“Scams in the Desert” Reaches the Opinion Pages

The Australian for March 7 has followed up Rothwell’s Weekend article with an editorial opinion. The most striking argument they present, in my mind, is the case against government intervention, citing the long history of well-intentioned and sometimes even morally appropriate solutions–equal pay for Aboriginal stockman being the standout instance–that have proven to have unintended and ultimately undesirable consequences for the people they were supposed to protect and benefit.

Their gloomy resolution that “it seems that little can be done to protect indigenous artists from all those who would exploit them and the gullible collectors who pay too much for poor paintings” may be a sad truth, but I’m not sure I would take it as the last word on the subject. Nor do I agree with their assessment that “[i]t is in the interests of everybody who is in the industry legitimately – painters and dealers, collectors and curators – to ensure that people recognise quality when they see it.” What’s at issue here is not the quality of the artwork; it’s a fair go for the artists.

A letter to the editor appeared in the same issue, headlined “Art Consumers not to Blame,” and its first paragraph raises an objection that I don’t disagree with .

The claim that the scams in the Aboriginal art industry are akin to slavery (“Scams in the desert”, Inquirer, 4-5/3) shows a lack of understanding of the horrors of slavery. Likewise, the comparison to the theft of artworks from the Jews during World War II is inappropriate.

It is incumbent on this industry to continue to improve its systems to maintain the integrity and value of its products. The Government has a responsibility to support this economically and socially important industry in its attempt to reform, through legislation and education.

To attribute blame to the consumer, as in the closing sentence of Nicolas Rothwell’s article, does more to deter sales and hence harm the Aboriginal art industry than it does to solve the problem.

I find Rothwell’s comparisons to slavery and Nazism unhelpful because they add a layer of hysterical comparison that attaches more significance to the problems of the art market in Central Australia than the situation warrants. While I think what some art dealers are engaged in qualifies as criminal, I can’t righteously compare it in scope or effect to what happened in the United States in the eighteenth century or Germany in the twentieth. 

However, I have problems with the rest of the letter’s reasoning, especially in the last paragraph. Although I too felt the sting of Rothwell’s concluding challenge to the collector, I don’t know that his request for an examination of conscience equals an attribution of blame, as the letter writer suggests. In discussions of this grievous issue, let me repeat, we need to keep our eyes on who is truly injured by the unethical behavior in question.

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