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Natonal Identity and the Arts: A Visual Landscape Fiction?

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National identity is a theme that is on the arts agenda again. It is a perrenial theme, that recurs from time to time, usually when an artist is accused of plagiarism, copying or deception. With the visual artist, Sam Leach winning both the Archibald portrait prize and the Wynne landscape prize put on by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, he is placed in the pantheon of one of only three Australian artists who have taken out both prizes. His art prize bed fellows are Russell Drysdale and Brett Whiteley, both of whom went on to gain wide acclaim and sometimes notoriety for their art. Some people said it was antics, not art. Is this what we are seeing here with the Sam Leach affair?

My view is that Sam Leach is addressing the issue of national identity through his art, be it landscape or portraiture. National identity is a contested field for artists. What does it mean? Is it about the fictitous rural landscape or the congested cityscape? How do people fit into an artist’s view of national identity?

These themes are to be addressed in another personal way by Kim Williams AM, a man who is an artist, manager and multimedia guru. Kim is the George Fairfax Fellow in Arts and Entertainment Management at Deakin University. He is delivering the Kenneth Myer Lecture on Thursday 6 May 2010. Kim is Chief Executive, Foxtel and Chairman, Sydney Opera House Trust. This is a prestigious appointment which has seen eminent fellows from around the world visit Deakin for over 12 years of its successful operation.

One of the key themes of the Lecture is national identity and the arts. How apposite to address this theme with debate going on in the community on the authenticity of one of Australia’s most prestigious visual arts prizes for landscape, the Wynne Prize. This year Sam Leach’s winning entry for his depiction of a landscape draws heavily on influences from Dutch 17th century art. Leach makes no bones about his testing of the visual links to the past, his use of the those influences and his departure from them. Argument has centred around the issues of appropriation, originality and of course national identity. Is this an Australian landscape? How is our national identity represented through the visual arts in paintings such as this one? Some have seen resemblances to the early Australian painter, Eugene on Guerard, in the Leach landscape, making it more Australian than Dutch. Others can see nothing Australian about von Guerard’s art at all, making neither Leach nor von Guerard representations of Australian identity. What is authentic in our national identity? How does landscape encapsulate that identity? It could be argued that none of the painters represents a real landscape : they are all fictions.

That Leach’s painting is a visual fiction of landscape tells us something about the arts and by metaphor, about arts management. These two fields of endeavour are bucolic in more ways than one. Not only do they link to rural life, an enduring theme in Australian national identity that Kim Williams refers to in his Lecture, but they also suggest the links between conceptual fiction and arts debates. Arts managers need to be across these debates and know how to handle them as they occur in this contested field frequently.

Kim Williams has been at the very forefront of the development of arts and entertainment management, spanning the traditional performing arts (especially music as both musician and administrator) and newer areas of film, television and multimedia. His Lecture reflects these eclectic interests. His lessons offer us insights from the musical to the managerial. Kim Williams provides us with an overview of the development of arts management from its early days, given his broad and deep understanding of the field. His Lecture links the arts to national identity and may provide some answers to the vexing questions posed by visual landscape fictions.
 

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