The Blake Prize is the most prestigious prize in religious art in Australia, with a history of over 60 years. As one of the judges for the 2012 prize, I would like to ask what the prize reveals about spirituality in Australia, or at least how artists perceive such spirituality? But I write as a ‘specialist’ in religion (my role in the judging) rather than in art. Or rather, as one who has studied and written on popular culture, film, literature, music and politics, all in relation to religion. I begin with some reflections on the process of judging by a relative outsider to the art world.
Initially, I tried to put aside my apprehension by telling myself that at least I know something about religion and spirituality. But that apprehension increased when more than 1100 artworks were submitted and the three judges were each asked to recommend 50-60 pieces as our initial individual shortlist. With a small groan, I began to view the submissions with the software provided. At first, I had planned to view a set number per day, as a necessary chore. But before I knew it, I was thoroughly engaged, enraptured even. I could not stop. Or rather, the only moments I did stop was when a work intrigued me, made me look longer, inquire and think further.
That arrested moment, the pause, became a criterion for selecting my initial shortlist. Why? A crucial feature of spirituality is its many-layered nature, the awareness that an unexpected moment or experience may reveal a glimpse of what can be called ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’. To put it slightly differently, the spiritual is always slightly beyond our ability to represent it. So the works that made it onto my shortlist were able to embody that notion of spirituality, the many-layered, unexpected and beyond-ness of the spiritual. This of course meant that the obvious works did not make it onto my list.
When the three judges – an acclaimed artist and a curator – met, we found some overlaps between our individual shortlists, but also many works that did not overlap. Our task now was to agree on a combined shortlist of 50-60 works. This was for me both humbling and fascinating: humbling because some of the works that intrigued me were technically poor, as the other judges simply and quickly pointed out; fascinating, since we operated on the basis of consensus rather than confrontation, with the result that aspects of works I had not realised before now became clearer. I was also intrigued by final discussions over wall-space and what would work in a gallery. And I was quietly satisfied that some of what I had at first felt to be the best works – in light of the criteria outlined earlier – were very much part of the final group. The decision regarding the winners and highly recommended works followed a similar process.
The works we selected, both as winners and as part of the final shortlist, revealed a particular emphasis, an emphasis expressed by Rod Pattenden, chair of the Blake committee and close observer of the whole process. He pointed out that the works chosen were more meditative and serious this year, with little playfulness. How true. This was of course partly due to the judges’ sensitivities, but also due to the nature of the works submitted. I want to expand on this observation and ask why this meditative, reflective and questioning mood was prevalent.
I suggest this emphasis has much to do with the strong sense of a troubled world, not the usually troubled world with its war and exploitation, its greed and disregard for others, but the world today, which has taken an extended turn for the worse. The rolling economic depression in Europe and the Americas has its flow-on effect in ‘confidence’ in Australia. Stories of sovereign-debt crises, of 50% youth unemployment, of swings to the far right in politics, increase the sense of world out of kilter – as do the decline of the US empire and the rise of China. At home, the viciousness of contemporary politics, with a minority government constantly attacked, seems to leave many disheartened with the political process. Further, the demonization of a new ‘enemy’ to the ‘West’ – namely, Islam – continues. Australian soldiers are dying fighting someone else’s war in Afghanistan. All these elements and more create a sense of the breakdown of old givens and generate fear of what will replace them. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
It is this situation, with its particular shape in our time, that leads us to be more reflective and meditative, to seek spirituality as a way of dealing with such uncertainties. It is far easier to be playful when times are smooth and risk-free. Serious meditation is for troubled times, a search for deeper truths and new possibilities.