator with no obvious interest in culture. And there is little doubt that Blue Poles is indeed a masterpiece. As one of Pollock’s largest canvasses, its sheer size alone makes it one of the most important works that Pollock ever painted. It’s also from the key period of Pollock’s career, his "drip paintings" period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Blue Poles is important for reasons above and beyond Pollock’s unorthodox genius. It’s impossible to tell the story of modern art without Pollock. The painter was championed by Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the mid-20th century. Pollock has become synonymous with "abstract expressionism", the name coined by Greenberg to describe the movement. Abstract expressionism was the moment that the centre of the art world moved unequivocally to New York, and it set the scene for the rise of later art movements (opposed by Greenberg) like pop and minimalism. Pollock is the emblematic artist of abstract expressionism. In other words, Blue Poles is an artwork of global historical significance. Transcending national borders, it belongs to the cultural memory of all humanity. The painting’s acquisition by the far-sighted James Mollison in the Whitlam years proved a turning point in Australian culture, from the inward-looking and apologetic Australia of the Menzies years, towards the increasingly confident and international cultural life that we enjoy today. In this context, Paterson’s grim complaint that Blue Poles is “not … particularly tied to Australia's cultural heritage, and it's not [an artwork] that particularly speaks to our cultural experience” is not just jingoistic dog-whistling. It is also wrong. Selling off a masterpiece is a highly symbolic act. It would signal to the world that Australia is no longer interested in the intrinsic value of culture. A masterpiece like Blue Poles is of incalculable value to the National Gallery. It anchors the gallery in public perception, and has become part of the mental map of art audiences in this country. In no small part because of the controversy stirred up by its purchase, Blue Poles symbolises the long struggle in this nation against ignorance and philistinism. For that reason alone, it is part of the cultural landscape of all educated Australians.

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20 thoughts on “James Paterson’s sledge of Pollock painting is jingoistic dog-whistling — and it’s wrong

  1. Edna Prince

    About 20 years ago there was a painter who for a decade or more had put his fake Old Masters into Sotheby’s. When he was eventually caught he expressed surprise that he had fooled all the experts for so long.
    He said: When I look at a genuine masterpiece my hair stand on end. When I look at my own picture there no response.
    From this I deduce that most experts are actually experts in the appearance of art but not in art itself.
    Sell Blue Poles and do something useful with the money.

  2. jmendelssohn

    Good article Ben. There are two other good reasons to ignore Paterson – other than noting that like many Australian politicians he knows more about price than value.
    The purchase of Blue Poles gave Australia considerable international cachet. It made (and makes) us seem an interesting place to visit. It’s ongoing value in our ‘brand’ (for want of a better word) has been beyond measure. It has travelled twice since purchase, once to New York and now in London. Visitors to these major blockbuster exhibitions see the owner, ‘National Gallery of Australia, Canberra’, which is a better value tourist advertisement than Lara Bingle.
    Then there is quid pro quo. Because we have lent Blue Poles (and other major works) to international exhibitions Australia is able to borrow major works from overseas. Those major international exhibitions that we enjoy are a direct consequence of the collecting strength of the National Gallery’s collection – especially Blue Poles

  3. Pedantic, Balwyn

    I strongly suspect that Senator Paterson subscribes to the thought bubble that Pollock’s work is merely the daubing of paint in an unstructured way that could easily have been done by a kid or the monkey. Despite comments that the sale value would be used to purchase “Australian ” art, which is unlikely if he claims the primary purpose is to reduce the national debt, it is more likely that he simply does not appreciate its artistry or cultural value.

    1. Edna Prince

      ” could easily have been done by a kid” or these days using artificial intelligence.

      So how do we know it is art? Because some people told us!

      Proof indeed!

      1. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

        No Edna, it’s art because it’s in an art gallery. When it goes overseas you’ll have to look for it in a gallery rather than a service station or a supermarket. But maybe you’ve never seen it? Stood in front of it, had the thing reach out and grab you. Blue Poles is a wondrous thing, priceless, kind of like the Opera House. I suppose the IPA creeps think of that as just ‘poles and wires’ or ‘bricks and mortar’. Shit for brains.

      2. old greybearded one

        Because, skeptical as I was when it was purchased, when I finally stood in front of it, it spoke to me. I am also somewhat skeptical of the alleged monetary value.

  4. old greybearded one

    Where do the LNP get these fools from? As you suggest the gallery, like all the cultural institutions in Canberra is struggling with the results of the efficiency dividends. My daughter works at another such icon and it is the same. There is no way the money would go back to the arts. I am no great lover of modern art in general, but it stunned me. Then, the price suggested by the senator is over twice the highest price ever paid for a Pollock, so I am even more doubtful. Look if we do not have iconic pictures in our galleries, we cannot do deals to get great exhibits and most of us will therefore never get the chance to see them. They are what let the Gallery show Turner, van Gogh, impressionists, Renaissance and all the other big shows. Wake up senators.

    1. jmendelssohn

      The price (for insurance purposes) is because it is literally priceless – i.e. Unique and an essential part of the world’s cultural heritage. If this, or the Mona Lisa, or Seurat’s Bathers, ever came on the market it would blow it to smithereens and would have to be bought by a consortium of art museums with shared ownership.
      We are incredibly lucky that in the 1970s James Mollison had the foresight to buy so much great art and that Gough Whitlam had the vision to believe in him.

  5. Ian Roberts

    By “consolidated revenue” I take it you mean tax cuts and super rorts for their wealthy friends and supporters.

  6. colin skene

    Can someone fill me in on the lineage of James Paterson? How did he get to where he is?

    1. billie

      from a normal non-selective government high school.
      A privileged scion would have been taught to appreciate “kultcha”

  7. prlofe

    Perhaps the IPA could consider selling off James Paterson. He could be wasting his potential in Parliament.

    1. jmendelssohn

      He could have a great career path in the Commonwealth Bank

  8. pinkocommierat

    Imagine how many paintings of jolly swagmen camped by a billabong you could get for $350 million. You could probably even get a few of those cool paintings of dogs sitting ’round the table playing poker, I like them.

  9. Wayne Robinson

    Whenever I go to Canberra (admittedly not often) I go to the National Gallery of Australia just to see ‘Blue Poles’. It fact it’s the only reason I go to the art gallery. I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t there. Whenever I visit I just stand there entranced for up to 30′ at a time.

  10. Greg Mundy

    No shortage of philistines now, as was the case on the 1970s when NGA acquired this iconic work. Go back to reading comics.

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