Who decided the art world must be constantly embroiled in controversy in order to survive? 

It is with some trepidation that I write this article, as my meaning can so easily be misconstrued. But I’ll be as careful as I can and give it a go anyway.

I recently attended the opening ceremony and presentation evening of the Great Southern Art Award, in Albany. The venue for the event, the Vancouver Art Centre, is beautiful. The exhibition is well hung, well lit (mostly) and looks great. As is usually the case in open competitions, the work on display crosses the gamut from expressionist to realist, “traditional” to “modern” and from relative beginner to professional.

Before going further, I should disclose that I have an entry in the exhibition and that I did not win a prize but that’s not what I’m writing about. It is, however, why I’m approaching this with trepidation.

During the opening speeches, one official commented that the judges’ choices were likely to be controversial. She added that this was a good thing because controversy means that “people are talking about art“.

From Duchamp’s urinal to Mapplethorpe’s explicitly homo-erotic photographs, the “art world” is no stranger to controversy and there’s no doubt some of these controversies generate a lot of public conversation. And for major art events such as Australia’s Archibald Prize, which is no stranger to controversy, the resulting conversation may well serve to increase public awareness.

So is controversy always a good thing?

To paraphrase a comment by a friend, should we bulldoze native forests because the resultant controversy would get people talking about conservation?

While there will always be questions about pieces selected for prizes (I refuse to dismiss art as mere “objects” as has become the fad), perhaps the biggest controversy from the local art award I attended will be that the two highly-credentialled judges decided not to award a prize in one of the categories. Although I’m aware that some competitions have a “no prize” clause, this is the first time I’ve seen it invoked and I would usually expect it to apply only if there were too-few entries or if the entries were seriously sub-standard.

I don’t have the exact wording of the judges’ comments about that category but at the time, I distilled them down to “you all need to try harder”. Had I entered that category I would likely have been deeply offended and this would be a very different article, written with no trepidation at all. I might add that the entry form for this particular event does not appear to include a “no prize” clause.

To be clear, the question for me is not whether prizes should go to abstract or representational art, as I long ago accepted that it is subjective and not everyone thinks or sees like I do – and just as well because the world would be a boring place indeed if all art looked the same. My question is whether the conversation that results from controversy is necessarily a good thing for art at all.

Do we have to be cruel to be kind?

Can we assume that any publicity is good publicity, especially in this social-media-age where public commentary can be swift and fierce and have even major corporations back pedalling in an effort to pull themselves out of a controversial mire. Of course, if you’re big enough, you’ll probably ride the storm until it passes.

Controversial competitions:

Some competitions have a long history of awarding prizes that may be considered controversial outside of a small section of the art world. These awards can draw the ire of the viewing public and may well generate conversation, including letters to the media. But does the controversy elevate art in the community or devalue it?

In the past I have avoided some art competitions simply because they seem to court controversy or, at the very least, to discourage representational artists. Regardless of style or genre, I wonder how many of those artists who had entries in the non-awarded category in the local event will bother to enter the same competition in the future after being told, explicitly, they aren’t good enough.

As an artist, there’s little point paying entry fees to competitions that you have no genuine chance of competing in because you paint in a non-confronting style. Not only are you unlikely to take home a prize, but these competitions are less likely to attract buyers of your type of work. People who look for beauty and majesty in art aren’t being attracted to controversial exhibitions, they’re being turned off by them.

Where are we headed?

Perhaps the biggest concern for me is that the “controversy is good” mantra is self-perpetuating. When controversy is considered important, each exhibition must strive to be a bit more bizarre than the last. Over time, it becomes less and less about art and more and more about controversy until, finally, we end up with Piss Christ.

Let me finish by saying that I am open to disagreement. If you strongly disagree with me and think that controversy really is the foundation of art, then by all means accept my commentary as a part of the conversation that this “controversy” has generated and welcome it, therefore, as a positive contribution to that foundation – in which case, I guess, you really don’t disagree with me at all 🙂


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