But Art, Feel Good (Don’t Worry, Be Happy!)

The April 22 issue of The Age has an article by Robert Nelson entitled “Treasures in the Backyard” that I would be tempted to dismiss as inane were it not truly pernicious. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that a piece whose very headline trumpets the value brought to the market by backyarders (a term conspicuously absent from the text itself) is awash with moral relativism, ad hominem arguments, and faulty logic. The Age has even seen fit to graft an appearance of propriety onto the author’s arguments by including a dramatic photograph of Ningura Napurrula and Nanyuma Napangati painting in the Papunya Tula compound at Kintore.

The author’s message is simple: when it comes to Aboriginal art, buy what you like and feel good about it. Don’t let purveyors of a new cultural cringe induce feelings of guilt. The implication is that the marketplace belongs to white men, so we get to make the rules. Ethics can be discarded if conflicts arise.

Let me begin with a few selections from the article about the practice of carpetbagging or backyarding. 

[S]cruples are clearly laudable, especially when shady dealers extort unreasonable profits from exploited artists.

Carpetbagging is undoubtedly shabby….

[C]arpetbagging isn’t actually criminal – nor is the practice as ethically contemptible as some critics make out. There is even a case for saying that it’s benign.

[E]ven a carpetbagger with a dodgy deal probably stimulates artistic activity….

I’ve reproduced these quotes in the order in which they appear in the article, stripping out intervening paragraphs that tend to obscure the development of Nelson’s argument by scattering the reader’s focus. The progression from disapprobation to less-than-grudging endorsement is pretty remarkable, is it not? If the article had gone on much longer, Nelson would have been handing out Economic Development Awards.

Another thread in Nelson’s argument involves the bugaboo of authorship: was the painting painted by the artist whose name is attached to it? If authorship is important to you, then Nelson suggests that the carpetbagger is your hero:

As each work is produced, the dealer is busy with the digital camera, recording the stages with the famous artist working away and finally holding up the complete work. A strong proof of authorship can therefore be produced with the eventual sale.

But mostly, Nelson thinks authorship is overrated: “You buy the work because you like it, not because it has a certificate.” The subhead of the article baldly states “authorship remains an illogical burden.” It seems that those primitive indigenes are way ahead of us on this score. They have already absorbed the lessons of postmodernism that tell us that authorship is an intellectual fantasy anyway. Some post-modernist critics tell us that each reader or viewer participates in the “creation” of the experience of the work of art. So what’s the harm in a relative or two participating as well?

After all, Aboriginal art springs from communal experience:

The larger project behind the art is a ritual and sensual immersion in dance, music and song for the sake of contacting spirits. This ritualistic, inspirational element of Aboriginal culture is essentially communal.

Other people are involved. They may or may not be needed for this or that part; but the aspirations and labour can mostly be shared. To demand that Aboriginal culture conform to the paranoid jealousy of Western bourgeois individualism is obscene.

Nelson’s appeal to the values of Aboriginal culture as a justification of the carpetbagger is the angle in his logic that irritates me more than any other. It implies that the dilemmas that Aboriginal people face–primarily the need to obtain money in communities without an economy–are ultimately the inevitable result of their own cultural practices. 

More damning, however, is the insinuation of a childlike, simple-minded, can’t-be-helped naiveté in Nelson’s phrase “ritual and sensual immersion.” Elsewhere in the article, he attributes the problem of multiple authorship to the “spontaneous ways that are impossible to regulate” characteristic of life in Aboriginal communities. He states in his conclusion that “The fertility of the desert artist is a thing of genius, maybe a collective genius, which finds its way to a happy pictorial resolution in countless canvasses” (emphasis mine). 

Nelson’s infantilization of Aboriginal people puts them squarely in the realm of the naive primitive, the pre-moral savage, and neatly absolves one of the necessity of behaving ethically towards them. After all, they are happy, aren’t they? Nelson characterizes the interaction of the carpetbagger and the artist thus:

If someone spontaneously asks you for something, you often feel like hopping to–without second thoughts–and you have a marvellous access to a fresh energy.

I’m amazed he doesn’t call them “our Aborigines.” His blatant disregard for the Aboriginal side of the bargain would be laughable if it weren’t so outrageous. Consider the following reflections on economic transactions.

The idea that the work is automatically devalued by being painted by a relative strikes me as paranoid and regressive.

“If you paint these 10 canvases, I’ll give you that four-wheel-drive over there.” Done.

What is absent from these scenarios is any sense of ethics, or any notion that fraud is involved. In the first instance, the carpetbagger will be able to command the high price on the basis of the artist’s name. Here the victim of the fraud is the white buyer, who exchanges a certain amount of money for an object that is not of equivalent value. In the second instance, it is the artist who’s open to the same scam, the same unfair and unequal exchange of value. But Nelson seems to shrug off such considerations with an implied caveat emptor.

Because, in the end, for Nelson, the exchange of value is not what it’s all about. His conclusion, literally the last sentence of the article, is this: “My advice to collectors is to ignore this high-minded poppycock and continue to buy Aboriginal art whenever the work appeals to you.” (I can’t help but think of the advice offered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani (and echoed by George Bush) to New Yorkers trying to reclaim their lives after September 11, 2001: “Go shopping.”)

Nelson’s article attempts, explicitly, to rebut and to mock the arguments made by Nicolas Rothwell in “Scams in the Desert.” This is the “high-minded poppycock” that he wants us to ignore. And so it is not just the internal logical fallacies of Nelson’s arguments that I wish to rebut in turn, but the whole premise of his article. Say what you will about Rothwell’s piece (and I, too, found that his analogy to artworks looted by the Nazis to be overreaching), what was most important about it to me was its publication in a forum that many, many people saw. It clearly generated a widespread response in the press and maybe even in some circles of government. Whether anything comes of it has yet to be seen, but I think it is important that the discussion is taking place. And that the press is engaged in it.

In discussing the issue of authorship or attribution, Nelson poses two questions: “As a collector, you have to ask: is it a good work or not? If you like it, how important is the attribution?” Again, the answer to both questions is obvious to him. “The collector needn’t be anxious about being gullible unless the express purpose in buying the work is not to build a collection but to sell the work again at a higher price.”

In other words, carpetbagging is a problem only insofar as it affects the white man’s pocketbook.

I find it hard to imagine a more cynical and heartless assessment.

As an American collector, I was for many years ignorant of both the nature and the extent of the backyarder problem. As a result, I made what I now know were purchases from some shonky dealers, and that bothers me for reasons other than the fact that it might be hard to unload those paintings at some point in the future. So forgive me if I speak with the zeal of the convert.

Many of the articles that have appeared since Rothwell threw down the gauntlet in early March have stressed the need for collectors to educate themselves. Rothwell’s own concluding sentence in the original piece asked the question, “Art buyer, as you read this weekend newspaper, is your conscience clear?” Well, Nick, my answer is “No.”

Let me plead ignorance and extenuating circumstances, but as an explanation and not an excuse. As an American–and I suspect I share this with many Australians–I was completely unaware of the harm done by backyarders, by the uneven economics of the playing field, of the circumstances that led to this kind of exploitation. What I heard when I first went to Australia in the early 90s was that art provided an economy for Aboriginal people that was far more effective than any government scheme or program that had been tried to date. I wasn’t knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to understand much more than the simple notion that buying Aboriginal art was good for Aboriginal people.

Eventually, I began to hear stories about shady dealers who forged works, or who finished them off by painting the dots on designs executed by the artist of record. I’m not sure I understood fully what that practice entailed until I knew enough about certain artists’ styles and saw a few paintings by a famous artist that were being sold without the dots. And since my exposure to original works was intermittent and long-distance, it took me several years to get that fundamental observation down.

In the meantime, of course, I heard more stories, was warned by gallery owners that there were some scoundrels in the lot. But nobody named names, by and large. I was warned off “some people you’ll find in Alice Springs” but given the number and variety of retail outlets on the Todd Mall alone, that information was nearly useless. I also wondered whether there wasn’t just the usual level of art market backbiting and internecine jealousy at work.

It wasn’t really until about five years ago when I was invited into someone’s backyard to meet artists painting in a shed that the tumblers fell into place and the puzzle was unlocked, and if the dealer in question hadn’t been quite so obviously defensive about his practices, I’m not sure I would have gotten the point even then. It also helped that after nearly a decade of collecting, I’d earned the trust of a few people in the business who then became willing to talk specifics, to explain the paintings-for-motorcars economics, to name names of people whose records might not bear scrutiny by the Taxation Office. You can call me clueless. In truth, I was.

Apart from knowledge about the workings of the art market, I was pretty ignorant about the cultural background to all this as well. If I can make light of the situation for a moment, I didn’t know the difference between a cattle station and an outstation, so how was I to understand the difference between Utopia and Kintore? I knew what Papunya was, if not where, and I might have heard Nosepeg Tjupurrula’s name and seen one of his paintings reproduced in a catalog, but I didn’t know about his role in bringing the Pintupi in to Papunya, nor about his later regrets at having done so and his role in establishing new communities out west.

In short, I was the sort of ideal collector to whom Nelson is addressing his remarks. I bought art because I liked it. (I may have been naive, but I was never naive enough to think that buying art was a sound investment strategy.) I still think that some of the works that I bought from backyarders are beautiful, exceptional works of art. I also look back on those transactions as a mistake that I would not repeat knowing what I know today.

I don’t think that the responsibility for making ethical decisions rests with collectors alone, nor with gallerists, and certainly not just with occasional purchasers. I think that we’re all in this together, and I would include journalists in that circle. Rothwell’s article may have been unpleasant and a bitter dose, but Nelson’s arguments are irresponsible and hurtful to the very people to whom responsibility and protection from further injury are due most.

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