Backyard Aesthetics (or not)

Today’s post comes to you from Henry, a reader and correspondent from Melbourne, who posted a comment on my April 23 disputation with Robert Nelson’s column in the Age, which suggested that buying art from backyarders not be the problem some dealers try to make it out to be. My argument raised mostly economic and ethical objections to Nelson’s piece, so I’m especially happy to hear form Henry, who quite appropriately steers the discussion back to aesthetics.

 

Today’s post comes to you from Henry, a reader and correspondent from Melbourne, who posted a comment on my April 23 disputation with Robert Nelson’s column in The Age, which suggested that buying art from backyarders not be the problem some dealers try to make it out to be. My argument raised mostly economic and ethical objections to Nelson’s piece, so I’m especially happy to hear from Henry, who quite appropriately steers the discussion back to aesthetics.

He began his comment by saying, “I would like to say that I hold Robert Nelson in the highest esteem as a critic. I think his writing is often extremely percepetive, and for a critic without much background in Indigenous art, he generally approaches it with an intelligence and sensitivity that is admirable.” When I asked if I could quote at length, he replied with the following thoughtful essay.

Firstly, I completely agree with your ethical stance, and in fact, it is a position that I hold very dear. Above all else, the ethical treatment of artists is the most urgent issue facing the Indigenous art world.

That said, I thought that Robert Nelson’s article needed more than just an ethical response. Whilst I think that his article shows little real understanding of the complex circumstances in which Indigenous art is produced, I felt that his central argument pertained more to reception than production. Put simply, Robert was trying to argue that the circumstances of a paintings production were irrelevant to its appreciation. Following this logic, Nelson argues that there should be no critical distinction between appreciating art centre work versus backyarder work. In other words, Nelson argues, a great painting is a great painting, regardless of how it is produced.

It is from here that Nelson’s article gets really contentious. Commenting on backyarder practice, Nelson argues, “I don’t know that we can automatically and absolutely condemn this entrepreneurial motif, and certainly not on artistic grounds.” It is this comment that I wished to critique in my comments made on your blog earlier. For in my opinion (and to paraprhase Nelson’s first paragraph – I am not an expert), there are several perfectly good artistic grounds to criticise backyarder art.

The most obvious of these is that most backyarder art is not very good. One reason for this is that it is often produced with second rate materials – not the high-grade paints and belgian linen used by Papunya Tula or other centres.

Another reason is the market to which it is often aimed. Whereas high grade commercial galleries tend to look for the most exciting and new artists – artists who produce challenging or different works – backyarder art is usually obsessed with the stereotype – what Nicholas Rothwell has aptly termed ‘autograph’ works. Once an artist has become well known for painting a single type of painting, they are encouraged to reproduce that work ad-nauseum. This is a criticism dismissed by Robert Nelson as a fear of the ‘mechanical production’ element. He claims that this is part of the ‘ceremonial’ aspect of Indigenous painting. This argument is extremely superficial and needs to be challenged on several levels.

Firstly, autograph paintings are extremely limiting. Once an artist has gotten successful for painting a particular image or in a particular style, they often feel that they must only paint in this style. This is not because of ceremonial reasons – indeed, many of these artists know a great number of ceremonies and stories – but rather, this is a financial reason. To an extent, this is a malaise that affects non-Indigenous artists as well. As with non-Indigenous artists, when an artist gets into such a rut, it is inevitable that their work will suffer. Where it is saddest with Indigenous art, is that many of these artists are pressured prematurely into this rut. Nelson is incorrect to assume that naysayers (like myself) are presuming that this will destroy Indigenous creativity – far from it – new artists will always rise – it is just sad that once they reach a level of success they will be inevitably targetted by carpetbaggers.

This is where the role of art centres needs to be most vigorously defended – and where any condemnation of backyarder ethics necessarily coincides with an artistic criticism. Good art centres are not just concerned with getting one or two or even a dozen good paintings from an artist. They are concerned with producing a lifetime’s worth of paintings. They nuture their artists from their very first works. They offer encouragement, appreciation and respect. These are the circumstances for producing great art. Often, I think Indigenous artists come into art production with an idea of what is expected of them. Good art centres will work to shake these preconceptions, so that artists can feel free to express themselves in their own unique way. In my mind, those artists who have produced the most compelling art of the past few years are those who are entirely singular in their expressive output. To use an example, an artist like Tali Tali Pompey from Fregon. Tali Tali works across a range of really fantastic motifs, but in every work seems to be producing a very unique artistic statement. She is obviously unfettered by the odd splotch or muddied brushstroke – but this is what adds excitement to her work – there is never any sense that this impedes her spontaneous outpouring of expression. As a result, her works are full of rhythm and energy. Compare this to some of the very accomplished, but ultimately unsatisfying backyarder work and I just don’t know how anyone can’t see the difference. Art centres strive to stimulate artists and create a situation in which they can create the best art possible. The proof of their success is the sheer fact that the vast bulk of exciting and innovative Indigenous art that has been produced in Australia in the last three decades has been as a result of their endeavors.

I can’t say that I have anything to add to that, other than to express my thanks to Henry, both for his response and for his permission to share it with the rest of you.

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