Flat White

Installing ‘Woke’ at the National Gallery of Australia

21 March 2022

12:00 PM

21 March 2022

12:00 PM

If you’re a gender diverse, sexually ambiguous, disabled, Indigenous vegan who can draw a bit, now would be a good time to submit your work to the National Gallery of Australia.

And don’t worry if your artwork is no good. Our National Gallery is far more interested in your ability to tick a box than in your ability to draw one.

It was reported this week that the National Gallery in Canberra will require all exhibitions to represent a split of 40 per cent female artists and 40 per cent male artists.

If you think those in charge of our gallery are good at art but terrible at math, you’re wrong. Far from forgetting about the remaining 20 per cent, they have decreed that it be filled with artwork produced by trans, non-binary, and gender diverse artists.

Now the gender of the artists may not matter to you, but that’s only because you fail to understand the National Gallery’s true purpose.

You naively thought the National Gallery of Australia was an art gallery. It is apparently more akin to a mental health facility that uses taxpayer money to pacify marginalised artists and to engage in social engineering.

The publicly-funded gallery has produced a 75-page gender equity plan – two years in the making – that details the new quotas which will apply to acquisitions, exhibitions, and commissions.

Interestingly enough, the plan does not require 20 per cent of donations to be from non-binary benefactors. But I digress.

National Gallery director Nick Mitzevich said the institution’s approach to quotas and gender diversity was common among many sectors (though mercifully not among brain surgeons or commercial pilots).

‘I think any contemporary institution needs to reflect society,’ he said. ‘When the playing field is uneven in our world, it’s important that we do special things. And that’s what the gender equity action plan is all about.’

Except that insisting fully one-fifth of all art on display is produced by gender non-conforming artists is not representative of society at all. 

According to the 2016 Australian Census there are 1,260 gender diverse people in Australia. 

But announcing you intend to dedicate 0.004 per cent of your wall space to non-binary artists is hardly going to earn you woke points. So the National Gallery has rightly calculated that if you are going to go woke you might as well go big, as only an institution propped up by public money can.

The gallery’s gender equity plan creates the tantalising possibility that an artist who transitions to the opposite gender might suddenly have art that is more important.

Of course, this is only possible if you imagine that the hand holding the brush is more important than the art actually produced. And that seems to be exactly what those in charge of the National Gallery are suggesting.

Don’t they realise this is exactly the kind of thinking that produced Kamala Harris? 

Imagine people viewing exhibitions in Canberra when the plan is in full swing.

That painting by the white male artist is not very good at all. In fact, I hate it.’

‘But the artist identifies as a gender-fluid, two-spirited vegan with an interest in eastern religions and pansexuality.’

‘Oh, well in that case, what an amazing painting they/them have produced. Can I buy it?’

Supporters of the gallery’s policy argued that it would ‘redress centuries of historic inequities’ that had favoured ‘old white males’.

Replacing historic inequities with brand new inequities is hardly enlightened, or progressive. It’s just a way of sounding holier-than-thou while practicing discriminating against those who don’t fit a woke gender template.

As plans go, it’s perfect for turning the National Gallery into a mediocre institution. Perhaps that’s the idea. Every exhibit will be equally mediocre. 

When our national gallery declares that art is not in the eye of the beholder but in the gender of the artist, they are not upholding art and culture, they are debasing it.

That the National Gallery expects kudos for announcing it will no longer exhibit the most meritorious artworks shows just how far removed from reality it has become.

An exhibition featuring some works by men, some works by women, and some works by ‘others’ may win rave reviews from the ABC, but it will hardly bring paying people through the doors.

If those in charge of the National Gallery truly want to be equitable then they should display work by everyone who submits something. And to be honest – judging by what I’ve seen in modern art galleries – it’s almost as if this is the policy.

Or, of course, we could just defund them and then see how important woke intersectionality is to art when commercial realities bite.

You can follow James on Twitter. You can order his new book Notes from Woketopia here.

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