There’s a certain irony in the paintings museums become famous for.
Millions head to the Louvre in Paris to see the work of an Italian, Mona Lisa. New York’s Museum of Modern Art is home to Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.
At the National Gallery in Australia, it’s a notorious abstract expressionist called Jackson Pollock, and his 1952 painting, Blue Poles. It’s a work that’s part of Australian political folklore and 43 years after its purchase, still arouses passions and says something about the Australian psyche, even if no one’s quite sure exactly what that is.
For starters, after the loveliness of 19th-century Impressionism, Pollock’s intent, laid down in slashes and drips of oil paint from a brush as he stood over the canvas, was never immediately apparent to many. Then there was the intervention of the former prime minister, the late Gough Whitlam, who personally signed off on the 1973 $A1.3 million purchase price. It was a record for a 20th century American artist and to critics, proof of Labor’s financial profligacy and recklessness.
It was a national scandal. “Drunks did it!” screamed the banner headline on one now-defunct tabloid paper at the time.
Four decades on, it’s be an uncannily shrewd investment, and the NGA’s pride and joy, valued at more than $350 million. Yet the politics behind a Labor leader’s role in acquiring it, along with gallery director James Mollison, still seems to rile some on the conservative side.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Australian parliament’s youngest politician, Victorian senator James Paterson, is still generating controversy from the work after suggesting on Friday that Blue Poles should be sold to help pay down the budget deficit.
He argued the work was “not a very good investment for an Australian gallery”.
“My view is that it’s not appropriate for the Federal Government to own a single piece of art worth $350 million, it would be one of the most expensive paintings in the world,” Paterson said.
“Some people feel like they’ve got a real attachment to Blue Poles, and I understand that, but I don’t think it’s a good enough reason for the Australian government to tie up such a significant amount of money in a single painting which is hung in a gallery in Canberra most of the year, and which most Australians won’t ever see face to face in their lifetimes.”
Offering an olive branch to an arts community already bristling, he suggested some of the money from a sale could go towards Australian art.
From the senator’s perspective, Blue Poles does not have much relevance to this nation.
“It’s not one that’s particularly tied to Australia’s cultural heritage, and it’s not one that particularly speaks to our cultural experience,” he said.
Finance minister Mathias Cormann called the painting a national treasure he can’t see being sold, but complimented his colleague on looking for creative ways to address the deficit.
“It’s a matter for the board of the National Gallery to determine how they manage their portfolio,” Cormann said.
And demonstrating his equal opportunity prowess, senator Paterson told 3AW radio’s Neil Mitchell that sports funding needs to take a haircut too.
“I find it difficult to understand why Australia is so generous when it comes to professional sport. Given that there’s a lot of private funding for professional sport, I don’t think it’s really necessary for us to be funding it from our taxes,” he said.
Privatising Australia Post is also in his radar.
Senator Paterson, is a former advisor to now communications minister senator Mitch Fifield. He worked for the business lobby group the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry, before joining the policy think tank the Institute of Public Affairs to edit its review magazine.
Paterson surprised many when he received the top slot on the Victorian senate ballot paper at this year’s election after he was initially appointed to the senate in March this year following the resignation of Michael Ronaldson.
The National Gallery of Australia expects to have more than 1 million visitors this year. Blue Poles is currently on loan to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
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