Today, the word controversial has become an insipid and shopworn part of the vocabulary of press-release writers, intended to pique the interest of jaded readers but doomed like all the other cliches and hyperbole in such documents to provoke the opposite reaction. Part of the problem is that in such usage of the term, the work in question is understood to be controversial in the eyes of someone else. When a work is described approvingly as controversial it really means that ignorant philistines or prudes — often straw-men conjured up for the occasion — disapprove of it but that you and I know better.
That is why the recent argument about Hermann Nitsch’s work was a genuine case of controversy, because the work really did affront beliefs and values held by a significant number of people, even including members of the professional art world. In such a case it was worth considering the value of Nitsch’s work and its aesthetic claims.
Historically, artistic controversies were part of the unsettled cultural environment of modernism, which we can now see from a distance as part of much broader growing pains of the modern world, related to cultural and social changes that helped bring about the catastrophe of the Great War and its sequel in World War II.
Art controversies are conventionally seen from the perspective of modernism, in which, as already suggested, they are taken as examples of aesthetic avant-gardism challenging the obtuse conservatism of the academy, or of the established social order more generally. Underlying this perspective is the fallacy of progress in art, extrapolated from the progressive model of science and technology established from the industrial revolution onwards.
In that way of thinking, it was easy to see impressionism as a scientific way of looking at the world, although Monet does not represent an improvement on the realist or romantic painters any more than the post-impressionists such as Cezanne represent an improvement on Monet. What impressionism really represents is a change of orientation, of aesthetic priorities, an interest in the intimate and optical experience of the world, akin to the close analysis of subjectivity by contemporary writers.
The other thing that is misunderstood about controversies, especially in the progressivist modernist perspective, is that those who objected to the new at various points cannot always be dismissed as simply wrong.
Thus the notoriously reactionary Jean-Leon Gerome failed to prevent the Manet retrospective at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1884 and, as late as 1900, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, stopped the president of the republic from entering the hall of the impressionists, calling them le deshonneur de l’art francais — the disgrace of French art.
Gerome’s own art, although striking in its way and the subject of a recent renewal of interest — with an important exhibition at the Getty Museum in 2010 — also could be criticised on moral and aesthetic grounds. Yet at least he took painting seriously and believed, as did many of his contemporaries, that the state of art was symptomatic of the state of the culture, if not of the soul of the nation more generally.
No one really believes that today, when contemporary art is treated by corporate sponsors as a content-neutral signifier of innovation, and when prominent art spaces alternate supposedly cutting-edge events with fashion shows, dinners, farmers markets and other activities that effectively reduce art to the same status as the other luxury consumable goods and services that make up a certain lifestyle.
Things were different in Sydney in 1943-44, when William Dobell became, very much against his will, the champion of modernism in a genuine controversy that ended in an extraordinary court case. Even in the middle of the war and in a country not known for taking art particularly seriously, there seemed no doubt that important principles were at stake.
Dobell had won the Archibald Prize — not previously associated with the idea of controversy — with a portrait of his friend and fellow portrait painter, Joshua Smith. The picture was a striking image of an unusual-looking man and Discovering Dobell TarraWarra Museum of Art. Tarrawarra, Victoria. Until August 13 two of the unsuccessful entrants in the exhibition protested against the award on the grounds that it was a caricature and not a true portrait. In the ensuing court case, the plaintiffs and the defendants were represented by two of the most prominent barristers of the day — Garfield Barwick and Frank Kitto respectively. Almost everyone in the country who could be considered an authority on art was called to testify on one side or the other.
The case, however, was extremely distressing to Dobell and even more so to Smith, who had to endure discussions about whether the artist had exaggerated or merely faithfully reproduced his odd physiognomy. In the end, the judge held that the work was a true portrait and that it was therefore eligible for the award.
But neither artist recovered from the controversy: Smith, who had been made to feel like a freak of nature, was haunted by it to the end of his life.
The reality of the artist behind this notorious and even tragic episode is displayed in a new exhibition at TarraWarra, which brings together works originally acquired by the Besen family — whose gift forms the basis of the TarraWarra Museum — with many other items from private and public collections.
What is particularly appealing about this exhibition is the great number of preparatory drawings and studies that are shown with the portraits and other paintings and that help us to understand the stages of the artist’s thinking and the way he has solved problems of composition and expression.
These drawings have been carefully selected by the exhibition’s curator, Christopher Heath-