Forward slash by Joel Swanson, 2019
I have never entered this drawing prize. But here is a prototype and artist impression of the piece I intend to submit to the 2021 edition. I think I have managed to fit in many more forward slashes than previously achieved. How should I title it? Whether I am selected or not, win the prize or not this will be available to the astute collector to acquire for 25K
Forward slash, winner Parkin Prize 2020
The same typewriter character repeated to cover the same area of paper and titled with the same name “forward slash”.
These similarities are not similarities, they are the exact same thing. The entire work is an almost exact facsimile of an earlier work by another artist.
Is this an extraordinary coincidence or is this straight plagiarism?
If the drawing had been an exact copy of say a nude sketch in sanguine by the young Caravaggio, it would have clearly been a copy. There is no way that an exact copy of an elaborate figurative drawing could be simultaneously drawn in the same format and medium by accident of luck. It takes the best forgers’ years of assiduous, meticulous hard work to achieve poor results. Luck alone would never achieve a perfect replicate.
In this case, because it is an extremely simplistic abstract work requiring minimal skills, minimal work and minimal talent, (a “minimalist” work, that some kind souls have described as “defying the description of art”) it could indeed have been an accidental event devoid of any malicious plagiarism. There is after all only so many characters on a typewriter and the likelihood of picking the same one as some other artist is fairly high. In fact, it is not inconceivable that millions of bored school kids and students around the world have over the years come up with the same genius idea and used the same character, and then thrown it in the bin, thus missing out on a $25K prize.
Having said that, copying other artist’s work is still a healthy habit. It helps the student to get into the mind of the master. It is a great learning tool and there is no ethical problem with it, other than having to be labelled as copy and giving credit. But in this particular case, there would have been not much to learn from copying the original. So, probably not plagiarism. Plus, close inspection would reveal that, unlike its more simplistic and lazy predecessor, the artist has been typing each line overlapping the previous one which would have required to manually and meticulously adjust the typewriter alignment after every row, a solid 20 minutes of very precise and tedious work.
My problem is not with the quality of the work, or whether or not it is plagiarism, which is unlikely and cannot be proved nor disproved anyway. My problem is with the judges awarding first prize to this particular piece.
Firstly, I don’t believe for one second that anybody in a right state of mind, and with intellectual honesty would qualify this drawing, if it is a drawing, as a masterpiece of invention worth of admiration and of being put on a pedestal for the nation to admire, to be presented as a marvel of wonder, discovered as an example of excellence to inspire and enchant, showcasing the best of what New Zealand can produce, or even the best in show. Would a child or a youngster seeing the work fall in awe before such beauty and be inspired to become an artist too? Was there really nothing just a wee bit better in the selection of submitted artworks? There must have been some other motivations for awarding a prize that “seek to capture the spirit of invention, risk and discovery.”
It feels like someone simply wanted to take the piss. Taking the piss would have been fine if it were for the 25K prize at stake. Taking the piss is discouraging and insulting to the other artists who made some effort to produce their best.
There are indeed many talented artists in New Zealand who can draw masterfully, artfully, enchanting the viewers with their skills, talent and workmanship, creating works of beauty. But art officialdom always reward mediocre, simplistic or incomprehensible works. Why are art judges always singling out the most obscure work, why are they always rewarding failed experiments instead of rewarding accomplished mastery, rewarding ugliness over beauty? easy over masterful? mindless over intelligent? This is getting tiring, but it must go on unfortunately, because the judge’s decision will be judged by their peers and they cannot ever be caught going for the obvious, the clearly better work, for fear of being labelled as naïve and predictable. Art people are superior beings after all and their enlightened decisions ought to be incomprehensible to the lesser beings, the uneducated masses, the Philistines, the rest of us.
This superiority is never more clearly demonstrated than when art officials attempt to explain art in their trademark completely unintelligible language, commonly known as artspeak bullshit. Clearly conceived ideas are easy to articulate and the words to do it flow naturally. No need for pretentious snobbery to smoke out the rest of us. If someone speech does not make sense, it’s simply because the speaker does not have sense. Let’s rebel against this dictatorship of mediocrity, Let’s not be afraid to call a spade a spade when one sees one.
Judges would readily dismiss a beautifully accomplished drawing on the basis that this has been done before, that it is not pushing the boundaries, that it does not offer anything new and yet, in this case, they reward a work that has clearly been done before, is nothing like new and is only pushing the boundaries by overlapping each row with the previous one, not really a leap forward. Pushing the boundaries is to be encouraged, commanded even, until you push too far and fall into the mud. One can indeed push in the wrong direction and hopefully learn from such a mistake, but should not be rewarded for it. Otherwise we are going backwards, promoting setbacks, encouraging mediocrity.
It is pushing the limits of excellence which is difficult, commendable and worth of public recognition. But this is just my opinion. I accept that others may hold the view that pushing the limits of mindlessness is more important. By expressing my views I am hoping to bring some sanity in an industry filled with snobbery. An artwork should not be loved because it is crazy, it should be crazy because it is loved.
Secondly, these judges should have known of the previous existence of a very similar work by a prominent American artist. They ought to be the experts after all. Even if they were collectively ignorant, a judicious Google image search would have brought clear indication of the existence of this previous work, published just a year earlier. They would have formed the view that the New Zealand version might not be an original artwork and therefore not awarded the first prize to this work, saving themselves the embarrassment of having to publicly justify their poor judgement.
These judges, a whole panels of them, have failed by either ignorance or negligence. Artists are asked to conduct research and to vet their ideas. The same rigorous curatorial integrity must be expected from judges and panels of experts awarding monetary prizes. If they knew and have made a conscious decision to award the prize regardless, perhaps deliberately seeking controversy and publicity, it would have been dishonest at best, fraudulent at worse.
If these judges want to sue me for defamation, please go right ahead. I’d love some free publicity too. As an artist, I may be shooting myself in the foot by making derogatory comments and mocking art officials who could make or break my career, but I enjoy writing too much.
In conclusion, this is the sad story of a mediocre artwork celebrated by incompetent officials parading yet again the emperor’s new clothes in front of incredulous Philistines. New Zealand can do better, much better.
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