Monday, April 19, 2010

Wynne or lose, it's how you play the game

Australian landscape by Pants

I have had several aspiring 'careers'. None of them ever got past the 'aspiring' stage. I would never be eligible for any competition calling for 'developing' or even 'emerging' talent. This is unlikely ever to change, and I'm not sure I would like it to. The road seems far too long and wearying to take now, especially as there is nothing to stop me from tinkering with art and writing and music in any messy combination that takes my fancy into the foreseeable future. Have laptop and all that. There is no imperative to make work that appeals to anyone else except for reasons of prestige and I am long since over thinking that's important.

It was not always this way. One of my aspiring careers was as a writer of musicals. Although by no means musically gifted, I can play and write music well enough to at least communicate a tune and, most importantly, I understand how musicals are made. I took myself off to musical theatre school. I also have a pattern of undergoing rudimentary training at lots of things, you may have noticed that. It was a smashing course. I learned a lot and met some exceptionally gifted people. Everyone in my class was a far better singer than I which was exhilarating as I'm not competitive and very useful as I only wanted to write the music, not to sing or dance it.

I wrote a musical about Richard the Lionheart which I genuinely would have liked to see staged. Some of my fellow students sang on a demo tape I made with Mr T's help. Everyone performed beautifully and I thought it sounded pretty good. My aim was to enter the show into an annual competition for new British musicals. The eligibility criteria for that year were duly published. There was a new rule. The competition was only open to people under thirty. I was thirty-seven. It was absurd because no one under thirty writes musicals, but dem was da rools. The competition was won by a musical illiterate who had hummed his songs onto a cassette. He was aged thirty-four. No correspondence was entered into by order of the judges.

The moral, if there is such a thing in competitions, is enter whatever you've got because criteria can be 'more like guidelines' if the judges see fit to view them that way. In other words, don't think they need to be interpreted literally. 'Aged under thirty' could actually just be a state of mind to some people. Madonna springs to mind. The Rolling Stones are all still blissfully only twenty-nine and who is going to argue with them? My point is that no one really seems to follow rules to the letter. In any case, artists are expected to defy any and all attempts at imposing order. That is what art is supposed to be about.

In the last week a furore has broken out over the award of Australia's top art prize for landscape to a painting that is a partial copy of Boatmen on the shore of an Italian lake, painted in 1660 by Dutch painter Adam Pynacker. The prize was announced some weeks ago and the delayed reaction is due to the fact that no one, including the judges, was aware that there was a source painting and that it depicted an Italian scene.

I've waited to write about this because I am always more fascinated by the retrospective fabrications and justifications that evolve around these controversies than in the events themselves. Although rules aren't really rules in the strict sense anymore, everyone clings to them when there is trouble. In the absence of exactitude, we get relativism. This is nearly always a bad thing. In this context it is the equivalent of trying to uncurdle the cream for a fallen sponge. Best just toss it all out and start again.

So, let's look at the 'rules' that supposedly govern the Wynne Prize. There are only two really important ones. The first is that you have to have lived in Australia for more than a year to enter. The winner, Sam Leach, seems to have fulfilled that easily enough. The second is the focus of the current post-mortem. The prize is awarded for,

'the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists.'

Let us consider, 'of Australian scenery'. There would appear to be a clear breach here, yes? Umm, no, because the judges have accepted the notion of an 'imagined' landscape. There is no rule that says the scene should be identified or even identifiable. The Wynne Prize's big brother, the Archibald Prize for portraiture (which Sam Leach also won), stipulates that the subject must be drawn from life but the Wynne has no such constraint. Why shouldn't one imagine a seventeenth century Dutch Italianate scene springing up in the bush if that is one's desire?

There is another layer to the public outcry and it concerns ethics. I pause so that you can have a little giggle... tum te tum... There are two strands to this. Firstly, people think that Leach should have indicated in the title that his work contained an appropriation from another artist. So the title, which is Proposal for landscaped cosmos, should have after Pynacker appended to it. The only reason for this seems to be that none of the judges clocked the connection to the source work so looked quite foolish.

Although not a well-known painting, it is on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the premier collection of Dutch painting. It's not a hoax. Leach clearly had no intention to deceive, so it's a question of him simply failing to intuit an undefined etiquette of some sort. Do you really have to try and guess how learned the judges might be when choosing a title for a competition painting?

The second strand of the ethics question concerns the actual morality of uncredited appropriation. Academics have come forward to say that if Leach were to turn in this work without crediting his source in an exam situation, he would be accused of plagiarism. Well, he didn't turn it in for assessment and neither did he, as far as I know, enter it into a competition for macaroons where doubtless it would have been disqualified. Unlike art, the parameters for macaroons are easily agreed.

Is it plagiarism? If so, there isn't much you can do in art that isn't. It certainly isn't illegal to copy in part, or even wholly, a work of this age. Copyright ownership for an artwork covers the life of the originator plus seventy years. If copyright didn't expire, Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn't have a career. Enter relativism and its attendants dressed as cans'o'worms. If we start down the road of how much it's acceptable to reference or quote or copy or appropriate or whatever you want to call it in an artwork, then we're going to have to get Archimedes in to do the sums.

The jibberings of the various judges, lovingly lampooned here by the excellent Culture Mulcher, suggest that they responded to this painting because it stood out from the packing room pack. It's natural to equate that intuition with originality. What they were clearly perceiving was a tonal shift. They knew something of Leach's work and appreciated what their ignorance of the source painting read as an echo of the Dutch school. Not an echo, but a primary strike. What's the difference? Do you think I'm someone who gives a fuck?

So, you're still here? I had better conclude then. Memo to Art Gallery of New South Wales:- Have rules or don't have rules. It's all the same to me. Only don't be a macaroon competition that accepts fallen sponges with curdled cream because you're afraid that if you don't you'll be neglecting your obligations to inclusivity or failing to embrace new technologies or just worried that the general public will think you don't get the point of post-modernism. Believe me, we have more pressing concerns. Why put yourself in the ludicrous position of having to justify choosing the best painting submitted, which doesn't actually fit the criteria but was entered because there was always a chance of winning? Either piss or get off the pottery.