Pro Hart - How he was treated unfairly by art critics
July 28th, 2013 by Karen Elzinga
Artist :Pro Hart
Once in a while a name will come to fruition and people will remember its value for ever. Kevin Charles Hart or Pro Hart as he is more commonly referred to is one such person. A miner with an artist brush in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other took Australia by the heart strings with his captivating outback scenes filled with humor and frivolity. A man whose talents were continually taunted and degraded by elite levels of the artistic fraternity to the point of black listing his work from prestigious Australian galleries. Yet with grit and determination Hart rose to be one of Australia's favorite icons, a national treasure, and an artist who sold almost every painting he ever painted.
Pro Hart born in 1928 was the "people's painter", he was a unique character, a philanthropist, a down to earth Aussie larrikin who was as eccentric and controversial as they come (Hart,2007). There was no doubting that Hart had skill as an artist with the Australian public loving his comedic and rustic portrayals of life around Broken Hill, the town some refer to as the 'Silver City', 'Oasis of the West" or Capital of the outback'. No matter how hard Hart tried to fit in with the art fraternity, his talents were dismissed by the art established elite who refused to hang his paintings in some of Australia's most superior art galleries. Art critic and head curator Barry Pearce from the Australian art at the gallery, compared Hart to that of another Australian icon and legend Slim Dusty, by surmising that hanging Harts artwork in their gallery when compared to hanging the likes of Renoir or Picasso was like saying that Slim Dusty is worthy of being portrayed alongside Mozart, this implied that unfortunately the two no matter how good individually do not compare on scale both in historical value or cultural importance. This could also be said of the National Gallery of Australia, and Art Gallery of NSW, who refused to hang or purchase Hart's paintings, even after Hart sent a painting as a gift, the painting was merely placed into storage where it sat for 30 years (Meacham, 2006).
Hart believed that the art fraternity didn't like him because they would never be able to stereotype his work into the typical frame work of history, he was so original and there was no one in an historical context for them to draw from or to compare him to (Hart, 2007, 94).
Whilst Hart tried not to listen to the criticism consistently aimed at him, he never got over the harshness of certain comments. John Hart, Pro's son spoke about his father's hurt and how he felt about his rejection by the art world establishment saying that Pro Hart mentioned at the end of his life a comment made by critic Robert Hughes, who called him "parish pump incompetence" (Meacham, 2006).
One only has to investigate how Pro Hart's artwork was accepted into homes of everyday Australians to see the impact his work had. Over 200 articles have been written by Fairfax papers alone, describing his work as much as his character, his sense of humor, his more than unorthodox methods, his political conspiracy theorist views and opinions and of course the way the art fraternity marginalized him over his career.
When a faceless art critic was asked in 2000, what they thought about Pro Hart's work being copied and sold illegally, one who dare not be named sniggered "When you could purchase a real Pro Hart painting for a mere few hundred dollars why on earth would anyone bother to buy a counterfeit one (MASLEN, 2000). Although Hart denied any counterfeit or copying of his work, he did conduct an internal investigation into a security breach and one that lead to him devising new and ground breaking methods of ensuring the authenticity of his work.
Pro Hart was an enterprising artist investigating methods of preserving his own DNA to his paintings to stamp out possible forgery of his art, whilst he was alive and for after his death. He would collect his own DNA cells by scraping a cotton bud to the inside of his mouth, which would then be sent to a laboratory for processing and application to his artwork. Hart was a leader in this field in Australia being the first living person known to apply DNA to artworks (Hill-Douglas, 2002).
Hart was a self taught artist and often characterized as an untiring self promoter, critics called him the "Ken Done of the outback" (MASLEN, 2000). But for whatever reason this man from the bush had immense commercial success for his exuberant stick figure people, which were surrounded by virtually fluorescent orange/red hues that embodied the ground where he lived. In the book entitled The Art of Pro Hart written by Eugene Lumbers, it states it is the reddened hue of a semi like dessert setting of Harts works that personifies to the rest of Australia and indeed the world that this is out back Australia. To overseas investors it tells of a land rich in colour, torrid, rustic and wild in nature where great explorers like Burke and Wills traveled in search of new beginnings, and where many a story was told (Lumbers, 1977).
Hart certainly had to endure the wrath of numerous critics in his career, and it is that level of continual bombardment by the detractors such as Daniel Thomas, (Art Gallery of NSW) who just despised Harts work calling it "airport art, that provided international visitors with a low priced evaluation of a visited country". Thomas also verbalized a disdain in Hart suggesting he had the lowest available level of taste and judgement and that his work was merely repetitious. But again this comment is thwarted by mere fact that, as Kym Bonython wrote "Pro Hart sold almost every work he ever finished" (Lumbers, 1977).
So with a combination so called respected academics consistently depriving Pro Hart of any accolade or artistic merit, how did he manage to become so iconic, so popular with collector and novice alike, how did he become validated by the people and forge his way into historical art history, when he was so on the nose to critics. Maybe it comes down to people and a simple use of Socratic dialogue. Not everyone will know what Socratic dialogue is, but the chances are they will have used Socrates methods more often than not when surrounded by a group of people, talking about a particular topic. In a Pro Hart gallery all looking at the one art work, one person may say "That's not art, the people are stick figures", but may change their mind after hearing why Hart paints them as stick figures, or where he got the idea for a painting from, or why he chose the colours or style he did and why other people in the group like it so much.
Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power, and informed knowledge will have people decide whether they like Pro Hart or not. Art is very individual, and people will inevitably draw their own conclusion to whether they enjoy the colours within a work, or the theme or style of a work, and they will get this based upon their own independent and critical evaluation, and after reflecting on what others around them have to say. For e.g. Person A and person B are going to see an exhibition of Pro Harts work, person A has read the critical review of the exhibition and has come into it with a preconceived idea that they will not like it, Person B has not read the reviews but has seen a lot of works in books and is excited to see the exhibition based on their own understanding of the work. Whilst person A has a closed mind, person B's mind is open. They both look around the exhibition with person B explaining why they love each work, Person A is starting to come around based on Person B's thinking, then they hear Pro Hart speak. Hart laughs and jokes about how the critics have canned his exhibition and goes onto explain his ideology and methodology with all the charisma and charm of an old bushman. After hearing Hart speak, person A is much more open to the artwork and rediscovers it with a more completed and informed knowledge based on an engagement of answered questions, whilst person B loves it even more.
It is very important to be armed with as much knowledge as possible when defining an opinion, or a belief, if every Australian read the reviews art critics or opponents of Pro Hart wrote, maybe they would derive their ideals about his work differently, maybe they would start to believe his work was not worthy, but fortunately Australian's don't really like to be told how to think and are more than capable of defining their own opinions and as Arthur Coleman Danto suggests in a book entitled Philosophy looks at the arts, people believe they know what the word art means, thus they also know what they define as an art work, and can differentiate between what they believe is art work from non art (Danto, 1978). In regards to Pro Hart that certainly appears to be the case, perhaps it is as simple as Harts work being recognisable, that the stories realized in them are true of life and ordinary people can envisage themselves doing them.
Hart's son Kym believes sentiment is the instrumental bonding agent in striking a chord with why the people love Pro's work so much. It was his unique way of telling a story of a town surrounded by dust, depicting every day people doing every day things as they lived. People could relate to that and they were touched by his representations of real scenarios in a real town (Age, 2006).
If the art mafia as Pro Hart called the art critics, believe Pro Hart should have no relevant theory in a historical content, why are there so many articles written about him, why did art critics even bother to comment on his work if they believed it so inferior, why did he receive a state funeral when he died from Motor Neurone disease in 2006, why did the world renown and touted the world's finest art reviewer in the 1960's, New Yorker Clement Greenburg say about Hart's work to the disbelief of other critics in the room and l quote ""A very interesting passage of painting there, isn't it?" (SCHWARTZ, 2006).
So has Pro Hart done enough to cement his status in an historic sense as having a theory of art, well art is designed for the people, and so it is for individuals and individuals alone to decide for themselves how they will inevitably define what is art and what is not, based on their own level of experience in an art environment. In the domain of public opinion we know that Pro Hart was not a painter's painter; he was the people's painter, a down to earth bloke from the bush with an uncanny ability to bring a story to life through paint. He was a man that was taunted and put down by the best of the best within Australia's art fraternity but through it all still remained determined and defiant enough to conquer the hearts and minds of many Australians, and overseas investors with his unspoilt cheekiness, humour, showmanship, tenacity, grit and talent, and so in the eyes of many Pro Hart is definitely a national treasure pure and simple.
Hill-Douglas, O. 2002. Cheeky Pro Hart puts DNA signature on his paintings.
Meacham, S. 2006. Hang the lot of them.
MASLEN, G. 2000. Forgery claim bewilders art world.
Age newspaper.2006. The brushstrokes of an Australian Eccentric.
Schwartz, L. 2006. Pro Hart: loved by the people, not 'art mafia'.
Van Rossem, K.n.d. Socratic Dialogue.
Lumbers, E. 1977. The Art of Pro Hart. Rigby Publishers Limited. Pg33-34.
Hart, D. 2007. Pro Hart, Dying to be heard. North Sydney: Ark house press
Danto, A., Margolis, J. 1978. Philosophy looks at the arts. Temple University Press. Philadelphia pg 132-144
Louise Bellamy https://www.smh.com.au/enterta...