Tag Archives: racism

The National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).

 

National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?

 


Dadswell & Porcelli & Australian Racism

Lyndon Dadswell (1908–1986) was 21 years old when he was commissioned to do the frieze for the interior of Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. He had just finished his training at East Sydney Technical College (1926 – 1929) and the Julian Ashton Art School (1923 – 1925). He considered himself far too young to be working on a national monument.

Dadswell had been given the job at such a young age because the committee wanted an Anglo-Australian working on the Shrine. Dadswell was to replace Pietro Porcelli (1872 – 1943) an Italian born sculptor based in Perth. Porcelli was disliked by both the Shrine’s chief sculptor, Paul Montford and by the architect Philip Hudson. Hudson was openly racist about his dislike for Porcelli, and along with others, wanted “British” labour only on the Shrine.

Pietro Porcelli did not have a good time in Melbourne. On 16 July 1926 The West Australian reported Pietro Porcelli was “knocked down by a motor car while crossing an intersection in the city yesterday. He was admitted to the Melbourne Hospital suffering from concussion, a broken front bone, broken leg and abrasions. His condition is serious” According to the article Porcelli came to Melbourne to work on the Town Hall; I don’t known if that was completed.

Porcelli was out and young Lyndon Dadswell was in. Porcelli returned to Perth where he died, allegedly a virtual recluse on 28 June 1943. There is a memorial sculpture to Procelli by Greg James 1993, in Kings Square, outside St John’s Church, Fremantle, Western Australia. Dadswell went on to have a glorious career. He was commissioned created the twelve freestone panels to adorn the inner Shrine and after Montford’s death Dadswell became the chief sculptor for the Shrine. He was the first sculptor to be appointed an official war artist of the Second World War.

This is not the only example of racism in Melbourne’s public sculpture. Italian sculptors had previously been a controversy when the Scottish born James White (1861-1918) who immigrated to Australia 1884 employed Italians to work on the Queen Victoria Memorial (1907). White was in a bind as he depended on the skill of the Italian stone carvers to work the Carrara marble for the multiple figures on the large monument. After this James White received no other major state commissions.

Australian racism was enshrined in the White Australia policy and exhibited in all kinds of petty ways. And while Melbourne’s public sculpture from this period does not overtly exhibit this racism (aside from muscular nationalism); their history records its and the ghostly presence of racism haunts the sculptures.

unknown orphan sculpture, 118 Russell Street

unknown orphan sculpture, 118 Russell Street

I started looking for more about Dadswell after trying to attribute the frieze at 118 Russell Street (it was suggested to me that it might be the work of Dadswell). There is also the frieze on the top of the Freemason Hospital in East Melbourne that I have not been able to attribute. Dadswell did do friezes for commercial buildings his sculpture “Progress” at Rundel Mall in Adelaide. They could also be the work of one of Dadswell’s many students, like the South Australian sculptor, Rosemary Madigan.

Frieze on the Freemason Hospital, Sth Melbourne

Frieze on the Freemason Hospital, Sth Melbourne

These possible attributions are based on style; both have a similar style, with art deco archaic figures that have been influenced by archaeology of archaic Greece and Crete. And Dadswell admired the formality of archaic art as can be seen in his Birth of Venus (1944) at the Art Gallery of NSW. Before getting the commission for the Shrine Dadswell was studying with British sculptor Rayner Hoff at East Sydney Technical College. Hoff’s art deco sculptures were consciously trying to modernize the classical tradition. Dadswell cites his own influences as Carl Milles, the Swedish sculptor, Epstein, and Henry Moore (James Gleeson Interviews: Lyndon Dadswell, 8 June 1979).

If anyone has any information about the attribution of these two sculptures please leave a comment.


Racism Denials

“Australia is not a racist country.” After apologizing for the government’s stealing aboriginal children, after the Cronulla riots, the Palm Island riots, even after two sober assessments by the Indian ambassador and former Telstra chief Sol Trujillo, it is still denied. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initially dismissed it as “ridiculous” rather than acknowledging that Australia does have longstanding problems with racism.

After still more violent attacks on Indians in Melbourne I feel that I have to write something. What offends me most is not the violent outer-suburban racists but the network of tacit support that they receive from other parts of mainstream Australian culture. The support and cover from politicians that denies that Australia is a racist country. The support and encouragement from all aspects of Australian nationalism, for it is nationalist pride that leads to the denials in the first place.

Australia is a racist country, it was established as a racist colonial program and since then racism has been institutionalised in Australian culture. Australia has conducted the most successful program of genocides in the modern world against the aboriginal peoples of Australia, especially the Tasmanian aborigines. Australia’s white immigration policy may have ended but the political sentiment that supported it remains and is now expressed in anti-refugee detention policies and the Aboriginal intervention policy in the NT.

You have to be mentally blinkered to not see the racism in Australian culture. In one of the shared houses that I lived in we had a set of old kitchen chairs that were made in Australia and labelled: “Product of European labour only”. If you don’t believe that there is racist hatred of Indians in Melbourne then let me show you the racist graffiti against Indians scratched in the concrete footpath of Coburg.

There needs to be more action taken on the serious cultural problems, like racism, in Australia rather than denials and public relations management. To deny and mentally repress Australian racism is not the solution and will only create more and new problems. The Australian and Victorian government need to recognize that they are part of the problem rather than deny the existence of the problem. Don’t believe the equivocations, the empty apologies and denials that Australian’s make about racism – look at their actions and inactions.


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