On Prejudice (Modern and Not So)


In October 1940 Lionel Lindsay, one of the angry old men of Australian art, stooped lower than low in his attack on what he saw as the slick style and silly folly of modernist painting.

He wrote to the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald, attacking the exhibition of the NSW Contemporary Art Society. Lionel admired Chinese and Japanese art, French Impressionism and even some of the post-impressionists, especially Van Gogh. But, as is the case with many older people, he had found the art of the next generation too much to stomach. So he looked for ways to attack it.

There was an extra layer of anger here, however. Peter Bellew, the precocious art critic of the SMH and personal favourite of the press baron Warwick Fairfax had been given control of the magazine Art in Australia turning it into a vehicle promoting modernism and the international avant garde. Lionel had been one of the founding writers of Art in Australia in 1916. He had given his time to write the first serious publications on Streeton, Heysen, Lambert and other now-established Australian artists, all of whom were mocked by Bellew.

Lionel Lindsay

There is nothing wrong in an older artist rejecting the art of the next generation. But what Lionel Lindsay did in attacking contemporary art damaged his reputation forever. As Michael Duffy recently noted in his SMH column, on 16 October 1940 Lindsay attacked the latest Contemporary Art Society exhibition and blamed all modern art as a conspiracy of ‘the Jew dealers.’

This was a common enough complaint among the conservative art establishment. In the 1920s and 1930s, many of the best art dealers in cosmopolitan Paris were from Middle Europe and some of them were Jewish. But Lindsay went further than simply identifying an ethnic group. He claimed their aim was to ‘corrupt criticism, originate propaganda and undermine accepted standards so that there should be ample merchandise to handle.’

Some of the response to this tirade was published in the newspaper. Exhibiting artists either pointed out they were ‘genuine’ Australians, or in the case of Sali Herman, pointed out that the only true Australians were Aboriginal. Peter Bellew’s letter sneered at Lindsay’s anti-Semitism and linked him to Hitler without identifying his own position as the force behind the exhibition. (The late artist Frank Hinder, who had clashed with Bellew in the Contemporary Art Society, told me he had witnessed anti-Semitic remarks by Bellew. They were not uncommon in those days.) Curiously, Lionel Lindsay believed Bellew was Jewish, and this was the reason for the virulence of his attack.

Here is where it gets really interesting.

The SMH published Lindsay’s letter in full, but even though an identical letter had been sent to the Daily Telegraph, that paper published the attack on modern art while deleting all anti-Semitic references. What’s more, the SMH made an editorial decision not to publish many letters agreeing with Lindsay.

So, at the same time he was reading attacks on himself in the press, Lindsay was being told that letters in support of him were not being published. And he was receiving supportive letters from well-known people the Mitchell Library holds letters from the poet Banjo Paterson and the historian CEW Bean endorsing his stance. For Lindsay, the SMH‘s response was proof of a conspiracy.

It wasn’t surprising therefore that his next act was to write a book, Addled Art, which became the most hated art book in Australia’s history. Ironically, much of Addled Art is the kind of critique of modernism and ‘art as fashion’ that would not be out of place in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian today. But the chapter on ‘The Jew in Modern Painting’ is a classic detailing of French Anti-Semitism.

In it, Lindsay quotes Frenchman Ernest Renan: ‘the best of men have been Jews, the most malicious of men have also been Jews.’ Jewish dealers are described as manipulating the market, interested only in money, turning the old gentleman’s club of art dealing into a crude emporium. It is not an argument for concentration camps or gas ovens, but it is the product of a society that refused to admit those fleeing from them.

No one comes out of the debate around Addled Art looking very good. Most of the artists opposing Lindsay were seizing on the chance to attack a conservative. The Communist Left who had a better idea than most about what was happening in Germany and Poland, were quite mild on the book because the author had opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Even though it is hated now, Addled Art was popular when it was first published, so its author should hardly be ostracised for sharing popular taste. Anti-Semitism was so embedded within Australian culture at the time that the chapter on Jews didn’t give people too many problems.

The book was read in manuscript by Sir Frederick Jordan, the Chief Justice of New South Wales who only saw a potential problem with a defamatory chapter on living Australian artists (the chapter was dropped). The first edition sold out in a week and it was reprinted. A slightly modified version was reprinted in Britain.

And then the world changed.

At the end of World War II, almost overnight, people were given evidence they could not deny: an apparently civilised European country had barbarically treated millions of fellow human beings. And the world had denied most of the victims any kind of refuge.

Photographs in newspapers and magazines, and film footage on newsreels became a continual reminder of the guilt of those who had refused to help. The stories told by refugees, rejected for so long as exaggerations or fantasy, were seen to be understated. The evil which was done to Jewish people in Europe was beyond imagining. Politicians reluctantly realised they had a responsibility to the survivors. Australia, Canada, the United States, Britain, Switzerland all had participated in restricting the right of refugees to flee for their lives. Australia began to fully open its doors to refugees.

In the 1980s, when I was researching the context of Lionel Lindsay’s life, I found myself speaking to old men who had been young in the 1930s and 1940s. They were still deeply, almost casually anti-Semitic, but at the same time they were appalled at the Holocaust. They still could not see any connection between their embedded distaste for ‘the Jews’ and the events of that time.

Which is why it is important to remember that the great hate crimes that led to the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s, the Cambodian massacres of the 1970s, the Rwandan and Bosnian massacres in the 1990s, are not the result of a momentary lapse or the sudden advent of a dictator. Racial prejudice comes from the oft-repeated sneer, the assumption that an opponent is part of a class which can be called the ‘other.’ Prejudice plays on the differences between people not the common connections that join us all.

For me, the worst part of the last 11 years happened in 2001 when a fearful Australian Government worked to make demons out of people fleeing for their lives from war in Afghanistan: Tampa, SIEVX, children overboard. That hate campaign was only able to work because, for many years, politicians had sown the seeds by encouraging resentment of people who worship their God in a slightly different way to ‘us’ and who wear different clothes.

Now, I think it is true that the tide has begun to turn, and the media is beginning to present a slightly more nuanced portrait of Muslim Australians.

What then will be the next prejudice? Who will be the next group to be dehumanised, penalised, and turned into something suitable to be imprisoned or even killed?

We can’t kid ourselves that it won’t happen. Given the right set of circumstances, a demagogic leader or shock jock media presence, mobs can be convinced that women are witches, gays are pedophiles, the family that looks different are criminals, and strangers have taken all the good jobs.

Or maybe they’ll just go back to hating Jews.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.