Australian Exclusionism?

April 4, 2007 at 12:53 am (Uncategorized)

The Australian Impressionism exhibition opened on Saturday at the National Gallery of Victoria. As reported by The Weekend Australian‘s National Art Critic Sebastian Smee, the show is not travelling after it finishes its run in Melbourne in July.

Typical. This is something of a pet peeve of mine: the limited processes for staging art exhibitions in Australia and certainly in Sydney. This is the biggest, most populous city in Australia, and yet a lot of the most important artistic events take place elsewhere, thereby excluding the largest group of residents in the country. This latest exhibition sounds like something most Australians should get the opportunity to see – Smee’s review almost apologises for its rallying cry, but then goes ahead and shouts it out anyway:

“Not normally one for rallying cries, especially of the patriotic kind, I can nevertheless say that the abiding pleasure of this show is that it helps us to recognise ourselves – not so much in a political sense (although these artists were by no means immune from pre-Federation nationalist myth-mongering), but in a physical, sensuous sense: living under this sun, breathing this air.”

I don’t know about you, but that closing paragraph stirs me, as an Australian who feels somewhat at a loss as to what being an Australian means, and makes me want to book a flight to Melbourne post haste. And therein lies my peeve. Llew and I might be able to scrounge together the perfect storm of an uncommitted weekend and cheap airfares to Melbourne. Llew’s brother and sister-in-law live down there, too, so we might also be able to see the exhibition with them, and possibly even check in for the weekend at the Docklands version of Chez J. But plenty of people can’t. Plenty of people can’t afford a plane ticket to Melbourne. Plenty of people don’t know anyone they can stay with when they get there. Plenty of people can barely afford the family pass at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show, let alone to take their kids down to Melbourne for an art show. Better to just buy the show bags at Homebush and get the train home.

I understand that the very thing that makes the show great – its size; there’s nearly 250 works – also makes it unlikely as a travelling show. I understand the logistics and sheer security issues alone must be vast. But this country is also huge. Huge. Most people just aren’t that mobile because of it, and because not only is it huge, it’s expensive. Travelling anywhere around Australia costs a bomb, and I haven’t even had to try doing it with kids. And by having the show run only in Melbourne, this possibly once-in-a-lifetime collection under the venerable roof of the NGV is something the average Australian simply won’t get to see. Smee begins his review with the words “Every Australian with the means should try to see Australian Impressionism,” and the awful qualifying clause is right there for all to see: those with the means.

Those with the means. Gosh. What a shame it’s not those with the inclination. Those with the desire. The interest. The enthusiasm. The curiosity. The appetite. But that’s the reality, isn’t it, those with the means, and Smee is right to whack the clause in there because otherwise he just sounds like a completely out of touch twat.

One of the problems with all this is that it keeps art detached. It maintains what I think is an unnecessary and disappointing distance between the cultural fabric of this country and the majority of people living in it. Art exhibitions like this, with Streeton, Roberts, Conder and others all hung together, should be available to everybody in a real sense, and hang the expense (no pun intended). Is it any wonder that artistic bodies are so often charged with elitism when the practical fact of the matter is that most major exhibitions are the province of Australia’s elite? Who else do you think will be travelling to Melbourne from Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Darwin and country areas? It won’t be the average Australian family, that much I do know for sure. The Government can say what it likes about “our” unprecedented prosperity, but if you strip back all the rhetoric and all the economic rationalism and the fact that when John Howard talks about wealth, he’s not really talking about the mean income, what you see is that “our” exposure to many cultural, historical, educational, and artistic endeavours in Australia is dependent on having the means to go looking for it.

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