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That Portrait of a Certain Lady: A bargain at $12,000? Or not?

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Imagined Portrait of Alison Redford


"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." -- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

While we all wait for tomorrow night to see if fund-raising prowess or something else motivates Alberta Progressive Conservative Party members, let's engage in a little creative thought about public support for the arts where the oil hits the canvas, at the nexus of politics and paint.

Specifically, let's talk about those portraits of the premiers that are lately arousing the passion of Albertans, which naturally have turned out to focus on the price of everything and the value of nothing.

If it's the ability to raise funds, by the way, that impresses PC Party members, then Jim Prentice will win the leadership and the premiership of Alberta in a walk tomorrow -- he raised more than twice as much as candidates Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk combined, apparently without breaking into a sweat.

But if it was just fundraising ability that won the hearts of Alberta Tories, they wouldn't have picked Ed Stelmach over Jim Dinning or Alison Redford over Gary Mar, would they? And if they'd picked Dinning or Mar, whatever else might have happened, it has to be said that not only would the party have raised more money and had less turnover at the top, but when the premier finally got around to quitting we might have had better portraits hanging in the Legislature.

Here's the thing. We have this custom in Alberta -- which befits a place where governments rule for a long, long time -- that when premiers leave office, they get a painted portrait on the wall of the Legislative Building's third floor. By tradition -- and any tradition in a place that's only been a province since 1905 is by definition a recent one -- the premier gets to pick the artist.

For one reason or another, we've had a lot of premiers lately and so the paintings and their cost have become an issue with voters.

But for whatever reason -- possibly because Albertans are instinctively too polite or doubt their own ability to make judgments about art -- the quality of the paintings, for which the public pays their freight, and the ability of most premiers to pick artists appropriate for a substantial public investment, have not appeared on the public's radar.

This is a pity because, to be blunt, recent choices haven't been very good.

It's said here we're both paying too much and not paying enough for these paintings. We're paying too much for art that's not very good, and we're not paying enough for art that’s worth supporting. This is proof of the axiom that in Alberta politics you really can have it all, just not in a good way.

Back in the day, when Social Credit leader Harry Strom was premier, we got something akin to Socialist Realism -- perhaps we'd be better to describe it as Social Credit Realism. Whatever, it was OK. Things have been going downhill since.

The last two? Terrible. Calgary-based Xin Yu Zheng's painting of Ralph Klein, done from photographs, is in my view cartoonish, but at least it has a little life. Edmonton-based Tunde Vari's portrait of Ed Stelmach seemed to me to be both cartoonish and lifeless -- as if it had been illustrated for a 1950s kids' comic book about a worthy cause, the sort of thing young people couldn't reasonable expected to read a normal book about. You know, like Alberta History or Great Art.

We can't yet see what Redford's choice of artist will do with the former premier's portrait, exactly, because it hasn't been painted yet, but we can see what else Liela Chan has done by looking at her web page and I'm afraid the auguries are not promising. Her paintings make me think of greeting cards of the cute variety.

What gives me the right to be an art critic? In this regard, I'm at least as qualified as Klein, Stelmach and Redford, I guess.

Face it, people, if we chose other examples of important public art the same way -- say large sculptures in front of a major public building -- it would legitimately be a scandal. But because the premier's own image is involved, we seem to think it's OK for the premier to pick his or her own imageer.

Well, that dog won't hunt!

Worse, we've set a baseline price of $12,000 on the project based on what Klein has us pay for his portrait, a sum too low for the work of an artist worth supporting with public funds to complete what is bound to be a historically important commission.

We can, and should, do better, and the first step is to stop letting the premiers pick their own artists if they're going to use public money.

Yes, there needs to be a certain degree of sympathy between the artist and her subject. But you can go too far with that sort of thing. As Oscar Wilde wisely pointed out in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

So let the premier pick his portraitist from a selection of qualified artists chosen by a jury of people at least vaguely qualified to make such picks.

It's true that such juries tend to be too cautious -- which is why a selection of artists with the final call made by the subject of the portrait inserts an interestingly unpredictable element into the mix.

But public support for the arts is too important, and public paintings of premiers are too important too, to merely be left to the whim their subjects.

If we're going to do that, we should adopt the practice of the good people here in British Columbia, where I am in temporary exile, and just pay a couple of hundred bucks for a nice photograph.

Let's end the lesson with Oscar again: "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless." Let's invest in useless things are intensely admirable!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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