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Politics of mediocrity threaten Blake religious art prize

  • 15 December 2014

Artists play an important role in deepening our cultural imagination in a way that helps us to see and understand how religion is returning as a social and cultural force to be reckoned with and celebrated.

Blake Society Chair Rev Dr Rod Pattenden has written about the power of religion to maintain our ‘tribal’ differences while at the same time acting as a resource for dissolving the false boundaries in our society that hold us back from a spirit of ‘generous understanding’ of each other.

The announcement of the winners of the Blake Prize for religious art is usually a welcome demonstration of the fact that corporate sponsors recognise the role religious imagination has to play in our society. But the apprehension at Saturday’s event at the UNSW Paddington Campus in Sydney was a sign that this recognition is faltering, and that the 63rd award of the Prize may be the last.

Without a major sponsor for the past seven years the prize is in desperate need of a miracle to maintain its running costs of around $60,000. Pattenden spoke about the ‘big hole’ in the Blake’s finances that needs to be addressed.

‘In approaching sponsors, many of them recognise that spirituality is a difficult, if not prickly, subject for consideration in Australia,’ he told Fairfax. ‘Sponsors prefer their art to be popular and safe.’

On Saturday the main prize of $25,000 was awarded to Melbourne artist Richard Lewer for his hand-drawn animation that depicts the story of elderly Perth man Bernie Erikson, who survived a failed suicide pact with his wife. Lewer said he wanted to raise questions about euthanasia as a live issue in a way that did not judge the morality of Erikson’s actions.

Pattenden described the winning entry as a beguiling work that presents a complex story of love and death in a simple story-like form. ‘It invites reflection and the format is really very beautiful and the soft compassionate voice of the artist leaves us with questions to consider’.

The Blake includes a poetry prize and a Human Justice Award, which was awarded on Saturday to another Melbourne artist – Hedy Ritterman – for her depiction of 96 year old Richard with his hands on a museum plinth holding a belt that is his only possession that survived his World War II incarceration in concentration camps (pictured).

Works such as this command our attention and deep reflection, and they defy our society’s demand