Is death the cruel twist at the end of life? Or the redemptive final act that glorifies us in its transcendence, seizing immortality from the jaws of extinction? At least since the waning of the Middle Ages, and most certainly since the rise of European Romanticism and the apotheosis of the solitary poet, best exemplified by the latter-day cult of Keats, who died young, burning with a heavenly consumption, we in the West have been often entranced by these tropes.
In the field of critical writing about Australian Indigenous art, no one has sung the songs more beautifully and more eloquently than Nicolas Rothwell. And no one’s writing has been shot through more thoroughly with both the celebration of its beauty and the misery of its decay. For nearly a decade, Rothwell’s observations of the awe that great art inspires have been unparalleled in the press. He captures the interplay between the grandeur of geography and the mystical allure of the sacred that has contributed to much of the popular appeal of the art form. He has celebrated the greatest of the old masters and given us insights into the struggles with which they have created the canvases that have been such precious gifts to the world beyond the remote desert outposts of their genesis.
And yet, despite all his celebrations, that twist of mortality in the wound of life persists in his writing. And fittingly, it often comes as the conclusion to his meditations. A few months back, in an explication of the work emerging from one of the newest centers of sensation and from the previously marginal (in terms of the market) Yankunytjatjara lands, Mimili Maku, Rothwell sounded the knell of doom in his customarily oblique way.
What next, in the years ahead, as Mimili increasingly becomes an official centre for the long-delayed intervention into the Aboriginal lands of desert South Australia, more and more regulated, monitored, controlled? What next, with a plague of problems mounting across the lands, identified with ever-escalating urgency by a cadre of outside experts? The artists have their appointed tasks, and their forthcoming exhibitions, but the unvoiced question lingers for remote communities across their region. What can beauty on canvas strengthen or help preserve? (“Blossoming Where Songlines Meet,” The Australian, May 24, 2012)
One can’t help but feel that the ultimate question is rhetorical.
Last week, Rothwell published a lavish assessment of the strengths of this year’s Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, which by all accounts outshone its predecessors. And once more, at the end of his review, Rothwell rang the bell of warning, of imminent danger.
But the incoming government in Brisbane will unveil its first budget, widely expected to be one of shock and awe, on September 11. It seems unlikely that Arts Queensland will retain all of its current $138 million annual funding, although it was made discreetly plain in Cairns over the weekend that CIAF, which consumes a significant, if undisclosed, slice of that funding, will survive. In what form?
CIAF rests on a platform of commitment to art centres as the model for cultural preservation and economic development, even though almost all the established art stars showing at the fair have strong private gallery representation. What way ahead now for the blueprint put in place in Cairns and the state’s northern reaches just a few years ago? (“Aboriginal Art Fair is Also a Blueprint,” The Australian, August 19, 2012)
I won’t argue that the state of the arts in Queensland isn’t parlous, given the way that Premier Campbell Newman has taken his ax to the state’s literary awards in the short months since achieving office. The loss of the Davis Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous author is keenly felt in this arena. I don’t doubt that an erosion of support for the relatively fledgling art centres across the Sunshine State would be catastrophic, even if funding for the CIAF remains secure, as Rothwell hints in the article.
A week earlier, Rothwell’s annual assessment of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards was equally gloomy (“Indigenous Award Becalmed in Stagnant Water,” The Australian, August 13, 2012). He once again took aim at the lack of government support for the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, a fact that can hardly be disputed (even if he neglected to analyze the pernicious effects of other politicking on the Museum’s effectiveness). I will confess to having indulged in my own share of NATSIAA-bashing over the years, but I hope that my quarrels have lain with the lack of funding and not, as Rothwell’s partly does, with the alleged mediocrity of the works themselves. Djirrirra Wunungmurra’s winning bark was “almost the only feasible choice in a weak list,” in Rothwell’s view, and “most pieces selected for the exhibition were familiar specimens, made by artists who have been ploughing on in their particular firm-set, distinctive styles for many years: so much so that they seem almost to be copying themselves, staying still, reproducing the patterns and the colour systems that have proved appealing to the commercial market and state gallery curators.”
Now, I’m not saying that a critic can’t be critical, or shouldn’t be. It’s true that many of the works in this year’s Award look familiar from years past–including Timothy Cook’s grand prize winner. But there were innovations as well. And innovation in artistic practice is far less valued in Indigenous practice: it is consummate execution and proper adherence to the essential qualities of what we loosely call the Dreaming that provide value in that realm. But to denigrate the quality of the art because of “the travails of the indigenous art scene after its state-subsidised over-expansion and the abrupt collapse of its wider market in recent years” seems a gratuitous insult. And there is no doubt that the values of the market influence modes of creation, but that fact, in the context of Aboriginal art, does not equate to artists “reproducing the patterns and the colour systems that have proved appealing to the commercial market and state gallery curators.” In medieval Europe, if an artist positioned an Apostle at the scene of the Crucifixion, it was almost always John; there had to be a compelling reason to depict Peter as a witness to Christ’s final words.
My quarrel with Rothwell’s gloomy codas is rather that they so rarely seem to serve a purpose in the broader context of what he is writing. Yes, we have reason for concern about state support for the arts–not because it leads to an inflated marketplace, but because loss of that support will result in material deprivation for some of the poorest people in Australia. Yes, many of the oldest artists, those who pioneered the adaptation of traditional practice to Western tastes and contexts, are frail or already gone. But the very florescence of painting in the APY and Ngaanyatjarra lands, state-subsidized though it may be, is proof of vitality, as is Barbara Moore’s prize-winning departure from the conventions of the community in Amata. And when ninety per cent of one of Rothwell’s pieces (like his recent reviews of CIAF and Mimili Maku) are given over to the celebration of such vitality, what purpose does it serve–other than reinforcing a bittersweet addiction to Romanticism–to toss all that glorification aside and pull down the festive panoply at the end, only to reveal a grinning skull and proclaim “memento mori”?
Outside academia, Nicolas Rothwell has probably done more to raise awareness and inculcate appreciation of Indigenous art-making that anyone else in Australia. That he continues to do so in the otherwise overtly hostile pages of The Australian is all the more remarkable. But almost every time I read one of his articles, I am disheartened that he ultimately undermines the viability of what he celebrates. We love and admire this art because it is beautiful, powerful, inventive, dogged, determined, expressive, and mysterious. We don’t love it–pace, Mr Rothwell–because it is evanescent.