Bad Aboriginal Art Criticism

Eric Michaels’ essay “Bad Aboriginal Art” and the collection of his writings by the same name is the inspiration for my headline this week, of course, because I can never resist the opportunity to plug Michaels’ extraordinary glimpses into Warlpiri culture and the early days of the acrylic painting movement. However, my topic today is not Michaels but rather two examples of blinkered writing about Aboriginal art that have come across the internet wire in the last ten days.

Part One: London

The first article is Grayson Perry’s review of Rarrk – London, the new show of work from Maningrida mounted by Josh Lilley at the Bargehouse Gallery in Southwark, London, which opened on September 20th and runs until October 7, 2007. Perry’s critique, entitled “Aboriginal Art: worthy but uninspiring,” appeared in the London Times the day before the show opened. If Eric Michaels was correct in arguing that unless we can articulate what makes for bad art, we can never know good art, Perry has done us all an inestimable service by providing a sterling example of bad art criticism, beginning with his persistent misspelling (“raark“) of the technique that defines Kuninjku art.

I’m tempted to dismiss Perry’s analysis of the show as another example of how visual artists are far better suited to employing plastic media in order to share their responses to the world around them. More concisely, most artists should be seen and not heard. Perry uses the occasion of this exhibition to bemoan his perception of himself as a marginalized artist whose true genius has fought long and hard for recognition: this is in itself a rather unflattering position for a recent winner of the Turner Prize to stake out. But that’s another story–or maybe it isn’t.

Perry is an artist who works mainly in ceramics and who thus often finds himself cast on the wrong side of the case of Art vs. Craft. He must find this all the more galling because he takes as his twinned poles of inspiration the forms of ancient Greek pottery on the one hand (both in the shapes of the vessels themselves in the style of painting with which he adorns them) and the post-modernist vernacular of irony on the other (in that these pseudo-Graeco decorations often depict the seamier and less appealing aspects of contemporary life). This model of contemporary art as steeped in the traditions of Western humanism and art-critical history is what Perry finds essential, especially when the art is displayed in galleries. Arriving fresh on the banks of the Thames without these credentials condemns the art of Maningrida to a judgment of over-reaching: another case of artists who do not know their place.

In short, Perry passes off his own grievances about the art world and contemporary valuation of artistic practice as insights into the lack of aesthetic merit in the work of the Kuninjku painters. But when a reviewer’s first utterance, indeed his entire first paragraph, is about a work of art he himself has created rather than anything he has seen in the exhibition, the reader is forewarned.

Perry provides color commentary for an idiosyncratic history of Aboriginal art in Western contexts. He highlights the appearance of John Mawurndjul on the cover of Time,alongside his recent retrospective in Europe and presence at the Musee du Quai Branly. He notes that among the attractions that led to the rise in Aboriginal art’s profile during the 1980s was the fact that “it was decorative, and had a strong authentic look easily adapted into T-shirts and tourist souvenirs.” He comments on the “protectiveness” of Aboriginal artists toward their imagery, referring in tandem to Elizabeth Durack’s appropriation of an Aboriginal identity in the fictional Eddie Burrup and to Wandjuk Marika’s despair at finding his clan designs appropriated to the design of a tea-towel. He offensively characterizes Marika as a helpless weakling who must “appeal” to the Prime Minister for “help in framing copyright.”

But his main complaint is that these “outsiders” to the Western tradition have muscled their way into the privileged world of London galleries without paying either their dues to the system or their homage to the regulations of the art market. On the question of artistic integrity, Perry complains

Authenticity is very important to these artists, but the main source of it is the collective and historical culture rather than the authenticity bestowed by connoisseurs on an individual original artist. … The values of contemporary art are aesthetically and intellectually complex and have been refined through a long history of challenges and movements. Aboriginal art, whose value derives from a traditional folklore context, cannot just transfer that value into the more lucrative and far-reaching arena of contemporary art without having to work with and be judged on fine-art criteria.

This is startling stuff, and certainly overthrows my art-historical perspective. I had no idea that authenticity was bestowed! Awarded like a prize, say, the Turner Prize for example (but certainly not the Clemenger). Perhaps this explains why, in his final paragraph, Perry is able to conclude that “as examples of authentic Aboriginal art, these works are OK….” So much for authenticity. As for aesthetics, Perry judges the work to be “a bit lifeless, a bit routine” and ultimately “uninspiring.”

Perry can see only the “Aboriginal” and thus misses the “art.” He has two problems. One is that art is de facto defined as that which emerges from a tradition beginning with the Greeks and today authorized by the Empire. The second in that he is blinded by the preoccupations of Empire and its assumption that the further from London one goes, the more primitive all encounters must be.

Perry’s critique is saturated with the language of the great white hunter and these not-so-Freudian malapropisms reveal his prejudice in nearly every paragraph. The Kuninjku have failed to study the “ways of our conceptual-art witchdoctors” and so “do not fully enter the culture of the village.” Perry sees himself as “an ageing spear-carrier in the contemporary-art tribe … stand[ing] up for [his] tribe’s territorial rights.” And of course, he blames this ethnographic cast of mind on the exhibition itself.

Now, I haven’t seen the show, though I do have a copy of the fine catalog (Rarrk-London, London: Josh Lilley Fine Art, 2007, 80pp.) that accompanies it. And on the basis of what is reproduced in the catalog, I must say it would indeed be a shame if Perry’s bigoted mirror-gazing deflected potential visitors from seeing the art for themselves.

The catalog does give an ethnographic context for the show, with essays by Apolline Kohen and Luke Taylor. Anthony Downey offers an introduction to the political implications of art about country in 21st century Australia, and Wally Caruana provides a history of the presentation of Aboriginal art in Europe. (Caruana’s essay may have in part have fanned Perry’s indignation by suggesting that Arnhem Land art influenced Klee and thus opened the door to this current invasion of England by the primitives themselves.)

The work in the show is often stunning. Naturally, Mawurndjul must be the focal point, and the work here is far better than what was on display last year in Paris in conjunction with the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly. But my eyes are riveted by some of the best work I’ve ever seen by Samuel Namunjdja, Ivan Namirrkki, and Timothy Wulanjbirr.

Namunjdja’s paintings are strongly patterned Wind Dreamings, similar in style to the work that work the prize for bark painting at the NATSIAA in 2006. Ironically, given Perry’s dismissal of these Kuninjku works as alien to the Western canon, they bring to mind Jasper Johns’s hatching and flagstone compositions of the 1980s. And given that comparison, I look at Namunjdja’s paintings with a new appreciation for the tension in their surfaces, for the way the patterns slip back and forth in the plane, moving like the scales of a reptile across the plane of the picture.

The paintings by Namirrkki and Wulanjbirr bring the Kuninjku use of pattern to new heights. In contrast to the twisting, unpredictable, swirling rarrk in the grids of Mawurndjul’s paintings or those of his wife Kay Lindjuwanga, these two younger men fill their rectilinear grids with strictly plotted diagonals. They inscribe diamonds and chevrons, or simply repeated oblique motifs onto squares and rectangles; and then they interrupt those echoing passages with the briefest surprises: a simple row of tiny circles, or in Wulanjbirr’s case, the most exquisite inlay of a branching line, a vegetal runner athwart of field of shaken and dried berries. No one would mistakes these paintings for hommage à Matisse, but neither can one deny a common rhythmic impulse that beats beneath the dissimilar brushes.

Lilley has worked for well over a year to bring this showcase of art from Maningrida to London, to bring, as he says in the foreword to the catalog, “to the capital of contemporary art a movement of artists and a body of work that is as sophisticated and aesthetically rigourous as anything else being produced in the art world today.” It’ s a shame that Grayson Perry missed the point, and I hope his review doesn’t deter visitors. My guess is that it hasn’t. Traffic to this blog from the UK usually hovers at about 3% of the overall total; in the week since Rarrk – London opened, between 10 and 15% of the hits I’m receiving are from England. 

Part Two: Canberra

The other news article I read recently isn’t so much an example of muddle-headed art criticism as it is foggy thinking about the economics of art. On September 19 (coincidentally the day Perry’s review appeared) the Canberra Times published a short piece by Helen Hughes of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) entitled “Downtrodden by too much aid.” The general thrust of her argument is that the homelands movement is at the root of the inability of Aboriginal artists to sustain themselves economically. By living in remote areas indigenous people cut themselves off from the education that would ensure literacy, numeracy, and resistance to carpetbaggers. How else to explain why people at the heart of a $300 million a year industry need welfare handouts in the form of CDEP? These poor artists are being fleeced out of a living. 

Never mind the fact that most the testimony before the Senate Inquiry earlier this year suggested that carpetbaggers and their unethical behavior amounted to less than 10%, and often more like 5%, of the market. Hughes declares that “media reports and inquiries, most recent by the Senate, have exposed the extent of Aboriginal art racketeering.” Notice the construction of the sentence, too, and how on quick reading it sounds so close to “Aboriginal racketeering.” 

So pay no attention to the fact that these artists are the victims of whitefellas out to make a buck off the backs of already impoverished people. Hughes avers that the artists’ “inability to communicate in English, to read and write, and above all their lack of numeracy, have all encouraged exploitation.” Greed seems to be no part of the equation in this rendering of the story. Once again the problem in the Aboriginal problem is the Aboriginal.

Official incompetence plays no role either. I remain astonished that a government that is capable of mounting a massive campaign to quarantine welfare payments can’t manage to find sixty policemen in all of Australia to send to remote communities in the Northern Territory. The Australian Tax Office still can not find evidence against the suppliers of the often reported trucks and Viagra and prostitutes, while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission fares no better. Money-laundering, though, seems to be a going business in the Territory, though not among the indigenous population.

Sorry, I wandered off point there. Jon Altman provided a much more succinct refutation of Hughes in his Letter to the Editor of the Times published a few days later.

Like most artists in Australia, indigenous artists, mainly residing in remote regions, cannot survive through their art alone.

Most non-indigenous artists are able to access part-time work to supplement their incomes. Such opportunity is rarely available to indigenous artists.

A mere handful of the most successful indigenous artists do not require income support, but the majority do. And as Hughes, as an economist should know, the way global art markets work only a fraction of the estimated $300 million of final indigenous visual art sales are ever paid to artists.

While not all art dealers are exploitative, the community-based indigenous arts centre model has emerged over the past 35 years as a cost-effective means to provide a point of brokerage between artists and the market. I note that Hughes is not advocating for the closure of the Australian ballet or opera because they are not financially viable.

I also note that Hughes argues, wrongly, that artistic success is linked to moving away from “homelands”. This is erroneous. Most successful indigenous artists live on or near the land that they own: their inspiration comes from “painting their country”.

Such political and cultural subtleties have clearly eluded Hughes.

But I suspect that Hughes’s real interest is not with the art market at all. Her agenda is apparently far more transparently laid out in her new book, Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Homelands’ in Transition recently published by the CIS. That tiny pair of quotation marks around the word homelands gives it all away, doesn’t it?

Truth be told, I haven’t read the book and am letting my own prejudices show through. Robert Manne praises Hughes’s ability to argue her point in Lands of Shame in an essay he recently wrote for The Monthly, Pearson’s Gamble, Stanner’s Dream: the past and future of remote Australia.” Based on the evidence her piece in the Times provides, I can’t believe she argues coherently about anything; still, here is Manne’s final assessment. 

The policy Hughes outlines–cogently and persuasively, it must be said–is generally unsympathetic to land rights and self-determination, frankly paternalistic, opposed to those who presently exercise power in the Aboriginal communities and openly assimilationist in its ultimate ambition. Lands of Shame undoubtedly reflects the general thrust of the Howard government and conservative Australia.

In his review published at the Institute for Social Research of Lands of Shame, Tim Rowse is considerably harsher. Hughes proposes the emptying of the homelands into regional centres where education and employment would be available to advance the assimilationist agenda, but she is maddeningly imprecise about how all this would actually be brought to pass. 

If Robert Manne is right in presenting Hughes as an influence over the Howard government, then Hughes’ crucial vagueness about what she is proposing may also be a vacuum in the social and economic planning of the Australian government (whether led by Howard or by Rudd). Lands of Shame may be a guide not only to the ‘philosophy’ (a generous word) but also to the intellectual vacuity of the Australia’s current political elites. The appealing chords that Helen Hughes has struck in The Australian’s op-ed pages–profound ambivalence about the emergent Indigenous middle class, scorn for the homelands as Coombs’ ‘socialist’ experiment–are no substitute for policy realism.

In the end it was not simply the temporal proximity of the publication of these two pieces by Grayson Perry and Helen Hughes that left them linked in my mind. Rather, they both partake of the utter arrogance that so often passes for reason in assessments of the Aboriginal condition and Aboriginal value. To say that they both fail to imagine the Aboriginal perspective is to understate the seriousness of the problem: they both fail to recognize that there is an Aboriginal perspective. It is this failure that lies behind the refusal to consult with communities whose lives are being disrupted in the name of progress, in the name of fixing once more “the Aboriginal problem.” Would that a bad review of an art exhibition were all that is at stake.

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