The Canonisation of Quilty

By Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung

5 March, 2019

Classical depictions of Christ have historically been used to inspire awe and wonder for the purpose of social control. We need only think of Rubens and Raphael for Him to emerge in our collective imagination: Jesus reaching out from the canvas and into our reality with divine luminescence. These are images borne of a master’s brush—dramatic vignettes co-opted by the Church for the promotion of order, piety and submission.

Today, one need only take a glimpse at last week’s Good Weekend to find a comparable scene of heaven. Ben Quilty adorns its front page, forlorn and visceral, donning His ominous crown of barbed wire. Quilty, of course, is the darling of the Australian art world: winner of numerous art prizes, official artist deployed to Afghanistan with the Australian War Memorial, and longstanding trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He is a man of the people, with a seemingly endless number of accolades and a ceaseless amount of social thrust. Yet on the cover of The Sydney Morning Herald insert, photographer Tim Bauer takes it upon himself to subvert Quilty’s narrative, stripping him bare.

The result is one of severe abjection. An austere white light makes it impossible to hide the coarse grooves of his tired face. Quilty stares away from us with what can only be described as an empty look of reckoning—an expression typical of the burdened genius (which writer Brook Turner anoints him as), faced now with a vision of Calvary unknown to all but Quilty himself.

Bauer’s portrait neatly situates Quilty within the historical conventions of biblical art, a genre which steers its audience towards obeying the divine. Against this longstanding history of submission, it can be read that this particular portrait of Ben Quilty signals for us the same: that it is in our national interest to embrace him, to acquiesce and deify without question his role as the messiah of Australia’s cultural future.

But Ben Quilty is not a God. He is dressed as Christ en route to crucifixion but what would martyring him achieve? Barbed wire stirs comparison to Australia’s faceless imprisoned on off-shore detention sites—their crucifixion afforded no glamorous comparison to Christ. Here, what one sees is Quilty taking the benefit of fame without its burden of self-reflection. He is not a saviour. 

In 2015, Myuran Sukumaran was executed on drug trafficking charges in Indonesia. In the months leading up to this event and amongst divided public opinion as to the correctness of Sukumaran’s fate, Quilty found himself lodged at the centre of Australian debate. As a close friend and art teacher of Sukumaran’s, Quilty was obstinate in his appeals for mercy. His outspokenness made it easy for the media to position him as the rivet between Sukumaran’s two worlds: of home which signified life, and of his cell which signified death. Quilty occupied a place where his voice was heard in a national discussion that hinged on life and death.

The friendship between the two men was unquestionably real. Quilty cared deeply and strongly for his friend. By all accounts, Quilty weaponised his influence to plead with those in power to value compassion and the dignity of life. It was a narrative reported by many as morose yet untiring: mateship unbreakable in the face of inhumanity.

Following Sukumaran’s death, the media began to disentangle the two men. In many ways Sukumaran’s narrative began to fade, becoming secondary to stories that asked of Quilty—albeit in more tactful terms—‘What now?’

In late 2016, the Weekend Australian published a story spotlighting how the two men became friends. The article’s breakout photo shows Quilty seated in front of four of Sukumaran’s self-portraits. The paintings are positioned in the background in a way that is both present yet peripheral, with Quilty occupying the focal point of the image. Sukumaran’s artworks are arranged so that each set of eyes look inward at each other with ghostly conviction. But, upon further scrutiny, we realise that they also act as a device to direct our attention towards the man staring down the barrel of the camera: it is Quilty who has gripped Australia’s fascination in the matter of Sukumaran’s death. Quilty is similarly centred in the opening lines of an ABC News article penned in 2015, ‘Australian war artist Ben Quilty has described his goodbye to Bali nine death row inmate Myuran Sukumaran as the ‘most difficult thing’ he has ever done.’

In each story, Sukumaran’s life is diminished as ancillary to Quilty’s feelings. The Good Weekend’s portrait merely repeats this phenomenon, sacrificing what could be an opportunity for the public to embrace any number of artists spearheading change, for some inexplicable allure associated with the recognisable image of Quilty and Christ. Yet, it feels too easy to blame the media for Quilty’s large shareholding of Australia’s cultural space. (Three Australian institutions will stage the Quilty retrospective in the next year: the Art Gallery of South Australia, QAGOMA, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.)  

The question many ask then is why does Quilty occupy so much space?

In ‘Ben Quilty on the burden of being Australia’s artist from central casting’, Turner seems to attribute Quilty’s success in directing the Australian perspective to one thing —‘Artists do better if they’re blokes first, artists second.’ Quilty is indeed a ‘bloke’—a larrikin of the people, conjuring for us the vision of a white man pulling a horse to drink somewhere out in the bush. ‘G’day!’ he would holler. At a moment’s notice the bloke is conjured by the Australian psyche, a spectre too comfortably fixed in our social imagination.

Yet the ‘bloke’ is not too distant a relative from the straight white men Quilty himself sought to interrogate in his Bottom Feeders exhibition at Sydney Contemporary in 2018.1 Here, Quilty presents a series of grotesque portraits of Saint Nick naked and revelling in his own filth, an alleged critique of white masculinity. In explaining the loaded exhibition title Quilty explains, ‘Men were misbehaving 15 years ago and things have only got worse, not better, and I guess I just wanted to use a term that’s gross.’2

As a straight white man himself, Quilty seems to ignore his upper hand in navigating the power structures entrenched into Australia by his colonial forebears. Bottom Feeders flattens the reality that not all straight, or indeed, white men are unsightly beasts. Many are well dressed and occupy positions of power. Many look like him.

Quilty is not fluent in understanding how white privilege works to centre him in our cultural vision. Critical studies scholar Cheryl Harris considers whiteness as a property right that is weaponised by those who possess it to maintain control over Western modernity.3 It is a kind of social dominance that plays out in Australia by virtue of our genocidal history. Power continues to be centralised into and regulated by white bodies despite contemporary Australia’s constituency as a multicultural nation. The zealousness of the media covering Quilty’s life aligns well with this sociological insight. Western art, like Western society, draws whiteness as the winning ballot for steering cultural conversation.

It is disturbing, then, when the rhetoric imbued by Turner in the Good Weekend pigeonholes all ‘inevitable art-world chatter’ that surrounds Quilty’s controversy as coming from a place of elitism: ‘that original work only really comes from the kind of outsider Quilty is no longer.’ The issue with this framing is that it positions the dislike of Quilty as a personal rather than structural matter. The audience is forced to justify their distaste without Quilty’s own self-awareness. A thorough interrogation of his own whiteness becomes more invisible.

Yet, Turner continues to wax lyrical that ‘what Australia needs most from Ben Quilty right now [is] not so much his likeability as his increasingly rare ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes.’ The empathy espoused here is artificial. One may well put themselves in another’s shoes, but it is impossible for them to don the clothes, experience the everyday and grapple with the anxieties that comprise the totality of living as another.

Neither the article nor Quilty fully understand why it is that artists do better if they are straight white blokes. In fact, Turner’s appraisal of Quilty turns on our ‘universal’ attraction to straight white men:

‘Six foot two, built like the builder’s labourer he once was, he is the artist from central casting—or Home and Away. ‘It’s why everyone relates to him,’ says Kerry Stokes. ‘And it’s why he can capture the emotional feel of people. They actually open up to Ben. They feel safe with him.’’

At no point in the article does Turner query how fair it actually is that we bestow cultural power onto straight white men. At no point do the gallerists, critics and curators involved come forth to problematise the dominance of white perspectives in Australia. However, the most disheartening silence is Quilty’s own. This uncritical embrace of mainstream attention speaks volumes to his lack of self-reflexivity. While he is consumed with cultivating an image of being for the people—visiting First Nations communities, joining troops at the frontier, touring Europe to survey the refugee crisis, advocating for mercy—what he lacks is an understanding of his own fallibility. Quilty’s heart appears to lie in the right place, but he must also reckon with his own whiteness to let others in to shape Australia. Culture is collaborative: the more space he occupies, the narrower it becomes.

Viewed as a whole, Quilty’s voice cannot be distinguished from the next white man who is already overrepresented in public life and debate. Meaningful change and salvation for those who have been denied a voice cannot happen when it is someone like Ben Quilty who chairs the forum.

In relation to his portrait on the Good Weekend, the very nature of studio photography requires that its subject acquiesce. Put less elegantly, Quilty consented to being framed as Christ. We can only assume, then, that an egregious amount of visual illiteracy allowed him to see no issue with this representation. This failure to recognise the image’s connotations renders him complicit in upholding unfair systems of power.
Turner concludes: ‘In a very real sense, a profile of Ben Quilty tends to become a profile of us all… [he is] the artist we had to have.’

With institutional praise and widespread media attention, Ben Quilty’s oeuvre is now perceived by Australia as the product of an undeniable genius. He is the truest Australian bloke striving for us to discover more about ourselves—a social truism that in many ways is too late to be undone.

Whether we like it or not, Ben Quilty has attached himself to the making of Australian art history. If the goal of his art is to truly provide critical commentary into new ways of seeing, perhaps the best course of action for Quilty is to reflect. To reflect on how his cultural ascension was achieved at the exclusion of others less privileged than him, to reflect on the ramifications his image has on public life, and to reflect on ways he can actively decentre himself from the cultural dialogue to let others in. Let it be known that Quilty ought to be uncomfortable in the public eye, for his fame is not without question. While hushed discontent was once the status quo, the Good Weekend article was the final affront for many in Australia who are resolute that they are entitled to a better standard and symbol of culture than what Ben Quilty continues to represent.

  1. Dee Jefferson; Hannah Reich, ‘Archibald winner Ben Quilty critiques Santa and straight white men at Sydney Contemporary art fair’, ABC News, (15/09/18)
  2. as quoted in Dee Jefferson; Hannah Reich, ‘Archibald winner Ben Quilty critiques Santa and straight white men at Sydney Contemporary art fair’, ABC News, (15/09/18)
  3. Cheryl Harris, ‘Whiteness as Property’ in Harvard Law Review Vol 106, No 8 (1993)