Everybody loves a list and the more controversial the better. When we introduced our polls last year, the hits site quadrupled in three days. Of course, we know that people were getting their friends to come in and vote while others repeatedly visited to see the latest results, but that was the whole idea. We took our cue from tried and tested magazine publishing techniques where you get a bunch of experts together and concoct some sort of list purporting to be the best, most influential, sexiest, best dressed or desirable in the particular area of the magazine’s interest. What’s remarkable is how the technique works again and again and even if the readership knows that it’s just a ploy, it’s irresistible.
When Australian Art Collector Magazine launched their first 50 Most Collectable Artists issue back in January 1999 the art world was agog at what was perceived by some to be the sheer tastelessness of the exercise. How could so-and-so be “most collectable”? How dare they? But as a marketing exercise the annual 50 List has proven to be one of the magazine’s best selling issues even while curmudgeon art dealers continued to complain that, although they are not against the List per se, they just thought the wrong people are making the selections. It’s interesting to note that while there are these quibbling objections over just who gets to be a tastemaker, it’s undeniable that a nomination to the magazine’s 50 List has meant a great deal to certain artists. Although it’s just a list in magazine, it still holds some weight and because of the limited horizons of the Australian art world, the 50 List has been unusually influential.
Early in the evolution of Australian Art Collector’s 50 List, the mainstream media promoted the issue as a news story. Stories on the 50 List turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian and The Sun Herald. More recently the Sydney Morning Herald decided there was more play in a 50 Most issue backlash story and sought out quotes from the Paddington spoilers who wanted in on the decision making process. Australian Art Collector has since played down the 50 Most List as their lead story. In Ttis year’s January-March issue, the cover story was a feature on artist duo Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley .
Since the Sydney Morning Herald is such a sensible and reliable newspaper, it should come as no surprise then that they have copied Australian Art Collector and issued a list of their own. Last Saturday saw the publication of Australia’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals. Ignoring a definition of what actually constitutes a “public intellectual” and concentrating instead on the fake controversy of creating such a list, the results were nevertheless fascinating.
The art world was poorly represented. Among the 100 were just seven art world related figures. Most conspicuous at the top with 13 votes was Robert Hughes (art critic). Way down the list and right next to one another were Humphrey McQueen (historian) and Meghan Morris (cultural critic) with 5 votes each and pulling up the rear was Catherine Lumby (gender studies) with 4 votes. The SMH also included a list of also-rans who got “two or three votes” and included John McDonald (art critic), Bernard Smith (art historian) and McKenzie Wark (cultural critic).
What is a “public intellectual”? We would have thought it was someone who was both an “intellectual” and who is regularly found in “public” – that is, the media arena of pundits slugging it out over the big ideas. Indeed, we would have thought that a “public intellectual” was someone who argued their case in an Australian context. If that’s the definition, then the pickings are mighty slim. Who then is the Australian art world’s leading intellectual?
If you consider the fact that Hughes, Morris and Wark all live overseas, the list is reduced to McQueen, Lumby, Smith and McDonald. We haven’t seen McQueen in the mainstream media since the 1980s and that crazy TV series on Tom Roberts. Lumby hasn’t really been directly involved in the art world for some time, her most conspicuous media presence these days being a well paid gig explaining to big boofy blokes that although a woman may agree to a Chinese Finger Trap that doesn’t mean she’d be interested in a Circle Jerk. Bernard Smith’s contributions to the scholarship of Australian art history are many, but we haven’t seen him in public since that dusty tome he published on why Post Modernism was just another phase of Modernism.
So who’s left? John McDonald then is the most public of the remainder list at least in terms of a profile within the art world. Since returning to the top spot of art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, McDonald has settled back into his old job with a comfortable familiarity. Perhaps age has wearied us but we just can’t muster the same outrage we once felt – maybe it’s all too predictable, but when McDonald has a go at a gallery in New Zealand for being crap it really is hard to care.
Curiously the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing at the Sydney Morning Herald. In the paper version of the story, it was stated that McDonald and others on the B-List received “two or three votes” each but on the online version you can see who voted for what. In that case, we can only see that McDonald got one vote, and that was from Herald freelancer and former literary editor Susan Wyndham. To be fair, six other people listed on the panel chose not to reveal who they had voted for, but it doesn’t say seem to say a lot for McDonald that the people who would vote for you wouldn’t want to own up to it.
In this season of lists we know of an even newer list that’s about to be published that’s sure to have people talking, not least for its brave and foolhardy subject. The forthcoming issue of the Australian Centre for Photography’s magazine Photofile (due out April 1) is a theme issue on video art edited by artist Brendan Lee. He’s asked a selection of writers, critics and artists to nominate a top ten of who in Australian film and video making are the “most influential” practitioners. We’ve seen the top ten and we can say that it’s pretty provocative – damn history and damn influence, we know who we like and we’re going to vote for them!
In a move similar to the Sydney Morning Herald’s list of also-rans, Lee has taken the step of including a second list of ten people who didn’t quite make it into the premier league and it’s probably more illuminating than the Top 10. According to our source, the list does not include people such as David Noonan and Simon Trevaks, Emil Goh, The Kingpins, Daniel Von Sturmer, Daniel Crooks, James Lynch or Monika Tichacek, surley the front line of this country’s best video artists?!! What an outrage!