Just Say No To Art

Art Life Apr 13, 2004 No Comments

A few weeks back we ran a story about the complaints of conservative Federal MP’s who think that the Parliament House art collection is a disgrace. The ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a report on it on Thursday the 8th of April and featured some of the prominent players in the saga, notably Liberal MP, Parliamentary Secretary and lover of pastoral landscapes Ross Cameron, NSW backbencher Alby Schultz and Australian Democrat Senator Aden Ridgeway.

The 7.30 Report story was an absolute hoot, and you can read the transcript at the official 7.30 Report web page. Sadly, what the transcript doesn’t show are the suspect art works nor the faces of the politicians. (If a picture paints a thousand words, etc).

For example, when reporter Jeremy Thompson explained who the hell Ross Cameron is, there were two quick visual grabs from the archives…

JEREMY THOMPSON: “Ross Cameron, Liberal member for Parramatta, stands out from the grey-suited crowd in Parliament.”

“For a start, he’s a singer.” [Shot of Cameron walking into Parliament singing “they said you’d never make it” with a photographer snorting in disbelief as he passes…]

“And unlike George W Bush, he knows where the leader of Al Qaeda is hiding out…”

ROSS CAMERON: “Today, in the mountains of West Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is stroking his beard and celebrating the advent of Mark Latham.”[Shot of Cameron wearing a bicycle helmet, bike pants and polo shirt enunciating his words very carefully – (rehearsed, moi?)]

So far, so far right.

No wonder the Liberals hate the ABC – although there was an attempt at balance with quotes from opposing point of view, the tone of the story was most definitely biased against Cameron. He came across looking like an idiot, especially when bagging Latham as pro-Al Qaeda while wearing a polo shirt and eye wateringly tight cycle shorts.

There was also a sneaky shot in the story that began with the ceiling of a hallway in Parliament House and then a tilt down to reveal a hard line abstract painting that was a grey stripe between two white stripes. The roof looked like the art work and although it was almost subliminal, the message was clear – at least the camera operator, the editor and the reporter thought the work was rubbish too.

JEREMY THOMPSON:“Mr. Cameron doesn’t like most modern art.

He’s led an eight year crusade against Parliament’s collection, not only those in the offices, but those on the walls and in the courtyards.”

CAMERON: “This is one of the two works that every member of the Government sees before they walk into the joint party room to consider the aspirations of the Australian people – a grey stripe between two white stripes. I’m not saying, ‘I hate it’. I’m just saying it’s a wasted opportunity”


So what does Cameron like? He favours landscapes and historical pictures that portray the heritage of Australia and provide inspiration to politicians as they go about the difficult job of shaping this nation’s destiny. He likes a lovely gold gilt framed picture by Penleigh Boyd and a nice etching of Captain Cook draping a limp wrist over a map of Terra Australis.

The suspect art works illustrated in the story included pieces by John Coburn, Fred Williams, Sydney Nolan, Michael Johnson, Arthur Boyd, younger artists including Annette Bezor (whose painting was emblazoned with the word RUBBISH in post production), Gordon Bennett and Janet Burchill and a host of non-descript sculptures and garden installations that, to be perfectly frank, looked rather drab. The most contentious was the hard line abstract painting.

While standing and looking aghast at the painting, back bencher Alby Schultz comes wandering up. He’s a portly gent with an eye patch and black hair forced across his head in an unforgiving comb-over:

ALBY SCHULTZ, LIBERAL BACKBENCHER: “What are you up to, Roscoe?”

CAMERON: “Well, what do you think of this, Alby?

SCHULTZ: “That is appalling… And as an old meatworker, I think I could do a better job than that, with a bit of masking paint and a spray gun.”

JEREMY THOMPSON: “Not everyone shares the views of Ross Cameron and fellow Liberal Alby Schultz. In fact, judging by a recent survey, MPs opinions are evenly split between those who want change and those who don’t. The Democrats’ Aden Ridgeway is in the latter camp…”

RIDGEWAY: “I doubt whether Alby Schultz or Ross Cameron or anyone else could produce the same sort of artwork and certainly fetch the prices that some of these recognised artists are getting.They might not like it, you know, but if they want to be spectators on the sidelines throwing criticism, that’s fine, but recognise that we need to have a varied and vibrant collection.”

Thank god for Aden Ridgeway. Unlike Cameron, he seems to have some understanding of art and culture and is very well informed about what the art is worth.

The interesting thing about Cameron’s view is that it doesn’t seem that far out. He admits he’s a philistine and he likes what he likes, the default position of people who don’t know much about art. His plea for something heritage-like and historical isn’t all that outrageous and the bottom line of his proposal is that if conservative art lovers don’t like modern rubbish, why should they have to put up with it? Can’t they have a choice what they hang in their office? To Cameron’s credit, he went out and took a photo of the Tasmanian wilderness and had it framed and, judging by the image in the report, it could be happily sold at any one of a dozen tourist art shops.

When Cameron singles out a Ron Robertson-Swann sculpture of and called The Quick Brown Fox (a perfectly average bit of 70s style metal sculpture that sits on the ground like a busted carburetor) you almost agree, this is just crap!

ROBERTSON-SWANN: “I wanted the sculpture to have the possibility of starting there and running across the ground like a rabbit rather than a traditional piece of sculpture. And it’s like a sentence.”

JEREMY THOMPSON: “Hence, The Quick Brown Fox with its allusion to words and to movement. But Mr. Cameron is unmoved.”

CAMERON: “No title will change the fact that it is, you know, a few bits of steel welded together and painted brown.”

Complacency is easy with this kind of reasoning. Do we really have to put up with cultural diversity? Must art always be difficult and modern and inaccessible? There was another school of thought, perhaps not that far from Cameron, who proposed just such a philosophy towards art – and the artists who followed it produced works that valorized history, promoted the nation and its citizenry and created a sense of belonging and togetherness rarely matched in the history of the world. It might be a far fetched comparison but then again…

Andrew Frost

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