What price can we attach to art? According to Victorian Senator James Paterson, art and culture are only of value to Australians when it is sold off to the highest bidder.
In a remarkable intervention into the national debate that seems to combine the economic rationalism of Uncle Scrooge with the artistic sophistication of Les Patterson, Victoria’s young senator and former deputy director of the far right Institute of Public Affairs has advocated selling off Jackson Pollock’s iconic painting Blue Poles to help pay the national debt.
“It’ll only be worth something to taxpayers when we sell it,” he told the ABC.
By that logic, Senator, why not also privatise the National Gallery itself, not to mention ACCA – that rusted old building in Melbourne that seems to only stage free and experimental exhibitions. After all, how is that going to help improve the national debt?
In fact, in his economic rationalist intervention on Australian public culture, Paterson has tapped into a deep vein of conservative rumination against liberal arts and culture in Australia.
When former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam purchased Blue Poles for the Australian National Gallery in 1973 for $1.3 million the conservative establishment raged. “Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece” screamed a newspaper headline at the time.
The Country Party decried Blue Poles as nothing more than “a foreign painting of accidental value”.
The purchase become a convenient symbol of the Whitlam government’s perceived economic ineptitude and recklessness. But the historical irony is that the painting has recently been valued at $350 million – making it one of the best financial investments in culture the Australian government has ever made.
So even in economic terms, Whitlam’s purchase was a masterstroke.
But according to Senator Paterson, the painting’s current value makes it too valuable to be kept in our National Gallery where it can be freely enjoyed by all Australians and visitors, particularly because it is a painting that’s “not particularly tied to Australia’s cultural heritage.”
I’m not sure exactly what would fit into Senator Paterson’s idea of Australian cultural heritage – perhaps a portrait of Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers by Ken Done, or a life-sized Robert Menzies wax figure by Sydney’s Madame Tussauds? The mind boggles.
In fact, Jackson Pollock was a key inspiration for Brett Whiteley, who listed the New York artist along with Rothko as one of his key influencers. Whiteley’s 1950’s painting Me features the handwritten text: “Broken, yet real, cool not hot, real surfaces of emotional interest, suggestive enough to explore — Jackson P. … that’s what I think I want.”
So while Jackson Pollock or the Abstract Expressionist movement may not hold such significance to James Paterson’s cultural heritage, that doesn’t mean it is not loved and appreciated by other Australians outside the conservative establishment.
As it stands, the Victorian senator is showing himself up to be the very definition of a philistine – hostile or indifferent to the intrinsic value of the arts unless it has a price tag attached to it.