Recently I touched on the subject of evaluating works of art prompted by what seemed to me rather an empty article about Blue Poles and its purely putative fiscal value. Should an international auction room be the final arbiter about such matters? Sadly auctions don’t really prove anything at all. For a start, a large number of wrongly attributed works pass regularly through their hands or are purchased in semi-secret: the Salvador Mundi supposedly by Leonardo da Vinci being a case in point,
One of my oldest friends, Michael Daley, is an absolute world expert on inappropriate restorations and wrongful attributions but I can follow his complex arguments fully because both of us understand and speak the same language. Another friend before I came to Australia was the excellently trained, witty and acerbic art critic the late Brian Sewell. Anyone who has read the waspish words of his last book Naked Emperors (Quartet Books, 2012) will be much the wiser and more informed for the experience. Did anyone reading the article I am writing now attend the record-breaking international auctions of 1989 in New York? I was there as part of my then regular duties and my brace of articles penned for The Spectator remain available to read in my 2016 anthology Culture at Crisis Point (Connor Court) under the headings Paying for van Gogh’s Ear and Drugged by the Dollar.
I have been critical of the poor standards often set by the arts in Australia because they are largely unnecessary. On the other hand true world standards do exist for each and every art form. That said I cannot praise the recording I heard last week on my car radio of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 played by Orchestra of the Antipodes enough. For quite a while my wife and I even thought we were listening to Trevor Pinnock and English Concert who were surely once the best in the world. So Antipodeans can also really do it forms a vital part of my message. My wife formerly turned pages for Trevor Pinnock in London and also played in baroque groups herself so has a deep understanding of such music – amid a wealth of other cultural abilities and interests. Yet she feels no less sidelined in Australia than I do. Before coming here I was an advisor on both art and the environment to the then British government.
But why should such qualifications count for anything here? Perhaps my real problem is that I have never been a ‘yes’ man. When I was once a young full-time painter, abstract expressionism was all the rage in Britain just as it was in the United States. Every publicly subsidised gallery supported the movement such as a very impressive local gallery in Cornwall. In a conversation one day with a local TV cameraman I suggested I could easily paint ‘their’ kind of work left-handed. Would he care to come round to my studio and watch? I gave myself just half an hour to construct and paint a small work called Relief by M.A.F.E.King – my chosen pseudonym.
The cameraman chose four of my best works under my real name and we sent all five into the next big show at the highly subsidised local gallery. Foreseeably, my proper works which were exhibited regularly in a private gallery in London clocked just four votes out of 48 from the hanging committee while Relief managed 12 out of 12 and was hung.
At that point we exposed the whole matter on local TV. Spokesperson for the art gallery in question, world-famous sculptress Barbara Hepworth, declared I had no idea how good I was left-handed but what else could she sensibly say? Probably that was the key moment that changed me from full-time painter to part-time writer. My first book The Art of Self Deception was published in 1977 by Libertarian Books. Seven years later I became art critic for The Spectator in London writing 500 articles about art over the next 11 years. Over here I have seldom talked in public or advised even a single public gallery but then experience gained elsewhere hardly counts in weirdly isolated Australia.
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