Some more thoughts on the Blake Prize for Religious Art & Adam Cullen

Posted: August 8, 2008 in society
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In addition to yesterday’s reflections on the general Christian response to art using its symbols, here’s another one angle: some thoughts on conservative art critics. Both views converge as opposing forces when confronted by the liberal views of the Blake Prize for Religious Art. And since I unashamedly dislike conservatism I take a pleasure in reading (and posting) Andrew Frost’s opinion piece in today’s Herald.

Adam Cullen – Only Women Bleed (the one the fuss is all about)

Howzat: the judge of a liberal arts prize reveals himself as out of step

Andrew Frost
August 8, 2008

The Blake Prize for Religious Art has always been the thinking person’s art competition. It is to the rest of the art world’s glittering prizes what the Uniting Church is to organised religion, namely, a home for a broad spectrum of beliefs ranging from the devout to the frankly agnostic.

The Blake Prize is an exploration of the religious and spiritual in art, and that exploration will inevitably come in many forms. The prize abounds with confounding and silly gestures, yet to say one art work is sincere while another is not is a value judgment based on outward appearances and inner prejudices.

One of the prize’s judges for the 2008 line-up was Christopher Allen, a Sydney academic and the recently inaugurated national art critic for The Australian. After lobbying for the Cullen painting to be excluded, another judge had a change of heart and the picture was in. Allen resigned from the judging panel citing “procedural irregularities”.

Now claim and counterclaim have been made by Cullen and Allen. Cullen says his painting wasn’t meant to shock or offend, that Allen has demonstrated personal bias against him. Allen says the artist’s work is “clumsy”, “boring” and that Cullen “deliberately takes ugliness to the point of provocation”.

It would be hard to read Allen’s comments and not conclude a personal position has been proclaimed loud and clear.

Certain artists become emblematic of a generational attitude to making art. Here, Cullen is a disturbing symbol for those who think art should deliberately demonstrate high-minded virtues in very obvious ways. Cullen refuses to play the taste game by anyone else’s rules and for his efforts has his work branded ugly by conservative critics in increasingly banal and offensive language.

The greatest insult anyone can throw at an artist is that their work is insincere. I’ve known Cullen for more than 20 years and watched his work grow and change. I know two things for sure. One is that Cullen is a sincere artist. He really means it. The other thing I know is that he can be his own worst enemy since he’s such a wilful outsider.

I should at this point also declare another element of involvement in this debate. After I was approached by The Australian as a candidate for the job of national art critic, the position was awarded to Allen, a critic infinitely more suited to that paper than I. I sincerely hoped Allen’s appointment would mean a change of direction in public discourse on contemporary art but the Blake imbroglio has proved that hope to be completely misguided. It’s business as usual.

Cullen was correct to claim, as he did in yesterday’s Herald, that Allen is biased. It’s quite a natural state for any critic whose credibility is staked on the dubious notion that art must be judged on quality and virtue alone. Such a position is contradictory, to say the least. The Blake is founded on the belief that it “embraces diversity in its entries and … remains open to the many styles through which artists engage with the subject area”. If that’s the philosophy of the prize then Allen was clearly the wrong man for the job. What irks so many critics of the right is that Cullen just keeps bouncing back. Even worse, there is a large section of the public who actually like his art. It must drive them mad.

The real story here is that Cullen’s work made it into the Blake Prize, not that it was excluded. Common sense has prevailed even if one judge decided to take his bat and ball and go home.

Recent art controversies have been largely fuelled by people without much of a clue about what contemporary art is about. The spectacle of Bill Henson’s good name being dragged through the mud, Mike Parr’s dead chickens “shock” at the Biennale, the naked kid on the front of Art Monthly, all of these events of the recent past are reflective of a view that believes that art’s only role is to be beautiful while reinforcing archly conservative notions of good taste and decorum.

This small controversy is different in that one judge of a liberal art prize has outed himself as an conservative art critic out of step with his fellow judges, artists and the gallery going public. The happy ending to this story is that the Blake Prize remains a bastion of liberal tolerance and for that we should be thankful.

Andrew Frost is the writer and presenter of The Art Life on ABC1.

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