State of the Art

Is it the Weekend again?

The Weekend Australian for March 11 has delivered another challenge in the form of an essay by Sebastian Smee on the problems that the lack of substantive, thoughtful art criticism engenders in the indigenous art world. He relies heavily of a critique published in the Weekend Australian on April 3, 2004 by Nicolas Rothwell; it’s hard not to think of this piece as a bookend to “Scams in the Desert.” The two critiques have put me in a mood to ruminate on how one responds responsibly to the outpouring in the news over the state of the art and the art market in Central Australia. 

Let’s start with excerpts from a few paragraphs in Rothwell’s 2004 essay:

The problems confronting the would-be critic of indigenous art are multiple. How to explore the visual creations of a totally different culture — or, rather, several distinct cultures, whose traditions and belief systems are not merely foreign to mainstream Australians but also veiled in secrecy? How to assess the art from such a world, and present its stylistic grammar and its variations? Who first decides what counts as a successful, resolved piece? And who then makes the case for its power and appeal across the cultural divide?

In the case of Aboriginal art, though, something’s missing: the sceptical, irony-laden voice of the contemporary scene — the voice of the critic, engaging in its continuous dialogue.

And what might such a dialogue sound like? Its authors would be familiar with the history, the symbolic and narrative components of the main indigenous schools of art. Perhaps they would know some traditional language as well. They would be steeped in Western cultures, past and contemporary. They would be conscious of the art market’s distorting pressure and immune to it. Above all, they would treat traditional artists not just as figures frozen in the Dreamtime but as individuals, as creative figures susceptible to understanding.

The tragedy in all this is that Aboriginal art needs no special dispensation, no favours from the wider community. Over the past generation it has proved itself one of the most distinctive creative currents of our time. It is born of the collision between tradition and modernity, and is best appreciated in a double register drawn from those two contending realms.

Smee foregrounds a third element, beyond aesthetics and ethnography, in the mix of problems in crafting a critical assessment of indigenous art: what Smee calls the political. This element has two sides. The first is the art as the carrier of indigenous pride and self-esteem, the ability of Aboriginal people as Fred Myers said in his radio interview a week ago, to assert control over representations of themselves. The second, in an ironic counterpoint to the first, is the politics of the non-indigenous Australian nation that employs Aboriginal culture as a mark of its national distinctiveness on the world stage and further uses that appreciation of indigenous culture as a form of expiation for the bloody colonial past. (Am I wrong in wondering whether the Howard government’s refusal to carry out the work of apology and reconciliation draws strength from the prescription of George Bush’s spin doctors: “Mission Accomplished”? The world has seen the embrace of Aboriginal culture in the 2000 Olympic Games, in the QANTAS jets emblazoned with Dreaming iconography, in the successful tourist campaigns that mean that over three-quarters of foreign tourists who come to Australia expect an “Aboriginal experience” to be part of their stay in country.)

Unfortunately, Smee quickly attempts to saw off both the ethnographic and political considerations in his critical tripod, leaving it rather shakily balanced on the aesthetic leg alone. The problem that this approach poses is exacerbated by his focus on the architecture of the indigenous galleries in the Ian Potter Centre. He asserts at some length his dissatisfaction with the exhibition or hanging of works in those problematic spaces. Some elements of his review appear to be aesthetic judgments of the artworks but actually refer more to curatorial decisions: an undersized display of Yvonne Koolmatrie’s work, for example, in juxtaposition to a stunning selection of Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s.

Further, he turns his back on one of Rothwell’s dicta: that the critic “be conscious of the art market’s distorting pressure and immune to it.” Smee states that he lived four years abroad, during which time he wrote appreciations of indigenous art and its “beautiful interweavings of conceptual and retinal forms of expression.” I take conceptual and retinal to be stand-ins for ethnographic and aesthetic, though beautiful tips the balance to the aesthetic. But he goes on to admit that on his return he “quickly became disillusioned by the distorting frenzy of the Aboriginal art market,” thus mimicking, intensifying, and finally abandoning Rothwell’s precept. 

In the end, Smee tries to dismiss the political from consideration by asserting that while “[n]o one can deny that a legitimate form of political activism is at the heart of Aboriginal art … it is naive to think of art as a sustainable solution to any social or political problem.” Rather, he urges us “to concentrate on what is good about the art” rather than focus our attention on “what good may – or may not – come from it.” Politics and ethics serve in the end to distract us from the art, so let us cut them out of consideration, even if it means cutting out “the heart.”

Perhaps all of this is an attempt to salvage the artwork from the maelstrom of controversy that has been quickening around the outrage over the dodgy practices of carpetbaggers. Maybe The Australian is backpedaling from its own part in stirring up the controversy a week ago by printing Rothwell’s blast-attack. But I would suggest that another argument is being promulgated here: that the controversy is not really worth spending our breath and energy on. 

What makes a mishmash of Smee’s arguments is that he is unable to extricate himself from the back and forth of aesthetics and politics, however much his closing statement indicates he would like to. The most instructive works of art in Land Marks, instructive in the sense that they tell us how to look at the art, are the early paintings from Papunya Tula, works that came out of “exceptional and unrepeatable circumstances.” The other great works in the show, and in the history of the movement since 1971, are attributed to a small group of artists who combine a “pared-back aesthetic” with “a strong connection to traditional lore and to the land.”

Smee then goes on to offer an equivocal but ultimately negative assessment of the future:

I would certainly never suggest that Aboriginal art has no future; clearly it does. But could it be that it is already fairly clear who the best of these artists are, that they have flourished in unique circumstances that are already changing beyond recognition, and that no amount of political wishful thinking can extend this creative surge indefinitely into the future?

So Aboriginal art has a future; it’s just that the best is over and done with, “unrepeatable.” Has the emphasis on political here shifted from the politics of Aboriginal pride and the preservation of law and culture to the politics of those who wish to possess that culture, market it, promote it, and profit from it? Has the art gone sour because prices have gone astronomical and works by artists “no one had heard of” a few years ago fetch large sums at Sotheby’s? Is Smee implying a correlation or causation? If the best art, in his view, combines a minimalist aesthetic with strong attachment to land, I wonder why he remains silent on the clearest and most recent incarnation of that combination, the buwayakpaintings coming from Yirrkala in the last three years (explicitly praised by Rothwell in his 2004 article). 

Or is it easier to retreat when hard questions are asked? 

In the last issue of The Australian Art Market Report (no. 19, Fall 2006) there is another piece by Jeremy Eccles on the carpetbagger problem. The thrust of Eccles argument is that artists will leave their communities and paint for private dealers, and we’d better get used to it. But at the very end, he suddenly tacks off in a different direction, turning his attention away from Tommy Watson and towards the position expressed by one Australian collector of both indigenous and non-indigenous art:

Morality’s no answer. I can’t take on the health of the whole industry. In the long run, those who stand by morality will lose out. […] I’m drifting back to my non-indigenous collection because I want to be happy with my art; I don’t want to have moral quandaries.”

Is this what Rothwell was referring to a week ago when he wrote, “Some distinguished collectors, sickened by the corruption at the heart of the trade, have abandoned their great obsession”? Are we to accept calmly this level of cynicism? Perhaps the Aboriginal art market is truly in worse shape than I can tell from this side of the Pacific. 

But I refuse to admit that Aboriginal art itself is in decline. Nor do I think we can brush aside the politics.


Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. –Mark Twain

Four and a half years ago a Melbourne art dealer told me pretty much what Smee says in his article: the best is over. We can look back on a golden era, but it’s gone. And after all, he said, what art movement ever lasted more than thirty years? How long did Impressionism dominate European art? Well, maybe longer than Cubism or Fauvism, or Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism, but not very long at all. Can we expect more from Aboriginal art? Or is it at the end a pretty good run?

The craze for innovation dominates the visual arts, and has done so for over a hundred years. I will go Robert Hughes one better and call it “the shock value of the new.” And I’m not sure what makes it appear this way. 

I don’t think that literature trades in its values for a new model every decade or so. There are ruptures and eruptions in forms of expression, for sure. Take Modernism, for example: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, or Samuel Beckett. They certainly brought about major stylistic deviations from what went before. Under the influence of Freud and Jung and in the aftermath of the Great War, narrative went more than a little wonky. The influence of those immense talents remains potent today, but the contemporary novel is not very much different in form or intent than Tom Jones. If Hollywood is any judge, Pride and Prejudice hasn’t gone out of fashion for most of the 20th century and beyond.

Maybe the short life spans of “schools” of painting only appear to be discontinuous and independent episodes in art history. To take a different point of view, Mannerism, Post-Impressionism, Futurism, and Photo-Realism all share a fundamental concern with visual perception and the struggle to translate ephemeral sense perceptions into a lasting record of an interior dialogue with an exterior world, which, by the way, is how I would characterize Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to anyone who asked.

Aboriginal art, as we talk about it now, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and a highly unusual one. It is born of more than the collision between tradition and modernity, as Rothwell said. It is born also of a collision between Western media and Western commerce and a decidedly “not-Western” worldview and pictorial/plastic tradition. To refer back again to the Betz/Myers radio interview, the whole notion of innovation is de-emphasized and to some extent devalued in most Aboriginal societies (the Tiwi seem exceptional in this regard). At the same time it is clear that the culture continues to metamorphose in response to both internal and external pressures. This new form of art has hardly been around long enough to gather a good head of steam, let alone exhaust itself.

The art is difficult: to comprehend, to speak and write about. The culture and the language pose extraordinary problems of translation. There is a collision of values, too, perhaps most easily seen in the communist/capitalist parody of artists and entrepreneurs. The art at Papunya emerged from what now is seen as a great injustice, the removal of the Pintupi from their homelands. We should remember that the removals of the 50s and 60s were effected for what were seen as humanitarian reasons at the time, that is, to take the people out of harm’s way during the rocket testing, and to alleviate the worst effects of a prolonged drought. Today’s situation in Alice Springs is no less ambiguous, as carpetbaggers insist that they are providing money and safe havens to artists who have neither. 

To walk away from these paradoxes because they are difficult is only cowardice: this is an understandable but unworthy response to both the art and the artists.

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