Concerning the Spiritual in Australian Art
The Blake Prize for Religious Art has been the focal point for religious and spiritual art in Australia since 1951 and a shudder spread through the Australian art community when rumours appeared in 2014 that a new chief sponsor could not be found and that the prize would implode concluding with the 2015 Blake Prize exhibition.
As so often in the past, rumours of the demise of the Blake Prize have been greatly exaggerated and what actually happened, is that after the regular show in 2015, the 64th Blake Prize in 2016 moved to the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Liverpool. It has now been rebadged as a biennial event and the non-acquisitive major prize has risen from $25,000 to $35,000, with the emerging artist’s prize also growing from $4,000 to $5,000.
Casula has been announced as the new permanent home for the prize. The orientation of the 64th Blake Prize has remained largely unchanged and the stated intention on their website is that the Casula Powerhouse
“will maintain the guiding principles of The Blake Prize in continuing to engage contemporary artists, both national and international, in conversations concerning faith, spirituality, religion, hope, humanity, social justice, belief and non-belief. The Blake Prize is an aesthetic means of exploring the wider experience of spirituality and all this may entail with the visionary imagining of contemporary artists … All the Blake Prize’s (sic) are strictly non-sectarian. The entries are not restricted to works related to any faith or any artistic style, but any work entered must have a recognisable religious or spiritual integrity.”
The Casula administrators assure me that the next Blake Prize will take place in 2018, but the dates are yet to be confirmed and will be posted on their website.
The history of the Blake Prize has been well documented by Rosemary Crumlin in her book, The Blake Book: Art, Religion and Spirituality in Australia, and the checklist of winners of the Blake, with a few recent exceptions, reads like a who’s who of Australia post-WWII art, including, Justin O’Brien, Stanislaus Rapotec, Leonard French, Asher Bilu, Gillian Mann, Hilarie Mais, Roger Kemp, John Coburn, George Gittoes, Euan Macleod and Leonard Brown.
However, one should note that women artist winners in the Blake are an endangered species and there is a very limited Indigenous voice. It would also be difficult to argue that the Blake Prize has seized the national imagination and in fact the struggle for sponsorship and a proper venue has been a perennial struggle as long as I have known the prize.
Many artists are eager for exposure and recognition, especially in these difficult economic circumstances, exacerbated by Senator Brandis’ gutting of the Australia Council, a move that is now being repaired with the abolition of the silly Catalyst federal government slush fund. But the damage has been done and cannot be easily undone. Nevertheless, artists are frequently reluctant to enter something with the word “religion” in the title.
What is in a name?
Earlier in March 2017 in Canberra the Stations of the Cross exhibition was held in the chapel at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. It is an exhibition of sixteen artists responding to the various imagined moments in Christ’s life on his final day as he walked along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem up to Mount Calvary.
Stations of the Cross is an invitational show where the strong band of artists included the standout performers Euan Macleod, John Pratt, Ella Whateley, Julie Dowling and Reg Mombassa. Although thematically anchored in Christian theology of a particularly Western European persuasion, the exhibition is not restricted dogmatically to a limited circle of true believers.
The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture has in recent years invested in professional lighting to make its exhibition space more professional (although there is still some way to go). There is a desire to somehow advance this centre as a national centre for religious art in Australia, but again there exists the stumbling block of nomenclature.
The term “religious art” may appear restrictive – institutional religions do not include many variants and subtleties. To call it a national centre for “spiritual art” may seem to open the door to a stampede of hobby horses, space cadets and new ageist sects. One would like to include all artists who are interested in giving expression to the religious and the spiritual – Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their cosmographies.
One suggestion is “theistic art” – this would of course cover not only monotheism, but also polytheism and deism – and it would leave out atheists and agnostics. Perhaps a simpler solution would be to call it a national centre of sacred art?
There is power in words and one purpose of this blog is to start a discussion, so all feedback is greatly appreciated. Almost like a product disclosure statement, I should confess that I was one of the judges for the Blake Prize in 2010 and did open the Stations of the Cross exhibition in March 2017 in Canberra, which would suggest that I am committed to, or at least interested in, the general area of spirituality in art.
Also as feedback from me, since this Grishin’s Art Blog series got off the ground in November 2016, the website receives over 10,000 reads each week, something that was completely beyond my expectations. Thank you.
Sex, Censorship and Social Media
One of the more inglorious episodes in the short life of the Rudd government was the so-called Bill Henson affair in 2007, where a knee-jerk response saw one of Australia’s leading artists accused of making images which were branded anything from pornographic to being sexually exploitative of underage adolescents.
Although it was not primarily a federal issue, few politicians could resist the temptation of getting their snouts on the screen and none of them covered themselves with glory. Of course, a judicial review dismissed the case and Henson’s photographs were reinstated to gallery walls.
Apologies to Henson for the insults and damage to his reputation were, however, thin on the ground. It demonstrated, once again, the ignorance of our politicians, the general low level of public cultural awareness and abuse of talkback radio. It was, nevertheless, a case of localised provincialism that was sparked into life on a slow news day.
A couple of days ago I was invited to speak or, more accurately, to speak and to chair an informal discussion panel, at the Mossgreen Auction house in Melbourne on the occasion of a preview of the Lowenstein Collection of Modern and Contemporary Australian Art.
I have known the Lowensteins for many decades and have authored a book on their collection, and this panel was a chance to discuss how the various works, by some of Australia’s most famous artists, had entered their collection and to hear the Lowensteins' ideas on collecting Australian art.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by a well-meaning old acquaintance with the question, “Are you going to talk about the pornographic work?’ Upstairs, the CEO of Mossgreen, Paul Sumner, related to me a tale stranger than fiction.
Mossgreen, like most auction houses and commercial art galleries, communicate with their potential clients through Facebook. Their modus operandi is to feature on Facebook the cover of their auction catalogue, which is usually one of the more spectacular items in the sale, and then, a few days before the auction, ‘boost’ the image on Facebook, as a paid advertisement.
As Facebook business explains, “boosted posts appear higher in News Feed and on Instagram, so there's a better chance your audience will see them.”
A sensuous Charles Blackman oil painting of medium easel dimensions (72.5 x 96.5 cm) graces the cover of the Lowenstein catalogue; it is undated and is simply titled on the verso by the artist as ‘Women lovers’. A Manet-like cat on white sheets is depicted in the foreground, accompanied with a floating still life consisting of fruit, while on the bed behind the cat are two sleeping naked young girls.
Possibly not one of Blackman’s greatest paintings, it hung in the Lowensteins’ bedroom for over thirty years and now they felt it was time for a change. The auction house estimate for the painting is $45-55,000 (AUD).
The mood of the painting is of sensuous tranquillity rather than sexual eroticism, which was also the feature of some of Blackman’s work. The women are generic Blackman types, which he employed from the early 1950s, rather than specific models, and the painting, one of Blackman’s images of innocence and love, may date from the early 1980s.
It was business as usual with the Lowenstein auction until Mossgreen decided to boost the image on 28 February (in time for the 7 March auction) and were stunned by the decision of Facebook:
“This advert wasn’t boosted because it violates ad guidelines by advertising adult products or services including toys, videos or sexualising enhancement products … this decision is final.”
Immediately, Michaela Boland broke the story in The Australian and within days it was on the BBC, The Guardian and news outlets from London to Kathmandu. Rarely has an Australian art auction received such blanket international publicity.
Within a few days it became apparent that Facebook had blundered – and blundered in a big way – making of itself an international laughing stock, while its rivals celebrated. By March 3, the decision which was final and irreversible, was reversed and a Facebook spokeswoman announced:
“We have reviewed the ad again and we have approved it.”
This incident is alarming for a number of reasons.
Unlike the Henson incident which, was the creation of some local parochial and poorly informed individuals with vested interests, the Blackman decision was made by an American for-profit corporation based in Menlo Park in California.
Facebook is an organisation that is not answerable to anyone, but, as circumstances suggest, as a publicly listed company, it is sensitive to criticism and Paul Sumner, sensing that he was on a publicity bonanza, has spoken to the international media branding the ethics of Facebook as “going back to the 1950s”.
On reflection, he made an even more serious accusation and noted in an interview:
“I thought this was Facebook censoring a painting of naked women but now I think it was a homophobic reaction.”
This indeed is a very worrying observation. Is Facebook asserting that some forms of human sexuality are ‘normal’, while others are deviant and should not be depicted or publicised?
Whatever their reasoning, they of course are very wide of the mark and an image of two girls asleep in one another’s arms can only with a huge stretch of the imagination be seen as a celebration of lesbian love. Thank heavens that Mossgreen are not auctioning something like Courbet’s Sleepers (1866)!
It is worrying when a foreign-owned social media outlet starts to dictate ethics to Australian audiences. While we can all smile at the misguided and shambolic behaviour of Facebook, and other art dealers may be envious of all of the free publicity generated, for many in the art community the actions of Facebook have set off alarm bells ringing.
For the Lowenstein Collection auction, of the 255 lots on offer, the Blackman painting is not my pick of the bunch; there are great pieces by Robert Jacks, Graeme Drendel, Freddie Timms, Ann Thomson, Paul Boston, Yvonne Audette, Geoffrey Barlett, Aida Tomescu, Kristin Headlam, Michael Taylor and George Baldessin, some with inexplicably low estimates.
In passing, one may note that Tom Lowenstein, who turned 80 last year, (and 80 is the new 60) is downsizing his collection as the business changes premises and, following the cull, like any addicted collector, he promises to keep on collecting to eliminate any vacated spaces on the walls.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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