Master of Arts: New Work from Howard Morphy

Two weeks ago in Charlottesville I had the great good fortune to receive an advance copy of Howard Morphy’s latest monograph, Becoming Art: exploring cross-cultural categories (Berg, 2007). This new book is like a river stone, its arguments polished by years of being turned over in the author’s mind, flashing with brilliance; it is an opportunity for extensive and satisfying contemplation and of great utility to students of aesthetics and epistemology, anthropology, art theory and history, and cultural studies. Among Morphy’s earlier monographs have been deep studies of Yolngu ritual, in Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest: an accompanying monograph to the film Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1984), and Yolngu art, in Ancestral Connections: art and an Aboriginal system of knowledge (Chicago, 1992). Readers already familiar with those seminal investigations will find their themes extended in Becoming Art as Morphy looks at ways of integrating Yolngu systems of thought into broader, more world-encompassing (i.e. cross-cultural) perspectives. Readers new to Morphy’s work will be delighted by an erudite but accessible introduction to Morphy’s research. Whereas the earlier works were undoubtedly written for an audience of anthropologists, I believe that Morphy here seeks to reach a broader audience, much as the book itself looks to move the world of the Yolngu into a larger arena.The nominal focus of the book is Yolngu art, which Morphy has studied for thirty-five years. However, its scope is vast, comprehending in its well-illustrated 200 pages many of the questions raised in the compendious The Anthropology of Art: a reader (Blackwell, 2006) that Morphy edited and published last year. He asks us to question overly narrow definitions of art, especially what he terms the “exclusionary rules” by which the Western category of “fine art” is determined. In doing so, he charts an understanding of art across cultures that will allow us to better understand the art of the Yolngu.

In order to understand the trajectory of Indigenous Australian art, it is important to consider the kind of thing art is to the producing societies and how that influences the relationships that Indigenous Australians see between artworks and the conclusions that they draw from those relationships. By making Indigenous art discourse part of the data of art history and critically examining the ontological concepts and their relationship to practice, we should become aware of conceptual similarities and differences between different traditions. And in the case of different art traditions that occupy the same temporal space we should be able to better understand how they articulate with one another–in the case of Aboriginal art, how Indigenous artists embrace contemporary Australian art worlds (p. 145).

Or as he aphoristically sums up a fundamental principle early in the book, “there is a dialectic between common humanity and particular ways of being human. It is the common humanity that creates the possibility of anthropology; it is the diversity of humanity that makes it necessary” (p. 7).

That latter quotation appears in the introductory chapter of Becoming Art, which is entitled “Cross-cultural Categories and the Inclusion of Aboriginal Art.” It is in some ways the most daunting chapter of the book, as in setting the stage for the development of subsequent arguments, it addresses critical definitions, and relies on the reader’s willingness to engage to an extent in matters of anthropological theory more than considerations of Aboriginal art per se

But for readers whose primary interest lies in the field of Aboriginal culture, this chapter fully repays the investment as Morphy relates his theme of cross-cultural study not just to art, but to land rights, to the legacy of colonization and colonialism, to the history of collecting by scholars and museums, and to the controversies over the presentation of Indigenous art as either “fine art” or “ethnographic curiosity.” Moreover, it is studded with sudden insights that cut through years of abstruse argument in these areas, as when he suggests that “the category of fine art is not a category of objects but a way of viewing objects that are prized exemplars of aesthetic value or, in the case of some more recent works (following from Dada and Duchamp), conceptual significance” (p. 20).

The next three chapters form “A Short History of Yolngu Art.” Morphy begins by tracing the history of Yolngu contact with outsiders, largely from the second decade of the twentieth century, and examining the records of Yolngu material culture that emerged from those encounters through the work of missionaries and anthropologists like Donald Thomson. A subtle awareness permeates this part of the book of the fortunate circumstances that have allowed what history we have of the Yolngu to have emerged as it did. The relatively recent contact and the early participation in that contact by the enlightened and sympathetic Thomson (and the equally sympathetic missionaries Webb, Chaseling, and Wells) spared the Yolngu from the depredations of social Darwinism that plagued other parts of Australia. 

In the Centre, it was not until Frank Gillen turned his attention to the Arrernte that much consideration was given to recording Indigenous culture, and even then, it was with the presumption that it represented only a more primitive stage in human evolution, worthy only in how it recorded what we no longer were. By contrast, early studies of Yolngu art have granted an unprecedented scrutiny to the subject for what it revealed about a society that was recognized as holding complex and sophisticated traditions of its own.

Moving beyond this period of early contact, Morphy examines the emergence of bark painting into the marketplace, in the first place as an economic engine for the support of the mission communities. Later, as the work became familiar to audiences in the southern cities, there began the process of exhibition in galleries and museums in Australia, as well as abroad through the work of advocates like Karel Kupka. Complementing this growing engagement by outsiders with Yolngu art was the interest of the Yolngu themselves in deploying their art as a means of reaching out to white Australia. The Elcho Island Memorial, the Yirrkala Church Panels, and finally the Bark Petition were all important demonstrations of Yolngu belief in the ability of their artwork to cross cultural boundaries and communicate their concerns to a broader audience.

The final chapter of this first section, “Dialogue and Change,” charts the growing acceptance, through the work of Tony Tuckson and Stuart Scougall, of Indigenous art in Western institutions of fine art, especially as represented by the collections of major Australian museums. But it also looks at the way this engagement altered the forms and techniques of Yolngu art production. In this respect, Morphy’s outline becomes art history in the conventional, Western sense, examining changes over time in production, materials, and subject matter. As he does so, he is able to remind us once again how the lens of “fine art” has successively refocused through time, not just (spatially) with regard to indigenous traditions worldwide but also with the production of aesthetic objects within Western traditions as yesterday’s masterpiece becomes tomorrow’s embarrassment. 

The next section of Becoming Art, “Engaging with Art History” builds from this base. Morphy begins with a chapter that offers a primer in the understanding of Yolngu art from within Yolngu traditions and from a Yolngu perspective. It encapsulates some of the material presented in detail in Ancestral Connections. Its concentrated format provides an excellent introduction to the complexities of Yolngu conventions in painting, examining the connections between designs, clans, and country, and also elucidating the ways in which (as in Western art history again) one is able to create “sets” of artworks on the basis of such elements.

What follows next is the most surprising and in some ways satisfying chapter of the book, “Style and Meaning: Abelam Art Through Yolngu Eyes.” Any treatise that attempts to present an ethnographically alien style of (for instance) art always walks the fine line between the familiar and the strange. Too much of the former risks overemphasizing common humanity, too much of the latter, our diversity; too much of either inevitably does some violence to the complexity and the problems of extending understanding across the cultural divide.

Morphy neatly avoids this trap and provides a wonderful example of the struggle to achieve cross-cultural comprehension by presenting the history of a conversation that occurred in 1976 in which the great Yolngu artist Narritjin Maymuru, his son Banapana, Morphy, and Morphy’s academic advisor, Anthony Forge, took part. Forge’s own area of study was the art of the Abelam people of Papua New Guinea. The Abelam have little to say about the content of their paintings and do not relate them to mythic stories or cultural histories in a way that corresponds to either Yolngu or Western methods of organizing either the thematic or iconographic elements of their art. By allowing us to witness the manner in which Narritjin and Banapana “make sense” of the images of Abelam art, Morphy allows us to gaze at a reflection of our own attempts to bridge such divisions, to observe the strategies by which we may be able to approach an understanding of what we mean by art, how we define its elements, and how we interpret it.

This episode of cross-cultural investigation leads to Morphy’s discussion of “Art Theory and Art Discourse Across Cultures.” In this chapter he attempts to look at the distinctive ways in which anthropology and art history have tried to approach the art object, often unnecessarily and self-defeatingly working at cross purposes to one another. With respect to the art object the disciplines have too often emphasized their differences rather than what they have in common. Morphy wants instead to deploy the techniques of anthropology “to develop an art history that is sensitive to the different ontologies of art cross-culturally–to different ways in which people talk about and conceive of artworks” (p. 145).

He also illuminates the cross-cultural examination of artworks by contrasting the manner in which Kuninjku and Yolngu arts organize themselves. Here again, readers ofAncestral Connections and Luke Taylor’s major study of Kuninjku art, Seeing the Inside: bark painting in Western Arnhem Land (Oxford, 1996) will find themselves on familiar ground, although the synthesis of the differences in the traditions that Morphy offers here is enlightening (especially after the preceding discussion of Abelam art). Less experienced students of the art of Arnhem Land will find this a valuable lesson in the distinctions that exist in the art of the Top End. Thoughtful readers in either category will be encouraged to consider this cross-cultural approach more broadly within the realm of Indigenous art.

The book’s final section, “Yolngu Art and the Chimera of Fine Art,” returns to the themes expounded in the preliminary chapters and looks back over the questions that still vex many discussions of Indigenous Australian art. Although it is widely accepted that Aboriginal art has a place in the cultural constructs of the Western art world, its markets and museums, there is still much disagreement among the commentariat about what exactly that place is and how the art is to be handled there. (I am somewhat abashed to admit to having reiterated some of these arguments myself over the years of writing here.)

These disagreements manifest themselves in the physical arrangement and presentation of Indigenous art in the Western spaces given over to culture, in museums and galleries. Although the question of whether to include Indigenous artworks is largely settled, it still informs debates over the presentation and display of objects in art museums. Is Indigenous art better served by being segregated from other types, as Renaissance art is from Modernism? Is it appropriate to include detailed information in the display that provides cultural context, explicates meaning or utility? Or does such ethnographic data distract from the aesthetic contemplation of form, or worse still, implicitly devalue the object?

Morphy engages with these questions in a large part, I believe, to silence them. The question is not one of “art or ethnography,” as though these categories are mutually exclusive and inherently hostile. We do not need to decide for one or the other, but to recognize that the perspectives that inform each enhance our appreciation overall. The understanding of an art object from Yolngu country placed in a Sydney gallery benefits from the inclusion or the availability of cultural contextual material that the audience or viewer does not bring with him, in the manner that he brings an understanding of Christianity, visual perspective, or Romanticism to the gallery, however unconsciously. Providing information about the ownership of clan designs does not, or should not, constitute an identification of the painting in which they appear with an inferior aesthetic.

On occasion, the segregation of Indigenous art within the gallery may be a means of enhancing a culturally appropriate understanding; indeed, segregation of Dhuwa from Yirritja paintings may be just as appropriate. The converse is also true, of course, when the juxtaposition of traditions assists in comprehending something larger about the nature of art. And it is to this point that Morphy wants to direct us. As suggested earlier, the concept of “fine art” is a misleading one. It is itself, even within the Western tradition, a recent invention, as culturally bound as Yolngu representational strategies, but far more problematic when it reduces the field of vision and discards large and potentially valuable compasses of experience.

Morphy is concerned with breaking down barriers. He sees this book as a “journey connecting Yolngu art to more general discourses about art” (p. 171). Perhaps even more importantly, he wants to bring Yolngu discourse about art into an even larger conversation. He hopes that we can come to not simply see Yolngu art for what it is in its own context, but to hear what Yolngu have to say about their art and by extension about their culture, their civilization. In the uneven and unequal dialogue between cultures that has occurred in Australia over years since colonization began, the Indigenous people have learned a great deal more about the culture of the colonizers than Europeans have learned about them.

The Yolngu have, since the beginning of contact nearly a century ago (and indeed with the Macassans in centuries preceding) used their art as a means of reaching out to the aliens in their midst. Morphy’s book is a quietly passionate plea for us to construct categories of knowledge that will encompass their ideas, so that we may better recognize our common humanity and respect our human differences. He hopes that this will happen not only in art galleries and museums, but in part on the basis of such recognition as may occur in those spaces, in all of the many other arenas in which Yolngu and balanda meet, in which Indigenous and settler Australians are joined.

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