Gallery of Modern Art: Great Art Debate

Is there a better way to spend a Sunday night than listening to a talk debating art? For a brief moment, I forgot that tomorrow is Monday. The Great Art Debate was a virtual event that saw classical art and contemporary art go head-to-head to win the hearts and minds of the audience. A huge thank you to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and the two speakers, Mary McGillvray and Dr Louise Mayhew, for their passionate presentations. To start, I want you to decide which you prefer – classical art or contemporary art. You can’t say both, I want to challenge you. Once you’ve decided, read on and see if either argument can sway your decision. The debate also started by asking the audience this exact question. The result was 42% of people enjoy classical art, 17% contemporary and 43% couldn’t make up their mind. The latter option dropped out at the end when everyone was asked and polled again. At first, I was 100% voting for classical art, but, by the end of the presentations, my mind was in two places and my final vote went to contemporary. There were two rounds – hearts and minds, as well as a final arguments section. Here were the main arguments from those rounds and some final thoughts.

Hearts: Classical

Mary McGillivray, art historian and ‘TikToker’ who believes art is just old memes, began this session by showing a portrait currently on display in the European Masterpieces exhibition at GOMA. Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, this is Benedikt von Hertenstein, aged 22. Benedikt, wearing his best outfit for this formal portrait, was the son of a very wealthy mayor in Switzerland. Five years after this was painted, Benedikt died in battle. McGillivray argued that this portrait is a visual connection to humanity as we are drawn into the life of this man who looks kind of uncomfortable wearing all that wealthy clothing. Although he lived hundreds of years in the past, we cannot help but feel sympathy for him as we know, just five years later, he would die.

We then moved to Caravaggio and his artwork ‘The Musicians’. Side note, when I visited this exhibition with friends we nicknamed this ‘The Beatles’. Caravaggio is a master of conveying emotions in art. This artwork could represent allegorical concepts or four of the senses, we will never know. What we can see, however, is that this can be read as a sexually provocative painting blurring some of the lines between what is deemed masculine and what is deemed feminine. It is a powerful piece of art for the LGBTQIA+ community as Caravaggio is now known to have been bi-sexual. This artwork speaks to that, representing desire for men.

Next was an artwork by Marie Denise Villers. Originally attributed to a man, this was revised and Villers discovered to be the real artist. It is a stunning portrait with great attention to shadows and light that draws you in. What McGillivray argued with this artwork was how classical art can convey mystery. There is a crack on the window pane. Why is it there? No one knows. It reminds viewers that what we do today is not always universally comprehensible and it is not guaranteed that those in the future will understand its significance.

Finally, we had Van Gogh. To quote McGillivray, ‘people froth a Van Gogh’. The colours, the dynamic nature of his art – it’s all so beautiful and inviting. But, there are more reasons why his work has mass appeal. When we see his work, it garners a strong emotional response. We know his tragic life story, his battle with mental health and how he wasn’t appreciated during his time (cue episode of Doctor Who that makes my cry every single time).

All of these artworks remind us of what it is to be human and to have a shared experience. In summary, classical art connects us to the dead, challenges identities, provides us with mysteries and allows us to appreciate beauty – all of which result in an emotional connection.

Hearts: Contemporary

Responding we had Dr Louise Mayhew, an Australian feminist art history and contemporary artist. Similar to McGillivray, Mayhew focused on a few select artworks to argue her point of why contemporary art speaks more to the heart.

The first artwork is this gorgeous chandelier by Ai Weiwei titled ‘Boomerang’ that hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery. It is a destination artwork, donated by Weiwei when he was right on the cusp of fame. Chandeliers play with light to produce wonder and delight and have been doing so since back in the Medieval days when they were a symbol of luxury and wealth. Why does this artwork draw crowds every year? Because of its beauty and size. You are invited to stand in a moment of grandeur, admiring the art and feeling emotionally connected.

Mayhew then posed the question, if contemporary art is beautiful like classical, what more can it do? The artwork ‘Quantum Memories’ by Refik Anadol can answer this question. Oh how I wish I could see this in real life. You can kind of see from the photograph but this giant canvas combines 200 million images of nature to create a moving painting. It isn’t just beautiful, it manufactures an experience too great for comprehension, or, the sublime. Immanuel Kant argued that art could not produce a sublime experience but, as Mayhew argued, if he was alive today and saw this artwork, he may start to think otherwise.

So contemporary art can be beautiful, it can be sublime, but what else? The 2016 installation ‘The Second Woman’ by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon was a show that ran for 24 hours. The premise was a break-up scene with the same woman but different men coming to eat, chat and fight. At the end the man could say ‘I will always love you’ or ‘I never loved you’. Audiences were allowed to come and go as they pleased but you were lured into watching. Unlike classical art that is static, this was alive and excited audiences who were witnessing the show. Between each scene, audience members could speak to each other about what they had just witnessed. Mayhew argued, this was creating a Utopia.

There was one final artwork shared but I am going to jump ahead to round 2, minds.

Minds: Classical

In this round, McGillivray first showed my favourite artwork in the European Masterpieces exhibition, ‘Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill’ by Pieter Claesz. There is a skull so it won me over. I had no idea that it was a memento mori painting – or a painting that is created to remind the viewer they will die. Unlike the western cultural understanding of death today (something to be feared) in the 17th century death was not an unhappy talking point but was at the forefront of people’s minds to put things in perspective. This is a very Calvinist way of thinking but reminds you that death is inevitable so make the most of today.

What, however, did classical art reveal about broader social issues? McGillivray shared the portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, a female artist who was good friends with Marie Antoinette and the French Court just prior to the French Revolution. Really awesome that she was a female artist at this time earning a living and being well-respected. However, this portrait also comments on the intersection between gender and class. It’s great that she was a female artist, but this opportunity was not open to all women at the time. It draws connections to today where feminism is not equally enjoyed by all and some countries are leaps and bounds ahead of others. Complementing this was ‘The Third-Class Carriage’ by Honore Daumier that shows the realistic lives of the majority – the contrast of rich and poor is pertinent in these two artworks.

Finally, we had a look at Fra Angelico’s ‘The Crucifixion’. This artwork shows the mainstream values and beliefs of its era (14th century). So, in other words, was the pop culture of its day. To understand a society, looking at what is mainstream and/or popular, is just as enriching as viewing what was original and off the beaten track.

Minds: Contemporary

Mayhew had three themes to present in round 2: protest, repair and action. The first artwork she shared, ‘Anonymous Woman’ by Kate Just, is a protest piece, created to celebrate those who have been forgotten. Each square is knitted with the title of the artwork drawing inspiration from Mondrian, craft and the gorilla girls (activists who protested the minimal number of artworks by women in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Over 3500 hours have gone into this artwork and it is dedicated to women throughout history who were marginalized and erased from the history books. It also harks to the way that craft is both feminine and feminist.

For repair, we have the photographs of Fiona Pardington and the installation of Michelle Vine. Pardington sat with life casts taken of Māori people by colonisers for phrenology purposes. She waited until the light was just right and took a photograph, sitting with these complex histories and taking photographs as a way to try and heal. Vine, on the other hand, created a fluffy bathtub where visitors can pop on some headphones and sit in a comfortable meditative place hearing phrases such as ‘you are beautiful’. What a nice way to spend an afternoon.

Finally, for action, we had the immersive experience ‘Eat the Problem’ by Kirsha Kaechele. At this dinner party, you are compelled to fix the problem of invasive species by eating them. Gastronomy intersects with eco-activism not only within the walls of the gallery, but at home too. This is achieved through the publication of a cookbook that can influence visitors outside the four gallery walls.

Contemporary art must reach every segment of the population, championing inclusiveness and a call for action. As ‘Creation 2021’ by Deborah Kelly reveals, this is when art truly can touch both our hearts and our minds.

Final Round

To finish the event, both speakers could present closing arguments. For McGillivray, the focus was on needing classical art for contemporary art to exist. Classical art expresses ideas and values that are crucial if we ever want to understand where we were, where we are, and where we’re going. Mayhew, on the other hand, argued we spend too much time looking at the past. So many artists only became famous after they have died. There was a call to action to learn from these mistakes and appreciate the artists in the here and now who work at creating a more vibrant and meaningful life for everyone.


As I said at the beginning, my vote changed from classical to contemporary. In the end, contemporary won the poll with 60% of votes. It was such an enjoyable virtual event to attend and I encourage you all to watch the recording when that becomes live. See if you change your mind throughout the debate and use it as an inspiration to either physically (where you can) or virtually, seek out something creative to enrich your heart and your mind.

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