On page four of the Sydney Morning Herald, 24th October 1944, two seemingly unrelated news items were reported. The first,

CHALLENGED ART PRIZE – Court Hearing Begins,

reported the commencement on the previous day of the legal challenge to William Dobell’s victory the year before in the Archibald competition for portrait painting. In what is now a well-known case, Dobell had entered a ‘portrait’ of fellow portrait painter and friend, Joshua Smith. Lower down the page, and to the left, was another important headline:


Some days earlier, the same paper had reported that, if all relevant parties agreed, the title United Australia Party would disappear and all non-Labour opposition parties (except for the Country Party) would unite under a new name, The Australian Liberal Party.

Here, on the same page, was notice of two events that proved to be more than incidentally linked, and which served as the basis of a theatrical production called Art War ’44, performed in the Open Stage, University of Melbourne in October 1999. I devised, directed, and co-created the work with third and fourth year undergraduate students in Theatre Studies from the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne, who also performed the piece. This work preceded by several years a similar theatrical treatment of the Dobell trial, entitled Art on Trial, written by Robert Smith and performed early in 2002.

There is an intriguing confluence of events, themes, forces and people that swirl around – before, during and after – the Dobell trial, and others that resonated in a particular way in Art War ’44. The human agents in this confluence (as I interpreted and ‘reconstructed’ it) include Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Garfield Barwick, Sir John Kerr, and John Howard, as well as William Dobell and Joshua Smith. Other significant facets include the birth of the Australian Liberal Party and of the Australian Academy of Art, and the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ art movements in Australia. Australia’s Constitutional Monarchy, the sacking of the Whitlam Labour Government in 1975, and the Republic Referendum in 1999 (one week after the performance season of the show) all make an appearance. Of course, not all of these figures and events were involved directly. But there are a number of fascinating connections between them that provided excellent material for a work of ‘documentary theatre’ (especially one created and performed in the spirit and exaggerated style of Dobell’s painting of Joshua Smith).

In this paper, I briefly examine some of the trial’s more ‘theatrical’ elements (a detailed account of the trial can be found, for example, in Adams, 1983: 92-224 and Gleeson, 1964: 115-144) and aspects of its wider social, political and cultural contexts. I will also call to witness those later events involving both the people and the themes of the trial mentioned above, and detail how all these factors were structured into our work of ‘documentary theatre.’ This paper, then, is an analysis of aspects of the ‘dramaturgy’ of a work of documentary theatre. The term ‘dramaturgy’ is slippery, but here is taken to mean ‘the relation between the means of expression (the narrative material, stage space and time, formal organisation) and the vision of the world to be expressed’ (Helbo, 1991: 2). Dramaturgy, by combining ideological and aesthetic structures, involves active choices about what is included in the work, when, in what way, and the interpretive frameworks that are set up by these choices for a particular set of audiences.

The Trial

The action against the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and William Dobell was initiated by two of the losers in the competition, Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolenski. They claimed that the winning entry by Dobell (‘Portrait of Joshua Smith’) was not a portrait under the terms of the competition, but a caricature. The Judge restated the charge in his Judgement:

It is alleged that the said picture, painted by the defendant William Dobell, is not a portrait but is a caricature of the said Joshua Smith, bearing a certain degree of resemblance to him, but having the characteristic features of his appearance highly distorted and exaggerated. …It is apparent from examination of the said picture, and comparison of the same with the appearance of the said Joshua Smith, that the said picture does not represent any attempt on the part of the defendant William Dobell to make a likeness of the said Joshua Smith but on the contrary represents the result of an endeavour to depict him in a distorted and caricatured form (Trial Judgment, 1944: pp.1-2).

The charge itself sounds like a caricature! Mountbatten (1995: 158) suggests that some of the great trials ‘positively encourage the liberation of our deepest personal and social aspirations and point us … in the direction of the sublime.’ Certainly trials are inherently performative, with their clash of presentations and barristers ‘performing’ with all their skill in an attempt to control the ‘script’ and win over the jury. Some trials, however, like this one, point us towards the ridiculous. This trial oozed theatricality of a particular kind. Dobell himself said in 1963 ‘the whole thing would have made a marvellous Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera’ (Dobell, 1963). Adams describes the trial as ‘rather like a circus’ (Adams, 1983: 95). As witnesses took the stand, they stated their credentials like a character sketch in the listings at the front of a play-script. As Adams (1983: 92ff) describes the scene, it seemed like the whole of Sydney ‘society’ was crowded into the courtroom – on the first day Dobell himself could not get a seat:

Aesthetic looking young men, some with long hair and beards, others with corduroy hats and trousers and wearing brightly-coloured ties, society women, war artists on leave, art critics and cartoonists waited outside and scared away the usual habitués of the gloomy precincts (Adams, 1983: 94).

One ‘Dora Toovey’ recorded the trial scene in oils, while other artists, including Dobell, made sketches of the leading players. The barristers’ tables were littered with books on the history of art and the offending portrait, labelled ‘Exhibit D,’ held centre stage for the entire proceedings. For some of the trial, Joshua Smith himself was present for all to examine themselves the ‘degree of likeness’ under contention. The popular cartoonist George Finey set about ‘drawing a caricature of the portrait as if to prove to himself that it was a portrait and not a caricature’ (Adams, 1983: 96).

At times, the already extraordinary cross-examinations on matters of artistic definitions, art history, degrees of likeness, and so on reached surreal levels. Barwick later recalled how another cartoonist named ‘Frith,’ with whom he was friendly, had made for him a small plasticine head of the then Leader of the Opposition, ‘whose features included a prominent nose. The identity of the model could readily be seen from the nose, but the extent of its prominence clearly indicated that a cartoonist had been at work’ (Barwick, 1995: 50). The plasticine head was produced during Barwick’s questioning of Richard Horton James for the defendants. When asked by Barwick if the head was a portrait, James responded, ‘I have seen human beings quite as deformed as that, but I think it was done as a joke,’ whereupon Frith apparently called out ‘I object to that. I made that image and it was made in all seriousness.’ He was immediately thrown out of the courtroom (Adams, 1983: 164; Barwick, 1995: 50).

In another bizarre moment, Barwick asked Dr Vivian Benjerfield, a medical practitioner he knew, whom he caught sight of as he entered the courtroom on one of the trial days (Barwick, 1995: 49), to give a medical opinion of the portrait. Benjerfield offered an opinion under oath:

I would say that it represents the body of a man who had died in that position and had remained in that position for a period of some months and had dried up … I think the normal human neck has seven cervical vertebrae in it, and I think to have that – I should think there would have to be at least ten to get that length of neck (Trial Transcript: 94).

After a timely luncheon adjournment, the following cross-examination by Mr Kitto for the Trustees and Mr Dwyer for Dobell took place:

Kitto: What is the point you make about this representation?
Benjerfield: The complete loss of subcutaneous tissue
Kitto: You would have to put that in terms of appearance?
Benjerfield: Shrunken
Kitto: That is the point you make?
Benjerfield: Yes
Dwyer: Do you know anything about art?
Benjerfield: No (Trial Transcript, 1944: 95)

In another comic moment, Mr Young for the prosecution was cross-examined by Mr. Dwyer on his credentials as an art expert:

Dwyer: You are not an expert?
Young: Well I am called that.
Dwyer: You call yourself that, don’t you?
Young: No
Dwyer: Don’t you call yourself that in the Sydney telephone directory – “Art Expert.”
Young: No, that is by accident … I personally do not like it.
Dwyer: What don’t you like about art experts?
Young: I don’t like any man that calls himself an expert … I have moved to have that removed from the telephone book.
Dwyer: Is that what appears after the name? Is it “Y-O-U-N-G”: or “Y-U-N-G”?
Young: “Y-O-U-N-G”
Dwyer: After your name – after it appears in the telephone book, do these words appear “Art Expert”?
Young: They do.
Dwyer: But you do not like it?
Young: No, I don’t
Dwyer: But you put up with it? …You have been so described in the telephone book for some 5 to 6 years. When did you become an art expert? Was it a sudden transformation or did it take some time? …Your life’s work was not completely associated with art prior to that was it?
Young: Yes, since about 1918.
Dwyer: At one stage in your career you were the proprietor of a ham and beef shop, weren’t you?
Young: That is a new one on me.
Dwyer: You deny it? (Trial Transcript, 1944: 85-86)

One is tempted to add here that ham seems to have a mysterious connection with artists and art experts. Not long after these events, in 1948, the U.S. President Harry Truman remarked that the ‘moderns’ were ‘lazy, nutty’ and that the Dutch masters like Holbein ‘make our modern day daubers and frustrated ham and egg men look just what they are’ (Saunders, 1999: 252).

In yet another gloriously comic moment, Richard James for the defendants is cross-examined on the meaning of an ‘angular character’:

Barwick: You told us that these arms and angularities conveyed to you that Mr Smith had angular character.
James: Yes.
Barwick: Tell me what is an angular character.
James: It is a figure of speech.
Barwick: I want to know what is an angular character, as a bit of English?
James: An angular character is a person who is perhaps not immediately happy in all circumstances, but finds that he has some difficulty fitting into new circumstances and new people and so on.
Barwick: That merely describes most of us on earth?
James: Not so, some are less angular than others…
Barwick: Tell me what ‘angular character’ is – would the opposite be a ‘circular
James: You are getting quite near it – a man with no nerves and heavy figure – circular might be thought of as being the opposite of angular (Trial Transcript, 1944: 119).

Documentary Theatre: Art War ‘44

There were many more exchanges of this kind which, along with most of the incidents described above, were included in Art War ’44. A final piece in this jigsaw slotted into place when, after settling on the performance dates to fit into the normal University calendar, the dates for the Republic Referendum was set for 6th November 1999, the week following our final performance. In the script of Art War ’44, we incorporated historical material relating to Australia in the 1940s, excerpts from secondary sources dealing with both that context and the trial (for example, from Adams, 1983). Headlines from the Second World War, excerpts of the new Liberal Party Manifesto and from letters and speeches made by Menzies and Barwick in the 1940s and later – including Barwick’s 1982 Menzies Oration on the value of the Constitutional Monarchy and his letter to Sir John Kerr on 10th November 1975 before the dismissal of the Whitlam Government – all made an appearance. Some choice statements on the ‘appalling condition of modern society and art’ were taken from Richard Bolton’s 1992 book Culture Wars that focuses on art controversies in America and attacks on its National Endowment for the Arts. These statements were included on the basis that a certain continuity of situation between the two periods was evident. Video footage from the 1940s concerning WWII, Whitlam’s sacking, and other relevant matters was projected onto a central upstage screen as if these were ‘exhibits’ in the trial (as we ‘reconstructed’ it). With the audience arranged ‘end-on,’ the performance space was delineated upstage by a series of five screens, arranged in a rough semi-circle. Onto these screens we projected slide images of some of the leading ‘characters’ (Menzies, Howard, Queen Elizabeth II. and so on), as well as numerous portrait paintings both traditional and ‘modern.’ A slide image of Dobell’s painting of Joshua Smith was a constant presence on these screens. The ‘plasticine head’ made by Barwick’s cartoonist friend Frith was replaced by a clay head of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. The surreal edge to some of the dialogue was complemented by the occasional appearance of ghost-like figures wearing masks that had been contorted in the style of cubist and other modern art. An oversized ‘live’ puppet (that is, with an actor inside it) wearing a similarly distorted mask, moved in and out of the action, as if ‘modern’ art had truly taken on a quasi-human shape with the menace that adversaries both in Australia and the U.S.A. had endowed it.

Art War ’44 was an example of documentary theatre in the vein of Erwin Piscator, which Favorini describes as

characterised by a central or exclusive reliance on actual rather than imaginary events, on dialogue, song, and/or visual materials (photographs, films, pictorial documents) ‘found’ in the historical records or gathered by the playwright/researcher, and by a disposition to set individual behaviour in an articulated political and/or social context (Favorini, 1995: xx).

Piscator brought to prominence the practice of importing ‘actuals’ into the theatre based on principles of news reportage. Documents (verbal and visual), verbatim speeches, documentary film footage, tableaux and other means were employed to bring ‘naked facts’ onto the stage and let them speak for themselves (Favorini, 1995: xviii-xix; Innes, 1972: 76).

But documentary theatre has an ambivalent attitude to ‘facts’, as Derek Paget notes:

Documentary modes participate in, indeed are a symptom of, two distinct but interlinked structures of feeling: one is expressive of a faith in facts, grounded upon positivist scientific rationality; the other is expressive of a profound political scepticism which disputes the notion that ‘facts = truth’ (Paget, 1990: 17).

On the one hand, we felt it was important the audience knew that roughly 80% of the script consisted of verbatim (albeit edited) extracts from the transcript of the Dobell trial (what was said during the trial could not possibly have been invented). On the other hand, acknowledging that there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ presentation of ‘the facts,’ we incorporated Peter Weiss’ advice to Piscator: ‘eschew…any attempt to represent realistically either the courtroom or the camp (Favorini, 1995: xxviii). In the same way that Dobell claimed to be distorting natural features of Smith’s physiognomy in order to ‘make the portrait more like the subject than he is himself’ (Hawley, 1997: 21), I felt absolutely no compulsion to present a ‘balanced’ view of the matter on stage. The irony I sought was exaggeratedly one-sided. In the media release, our piece was advertised as ‘a theatrical fantasy on Dobell’s “portrait”,’ with a warning that ‘There is a degree of distortion in this piece! Only 90% of the script is word for word what the said well-known persons actually said or wrote! The rest has been wilfully invented…’ I fabricated a little, indulged in a flight of fancy here and there. I am fairly certain, for example, that Kitto did not call Barwick aknock-kneed little fart’! But like Dobell’s portrait, the distortion was intended to present something important about the situation as we understood it.

As Innes points out (1972: 78) in relation to Piscator, the volume of ‘documentation’ collected for this kind of work presents a structural challenge: how to keep the piece alive and engaging while presenting ‘facts selected primarily to spell out a political message.’ The Dobell trial transcript itself runs for over 190 typed pages, and the mass of other material that we felt was relevant swelled our coffers considerably. We arranged the interrogations and other material into a series of ‘environments’ that we hoped would evoke the many connections and forces (as outlined above) that I felt had impacted on the trial. At various points, we evoked the lecture theatre, theatre itself, the courtroom, the art gallery, the artist’s studio, parliament, the referendum ballot booth, and the front-line bunker. With recurring moments in the studio or in the two painters’ apartment in Kings Cross (‘Bill – Yes – Did you get the milk on the way home? – Yes’), there was a general movement through the piece from history lesson, to courtroom, to parliament, and to the bunker, with increasingly hysterical statements and antics. The last two scenes focused on the personal side of the saga, and finally on the decision the audience would be called on to make at the ballot box, a week or so later, on the question of an Australian Republic.

Tragi-Comedy: Friends and Art

This trial was not just a comedy; it was a tragi-comedy, perhaps even a painful farce for Dobell and Smith, who had been close friends for some years. They had shared a tent together in the army, spending their days painting camouflage, and had later lived together in Sydney’s Kings Cross (Adams, 1983: 90). Dobell recalled in an interview at the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1963 that Smith had congratulated him on the portrait once it was finished. The controversy that was stirred by the painting winning the Archibald, however, had changed his response to it (Dobell, 1963). In the interview, Dobell says that, after the trial, the nearest they ever got to speaking together again was when they bumped into one another in the street, but Smith snubbed his attempt at contact. He goes on to say:

I was ill for years afterwards. I lost the use of my leg for six months; I had a nervous breakdown, which left me with my left eye damaged. I was so mad and irate about it, I felt like taking them all to court again for damages to my health, but I’d had court (Dobell, 1963).

The interview had been embargoed for twenty years after Dobell’s death (in 1970), and Joshua Smith knew nothing of its existence until contacted in 1997 by Janet Hawley to ask him to break a forty-seven-year silence on the case. Smith agreed and the interview with him was published in Melbourne’s daily newspaper, The Age, on 9th August 1997, the day that the Dobell interview was to be finally aired on ABC radio. Smith spoke of his great pain and anguish over the portrait and the trial:

It’s a curse, a phantom that haunts me. It has torn at me every day of my life. I’ve tried to bury it inside me in the hope it would soon die, but it never does… The Dobell tape is so hurtful … I’m 85 now and lucky to still be alive to answer him. It looks as if he thought I’d be dead by now! I’ve never said a word against Dobell. I’ve never given my side of the whole affair. I’ve always refused to talk to the media. I’ll do it this once, but never again. I can’t bear the strain, the pain …It took me a long time to regain my confidence; it’s affected me to this day… Dobell showed no concern for that. He talks about his ruined health, what about mine?” (Hawley, 1997: 25)

Of course, the trial was much more than a spat between friends. As others have pointed out, ‘The battle lines of this cause célèbre were drawn between the reactionary forces of the artistic establishment on the one hand and the avant garde devotees of the Modern Movement on the other” (Mountbatten, 1995: 159). Hal Missingham, former Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a friend of Dobell, disputed this assertion in 1997. Missingham claimed – in language reminiscent of the trial itself – that Dobell ‘was not, and never claimed to be, a modernist … People who called Dobell’s work modern wouldn’t know modern art from a hole in the ground!’ (Hawley, 1997: 24-25) But the battle between conservative and modernising forces in art had clearly begun some years earlier with a statement by Robert Menzies, who makes a ‘behind-the-scenes’ appearance in this tragi-comedy. Menzies was President in 1937 of a new conservative ‘art establishment’ organisation called The Australian Academy of Art. Commenting in April 1937 on the need for the body, and revealing his own agendum in it, Menzies said:

I feel definitely that some authority and body should be formed here as in other countries. Every great country has its academy. They have set certain standards of art and have served a great purpose in raising the standards of public taste by directing attention to good work… Great art speaks a language which every intelligent person can understand. The people who call themselves modernists today talk in a different language (Adams, 1983: 77).

Obviously ‘modernists,’ in Menzies’ view, were fundamentally different from the ‘intelligent’ people who shared his own views on art. Menzies wanted what in 1986, in a later ‘culture war,’ Samuel Lipman, publisher of the American conservative art magazine New Criterion, called ‘a real academy – one that represents the institutionalisation of tradition’ (in Bolton, 1992: 12). Menzies was not Prime Minister while the trial was in progress, but as a political force his ‘reign’ spanned the period up to the Dobell trial and after it. Gaining office in 1939 when Joseph Lyons died, he had been forced to quit in 1941. Under his guidance, the Liberal Party was formed in 1944, and in 1949 he regained the Prime Ministership and held it until his retirement in 1966. His enormous influence on Liberalism in this country remains strong to this day. Ironically, Dobell was later commissioned to paint Menzies’ portrait; as one might expect, Menzies was repelled by the result (Adams, 1983: 277-282).

Chief prosecutor in the trial, Garfield Barwick, whom Dobell (1963) later described as ‘brilliant’ (‘I hated his guts at the time, he was insulting, but brilliant’), evoked in his final address to the court the horror and subversion of modernism: ‘Everyone for the defence, except Mr. Dundas, seems to favour complete anarchy in portrait painting.’ He suggested that the modernist movement was a conspiracy, and that if you opened the door to this movement there would be no limit to its deleterious effects (Adams, 1983: 211-212). Traditional art was seen as embodying those ‘certain standards’ that Menzies promoted as the job of a ‘real academy’ to uphold. The plaintiff Mary Edwards had ‘been so affronted by the painting, she’d issued a warning to children and pregnant women not to attend the [original] exhibition’ (Hawley, 1997: 22). She claimed to have brought the action in an effort ‘to keep the cause of art lofty and undefiled’ (Adams, 1983: 217). Wolenski went so far as to state that

From the very outset of this case we had no other purpose, motive or interest than to assist the cause of art and help to rescue it from debasement by the moronic imported vogues which are now undermining the basis of artistic criticism in this country (Adams, 1983: 222).

After the verdict has been delivered, John Young, the unwilling ‘art expert’ in the trial, put the case in what he saw as its crucial context:

The issue is much greater than the Dobell painting. The question that the court has not answered is this: Are eccentricity, formlessness and ugliness to supplant rationality, form and truth in the art of the future? (Adams, 1983: 217)

Similar and at times even more strident denunciations of modernist art were made in America in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Saunders (1999: 253) documents how modernism was attacked as a Communist plot, with some going so far as to suggest that some abstract paintings were actually secret maps showing strategic military locations. One Republican Senator, George Dondero, loudly proclaimed,

All modern art is Communistic … Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth … Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane. Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms. …Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason (Saunders, 1999: 253).

Dondero was later awarded a medal ‘for his congressional exposure of Communism in art’ (Saunders, 1999: 453 n. 1).

The conservative Australian response to ‘modern’ art was in no doubt to Menzies in 1937 when he said,

I am a person of moderate education, I hope reasonably good taste, and a lifelong interest in the fine arts. In other words, with all my individual defects, I represent a class of people which will, in the next one hundred years determine the permanent place to be occupied in the world of art by those painting today (Adams, 1983: 78).

Robert Menzies saw himself as the champion of the middle class. In a radio broadcast to ‘The Forgotten People’ which he made in May 1942, Menzies claimed that ‘the forgotten class … properly regarded, represent the backbone of this country.’ These people, ‘the kind of people I myself represent in Parliament,’ included ‘salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers, and so on’ (Brett, 1997: 157-58). Contemporary Liberal politicians still use this phrase. When John Howard, as newly elected Prime Minister of Australia, delivered the 1996 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture for the Monash University Liberal Club in Melbourne on ‘The Liberal Tradition,’ he made use of this phrase, claiming that at the heart of the Liberal constituency lay these very ‘forgotten people,’ namely,

the men and women of the great Australian mainstream who felt excluded from the special interest elitism of the Liberal Party’s immediate predecessors and from the

trade union dominance of the Labour Party. They included small business people, farmers, employees in enterprises both large and small, women, families concerned for their security, older Australians, young people in search of jobs and opportunity, and many others (Howard, 1996).

The following year, during the 1997 Robert Menzies Memorial Lecture in London, Howard again referred to these ‘forgotten people’ (Howard, 1997). Clearly these ‘forgotten people,’ or ‘the great Australian mainstream’ as Howard calls them, were just the kind of people who in 1943-1944 would be called on by anti-modernist forces to make a damning judgement on William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith.

The Monarchy

Australia’s historical ties to Britain, including our Constitutional Monarchy, play a supporting role in the Dobell drama. Menzies had been a fervent supporter of the alliance with Britain. In a speech made in the Camberwell Town Hall, Melbourne, on 2nd September 1940, to enunciate his Government’s war policy, Menzies proclaimed,

We must, realising that we are not only politically, but morally, spiritually and materially, an integral part of the great British family of nations, make the highest possible contribution to the war effort of Britain, the vital centre of that family, wherever and whenever that contribution can be made (Crowley, 1973: 33).

His belief in the British Monarchy carried theological overtones. In parliament, he proclaimed, ‘I believe that [the Monarchy] possesses an almost theological character. I believe in the indivisibility of the Crown and the Throne’ (in Barwick, 1982: 9). In 1982, Barwick, who also served as Attorney-General in the second Menzies government (from 1958 to 1963) and then as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1964 to1981, delivered the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture at Mannix College, Monash University in Melbourne, for the Monash University Liberal Club. His lecture was titled ‘The Monarchy in an Independent Australia.’ Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of England, had delivered the previous year’s lecture. In his speech, Barwick emphasised that Australia was independent of England while retaining the stability of the Monarchy. In a particularly apt expression in the context of the Dobell trial, he says that some people wanted to ‘cut the painter’ and become a Republic:

There were some amongst the early colonists who, not content with self-government, sought independence and advocated the formation of a republic as a means of its achievement. Many seemed to have thought that the only way to end the ‘British connection’ was to ‘cut the painter’ by becoming a republic. Some still do … But as I hope to recall to your minds, the painter with Great Britain was effectively cut long since without the need to jettison the monarchy (Barwick, 1982: 4).

The Queen of England was the Queen of Australia, he stated, but there was no conflict of interest in this situation, because She was advised separately by two distinct governments (1982: 9ff). Contrary to the opinion expressed by Menzies, Barwick believed the Monarchy was divisible. He concludes that

To make the most of the benefit we derived from the continuance of the monarchy in Australia… it [is] necessary that there be positive efforts made to increase general awareness of the identification of the Queen with Australia and of the insignificance of the fact that she is also Queen of the United Kingdom. That she is Queen of Canada or Queen of New Zealand has no bearing on our independence or involve Canada or New Zealand in our affairs. Neither has the fact that she is Queen of the United Kingdom (Barwick, 1982: 19-20).

Events concerning our constitutional monarchy continued to involve the players in the Dobell trial. Menzies died in 1978, three years after his former Attorney General, now Sir Garfield Barwick, met with the then representative of Her Majesty, Governor General Sir John Kerr, to advise him of his options in the crisis affecting the 1975 Whitlam government. His advice, and Kerr’s consequent sacking of Whitlam, caused a major crisis for the Australian constitution. And Prime Minister John Howard, perhaps in his own estimation the living embodiment of Menzies, is the ardent monarchist who oversaw (if not engineered) the failure of the Republic Referendum late in 1999.

The Struggle Continues

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the struggle against the perceived evils of ‘modern’ art continued in the United States, with prominent campaigner Rev. Donald Wildmon describing his work as ‘a great spiritual struggle for the heart and mind and soul of our society.’ The nation’s ‘moral and spiritual fibre’ has been eroded for the past fifty years, said Wildmon in 1989, and. without the active crusading of ‘good people,’ the country would go the way of Rome. Who is ‘good’, in his view, and who is not, is clearly delineated in a 1984 statement: ‘If they had their way, consumer groups, intellectuals, blacks and feminists would run our society while Christians and the military would have very little influence’ (cited in Bolton, 1992: 9).

The conservative aesthetic tastes of conservative politicians continue to raise its head in Australia. Late in 2003, senior Liberal-Coalition politicians blasted what they saw as the preponderance of ‘modern art’ in the corridors and offices of Parliament House in Canberra. Minister Tony Abbot, an ardent monarchist, is on record calling the ‘offending’ art ‘avant-garde crap.’ When he became a Minister, he says, ‘I went through the collection on offer – most of it is rubbish – and then asked if I could see anything else, like some nice portraits’ (Koutsoukis, 2003). In his office can now be seen ‘a series of portraits in oil of former MPs’ (Crabb, 2003: 4), including three former Governors-General. Amongst them is a portrait of Sir William McKell because, comments Abbot, ‘he was a good Labour monarchist’ (Koutsoukis, 2003: 26). In another spectacular twist of fate, the portrait is painted by – one could not have invented this – Joshua Smith! Smith actually painted three portraits of McKell (Hawley, 1997: 25). Other conservative politicians have referred to the modern art as ‘dreary,’ ‘dismal,’ ‘depressing,’ and ‘dark’ (Crabb, 2003: 4). With a touch of the kind of fundamentalist frenzy seen in America in reaction to works by Maplethorpe and others in the 1980s and early 1990s (see Bolton, 1992: 1-26), it has also been described as being ‘like a disease … a virus built into the place’ (Crab, 2003: 4). John Howard is known for his preference for the old masters, and has also given a prominent spot in his office to a landscape called ‘Near Antibes’ by none other than Sir Winston Churchill (Koutsoukis, 2003: 26).

And in yet another round in the ongoing culture war, on December 12, 2003, The Age reported (Morgan, 2003: 5) that John Howard’s official biographer, David Barnett, made a (formerly) secret submission regarding the National Museum of Australia. In the submission, he objected to a sculpture consisting of blue telegraph poles, which referenced Jackson Pollack’s controversial Blue Poles No. II (1952), brought by the Whitlam Government in 1973. Apart from criticising the sculpture as ‘a monument to Gough Whitlam,’ Barnett raged against the evil effects of ‘a modish academic approach called post-modernism,’ blaming it for ‘the abolition of grammar as a school subject, the nature of journalism departments…and history departments everywhere (Morgan, 2003: 5). He seems to blame philosopher Jacques Derrida for postmodernism, and cites controversial historian Keith Windshuttle as someone who ‘may have dealt with post-modernism and its part in the falsification of history’ (Barnett, 2003). Here are art, culture, history and politics all wrapped together in one ultra-conservative bundle.

The Power of the Image

Bolton remarks in the context of the 1980s – 1990s American ‘culture war’ that ‘conservatives and liberals both seem to agree that contemporary art has much potential as an agent of social change’ (1982: 24). What unifies the many facets of the Dobell trial, associated events, forces and personalities, and similar culture wars, is the power of the image. It was this power that served as the underlying basis of our dramaturgy in Art War ’44, informing not only the expanded range of material we brought into the production, but also the aesthetic nature of the piece, its emphasis on visuality as well as reportage. And it was an awareness of ‘image power’ that encouraged me to bring together the 1944 Dobell trial, the 1975 Whitlam sacking, and the 1999 Republic referendum, and also to distort and exaggerate while at the same time presenting the ‘facts’ of the case through a documentary theatre style. Many governments and lobby groups have tried to control, limit or manipulate artistic use of the image. Some have succeeded. The United States may not be the most extreme example, but it must surely be amongst the best of them, as Saunders (1999) has demonstrated in relation to the ‘Cultural Cold War’ and the manipulation of artists and writers by the Central Intelligence Agency after World War Two. In Australia, the forces of artistic restriction have been, and are, mild by comparison. But, as the Dobell trial, along with the associated events and personalities that I have explored in this paper and in Art War ’44, suggests, powerful forces can be, and are, mustered here against the power of the image. The ‘art war’ that exploded in ’44 is ongoing.


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