Sunday, 2 March 2008

Courting controversy

Warning: this post contains uncensored 'strong language' (and more on 'strong language' in a future post).

It’s been a feisty week in Victorian Arts. Sculptor Greg Taylor caused a furore by posting 120 posters around the City of Melbourne with the title of his show emblazoned across them: Cunts. And artist Sam Leach's short-listed entry for this year’s Archibald prize upset a number of people because he painted himself in the guise of Adolf Hitler.

Sam_leach The interesting thing about both stories is not so much that both artists were aware their actions would cause controversy---of course they were---but that everyone knows they wouldn’t get the same sort of publicity without being controversial. And it worked: Sam Leach’s portrait hit the front page in Victoria’s broadsheet The Age on Friday (29 February) and the articles on Greg Taylor took the best part of a full page in the same newspaper on Wednesday (27 February).

To be fair, the paintings of Archibald Prize finalists do get a reasonable Greg_taylor airing in the media every year, particularly the overall winner and Packing Room prize, and Greg Taylor has received extensive media coverage in the past (in the mid-nineties, for his life-size sculpture depicting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sitting naked on a park bench by Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin: Down by the Lake with Liz and Phil). However, a footy player or cricketer only has to limp slightly to receive the same coverage.

So is it any surprise that artists court controversy in order to seek recognition? Beyond the technical skills they possess, and beyond the noise of controversy, is either Greg Taylor or Sam Leach contributing something worthwhile to the Arts or not? Whilst, in The Age, Greg Taylor declares, ‘It’s all about the word,’ and Sam Leach apparently didn’t expect Melbourne’s Jewish community to denounce his painting as offensive, should we regard the likes of Taylor and Leach as show ponies, publicity pimps, or artists? Is a painting or a ‘show’ of porcelain portraits a work of art simply because it excites a passionate exchange of ideas and, if so, is everything that excites a passionate exchange of ideas art?

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