I know that Dr Tim Soutphommasane, our Race Commissioner, has been maligned in certain quarters, but I want to thank him for solving a terrible personal problem that has beset me for months. If you ask me, he has more than earned his $450,000 this year. The problem I had was that for a long time I had been wracked with guilt about a painting I own and I had been beside myself trying to work out what to do about it. The painting is called The Artists’ Lunch. It is by a Melbourne painter, Gavin Brown. It is a good painting. It hangs in my dining room and it is the first thing that people see when they come into the room. Everyone likes it. What often happens at my dinner parties is that the evening wears on, the wine flows, and the guests grapple with one of those topics that are the subject of daily conversation in my household, like climate change, the wonders of same sex marriage, how to get the Australian Army to adopt a more loving and non-judgmental attitude to our enemies, and how we can take in more African refugees. Then, one of the guests will drift out of the conversation and, as if mesmerised by the painting, will say, ‘what a great painting that is’ or ‘that is such a powerful statement.’ Even the younger generation, who have never seen a painting, will sometimes look up from their mobile telephones where they are texting girlfriends or boyfriends and ask ‘is that a photograph?’ or ‘ isn’t it awesome how the eyes follow you around the room?’ But the point is that everyone notices the painting. It has brought immense happiness and pleasure to many people, just by their being able to look at it. So why, I hear you ask, have I been wracked with guilt about having it on display in my dining room?
The basic problem with this painting, from which so many other problems have flowed, is that you can actually see what the painting is about. I know this is a very novel and unwelcome feature for a painting to have these days, when really great paintings like those that win the Turner Prize consist of a shark in a tank of formaldehyde and a title like The End of Capitalism or Down With Jesus. But the simple fact is that you can see what the painting is about and also that it is well painted, another feature that great paintings are not supposed to have. So I have to admit it is not really what you would call great art like the art I have seen recently at the National Gallery in Melbourne; for example the collection of old hair-dryers, some photos of refugee camps and others of jet fighters on an aircraft carrier showing US aggression. My painting is just a group of artists having lunch around a table. The artists are at a Chinese restaurant, which you can see because the table is littered with dishes of steamed dumplings, grilled eggplant, little dishes of chilli sauce and lots of imported beer and, of course, chopsticks. The artists look happy and reflective because one of them has just received a grant from the Australia Council. But I was deeply troubled by it as it was clearly not suited to modern times and I could not work out why. Fortunately, I was reading some of Dr Tim’s remarks and was thrilled to find that he could visit me and give an appraisal of my painting from a human rights point of view. (They do home visits to ensure that people are not talking racism around the kitchen table). Dr Tim pointed out, first, that all four of the artists were men, so the painting was clearly misogynist, as it meant that no woman could become a successful painter. It was also judgmental, as it screamed out: ‘women should never be given a seat at the table’. In fact, there is one woman in the painting, but she is waiting on the men, as that is what women do and no doubt she will clean up after them. Regrettably the painting is also racist. Not only is there only one woman in the painting, a Chinese servant, but the other servant, a man, is also Chinese, so both are stereotypically branded as coolies, while the white men lay about, making small talk. It is also aggressively capitalistic: the waiters are so miserable they look as if they were on WorkChoices. Then there is the food. We know, Dr Tim pointed out, that Chinese food is just a symbol for our racist colonial past: the goldfields, pigtails, flip-flops, funny pants, buck teeth and all the rest of it. The painting was saying: we won our gold on the sweat of the coolies who laboured away for a pound a day. That restaurant table told it all; even the table cloth is so white it looks like a Ku Klux Klan nightie. I naively hoped that Dr Tim would say: just ogle the painting occasionally in the privacy of your attic. Well, that attitude might have been good enough once, but not in these enlightened days. Of course I could never show the painting in public when it was so obviously sexist, racist, misogynistic and full of colonial relics. Eventually Dr Tim gave me the only advice I knew was proper: burn it. As he pointed out, there had been times in the past when we have had to burn books and paintings because they were degenerate and that time had come again. I was so relieved. In a few days, and all due to Dr Tim, my painting will be taken out and destroyed and, with it, will go a few of the vestiges of our colonial, racist, male-dominated past. Thanks Tim.
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