The issue of patronage — the receiving of it and the rejection of it — has been much aired in the last month. It is also deeply rooted in our beginnings, probably from the time some Sumerian bureaucrat decided which manufacturer would supply the palace with clay tablets and reed styluses.
Over 4000 years on, imagine you are the painter Jacques-Louis David, and fairly flexible about your allegiances. That is to say, you voted for the death of King Louis XVI and you’re a friend of Robespiere, but still find yourself able to paint the dazzling and jewel-laden Coronation of Emperor Napoleon. David knew which side his baguette was buttered.
If you were Leonardo da Vinci, you might have to rely on something other than the commission to make table decorations for a Sforza family wedding in 15th century Milan — perhaps the invitation by the banker, Zanobi del Giocondo, to paint his wife La Giaconda with her enigmatic smile. When 14-year-old Leonardo arrived in Florence in 1466, a building boom fuelled by a new law offering a 40-year exemption from local taxes to anyone building a palazzo was well underway. Prominent families like the Medicis, the Rucellai, the Tuornabuoni, the Pazzi and the Benci were as busy as bees. Soon Leonardo would be too.
At present, the debacle surrounding the resignation of Transfield, the principle “patron” of Sydney’s Biennale, might yet mean a pyrrhic victory for the participating artists (perhaps the Australia Council too), some of whom retreated from the event as a protest against Transfield’s links to immigration detention centres. These events prompt some rumination on the long association Transfield has with this biannual international event.
Co-incidentally, when Franco Belgiorno-Nettis arrived in Australia in 1951, he knew about incarceration. He had spent three years in a prisoner of war camp in India after serving in Africa in World War II. By 1956 he and a colleague had established Transfield, the engineering and construction firm which would become the largest in the southern hemisphere. In 1959 he established the Transfield Prize of 1000 pounds — the most generous art prize in Australia at that time. By 1969 it was worth $5000 and James Fitzsimmons, the international art critic and editor of Art International, was here to judge it. The prize went to Ron Robertson-Swann, for a colour-field painting called Sydney Summer. In the following decade the largesse of Belgiorno-Nettis would be transferred to another art world first — an international biennale in Australia.
Long-term facts are occasionally inconvenient to the art-world mindset. It was a Liberal prime minister, Harold Holt, who announced in November 1967 that the country would soon have an Australian Council for the Arts, to be chaired by Dr Herbert C. “Nugget” Coombs. It was the first time in Australia’s history that a generous arts initiative was a targeted election policy.
As the following two decades ticked over, more and more of this money went not to artists but to bureaucracies which grew like hydras, and suffered only occasional erosions in times of fiscal tight-fistedness. Surprisingly, while many in these protected bureaucracies railed against the comfortable conservatism of the liberal government and their antipathy towards bohemians and layabouts, the artists were as busy as bees. So were the commercial galleries and the art dealers.
So why does Australia need these art fairs? Expanding bureaucracies need to justify themselves — and their funding. They see themselves as central players in a many-tiered phenomenon. The state and federal governments fund the art schools and universities which have expanded to accommodate wave after wave of young hopefuls who plan to call themselves artists. Thus each year around Australia, they will turn out thousands of painters, printmakers, sculptors, ceramicists, filmmakers, installation artists and jewellers.
This same government (and increasingly large private companies) will create hundreds of grants, competitions and prizes — even venues for the display of works. They will fund artists to take part in overseas exhibitions and take up residencies in various cultural centres; there will be grants to artists to help them establish their practices.
The next tier of the art world pivots on those who hope to make a living in the art world: gallery owners, auction houses, art advisers, brokers, publicists, lawyers and accountants acting for artists, and assorted media types who devote themselves to creating a persona or profile for their artists and their milieu, in an inattentive world which is curiously attuned to transience.
The final tier is made up of historians, curators, critics, editors and publishers who are responsible for creating a more durable and considered profile of artists and art movements. Their job is assumed to be disinterested and at arms length, but it doesn’t always work that way — nor need it, except where the historians are concerned.
None of the above need biennales to function or thrive.
The Sydney Biennale is increasingly flavoured by a theme park or treasure-hunt mentality, and this year is accompanied by a patronising set of preparatory talks to teachers and other willing victims, to make sure they interpret the spirit of the event correctly. This is undoubtedly because most of the works shown in festivals around the world have detached themselves from most streams of art practice. Painting, sculpture and other traditionally craft-based art works have been eclipsed by the ephemeral, the gimmicky and the sensational. These tend to be called “installations” — unhappy word, that.
The works, while dependant on new technologies which we are all familiar with, are intended to be esoteric. When people are confused or baffled by them they are dismissed as “rednecks” and “uncultured boors”. No one wants to be viewed in that light, so the great silence descends. We can anticipate, however, that voices are raised in some quarters, and that these voices might be discussing geese and golden eggs.