The Art Establishment and Popular Taste

by John Toft

I recently bought a copy of the book "Australian Impressionist & Realist Artists". It includes work by Greg Allen, Herman Pekel, David Taylor, Robert Wade and Joseph Zbukvic, artists whose names are familiar to many New Zealand watercolourists. Equally interesting, however, was the thought provoking introduction, written by the compiler, Melbourne gallery director and art dealer Tom Roberts, namesake and great nephew of one of Australia’s most famous artists. In it he explains what motivated him to produce the book.

Roberts gives what he believes to be the best definition of art:”A communication of feeling through some medium, executed with skill”. Skill is included in the definition of art in all dictionaries and indeed heads the definition in most; but art includes another factor, namely, it must communicate a feeling. Artists are moved by some object, scene, person, issue or situation with a feeling of beauty, peace, exhilaration, anger, joy or sorrow. They use their skill to communicate that same feeling through the painting to the viewer. If they succeed they produce a work of art. There are therefore two facets to an art work, the feeling which it communicates and the technique employed in doing so’.

He points out that technique can, to a certain degree, be judged objectively, particularly by practising artists, whereas the feeling a painting conveys to the viewer is entirely personal and subjective. Roberts argues that a vital art world should entertain or encompass a wide variety of schools and styles. However, as he points out, ‘Almost exclusively, the art publications of the last two decades [the book was published in 1990] which illustrate the development of art in Australia, start with the early artists such as Martens and Glover.

They progress to Buvelot, to the impressionists, then to the era of Hans Heysen. From there they proceed through the abstract, radical and experimental movements. The impression is made that, from the time of Heysen, all Australian artists of any worth ceased painting in a traditional representational manner. This is far from the truth.’

Moreover, it is contrary to what the majority of art lovers prefer. Roberts cites a 1959 Morgan Gallup Poll which asked Australians whether they preferred representational or abstract art. The results: 79% preferred representational art and 9% preferred abstract. The remainder had no interest in art. At the time, the director of the Melbourne National Gallery suggested these results were quite understandable because most people had not been educated to appreciate avant-garde painting. He explained that matters were in hand to rectify the situation and predicted that in twenty-five years time the figures would be reversed. ‘They were in hand indeed’, writes Roberts.

‘For more than thirty-five years the art establishment in Australia has been completely controlled by the practitioners, advocates and sympathisers of abstract or experimental art. All of the art critics in the
leading newspapers, the gallery directors, art educators in the universities, art schools and, with few exceptions, in the secondary and primary schools, have taught and promoted the more abstract and experimental schools of painting. For the most part they have totally denigrated or ignored the more traditional or figurative artists. It is significant that although the Camberwell Rotary Annual Exhibition of Traditional Art is the largest indoor art exhibition in Australia – this year 3330 paintings were submitted from all over the country and about 1700 of these were hung – it never rates a mention in any of the art columns in any leading newspaper. A small exhibition of thirty or so pictures in the more radical vein will often score a substantial review. The education in the abstract and experimental art in the years following the 1959 Morgan Poll was spirited, thorough and comprehensive, but in spite of that it had no effect what-so-ever on the Australian public’s acceptance and appreciation of art.

Another Morgan Poll taken in 1975 revealed that 78% of people still preferred representational painting and a further Morgan Poll in 1987 produced the identical figure, 79% still preferred the representational as against 8% who favoured the abstract.

It is evident that no amount of education, promotion and publicity will alter the fact that the vast majority of people prefer an art form to which they can relate.’ It’s interesting that the Australian surveys consistently showed around 12 to 13 percent - approximately one eighth of those surveyed - weren’t interested in art. Here, the number appears to be higher - nearly twice as high, in fact. An article in the New Zealand Listener in March, 2018 entitled Art & Soul, on the opening of Toi Art, Te Papa’s dedicated art space, outlined the success of the museum in attracting high visitor numbers but went on to say, ‘But art is a harder sell. A survey of 2000 New Zealanders shows a fifth of Te Papa’s visitors have no interest in visiting an art gallery.

Nearly a third of that group say they “wouldn’t understand the art”; another 28% believe art galleries are boring.’ Te Papa head of audience insights, Clint Elsom, commented ‘We are never going to change that.’ When around 60% of those who weren’t interested in visiting the museum’s art exhibitions said they wouldn’t understand the art or that it was boring, perhaps it has to do with the nature of at least some of what’s on show. How difficult is it to understand a representational painting? Why is it that the styles of painting preferred by the overwhelming majority of art lovers find so little favour with most of the art establishment? American art critic Theodore F. Wolff examined this question in an essay on Andrew Wyeth in his book, The Many Masks of Modern Art:

‘Many of his critics are so caught up with the notion of “mainstream” art, with the idea that an artist, in order to be taken seriously, must paint in a manner that reflects the current art world consensus of what constitutes relevancy or significance, that they have lost the ability to look beyond a work’s style to what it represents or communicates.

It seems never to occur to them that a deeply committed artist of genuine talent and substance could turn his or her back on any or all modernist or postmodernist approaches without batting an eyelash. And yet it happens all the time, whether the art establishment cares to admit it or not. Wyeth, of course, is the outstanding American example of someone who has done just that – and has achieved an extraordinary amount of popular success in the process.

That, above all, is Wyeth’s unforgiveable crime. If there is one thing the elite of the art world cannot abide, it is the realization that an artist they admire is also a particular favourite of plumbers and farmers. They find that intolerable, for it threatens their claim to be “special,” to have insights and sensitivities beyond those of “ordinary” human beings.

It’s ironic that art, the great humanizer, should also be the refuge of individuals whose only claim to fame is that they are “better” than others by virtue of their exquisite sensibilities and commitment to advanced

Not surprisingly, it is important to these people that art be perceived in the most precious and progressive of terms, as something so subtle and innovative that only persons of unusual refinement and imagination could possibly understand and appreciate it’.

A number of well known, highly accomplished New Zealand painters have been virtually ignored in histories of New Zealand art. In An Introduction to New Zealand Painting 1839-1967 by Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith, neither Austen Deans nor Peter McIntyre are deemed worthy of mention. Two Hundred and Forty Years of New Zealand Painting by Gil Docking, Michael Dunn and Edward Hanfling includes a brief section on Peter McIntyre, notable for its patronising and condescending tone: ‘Peter McIntyre (1910-1995) is a name known throughout the land, probably because his work epitomises, in the popular mind, what painting should be about and what paintings should look like ... In terms of success his achievements were impressive, and a number of painters
emulate his style.’

A chapter in this book, Painting since 1990, briefly mentions three of the country’s best known landscape painters, and concedes that they suffered critical neglect because they preferred to paint in a traditional style: ‘Other painters have maintained attachments to a more traditional sense of “craft” or paint handling, such as still-life (Joanna Margaret Paul and Jude Rae) and landscape (Douglas Badcock, Austen Deans and Grahame Sydney). Within a modernist framework, where there was an influence on newness or progress, this might have been perceived as old-fashioned (and it is noteworthy that some of these artists have been excluded from published histories of New Zealand art).’

We should remind ourselves of Tom Roberts’ view that a vital art world needs to encompass a wide variety of schools and styles. That important artists are neglected or ignored by the art establishment who deem their work to be unfashionable and therefore unworthy of serious attention is a travesty.

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