Subjective rejection

June 3, 2013

When I submitted photos of the sculpture “Boat People” for inclusion in the Hobart Art Prize, I was half expecting the possibility of winning the $30,000. To me, the subject matter of refugees seeking a safe haven in another country is, in Australia, a potent political debate and worthy of an artistic interpretation. Putting politics aside, the aesthetics of the nine boats carrying little “stone people” could also win the day. Or so I thought.


I didn’t win 1st prize. In fact, I didn’t even get short listed and won’t even be able to exhibit this sculpture come July.

Hubris and humility are not what I want to write about. Nor a vindictive of sour grapes directed at the three jurors who selected what art got into the exhibition. Rather, what interests me is the total subjectivity behind the process. I, myself, have had to select “winners and losers” in art exhibitions and it is always a terribly difficult and emotionally draining experience.

I continue to do it — both make art and judge art — because I want others to see what I see; to feel what I feel.

Oddly, the decision of the three judges was an affirmation of the ability of the brain’s right hemisphere to overcome the left’s more “rational, academic, less imaginative” tendencies and to demonstrate, yet again, that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. Purely subjective. (Or, so I hope.)


The same day I received the email telling me of my non-inclusion in the Hobart Art Prize, I was looking at a photo of the Eagle nebula. The description read: “the extended wings of the Eagle Nebula are spread over 120 light-years”.

But I couldn’t see any wings. All my imagination could see was the side profile of a bearded, youthful, romanesque, head with eyes closed blowing a wisp of stars softly from illuminated puffed cheeks out into the vastness of the universe.

My point is that even our imaginations can create totally different visions. Who knows what the jurors saw when looking at my Boat People. Certainly not what I wanted them to see.


Poet Marge Piercy writes of this:

A flame from each finger,
my hands are candelabra,
my hair stands in a torch.
Out of my mouth a long flame hovers.
Can’t anyone see, handing me a newspaper?
Can’t anyone see, stamping my book overdue?

from “I am a light you could read by”

Like all artists, Piercy’s poetry is an attempt to communicate her intense, individual experiences of living and being to her readers. The fact that no one else seems capable of seeing/feeling what she is experiencing is typical of the life of the artist.

Writing about the poet Rilke, but equally applying to Piercy and other artists, J.B. Leishman states:

“Here we encounter what for many readers is the intrinsic difficulty: the fact that experiences which for Rilke are of central significance are for them only occasional, intermittent, or peripheral.”

“Here, experiencing and reviewing life, is a very solitary person, one to whom institutions and organizations, which to most people mean so much, seem to mean almost nothing.”


Years ago, when I first attempted to exhibit the “Forest Bench”, I was requested to remove it from the exhibition because it was deemed inappropriate. Today, this design is represented in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

kathleen e kelly December 17, 2013 at 5:26 am

Peter… once again you express yourself with more humility than you realize. The boat people are sadly wonderful and obviously those with clearer eyes have no trouble seeing that this is so. Possibly it is the idea you were conveying that hit someones’ blind spot. Not the art…but the very idea itself.

I too saw only the face in Eagle nebula..with the twinkling stars.. blurring out the harsh light.

Always, Kathleen

lou spaventa September 20, 2013 at 11:55 am

Those are precisely boat people. That’s all one needs to know.

And the guy in the Eagle nebula looks relaxed, blowing kisses to the rest of us.

Don’t despair. I am sitting in the middle of the greatest heep of political narrowmindedness, popular media drivel, and uncountable other affronts to human dignity, and I am, basically, happy. I do and don’t live in the United States. The best me lives in the world of the poet, the musician, and the artist.

martha June 8, 2013 at 7:45 am

Probably had a hard time translating rocks to be people. The piece is stunning and thought provoking on so many levels. FYI I always seek out your bench to sit on when I’m visiting the MFA, it’s as close as I can get to having a visit with you for now.

Aaron June 4, 2013 at 8:57 pm

Funny how a good dose of humility breeds clarity, as I writer I have learnt to make rejection my cosy bedfellow and my greatest teacher. That said this piece of yours that was rejected contains both poignancy of a political subtext (which probably curried you little favour with the parochial judges), and the delicate detail of a master craftsman. It is a beautiful and moving piece and maybe one of your best…

In the interim, suck it up brother and turn the other cheek.

John Caddy June 3, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Well said, Peter. Leishman’s quote rocks me. Right on. also much appreciate the Piercy quote. Don’t know the poem but will find. Thank you, HearthMaster.

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