So here we are back from our holidays and although we expected everything to be the same, it’s different. Except that the difference is that it’s more of the same. The year is 1999, John Howard is your Prime Minister, Kim Beazley is the leader of the opposition and John McDonald is the art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. And it’s just the way we like it – comforting, obvious and repetitious.
Our much loved Sydney Morning Herald art critic Peter Hill, filling out the end of his contract, gave up even trying, giving into repetition in a rather startling way. To run out the clock, Hill produced a series of snooze-inducing articles he could have written anywhere, any time – a page long discussion on “recent” acquisitions at the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Victoria, his review of the Anne Landa Award after it had already been on for a month. His last column – Saturday, January 22 – was a preview of the year ahead in art. Reading the article was an eerie experience:
“The art world is one of the few areas where it is possible to predict the future, for the very good reason that most major exhibitions are planned so many years in advance. The blockbuster museum exhibitions that we will enjoy in London, Sydney, New York and Madrid in, say, 2007 are all in place now, and what is shown in the museums is also what will fill our art magazines and daily newspapers. A few exhibitions – the sort that redefine the art world – such as Magiciens de la Terre, which was mounted by the Pompidou Centre in Pans in 1989 – might have a gestation period of almost a decade. So the future is already here if we care to search it out.”
We checked back through our archives and found that one of the very first articles we had written on Hill was about an article he published on February 7, 2004 previewing the year ahead in art. It begun thus:
“It is a brave person who attempts to predict the future, although trends in art are probably slightly easier to predict than trends in literature, partly because most exhibitions from commercial galleries to museum blockbusters are planned so many years in advance. The great contemporary example of this was Magiciens de la terre at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989, which had a gestation period of a decade, yet still took many people by surprise. What you will be enjoying at New York’s Guggenheim in 2007, or at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2006, or at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2005 is largely known. Catalogue writers have already been commissioned. Loans and exchanges are, even as I write, being negotiated and swapped like blue chips in a casino. There will be a commercial art fair in Melbourne later this year, and a biennale in Sydney mid-year. A lot of people are already working hard to make these things happen.”
Some have suggested that criticising Peter Hill was like shooting fish in a barrel – it was too easy, too cruel – but let us just say one more time for the record, we were never against him. We liked that he liked a lot of what we enjoyed in art and although we decried his perennial references to his favourite artists, the space-wasting quotations of other sources, obscure Brit-relevant references and spurious, unsubstantiated claims, we still liked him. He wasn’t knee-jerk anti-contemporary art, he didn’t make a habit of parading his prejudices and he was, for the most part, upbeat. The problem we had was that he was a shit writer.
Someone must have been listening. The time of Peter Hill has passed and we have entered the age of the second coming of John McDonald. It must have being galling being forced to write puff pieces on Bill Henson for the Australian Financial Review Magazine when your true calling is as a crypto-conservative cultural warrior for the disenfranchised silent majority. Appearing balanced has always been McDonald’s toughest gig – the man is a fountain of invective disguised as reason and when he is forced to take a neutral view it comes off as strained and absurd.
We keep a copy of the first issue of Australian Art Review magazine in the Art Life office. We always like looking at the cover lines to remind ourselves of just how impossible it is for McDonald to play it straight. The cover story for that issue was on Robert Klippel and the scintillating cover line read:
ROBERT KLIPPEL Australia’s Greatest Sculptor – the art community agrees to disagree.
We have tried to maintain some sort of emotional equilibrium since we found out McDonald was back in the top job, having scuppered his beloved East West Arts magazine after just one tepid issue for the main game of the SMH’s arts pages. Maybe things would be different this time? Maybe he had mellowed? Then along came a story last Saturday by McDonald that served as a little taster – a completely pointless article on the cultural need for the concept of the “barbarian”. Reading through the story our hopes that things might have changed were dashed when McDonald decided that he could fire off a few poison darts in the middle of the article. The targets? Curators, contemporary art, the Australia Council, publicly funded museums, the self styled avant garde. The usual.
We’ve all been down this road before and none of this should come as a surprise, but it doesn’t make it any easier. With McDonald at the helm, there will be galleries he will never visit, artists whose work he will never consider, arguments and debates he won’t bother to understand and hatchets that will never be buried. It’s business as usual and we’d better get used to it. John Howard is your Prime Minister and John McDonald is your art critic.