Article: Playing by the Rules
I began writing this piece, in part as an apology to my friend Juan Ford whose work in this year’s Basil Seller’s Art Prize was no doubt of great artistic merit. I should have gone to see the prize for his work alone but every time I considered going I was overcome with apathy to the point of inertia. It was so difficult for me to muster any enthusiasm for a whole exhibition about Sport. I kept putting it off and telling myself I’d go later until finally the show closed. My lack of action was unconsciously determined, I never intended to go in the first place. It’s not because I have no interest in sport, it’s because I have no interest in a genre of Sport Art, and because I do not think that a prestigious prize such as this should be prescriptive at all.
In principle I have no real objection to an Art prize about sport, if the prize was $10,000 I would be just as uninterested in going, but not concerned enough to voice my opinion that a genre of Sport Art is contrived and ridiculous. It is the scale of this particular contest that causes me to do so. One hundred thousand dollars for the winner. An artist fee of $3,000 for each of the fourteen finalists. $5,000 for the peoples choice award. The Basil Sellers National Sports Museum Creative Arts Fellowship worth $50,000, plus the cost of administering it all. This enormous amount of private money for the Visual Arts should be a great philanthropic act that benefits the whole community, artists and audience alike. An art prize of this magnitude can and should foment wonderfully ambitious work. With this amount at stake it could be the greatest Art prize in the country. It may well result in a show of amazing work, but the work isn’t Art, it’s Art about Sport and in my opinion this cannot help but be a lesser form. Visual Art and Sport exist in separate arenas. Art is vague, enigmatic, and indefinable. It provokes and evokes, it elicits unanswerable questions. Sports delivers answers every time. Sport has rules, Art doesn’t. Art is multifarious in what it can be, what it can express. Sport is binary, win or lose (A draw, as evidenced in this years AFL Grand Final means both teams lose). Art prizes are as near to Sport as Art can get except for one crucial difference, an artwork can win a prize, but it can’t lose in any meaningful way.
Basil Sellers is a generous man and I salute his generosity. He can do what he likes with his money, but in my opinion the right thing would be to place no demands on the recipients of his generosity. Art is the freest form of expression. Mr Sellers is putting hurdles in the Artists’ way, he is making artists jump through hoops for his own amusement. Instead of enlivening the public’s interest by fostering a great contemporary art event he has rigged the game with a conflation of his two favourite interests. The Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University is one of our finest institutions and the administration of this event is extraordinary. Few art prizes are so well set up, with so much money available for the artists involved. The Basil Seller's Art Prize is perfect in every way except for the absurd restriction which almost guarantees that the work will not be of interest outside the context of this show. As one of the country’s elite art institutions they have a civic imperative to show elite art. In 1999 the Ian Potter Museum hosted the equally prestigious and well endowed Contempora 5 award. This prize placed no restrictions on what the artists could enter and the result was as exciting an exhibition of contemporary art as I’ve seen in this country. The finalists, Mikala Dwyer, Louise Hearman, Rosemary Laing, Ricky Swallow and Louise Weaver all exhibited wonderfully original and compelling work. The BSAP is not just a case of a wasted opportunity by the museum, it is a waste of the artists’ talents. Imagine what this years finalists could have produced if they weren't constrained by prescriptions of any kind.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to make serious Art from sporty subjects, I just think it’s highly unlikely. I believe Art can encompass anything, including sport. Matthew Barney is a case in point. His mythological and metaphorical takes on Gridiron in Cremaster 1(1995), and rock climbing in Drawing Restraint (1987-89) are unexpected and wildly imaginative. The very arty 1974 Werner Herzog film, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is another example. The story of a ski jumper whose fearless nature causes him to continually risk death in pursuit of victory reveals a beautiful and frightening vision of human endeavour which transcends it’s subject. (Having thought of these examples it now seems as no surprise that the BSAP winners thus far have both utilised video.)
The crucial point is that Matthew Barney and Werner Herzog did not make these films because they were challenged to make films about sport. They followed their interests and from them created works of art and isn’t that the way Art should be made? Apart from the winner, who really benefits from the Basil Sellers Art Prize? Can the museum’s visitor statistics definitively say there is a genuine audience of Sport Art enthusiasts who have been hitherto ignored by artists? Are there really artists who would love to make Sport Art but feel constrained by cultural conventions? Or are they only playing by these rules for a chance at winning $100,000? With this amount of money involved, wouldn’t it be a far more sporting idea to let the Artists play by their own rules? Great art makes everyone a winner.