Reader Response: The Painter in Alice Springs

In Peter Barnes’s black comedy, The Ruling Class, the mad Earl of Gurney believes himself to be Jesus Christ. When asked how he knows that he is God, he replies, “Simple. When I pray to him, I find I am talking to myself.” One of the dangers of blogging, I’ve discovered in the last month, is falling prey to delusions of omniscience through monologue. Thus I was delighted to receive an extended response to my post on “The Painter in Alice Springs ” from a thoughtful correspondent. I reproduce it here with permission:

Should the artists be in Alice?  One question to ask is, what’s best for the artist?  If connection to the land puts an individual artist into contact with wellsprings of inspiration and spiritual power, then get out of town.  But what if you’re the main source of income for a large, extended family, a family that’s humbugging you every day for cash, cars, and other financial favors?  If you have the opportunity make big money by cranking out canvasses for private dealers, what is your true moral obligation?  Of if your eyes, lungs or kidneys are on the fritz, isn’t it better to be closer to quality medical care than suffering out in the community?

The “intercultural space” is filled with moral ambiguity and mutual exploitation.  The making and selling of art is a market-driven activity, and I wish there was a better way to sort out the players in the market.  Do you buy only from community art centers?  Do you extend the buying circle to include the “good” dealers?  How do you separate them from the “bad” exploiters (all of whom insist that they take better care of the artists both physically and financially than idealistic but ineffective art center coordinators)?  Is it our responsibility as collectors who care about the personal and cultural well-being of the artists to judge the dealers and make our judgments public?   This would certainly help collectors who just don’t have the time or knowledge to sort these things out.

So I guess I widen the basic question to:  how do I participate in the buying and selling of indigenous art in Australia in a way that is beneficial to the individual artists, respectful of their history and tradition, and supportive of the larger cultural goals of the communities in which they live?  The easy answer is to buy from the art centers and the dealers who support them.  But if the artist needs money and a not so beatific private dealer pays them more than the art center, shouldn’t I respect that artist’s right to make the choice of who he or she paints for?  If we boycott certain private dealers, doesn’t this cut off an important source of  income from people who desperately need it?  It’s easy for us whitefellas who are well fed, watered, and stabled, to be righteous.  And even private collectors exploit the rising value of Aboriginal painting, slipping works to the auction houses, taking tax breaks on donations of appreciated artworks, leaving valuable collections to their heirs.

I’d argue that the relationship of dealer/collector to artist is inherently exploitative, and even more so when the dealer/collector is a whitefella buying indigenous works.  To minimize the exploitation, we have to find a way to give back some of the appreciated value of the art to the people who made it, to use in furthering their own interests as they define them.

The first point raised is, I think, an excellent one that I often overlook in debating these issues: there is no single answer. I’m frequently aware that there is no simple answer, but this is different. The decision is, correctly, up to the individual artist, and any attempt to abrogate that right is offensive. Outside the contested realm of Alice Springs, this seems much easier to sort out and no-one worries much (in my hearing) about Kathleen Petyarre spending much of her time in Adelaide or Rosella Namok buying a house in Cairns. (It has even been suggested to me that Rosella’s occasional removal from Lockhart River allows younger artists to grow and experiment out from under her shadow. I do realize that this is something of an apples-and-oranges comparison, but my point remains that there is no one correct conclusion.)

The second critical issue raised is the question of how one sorts out the “good” dealers from the “bad” dealers. While I said earlier that I would come down on the side of the communities every time, I have to acknowledge that an inept art adviser–one who is insufficiently versed in either the aesthetic or the commercial aspect of his responsibilities, or worse, is first concerned with personal financial or career advantage–can be deadly to an entire community’s enterprise. I put my hope to a degree in the notion that art advisers are employees of the communities, and so theoretically the decision is back in the hands of the painters and the community.

As for commercial dealers in Alice (and elsewhere), I can only applaud the notion that collectors ought to speak out and take responsibility for judging dealers and making our judgments public. In the post I called An Aboriginal Rashomon , I talked about the process of creating consensus, or history, or truth in Aboriginal communities. We need to do that in the community of collectors and critics and dealers as well; we need to talk honestly about these issues, and as openly as we can. I’d like to think I make better judgments now, and that I’d be willing to share those judgments with others in an appropriate manner. But it took a very long time to build up the trust and bona fides that allowed others to confide their opinions in me. 

My instinct once again tells me to look at the social values of the artist. And for this I once again return to Fred Myers for this quotation from Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self:

Although money is an important article of value, the Pintupi have not accepted a commodity-based economy. They do not enter the larger Australian economy for work nor do they desire to do so. They want, as far as an outsider can see, primarily to remain in close proximity with their relatives. In this sense, they are inclined to use the value they gain through work or other payments for traditional ends like traveling and visiting. Many individuals work to earn enough money for particular capital items (a motorcar, a radio, fancy clothes) and then quit. A Pintupi man who was especially afflicted by the disparity between white and black culture described the contrast in these terms: “Money is the main thing for whites; they don’t worry who will cry for them when they die.” (40-41)

I’m sure that much has changed since those words were written twenty years ago. Kintore and Kiwirrkura were then new settlements on traditional lands, in existence less than five years. Much of the hope that established those communities has probably burned off over the decades. The politics of indigenous affairs have swung between the abolition of terra nullius and the rise of One Nation. As my Reader points out, idealism can be ineffectual.

He also points a pragmatic way forward, by the simple expedient of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, and returning value to the painters, as he says, “to use in furthering their own interests as they define them.” That sentiment does not seem so far removed from the one expressed by Fred Myers and may help to define for dealers and collectors a path toward ethical behavior.

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