The Enemy of My Enemy

Art Life May 21, 2004 No Comments

Who would have thought that Tony Johansen’s legal challenge to the award of the Archibald portrait prize to Craig Ruddy would have been motivated by a disdain for “political correctness”? Who would have thought that the “fighting fund” underwriting his costs would have been stumped up by some dark cabal of Liberal party hacks? And who would have ever thought in their wildest dreams that the man to unmask the background to the whole deal was none other than show pony journalist, TV host, scion of the track and after dinner speaker par excellence Richard Zachariah ?!!

Yes, as Hunter S. Thompson once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Johansen’s claim that the Ruddy portrait was a drawing had traction and he had Margaret Olley weighing in (see story below) – but to go ahead and claim the award was made as some sort of PC conspiracy is beyond the pale (excuse the pun). As Zachariah quoted Johansen in The Australian:

“[They] have made up for a perceived neglect over the years and in the interests of political correctness have bent over backwards to include an Aboriginal subject [Gulpilil] and an Aboriginal artist [Richard Bell],” Johansen says.”

Whatever support Johansen had in the wider art world just walked out the door. You can’t say that kind of thing but considering some of the people behind the legal challenge, Johansen would hardly care:

“The widening of the issue from the strict artistic protocol of the 1916 Archibald bequest into race politics will inflame what is already an old-fashioned Sydney stoush over a prize that traditionally spills blood. And to further aggravate those who recognise Craig Ruddy’s work as a worthy winner, it emerged yesterday that wealthy Liberal Party members from Sydney’s eastern suburbs were financially backing the Johansen legal case, expected to cost more than $30,000…”

Not only that, he’s decided to go public with claims that Indigenous artist Richard Bell’s work isn’t a “portrait” either.

“Johansen says the case, initially based on the contention that the Gulpilil portrait is a drawing not a painting as required in the Archibald bequest, will also challenge the eligibility of Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s provocative entry on the subject of white girls, titled I am not sorry. This work depicts a Ned Kelly-type helmet above a t-shirt inscribed with the words: White Girls – which, according to Johansen, does not qualify as a portrait under a 1983 ruling that the portrait must be a picture of a person painted from life.”

Holy Toledo, Batman! Not only is the use of drawing materials suspect, but so are the conceptual approaches to portrait painting – and just try arguing that in court. To add a little spice to the whole thing, there are some personalities behind the funding of the case that seem to prove the old political philosophy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend:

“At least one of the key figures who oppose [Edmund] Capon and the trustees has put his money where his mouth is. Paul Haege – best known for co-hosting a fundraiser with federal minister Tony Abbott for Sydney MP Peter King at his Darling Point home earlier this year – has donated money to the fighting fund. Haege could not be contacted for comment yesterday.”

and regarding the legal team joining Barrister Malcom Duncan

Fiona Sinclair King, wife of Peter King and daughter of former National Party leader Ian Sinclair, has joined the legal team in her recently attained capacity as a barrister. King will act as an assistant to Duncan who in turn will assist the more senior Christopher Birch, SC. Asked if Birch, King and he were being paid, Duncan replied “no comment”. Then he added, “If we win we’ll all get paid.”

“Interestingly, Duncan also says “I hate paintings” – which is bound to exacerbate the situation. People feel passionately about the Archibald – and Ruddy’s picture did win the People’s Choice award.”

Interesting? Hardly – this is the default position of your rugger-bugger-chambray-shirt-deck-shoes-on-the-weekend legal types. Johansen has some pretty questionable friends and we doff our cap to Zachariah for revealing their names, especially the Great Satan of the Liberal Party, one Tony Abbott. It’s all one big happy family.

Since Duncan hates painting, you have to wonder what he’s doing taking on the case. Zachariah calls him “eccentric” but that hardly covers it.

It’s hard to believe but there are people who see the Archibald not as a conservative last century hold over – quite the opposite – there are people who think the Archibald is too radical. These are the people who buy their art by the yard, and tend to like good old landscapes, boats and sporting subjects. Just like Doug Moran going off and starting his own portrait prize because of the avant garde Archibald (before discovering it can’t work without accursed PC contemporary art) or Ross Cameron, Liberal member for Parramatta, and his ongoing campaign against modernism in the Federal Parliament’s art collection, this is a court case that’s been co-opted by reactionary right wing refusniks who see Johansen as a way to hitch their wagons to a cause where they can do some damage to the PC crowd.

We subscribe to a different approach – the enemy of our enemy is probably our enemy as well – and if he has anything to do with Abbott we head for the hills. There are reasonable grounds to object to Ruddy’s painting on the basis that it’s a drawing. The other side of the argument boils down to, hey, we’re not being proscriptive and relying on rules, we’re being inclusive. If that’s being politically correct than we sure as hell know what side of the argument we’re on.

Andrew Frost

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