The Terrain of the Critic

Of maximal concern is the aesthetic ambience into which [Papunya Tula] art will be critically placed.  An art dialogue sympathetic to the intent of this work is a necessary tool to engender a deeper understanding and appreciation of what the viewer sees and subsequently feels and thinks.  This cognitive approach is possible but will necessitate a new set of critical art theory to elucidate this new art.  …  What is lacking thus far is a disciplined critical approach for which we must turn to the contemporary art historian and art critic.

–John Weber, New York, 1989

terrain-of-the-criticThe 2013 issue of Artlink Indigenous arrived at our house a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll just say for now that I didn’t get first dibs on it.  However, once I had the chance, I went straight to John Carty’s essay, “The Limits of Criticism.”

I should probably say up front that I find Carty’s work to be among the most exciting and challenging writing on Aboriginal art being produced today.  He was a key participant in the Canning Stock Route Project, in the Purnu, Tjanpi, Canvas exhibition documented in Ngaanyatjarra: art of the lands,  and in the recent collaborations in Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of the ecology of the water system around Paruku in Western Australia.  In recent years, he has published substantial essays on the Martu artist Billy Atkins and on the art of the Spinifex People in conjunction with the 2012 exhibition at the John Curtin Gallery.  I find him to be one of the most important contemporary thinkers about Indigenous art history and art criticism.  His essay in Artlink Indigenous is precisely about the current state of affairs in the critical and historical field.  And generally, he finds that to be a pretty sorry state: his essay opens, “We have reached the limits of what can be said about Western Desert art. This, at least, is what you could assume from reading Australian art criticism over recent times.”

Much is being written these days about Aboriginal art (I stand accused, as Elvis Costello sang).  Nicolas Rothwell has produced many essays on the topic in his books and in The Australian; Sebastian Smee did likewise before he decamped to the USA.  Most major and many minor exhibitions are now accompanied by published catalogs, and the growth in the number of tools available for publishing on the web has facilitated greater commentary and documentation.

But in Carty’s assessment, much of that writing has reached a point of “critical stasis.”   For decades, writers fought to establish the work being produced in the deserts of Australia (and elsewhere, but Carty’s focus and expertise lie in desert art) as fine art and not translated ethnographic signs.  As he notes, “Ok – problem solved.  What now?”  One of the ironies in that victory for the work as fine art is that much of the evidence that interpreted the work and demonstrated its significance came from ethnographic investigations.  It has been anthropologists and their ilk who have contributed to the knowledge and discourse that we might have expected art historians to champion.  As a result, much “art criticism” (I stand accused) has been at best detailed description, at worst abdication (desert paintings as “inherently obscure, if not unintelligible,” according to Chirstopher Allen, writing in The Australian).  I find it telling, and no fault to Carty’s investigations, that much of the writing about contemporary Aboriginal art that he can cite is published in newspapers and magazines, and very little in scholarly journals.

The problem is two-fold.  Doing justice to the art requires attention to “formal analysis, historical and social context, biography and aesthetics.”  It also requires “an evolved critical language.”  These are qualities that both anthropologists and art historians possess, but to date, says Carty, only anthropologists have brought them to bear on contemporary Indigenous art.

In recent years, even Rothwell has flagged in his investigations, suggesting that the knowledge required to explicate these paintings and sculptures is deliberately kept hidden from “outside experts” whom Aboriginal people have come to mistrust.  But Carty dismisses this explanation, as his own extensive research career in the Western Desert certainly gives him ground to.  More to the point,

[i]t is not adequate to take refuge in the rhetoric of restriction and taboo: that the meaning of desert paintings isn’t available, that it doesn’t matter anyway, or worse, that Aboriginal people don’t want their audience to understand such things. Each of these positions permits a willed un-knowing – where we walk away from the pressing questions of how to write about the most important art of our time.  Each of these positions reveals a structure to the shortcomings of Australian art criticism: for it is at the limits of their own understanding that our writers have prescribed limits to understanding itself.  Most importantly, each of these positions fails to dignify the history of Western Desert painting and the intentions of the artists: people for whom art has always been about communication across cultural divides (Artlink, p.56).

The final sentence of that paragraph particularly delights me, for it defines the essence of what makes these desert works fine art: “art has always been about communication across cultural divides.”  For  Aboriginal artists, this is the crucial distinction that they themselves make between ethnography and art.  In a ritual or ceremonial context, the designs are indices of the sacred meant for consumption by those with the earned right to learn them.  In the context of the art market, as fine art, these designs may still be indices of the existence of the sacred, proof that the tjukurrpa exists and informs that world, but the intent is to communicate that truth—and not the particulars of it—to those of us who live on the other side of the cultural divide.

In the second half of his essay Carty briefly examines some of the ways in which the methodologies of art history can be applied to the study of Indigenous painting from the desert.  Ingeniously, he focuses on the question of abstraction.  And I say “ingeniously” because as Carty points out, “[t]hose desert paintings that have been institutionally recognised as fine art were those that seemingly reflected aspects of modernist aesthetics (minimalism, op art, abstract expressionism) or articulated with Western discourse around abstraction in 20th Century painting.”

The shift from iconography to abstraction, especially in Balgo painting, is a subject Carty has explored at length elsewhere, and the presentation given in the current essay is necessarily condensed.  It is developed more extensively in his contribution to the catalog for Crossing Cultures (Hood Museum of Art, 2012, pp. 105-118), “Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction,” which in turn reflects but a single thread in the research that forms the basis for his doctoral thesis, Creating Country: abstraction, economics and the social life of style in Balgo (Australian National University, 2011).

Carty has examined over 12,000 paintings produced at Balgo and recorded in the Warlayirti Artists archives between 1986 and 2004.  One of the central observations of the formal analysis he conducted on this body of work is that

what artists did over the first two decades of acrylic painting was to unhinge traditional aesthetic devices such as dotting, outlining and concentricity from the iconographic forms they were originally employed to highlight.  These dots and lines were transformed and ramified, in dialogue with a market hungry for expressive abstractions, into signature styles that have been subjected to ongoing interrogation by artists and their peers.

Abstraction here is not employed merely as a particular kind of distilled formalism that resonates with twentieth century Western critical discourse, but as a broader conceptual and creative process linked to a deconstruction of form and reconfiguration of meaning (Artlink, p.58).

And it is precisely that “deconstruction of form and reconfiguration of meaning” that has led to the critical statis in contemporary art historical/critical writing about desert art.

The recession of iconographic forms from the surface of acrylic art has destabilised the conventional interpretive relationship between form and content. Without any grounds to discuss the conceptual, formal and aesthetic aspects of the Dreaming and Country, and without a basic understanding of the operation of desert iconography, art critics have been unable to re-establish any critical dialogue between form and content (Artlink, p.58).

Getting beyond this deadlock will not be easy, nor will it be quick.  Writing art histories of desert art has challenges to test the will of most researchers.  While art centres have built considerable documentation in the form of archives and databases over the years, there is little else written down for study: the oral and social character of Indigenous culture poses special problems here.  So does language: I suspect that learning Kukatja or  Pintupi is of a different order of difficulty for an Anglophone critic than learning Italian.  And restriction and taboo will enter into the equation as well, although not so completely as to prevent productive research from going forth.

The tyranny of distance also plays a role.  In recent months, as I read Roberta Smith’s essays in the New York Times, I am struck repeatedly by the way in which she constantly traces links and lineages, compares the artist whose show she is reviewing to his contemporaries, discovers his influence on younger artists, traces his aesthetic heritage from earlier ones.  This is relatively easy to do when so much of the American art world is encompassed by the dozen square miles of southern Manhattan enriched by the abundance of printed resources in the city’s galleries and libraries and by the physical presence of so many key participants in recent art history on the ground there.  The same can not be said of the Australian deserts and the tropical north.

And yet, what a compelling research agenda waits in those locales.  In one of the appendices  to the Yiwarra Kuju catalog, Carty presented a family tree tracing the family relations (walytja kuju)  of the artists participating in the Canning Stock Route Project.  In a brilliant bit of design, he represented each artist not with a portrait but with a reproduction of a characteristic painting.  With that one move, he suggested a rich vein of research, alluded to in the Artlink essay, to establish how styles are developed and passed along blood lines in the desert.  In “Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction,” he pauses briefly to consider the Yolngu concept of bir’yun (brilliance) and how it contrasts to the effects gained by a greater emphasis on abstraction in desert art.  And I wondered how the oscillation between representation (iconography) and abstraction differs historically between the two traditions, and how they affect conceptions of revelation and secrecy.  These are mere sparks struck off a few pages of speculation.  They represent vast potential.

We have reached the limits of what it is possible to say about desert art, or at least of what is worth saying. But not in the way most commentators would have us believe. There is nothing intrinsic to the art, or to the cross-cultural ambiguity or complexity of it, that prescribes such limits. Rather, these are the challenges around which a richer Australian language must evolve. Let’s hear no more of this mysterious art ‘inherently resonant with meaning… which refuses to yield to analysis.’  It is not that desert art refuses to yield to analysis, but rather that art historical analysis has not yet yielded to the demands of desert art (Artlink, p, 59).

Image: Tjitji Kutjarra, by Yukultja Rachel Jennings, currently on view as part of the exhibition Desert Boards, at Raft Artspace through July 23, 2013.

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One Response to The Terrain of the Critic

  1. Pingback: Inventing the Contemporary | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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