Guest blogger Zoe Harrington takes another look at the Pople controversy and adds a little context…
Rodney Pople’s Glover Prize winning landscape painting, ‘Port Arthur‘, has incited a storm of criticism against the artist for its depiction of Martin Bryant, the murderer behind the Port Arthur Massacre. Pople has been accused of immortalising and glorifying the murderer. However his painting refers to the tragedy that Bryant’s name is synonymous with Port Arthur; and that his figure is forever burned on the landscape, and on the minds of all Australians.
It is not the first time that an artist has been criticised for depicting murderers and controversial figures. Sam Leach was in trouble in 2008 for his Archibald entry depicting himself as Hitler. He presented himself in Hitler’s uniform, smiling down from the painting. In Leach’s statement defending the work, he said: “Personally, as a white Australian, I inherit this Western European cultural tradition and the one of the products of that tradition was Nazism. In a nutshell, what I’m trying to say is that I think that we can’t take for granted that Nazism can’t happen again essentially.” Compared with the reaction to the Pople painting, Leach barely got a slap on the wrist for portraying one of history’s greatest monsters. The artist, Ron English, renowned for his controversial appropriations of advertising billboards, has also stirred society by depicting Charles Manson and Hitler in mock advertisements for Apple computers. Again, the artist’s choice to include these historical figures is derived from their continuing relevance in contemporary society. In an interview I did with him in 2010, he said, “At the time it seemed odd for a company to be obtaining the endorsements of mostly dead celebrities. I just filled in a few characters they overlooked. ”
English’s work depicting Manson is a good parallel with Pople’s work, as both feature contemporary murderers. English’s work could be viewed as being more offensive than Pople’s, however the majority of society has responded to the former’s work with humor. Of course humor was not the desired response by Pople, but it is interesting that his work has incited fury and calls for censorship; as well as suggestions that he donate his prize money. Why are some murderers more palatable than others? The reason of course is that we are used to images of war and devastation in faraway places: this image upsets us the most because it happened at home. The mob has double standards.
It is obvious that portraying a controversial figure in art will attract attention and incite furious debate over the ethics of such an act. But people do not speak in hushed tones about Hitler, Mussolini or Genghis Kahn– they are inevitable subjects of conversation- so why are we trying to censor artists? Everyone wants to forget the murderer Martin Bryant and wipe his memory from our history. Pople’s work illustrates, however, how impossible this task is.
The Glover prize is the ‘richest’ landscape painting prize in Australia and is awarded to the work judged to be ‘the best contemporary painting of the Tasmanian landscape’. Pople’s painting presents the landscape as being more than just bucolic beauty. It expresses the idea that our darkest histories are indelible stains on our landscape- its scars. This is reminiscent of Rover Thomas‘s paintings of the massacres of the Australian Aboriginal people, such as occurred at the Texas Downs Station. ‘In his (Thomas’) canvases the landscape is the witness to the atrocities, bearing the marks of history’. Pople in essence has done exactly the same thing.
Pople has stated: “He (Bryant) is sort of fading into the distance compared to the power of the whole landscape but he is part of it. I am not in any way glorifying Martin Bryant but to ignore it is looking in the wrong way as well.”
In an age when mob rule determines the fate of many people in the public eye who have caused offence, I am relieved to see the defence of the judges against the torrent of abuse directed toward Pople. It seems that our brand of anarchy created by YouTube, Facebook and Twitter where the fate of someone is determined by their popularity and therefore the revenue they bring in, has not overwhelmed the art world quite yet. However, if the sponsors withdraw as a consequence of this controversy, then the integrity of the prize may be challenged in subsequent years.
Of course people are only defending their sense of morality. It is the morality, however, of the status quo and the status quo generally wins. In the context of our commercial world, it is not what’s right, but what is profitable.
If this work is to be removed from society, then all works similar in nature should be treated equally. If this were to occur, the world’s collection of art would become considerably sparse.
I would like to end on a quote by Nietzsche from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’:
“There are moralities which are intended to justify their authors before others; other moralities are intended to calm him and make him content with himself; with others he wants to wreak vengeance, with others hide himself, with others transfigure himself and set himself on high; this morality serves to make its author forget, that to make him or something about him forgotten; many moralists would like to exercise power and their creative moods on mankind… “.