It's Art if I say it is! - Archibald Prize 2017

The First Archibald Prize - by William Beckwith McInnes. Photo Credit https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/1921/

The First Archibald Prize - by William Beckwith McInnes. Photo Credit https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/1921/

I love Paris. My greatest pleasure (apart from shopping and Bertillon ice cream) is walking through the St Germain district and inspecting its many art galleries. Every kind of art is on display and there is a surprise around every corner.

My favourite memory is from a 2002 exhibition of graffiti art. The exhibition opened with a large piece reading – ‘It’s ART if I say it is!!!’ I took it as a sign and I returned to Australia ready to come out as an artist. It gave me the burst of confidence I needed to hold out my work as art without the crushing fear of what some waspish critic might say. I’ll never win an art prize (although I live in hope), but I am proud to say my work is interesting and engaging – and now graces a few small collections.

I was reminded of my Parisian experience as I visited the Archibald prize today – the portrait by Mitch Cairns of his partner, the artist Agathe Goethe-Snape. The weekend Sydney Morning Herald reported :

The Archibald Prize has once again sparked controversy with veteran artist John Olsen calling this year's winner, Mitch Cairns' colourful portrait of artist Agatha Gothe-Snape, "just so bad"… "I think it's the worst decision I've ever seen," the 89-year-old former winner and three-time judge of the country's best-known portrait prize said.

"It's entirely surface, the drawing is just not there, and the structure, which is a summation of what makes a thing good, isn't there," he said. But he disputed comparisons of Cairns' painting - cited by Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand - to the modernist master Henri Matisse

"For Christ's sake, it's not Matisse," he said. "Matisse is to do with hugely sophisticated space. To even compare it to Matisse is totally absurd."

Having viewed Olsen’s Archibald winning portrait in 2005 I was reminded of the crowd’s reaction to it also reported by the SMH:

As crowds filed into the Art Gallery of NSW for the first day of the Archibald exhibition, debate raged and admirers of Olsen's Self-Portrait Janus-Faced were hard to find.

Many gallerygoers said outright that the judges had got it wrong and more realistic works, such as portraits of actors Alex Dimitriades and Bill Hunter, should have taken out Australia's most prestigious art prize.

"This is a portrait of people [prize] and that doesn't look like a person to me, like him or anybody else," Anne Chalkers, of Balmain, said of Olsen's two-faced, myth-inspired image.

"I think it's an artistic/political decision because the gentleman's a wonderful painter and he's old . . . and he's never won an Archibald."

We are used to the Archibald creating controversy and lively conversations, sometimes even litigation. The controversy probably has a positive marketing effect, encouraging us to come and see what the fuss is all about.

But watching this play out as an interested bystander I am disturbed to read such a vitriolic and personal attack by one applauded artist against another. I am far from the only one. Artist-judge Ben Quilty stepped in to express admiration for the work and defend Cairns, calling Olsen’s attack ‘untimely and ungracious’. John McDonald, the SMH’s art critic had already, in the weekend paper, named the work as a likely winner noting:

‘As for a winner, the indications this year point to Mitch Cairns, for a flat, hyper-decorative portrait of his artist partner, Agatha Gothe-Snape. All bright colours and sharp edges, the portrait pays homage, not just to Gothe-Snape, but to a long list of modernist painters, from Matisse and Leger, through to the Hard-Edge abstractionists of the 1960s. There’s no attempt at a realistic likeness, but the work retains a sense of intimacy. Gothe-Snape’s yoga pose gently spoofs the artful twists and turns of the stylised room in which she sits.

So what does all this tell us? Art appreciation is a highly qualitative affair. The ability of a work to stir us or make some kind of connection is different for us all. Praise or criticism from some apparent expert does not affect whether or not I feel a ‘spark’, however much I may want to appear to have a superior grasp of the technique and approach of the artist.

Whatever calling we follow, there is always value in being gracious – and this includes the community of artists. Anytime we are encouraged to hold the work of an artist to be rubbish or unworthy by another artist, there is grave danger that our respect for the endeavours and accomplishments of all artists will diminish. Bad behaviour is catching and it is not something useful for us bystanders to observe. There is enough destructive behaviour in the world without it trespassing into the quiet oases of our wonderful galleries and exhibition spaces.

Read my lips – ‘It’s Art if I say it is!!!’