On the arts

Rebecca Coates is Director of SAM, Shepparton Art Museum, and an Honorary Fellow, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne writes: Re. “James Paterson’s sledge of Pollock painting is jingoistic dog-whistling — and it’s wrong” (Friday). I commend Ben Eltham for his article “James Paterson’s sledge of Pollock painting is jingoistic dog-whistling – and it’s wrong’ in Crikey.

Many (like Senator James Paterson) appear to be unaware of the significance for the history of Australian culture and identity of Jackson Pollock’s, Number 11 (1952), also known as Blue Poles. Clearly a quick history lesson is clearly needed.

In 1973, the year that Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ was acquired, Australia’s national arts institutions were coming of age.  With the establishment of the Visual Arts Board (VAB) in 1973, one of seven Boards of the newly chartered Australian Council for the Arts, there was more government funding available to support artist visits and exhibitions in Australia.

Though the National Gallery of Australia building in Canberra was yet to open, a significant collection of international art was being acquired, including the widely publicized, controversial purchase of American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) in 1973. Acquired for more than $1 million dollars, it was the largest amount spent by an Australian institution on a twentieth century painting. Australian galleries had previously acquired highly priced works for permanent collections, but not modernist or abstract paintings with such price tags. The acquisition of Blue Poles reflected both the increased prices of late modern and contemporary art, and the confidence of this Australian institution, yet to open, in acquiring great international works of this stature.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s very public endorsement of the acquisition reflected his Labor government’s brief, though very public, support for visual art and culture. Whitlam used the image of Blue Poles for his 1973 Christmas card, coinciding with the opening of the iconic Sydney Opera House in late 1973. It was a defiant, and very public proclamation of the changing status of art and culture in Australia.

In 2016, for a nation that wishes to see itself as ‘culturally ambitious’, any discussion that we should sell one of our great international masterpieces, that has played such a key role in our own political and cultural history, is naive and uninformed.

Peter Fray

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