Annabel Crabb was the guest speaker at last night’s Art After Hours celebrity talk, at the Art Gallery of NSW. I am not a regular patron of the Art Gallery, and my knowledge of art is limited to everything I learned in 52 issues of Art Magic in 1998. I learned about this celebrity talk from Annabel Crabb’s Twitter, which makes this the first time the site has been useful, not just interesting. So yesterday morning I gave Angus a call, because I visit the gallery so rarely that I instinctively call the last person who visited it with me, and we arranged to meet up and attend the talk together.
My parents had asked me, when I told them about the event, what a political journalist would have to say about the art of Rupert Bunny – the subject of her speech, and of a current exhibition at the gallery. I didn’t know.
Annabel cleared this up immediately, remarking that this was the third time she had been recruited to speak on the subject of art, and that each time previously, she had managed to plausibly relate the occasions to politics. She expressed doubt – well-placed, as it turned out – in her capacity to pull off the trick again.
But her first political quip showed that she had judged her audience correctly. A politician, she noted, had once described the parliamentary art collection as “avant-garde crap.” An appreciative laugh rose from an audience who knew what was coming. “Can you guess which one?” asked Annabel, and the audience’s response gave a definitive answer.
Yes, anyone who attended the evening hoping only for enlightenment on the exploits of that enigmatic expatriate, Rupert Bunny, would have been disappointed. But all signs indicated that few members of the mostly senior audience had come with such expectations. During a brief talk with Annabel afterwards, she was regularly approached with grateful, perhaps relieved feedback. “You didn’t disappoint!” enthused one lady.
Annabel’s knowledge of Bunny, an Australian-born impressionist who spent most of his life in Paris, might be limited, but this inconvenience failed to diminish her sparkling talent for storytelling. Astute observations of Australia’s self-conscious culture and particular expectations of its expats were weaved with thoughts drawn from Stephen Fry and anecdotes involving Germaine Greer and pointed advice on the optimal disposal of one’s placenta. And of course, with apologetic mischief, recurrent attempts to return to the subject of Bunny quickly gave way to gleeful political commentary.
When Rupert Bunny did achieve a mention, the audience listened with attentive respect. So did Annabel cheat them?
It would be a different matter if there had not been so much laughter throughout the rest of her remarks, especially at those jibes which rested on implicit punch lines. My impression, from the back of the central court, was that we were all willing participants in her tangential digressions and irrelevances. I fully suspect this is what most of us came hoping for.
Perhaps not everyone, of course – Annabel Crabb is popular, an unusual adjective for those in her field, but her recent move to the ABC has flushed out some feedback that her presence contributes little substance to the Australian political scene. Take some of the comments from her recent article for The Drum comparing the upcoming Rudd-vs-Abbott showdown to a high school election. “Too informal and familiar,” no “accurate analysis amongst all those metaphors and analogies,” she “writes as though for a gossip column,” and, from another reader, the ABC “wasted six figures.” Like die-hard art fans of Rupert Bunny might have been disappointed at her limited analysis of his work, die-hard political junkies seem sometimes to be turned off by her attention to political personalities sometimes ahead of policy. “Perhaps exploring policy issues might not be as whimsical, but at least you know what you’re getting when you place your vote,” wrote one of the readers quoted above.
Well, that’s partly true. But in a representative democracy, we don’t elect policies, we elect people. This is in contrast to a direct democracy, where all issues would theoretically be put to a popular vote (a referendum). Analysis of policies and their consequences are crucial – after all, public opinion is still meant to hold these representatives to account – but there is much to be gained from a political journalist who delights in investigating what makes our elected individuals tick, and distilling her discoveries into stories we understand. Politics, like art, is not only about policy and facts, but very much, and probably more, about people and society.
That said, Annabel’s final attempt to raise Rupert Bunny, like those before it, barely survived a sentence. “My final point on Rupert Bunny,” she began, with conscious irony that brought yet more appreciative laughter, “is that he is not even the most famous expatriate Rupert.” The Art Gallery of NSW central court promptly dissolved in hysterics, with some applause from those who could manage it, as Annabel digressed yet again, this time into a series of poignant observations about Murdoch’s influence in Australian and overseas politics.
Annabel has the comedian’s talent to deliver her comments with open amusement, not at her own cleverness but at the situation that led to such observation being possible. It is a talent not to give amusement but to share it.