Orientalist scholar Roger Benjamin unimpressed by Birmingham’s Twitter take-down

The respected art historian and University of Sydney academic was startled to see his research featuring in an unflattering tweet from Simon Birmingham.

Professor Roger Benjamin, regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on art inspired by Orientalist or Arabic influence in southern Spain and northern Africa, including the work of renowned artists such as Eugene Delacroix and Henri Matisse, had unsuccessfully applied for an Australian Research Council grant.

He hadn’t realised that his 52-page application had made it through the ARC’s rigorous peer review process and had been recommended by the ARC but vetoed by the then education minister, Senator Birmingham.

The senator had quietly vetoed 11 ARC grant applications worth more than $4 million in 2017 and 2018, including that of Professor Benjamin.

Labor senator Kim Carr uncovered the grant vetos in Senate estimates hearings last week, a revelation that ignited fury across the higher education sector and led to Senator Carr publicly denouncing Senator Birmingham’s grant decisions.

Senator Birmingham responded to the criticism via Twitter. “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post-orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’,” the Liberal Party senator tweeted last week.

He has since declined to comment further on the matter.

Professor Benjamin found the whole saga rather depressing.

“I hadn’t thought it would have to withstand the pub test, and it would be scrutinised adversely by a minister,” he said.

Other senior arts academics have said that mocking the titles of grant applications ill befits the minister of an educated nation.

“You don’t judge a book by its cover. We doubt, as a university, that the minister went any further than the list of titles in deciding to axe certain grants. Did he read the 100 words? Did he read the first few pages? Did he look at the assessments? I very much doubt it,” Professor Benjamin said.

With substantial grants and two books on the subject to his name, Professor Benjamin said he had been told by the ARC that his application was in the top 10 per cent of those it had received.

The University of Sydney then awarded him a “near miss” grant to improve his application in order to try again. And he has tried again, for the 2019 grants round, which has already been assessed or is about to be assessed.

He has seen the review notes provided by the scholars who assessed his earlier application, which was actually titled “Double Crossings: post-Orientalist arts at the Strait of Gibraltar”, rather than the abbreviated title used by Senator Birmingham.

The reviewers were remarkably positive about his work, which is probably why Professor Benjamin’s application went through the peer review process and his application was recommended to the Minister by the ARC. One reviewer wrote: “Benjamin is a scholar of the highest order and the world’s leading researcher in this specialist field of so-called ‘Orientalism’ in the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

“His knowledge of the topic, the issues it raises and the theoretical background to its study comes through in every line of this ­application.”

Another wrote: “Benjamin is the world expert in cultural encounters between Western artists and North Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

A third wrote: “Understanding the histories of this part of the Mediterranean — an epicentre of people-smuggling and postcolonial unravelling — are of huge significance in getting current political and social policies right.

“The outcomes of this project will cast a very favourable light on Australian research in the UK, Spain, France, Gibraltar and ­Morocco.”

Meanwhile, a Cambridge University research project on a similar theme, titled “Past and present musical encounters across the Strait of Gibraltar”, was awarded a grant of about €2 million ($3.2m) over five years by the European Research Council, Professor Benjamin said. The ERC also uses a peer-review system to assess grant applications, though it is considered to be not quite as exhaustive as the Australian model.

Besides the indisputable importance of the arts and their understanding in the public discourse, universities these days emphasise the importance of research-led teaching.

“The best teaching is informed by real researchers who get out there and go across the world learn the languages and engage first-hand with the objects,” Professor Benjamin said.

In 2013 the Australian Research Council awarded Professor Benjamin a three-year research fellowship called the DORA Fellowship — the Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award, a little like a distinguished professorial fellowship.

He devoted it to his work in his specialist field, in a project titled “Orientalism of the Mediterranean shore”.

He then published two books on the subject, rated A1 for content and originality, and wrote a total of 15 articles.

Saada, the Wife of Abraham Ben-Chimol, and Preciada, One of Their Daughters (1832) by Eugene Delacroix.
Saada, the Wife of Abraham Ben-Chimol, and Preciada, One of Their Daughters (1832) by Eugene Delacroix.

For his current grant application for the 2019 grants round, Professor Benjamin is collaborating with National Gallery of Australia on a major exhibition tentatively planned for 2020-21 on the subject of Australian artist travellers to North Africa and southern Spain.

Many Australians went to that part of the world to paint, he pointed out, so the subject has national as well as international relevance.

This exhibition, like others Professor Benjamin has been involved in abroad, will probably be seen by thousands of people.

“The subject may seem far away to the man in the pub, but it actually has a lot to do with contemporary diplomacy,” he said.

Besides the value of his scholarship, Professor Benjamin has been doing his fair share to help the public understand visual art.

“Taking pot shots at the most specialised end of our activity is unjust because we do an awful lot of public-service sort of work,” he noted.

An exhibition titled Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage opened recently at the Art Gallery of NSW, and Professor Benjamin has so far given three lectures about the art from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, one to guides to help them understand what they should say to the public, and two to fee-paying members of the Art Gallery Society of NSW.

Professor Benjamin said he was concerned about the ramifications of unpublicised and unexplained political intervention in the Australian Research Council grants round.

“It’s not so bad for me. I’m a senior academic and I’ve had money from the ARC in the past,” he said.

“The people I am sorry for are the younger scholars at the outset of their careers.”

(Top image: Henri Matisse’s 1940 oil painting “Interior with an Etruscan Vase”. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)