The "Skywhale" hot air balloon sculpture by Patricia Piccinini is inspected by the public as it's tethered near the National Museum from its maiden flight over Canberra

Alluring: The Skywhale looms over the the National Museum in Canberra. Photo: Getty Images

A little over a week ago Our National Capital descended into civil war when reports were leaked that a 34 metre-long skywhale with a tortoise-shaped head and ten long, ponderous breasts was to be set adrift in the autumn sky. Beige roundabouts flared into technicolour battlezones. The city seethed with suspicion. Who likes this blimp with breasts, they asked. Is it beautiful or not? Should $300,000 worth of taxpayers’ money be spent on art when there are football games that need funding? How is a mutant mammal of a distinctly mammary persuasion relevant to Canberra? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate the centenary of Canberra with a blue-bell flower or a cockatoo?

In case you missed it, world-renowned sculptor Patricia Piccinini was commissioned by Robyn Archer, the Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra, to create an artwork to commemorate Canberra’s 100th birthday. Ordinarily, like Canberra itself, this event would have slipped under the radar of national and global consciousness. Except that Piccinini dared to re-enchant our world with a creature of myth and marvel. She birthed an animal from the words, ‘what if?’ Our species has always been vulnerable to mutation, she said. So what if evolution went a different way? What if we evolved a nature that could fly instead of swim? And so she dreamed up the skywhale, a creation that shocked us out of the banal and into the strange. As the skywhale soared high above Canberra, many people did something we often forget to do: they wondered. They felt curious. They thought.

Of course, not everybody did. On May 10th when skywhale was launched, 62% of Canberra Times readers said that they would like to harpoon it. In fact, they had decided this long before they even saw it. Columnist Ian Warden wanted to know why Canberra couldn’t have had ‘a more festive, more accessible style of balloon?’ Social media was awash in its usual spit-flecked vituperation: ‘For gods sake, when will these idiots in government stop wasting money?’ was a typical tweet. Skywhale’s boobs were also a problem, given that very few people like boobs in public if they stray too far away from their socially-designated role as objects of sexual pleasure. ACT opposition leader Jeremy Hanson even said that the creation was ‘embarrassing’.

Crowd watch the launch of former Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini's Skywhale at the National Gallery of Australia. Click for more photos

The majesty of the Skywhale

Crowd watch the launch of former Canberra artist Patricia Piccinini's Skywhale at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

As someone who has a few smelly artists for friends, I’m used to complaints of Australian philistinism. The only way to gain art funding is through creating something non-controversial, they tell me. They whinge about festivals like Sculpture by the Sea which, in only selecting work that is aesthetically pleasing and whimsical, gives people the wrong idea of what modern art is. The Anish Kapoor exhibition reduced art to a family fun day of distorting mirrors, they wail. And local art festivals are only about art-tainment – easily consumable art that reassures rather than challenges. Given that the NSW gallery cordoned off its permanent collection during the Art and About Festival two years ago in favour of a jazz band in the foyer, I think they may have a point.

But the interesting thing with skywhale is that government bureaucrats are clearly not to blame. Robyn Archer behaved with vision, bravery and intellectual majesty in responding to criticism. She could have easily commissioned a big boring blue-bell, but she chose instead to fund something genuinely creative. She enlivened what could otherwise be confined to the coffins of private galleries. She democratised an elite practice.

It’s not local council or government that can be accused of philistinism. In this case, it’s us, the public. And it’s not the first time we’ve behaved badly.  In 1973, Whitlam’s decision to purchase Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles was met with public fury, in 1980, Ron Robertson-Swann’s sculpture Vault was dismantled under moonlight after being dubbed ‘The Yellow Peril’ by art haters, and only a few years ago Bill Henson was branded a paedophile for his globally-acclaimed photographs of pre-pubescent teenagers.

From public art to everyday life, visual artists are held in suspicion. Few artists have escaped the indignity of being asked what their real job is. While the government is often enlightened, we – the public – live under the tyrannical rule of a spectral Tax Payer in a dreary, financially-obsessed, imaginatively-impoverished world.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with engaging in debates over artistic merit. If art is funded by the tax payer then it should be accountable – and debate is simply part of this process. The problem is that the debate is all too often knee-jerk, ill-informed and vitriolic. Yes, the skywhale cost $300,000. But as Archer pointed out this is about half the cost of 8 hours of international day-night cricket. No, the skywhale may not be beautiful. But why does visual art have to be beautiful anyway? We don’t expect this of other mediums such as film (where horror is one of the most popular genres) so why do we demand it of art? That many Canberrans were ready to slay the skywhale before anyone had even seen it is a perfect example of the kind of philistinism our country would be better off without.

If we accept that everybody can be an artist and, in turn, that everyone can be an art-critic then we need to start taking our job as reviewers more seriously. Let’s stop asking whether we like or don’t like something, and ask instead whether it nourishes the imagination or stimulates curiosity. Instead of crafting a 170 character torrent of abuse for Archer, let’s read a book about Piccinini’s vision. If you want to engage in debate then do so with moderation, modesty, reason and tolerance.

In a world that consigns monsters and miracles to infants and believers, let’s allow art to take us back to something ever-present in humanity’s history: the ability to marvel, to wonder and to imagine.