Welcome to our hypothetical titled Death by Criticism, or more flavoursomely, Like Watergate for Chocolate. We explore the life of a newspaper critica cultural gatekeeper whose opinion has the potential to make or break an artists career.
In a small world, objectivity cant be taken for granted. There are overt misdemeanours, such as personal vendetta, political bias, ties of friendship or even payola. But what about the more subtle factors that determine the critics choice of words, such as knowledge of the pain or pleasure they will cause the artist, whom they might well know personally?
Our story today concerns a rather extreme case of critical responsibility. Prepare for anti-intellectualism, political incorrectness, sacrilege, manslaughter and, finally but certainly not least, large quantities of chocolate.
Let me start by introducing the cast of characters. The central figure in our story is played by our regular visual arts correspondent, Bruce James. Bruce has graciously cast aside his normal persona to take on the role of Charles Morton, distinguished art reviewer for the National Tribune.
The National Tribune is a daily broadsheet recognised for its mature commentary on political and cultural issues. Charles Morton is one of their most distinguished critics, known for his principled reflections on the art world. For Morton, good art must enlighten the viewer - challenge the viewer to confront unpalatable truths.
Charles Morton, how do you find the task of critic?
Do you ever write negative reviews?
Are you ever concerned about the impact of those reviews on the artists?
Would you ever retract your words if they were taken the wrong way?
Other members of the panel represent the alternative voices a work of art might have. On a face-to-face level, the most direct representative of the work is the artists dealer. Stuart Purves from Australian Galleries has kindly offered to lend his experience to our hypothetical.
Stuart Purves, do you spend much time talking about an artists work to clients?
Do you quote reviews very often?
What impact do reviews have on the value of art works?
In addition to the commercial circuit, there are a host of public galleries that support artistic experimentation. Today we have Suzanne Davies, director of Melbournes RMIT gallery, and former director of the Sydney Biennale.
Suzanne Davies, when you have exhibitions, do you actively seek reviews?
How important are reviews, good and bad, to the success of a show?
We now zoom out to a much broader audience. Over the past year a number of art world stories have captured the popular imagination.
Remember the controversy that arose over the Salvation Army response to Fiona Halls lucrative Contempora 5 art prize - with work made from cardboard boxes. And Im sure few of us need reminding about the intense public interest in the photographic work of Andre Serrano.
To help us reflect on how art reaches the broader public, we are joined by Shane Castleman, producer of Channel Sevens Today Tonight.
Shane Castleman, you rarely find contemporary art in Australian homes, yet there is a great popular interest in what happens in the art world. Why do you think this might be?
Without giving away too many trade secrets, how do you construct an arts story so that its accessible to a broad audience?
Between Charles Morton and Shane Castleman are those writers who interpret specialist arts for the tabloid audiences. People like Xenia Hanusak, both opera singer and reviewer for the Herald-Sun, the largest circulation paper in Australia.
Xenia Hanusak, as a critic, what kind of adjustment do you need to make in writing for a popular audience?
Does you audience influence not just how you review, but what you review?
Finally, we need some heavy artillery, in case matters get out of hand. To provide legal assistance, we are joined by a specialist in defamation and commercial litigation, Simon Wilson QC.
Simon Wilson, what kinds of protection do critics and artists have against each other?
How often do conflicts between critics and their subjects reach the court?
The final actor in this story, unfortunately, cannot join us today. As will become evident soon, the artist Ernie Bull is indisposed.
Ernie Bull is an Australian sculptor in the mould of Jeff Koons, the American guru of kitsch whose four-storey high floral Puppy adorned Sydneys Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Like Koons, Bull short-circuits the art world in work that appeals directly to the popular imagination. Ernie Bull takes this approach one step further by appealing to even more basic instincts of his audience. While he may not have an eye for art, his work is certainly tastefulof that there can be no doubt. Bulls exclusive medium is chocolate, one of the few remaining vices not targeted by health authorities.
Ernie Bull has done just about everything imaginable with chocolate. His earlier exhibitions feature life-size statues of historical figures, chocolate furniture for those whod like to eat themselves out of house and home, and a series of Christo-like commissions to coat public monuments and buildings in a layer of chocolate.
As you might imagine, Bull is an astounding popular success. Not only is he theatricaldonning humorous costumeshe generously invites his audience to partake in his creations. In fact, for Bull the essence of his work is the very act of consumption, mass consumptiona sentiment he shares with his major sponsor, Acme, an international distributor of chocolate novelties.
The audience for Bull is distinguished not just by its size, but also its composition. Children make up a large proportion, and they drag along their parents - many of whom have never visited an art gallery before.
It is one of very few examples of contemporary art that appeals to the whole family.
Xenia Hanusak, Ernie Bull sounds a little like David Helfgott. Youve reviewed Helfgott for the Herald-Sun. What sort of approach did you take?
And very much like Helfgott, Bull has a fraught relationship with The Arts audience.
Ernie Bull spurns contemporary artspeak as elitist jargon. Instead, he puts his eggs in the commercial basket, seeking support from sponsors who want to cash in on his popularity.
But Bull is not an easy man to do business with. Its difficult to take a person seriously when he turns up to a meeting dressed as an Easter Bunny, particularly in December.
Bulls latest exhibition is particularly hard to swallow. Titled Sweet Jesus it contains among other works a life-size chocolate statue of the Virgin Mary. The icing on the cake, so to speak, comes in the form of a tabernacle that dispenses chocolate-coated wafers. While the public, especially the junior contingent, is savouring the delights of Bulls work, Acme are worrying about a possible backlash in their South American markets. The Acme directors turn to the pages of the National Tribune for some reassurance that they are sponsoring art, not sacrilege.
Charles Morton, what did you think of Ernie Bulls Sweet Jesus?
What didnt you like about it? Was it badly executed? Was it derivative?
Stuart Purves, do you think Charles Mortons review was unfair? How do you handle a bad review?
What effect do you think it will have on the sale of those limited edition chocolate figures?
Suzanne Davies, if you thought this review was unfair, what kind of action might you take?
Xenia Hanusak, Your audience is more likely to be the one that Ernie Bull has courted in his career. If youd been asked to review it as a performance, do you think you might have handled it differently to Charles?
Shane Castleman, as Producer of Today Tonight, youre an avid reader of the newspapers, and youve been watching the debate between artist and critic being played out in the papers. Is this a story thats likely to interest you at this stage?
If not, why not, what makes a Today Tonight story?
Now the marvellous career of Ernie Bull goes into meltdown. The Acme directors have decided to withdraw their support. The market for Bulls work turns suddenly quite bearish.
In short, Bulls world collapses in a heap. Bull decides to wrest his reputation from ruin with one final masterpiece.
Stuart Purves, youve got a soft spot for Ernie Bull and visit his studio to offer moral support. The door is open, but theres no happy whistle within. Looking around, you notice a mummy-like structure lying on the table under a vat suspended from the ceiling. You prise open the mould and find...Its a perfect cast - the best hes ever donein pure white chocolate.
But wheres Ernie? The horrible truth dawns on you. Hes inside the cast. Of course, your first response is to break open the chocolate, but you know its too late and, besides, its such a perfect work of art, it would be a shame to destroy it.
Theres a note on the table. Its a catalogue entry:
Stuart Purves, you must have been devastated by Bulls act? You look for someone to blame. Is it the critics fault?
Will you exhibit this work in a retrospective exhibition of his work?
Shane Castleman, is Today Tonight now interested?
Well Charles, Im afraid this is your worst nightmare come true. Theres a huge popular outcry with calls for your sacking from the National Tribune. Today Tonight has run a phone poll with 76% of their viewers blaming you for his death. Your publishers offer to enter you in their Critic Protection Program.
Charles Morton, what do you do, do you leave the country, compromise, write an apology, or do you write the biography?
One of your less pleasant duties is reading the letters page of the Herald Tribune. A letter from Brighton claims that your own devout Catholicism made you a biased judge of Bulls Sweet Jesus exhibition.
Charles Morton, how do you respond to that?
Charles, it seems that anyone whos ever harboured a grudge against criticsand that seems include a majority of the Australian populationhas now focused their attention on you. A group calling itself the Bull Brigade begins a series of actions that cause you great discomfort. First, they publish an advertisement in the art press that places a memorial photograph of Ernie Bull alongside a quote from your review: Bulls works is to the history of art what the Easter Egg is to the resurrection.
Charles Morton, I think you need a lawyer.
Simon Wilson, do you think Morton has any chance of suing the Bull Brigade if these were his actual words?
Sorry Charles, this is the least of your problems. Im afraid things are going to get worse before they get better. Not content with public humiliation, the Bull Brigade is pressing to take you off the gallery circuit a little more permanently. They want you charged with manslaughter.
Simon Wilson, under what circumstances could Charles Morton be charged with manslaughter?
What if it could be shown that Charles Morton knew of Ernie Bulls sensitivity of negative reviews? What if he had previously attempted suicide in similar circumstances?
Well Shane things are really starting to hot up, rival network Channel 9 is sending Richard Carlton and a team from 60 Minutes to Melbourne. Theyre planning a live studio debate, pitting the Critic against his Critics. And an extremist group from the Catholic community is making threatening calls to your network manager, who happens to be a practicing Catholic himself, and who in turn is making threatening noises to you.
In the midst of all this you receive an anonymous tip off that Charles Morton never actually saw Ernies work, that his review was in fact based on a catalogue essay sent to him by Ernies dealer. The program goes to air in half an hour. You dont have time to substantiate these allegations.
Shane Castleman, will you run with them?
Xenia Hanusak, youve also heard the rumours, do you think it matters that Morton did not actually see the work "in the flesh" so to speak. He did after all have the catalogue?
Further material comes to light. In a quiet moment, Stuart, you look through Ernie Bulls papers, expecting to find perhaps a few chocolate recipes among the fan mail and bills. But whats this? A manuscript? You recognise Bulls scrawl, but the title is a complete surprise: "Concluding Religious Postscript", curious, you peruse the contents.
You pass Bulls manuscript on to an Academic at the School of Post-Cultural Studies. She interprets it as a highly sophisticated exposition of Kierkegaards theory on the religious uses of irony. Clearly, theres more to this Bull character than meets the eye. You give Charles Morton a call, not being the vindictive type, you know hed be most interested.
Charles Morton, What do you say to Stuart? Are you interested in the autobiographical details of an artist, or should the work stand alone?
Is your review now starting to feel slightly less defensible?
The National Tribune asks you for an opinion piece for their editorial page. Will you write it?
Will you revise your verdict on Sweet Jesus?
The Bull Brigade happens to contain some of the best and brightest young artists and musicians. Theyre organising a fund-raising concert for the Critical Intervention Program aimed at educating artists on how to protect themselves against the prickly pen of critic.
Shane Castleman, they approach your network, asking you to run free community service announcements for the concert, and they want Today Tonight to cover the event...do you come on board?
Xenia Hanusak, the brigade also approaches you, they want you to donate your services to the concert as well, offering you a singing role in a piece called Bulls Roar.
Xenia Hanusak, will you do it?
Terrific! It turns out the concert is a marvellous occasion bearing witness to the finest talents in Australian performance. But theres a problem. The Herald-Sun want you to write a review of the event., and your fellow critics are leaving angry voicemails accusing you of abandoning the notion of critical distance.
Xenia Hanusak, this is a great opportunity to promote young talent. Will you write it?
* If no, how far removed do you need to be in order to review a performance. What if you were on the board of an organisation, could you review their events?
* If yes, fellow critics are leaving angry voicemails accusing you of abandoning the notion of critical distance. What do you say? How do you maintain objectivity to the event? Do you mention your own performance?
Given the intense interest in Bulls life, excerpts from his manuscript begin to appear in the popular press. But the tide has turned. As the media begins to scratch beneath the surface, they find a rather arrogant obscurantist, using language only few can understand. On talkback radio, an angry father calls him a modern-day Pied Piper, leading children on a mad crusade against the world.
Xenia Hanusak, your newspaper seeks an opinion piece from you. Do you join in the popular outcry against Ernie Bull, or do you attempt to argue the license of artists to do outrageous acts?
Suzanne Davies, is there a role for your gallery to play in this controversy?
Charles Morton, do you think there are easier ways of making a living than being an art critic?
Perhaps you might like a trip to Brazil. While there, you might follow a rumour about a very strange character in Rio. Apparently he dresses up as an Easter Bunny and hand out chocolate surprises to children. Could Ernie Bull still be alive? Did anyone look beneath the surface of his final work? Im afraid with these questions still unanswered, the life of Ernie Bull remains hypothetical.