Reception Theory

In its article on reception theory, Wikipedia quotes Harold (not Herbert) Marcuse to aid in defining the field:

reception history is “the history of the meanings that have been imputed to historical events. It traces the different ways in which participants, observers, historians and other retrospective interpreters have attempted to make sense of events both as they unfolded and over time since then, to make those events meaningful for the present in which they lived and live.”

I bring this up because I’ve lately been working my way slowly through Ian McLean’s voluminous How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: writings on Aboriginal contemporary art (Institute of Modern Art/Power Publications, 2011).  In the early pages of his fascinating historical introduction, “Aboriginal Art and the Artworld,” McLean describes a number of early exhibitions of Aboriginal art and traces the transition they went through from ethnographic curiosity cabinets to fine art displays.

reception-1960-ex-catOne of the important exhibitions he chronicles occurred in 1960-1961 and was notable for having been organized by Tony Tuckson, then Deputy Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with the collaboration of the other state art galleries of Australia.  Entitled Australian Aboriginal Art: bark painting, carved figures, sacred and secular objects, the exhibition, says McLean, was notable in that “the display of mainly Arnhem Land art was organized in the most contemporary fashion as fine art.”

One way in which that was so was the attribution, where known, of art works to individuals rather than to tribes, clans, or geographic locations.  Among the great figures represented in the show were Mawalan, Birikidji, Wandjuk, Munggurawuy, Narritjin, Djawa, and Dawidi.  Altogether, there were 115 objects, 21 of which are reproduced in the catalog, along with a concise introductory essay by Fred McCarthy.

It was while I was reading McLean’s book that I realized that this particular catalog had escaped my bibliographic net and notice over the years, so I turned to to see if I could locate a copy.  And indeed, there was one available at a very reasonable price from a bookseller in England.  It arrived last week.

One of the occasional delights of acquiring books from antiquarian dealers is the snippets that you will find tucked into the pages, and this book came with a particularly wonderful document that I wanted to share.  It was a letter from a professor at the University of Western Australia who sent the catalog along to someone in England (whence it no doubt came to the bookseller I did business with).  I’ve scanned the original and included it below, and below that transcribed the text of the note to make it easier to read.  I’ve also redacted the bookseller’s tentative identification of the author, in case it turns out to be correct.


Dear John,

I thought the enclosed obscenities might have some psycho-analytic significance.  They are at present all the rage in the artistic circles here with abstract painters plagiarizing as hard as they can go.  This is the largest collection assembled for years; only some of it belongs to the University of W. A.  If you want photographs of the other ones you can get them at the local museums and dont [sic] offer to pay for them.

The barbarians are upon us, but on the whole less distressing than the English.

Regards from the Exceptions to the Exception



I’m absolutely stunned by the amount of cultural history that’s been packed into these three tiny paragraphs, two of them only a sentence long.

First and most obviously, there is the ghastly arrogance and snobbery in “the Exceptions to the Exception” and the exhortation not to pay for reproductions that the recipient might require.

The letter drips with so much racism that I can’t even get a handle on it.  There’s the obvious reference to the artworks as obscenities that gives us a fairly clear notion of the author’s overall view of the Indigenous population of Australia.  Barbarians, indeed.  Although I don’t know what to make of the suggestion that the barbarians are less distressing than the English: presumably the recipient of this letter, though residing in England, is Australian.

But even if this poor fellow has been exiled to England, he still seems intimately connected in some way to the Indigenous culture of Australia, else why would the letter writer have gone to the expense of sending the catalog halfway around the world?  Maybe psychoanalysis wasn’t well represented in the Australian academy in the 1950s, and one had to go abroad to learn about it?  Of course, the notion that these paintings have only interest insofar as they reveal the primitive depths of the human id, lying not deeply submerged but right at the surface of the barbarian Aboriginal brain, is a classic piece of psychoanalysis (and racism) in itself.

And finally, the letter writer seems to be remarkably well informed about the growing presence of Indigenous art in Australian galleries.  The exhibition is “the largest collection assembled for years” and all the contemporary abstract painters have been “plagiarizing” the work relentlessly.  McLean’s “Aboriginal Art and the Artworld” essay is deeply researched and copiously footnoted, but this one page does as much to affirm his message about the reception of Aboriginal art in Australia at the middle of the twentieth century than an entire cluster of footnotes.  I guess this is why historians and archivists fall in love with primary sources, a fact my librarian/archivist colleagues repeatedly impress upon me, but which I’ve never felt in quite such a visceral way until I held this letter in my hands.

All in all, this small purchase turned into quite a historical bonanza.

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4 Responses to Reception Theory

  1. Melinda Wallace says:

    T, this site might interest you, I find the posts fascinating, join up for them. See you around the traps. :o!

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Ian McLean says:

    Very interesting letter – likely to be from Pat Hutchings, and to be read ironically rather than seriously i.e. as racist.

  3. greg says:

    Congratulations on a really amazing primary source find. Yes, it does speak volumes – and should be regarded as a measure of the progress that Aboriginal people have achieved in claiming their rightful status as First Australians, rather than ‘obscenity’-producing ‘barbarians.’
    You were kind to black out the names… this scrap of cultural legacy isn’t anything a family member would want to be associated with.

  4. Pingback: Inside and Outside: an essay | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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