Australia's Archibald Art Prize: ‘Who Says Crime Doesn't Pay?’

Charles Waterstreet. Photo by @lilymayers, reposted with permission

Charles Waterstreet. Photo by @lilymayers, reposted with permission

The Archibald Prize, Australia's most prestigious art competition, has continued its long tradition of controversy. It is awarded for a portrait ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’.

Both artist, Nigel Milsom, and subject, Charles Waterstreet, have a colourful history in the law. They met and became friends when Milsom was convicted and gaoled for a 2012 armed robbery. Waterstreet was his lawyer. He is best known as co-creator of the television series Rake, whose main character Cleaver Greene is loosely based on his life and career. His proud re-tweet made the connection:

In fact, at times it seemed like Charles had won the award:

Not all art lovers appreciated the many media headlines that focused on Milsom's criminal record:

But others on Twitter had no qualms about raising his criminal past:

There were the inevitable online art critics. It is a recurring theme of the Archibald that the winner is a poor choice:

This tweet referenced the famous winning entry by William Dobell in 1943, which faced an unsuccessful legal challenge that argued it was a caricature not a portrait.

Raichel laid out the similarities for all to see:

Joanna Mendelssohn was very positive at The Conversation arguing that it is “our ‘most fun’ festival of faces”. She explained:

First, the Archibald is – in essence – not an art prize but a celebration of the personalities who define Australia, and especially Sydney. Waterstreet, the flamboyant inspiration for the ABC television series Rake, has to be a front runner on those grounds alone.

In addition, Milsom was the winner of the 2013 Moran Prize – and a convicted criminal – all of which makes good copy. The Archibald is, above all things, about media coverage.

A thread running through much of the discussion of Australian literary and art prizes is the lack of gender balance. This has been a contentious point with the Archibald, regarding both artists and their subjects. There were many tweets linking to the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper article Archibald Prize 2015: It takes balls to be a winner:

Finally, Peter Pidgeon shared a popular video post by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which contains a famous relation of his:

It gives a chance to judge the worthiness of the winners for yourself.

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