Inventing the Contemporary

mclean-how-aborigines2013 was a year of many and varied accomplishments for me.  Not the least of these was reading Ian McLean’s anthology How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: writings on Aboriginal contemporary art (Power Publications, 2011) from cover to cover.

I have to admit it was a daunting task to undertake.  When it arrived in the mail early in the year, my first impression was “big.”  Although it clocks in at only 360 pages, each one of them is crammed full of text, and the carefully chosen illustrations are not a large percentage of the book’s contents.

The second thing that put me off at first was exactly the contents.  I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sent off for the book, but it wasn’t an anthology of short extracts from books, academic journals, magazines, and newspapers.  As I’ve said many times before, I’m a long-form kind of guy.  I like arguments that are slowly developed over time, and that culminate in some kind of epiphany, a drawing together of many strands into a single, coherent vision.

It turns out that, indeed, that is a fairly exact description of McLean’s book, for all that it is a patchwork of facts and arguments pieced together from several decades of writing about Aboriginal Australian art and culture, bookended by two lengthy essays by McLean himself.  And by the time I was past the introduction and into the hundreds of short excerpts from magazine and newspaper articles, scholarly studies, art exhibition catalogs,  and monographs, I was hooked.  Over the course of many months, reading one short piece at a time, I uncovered inspiration, argument, counter-argument, and above all a lively sense, not only of the history of Aboriginal art criticism over the past forty or fifty years, but an appreciation of why this art is so important.

Key to an appreciation of why McLean has undertaken in this anthology is the notion of what he terms “the artworld.”  Unblushingly, this refers not so much to the producers of art as to the commentators on it, the critics, the buyers, and those engaged in art as commerce and art as seen through the lens of the history of ideas.  While there are more than a few essays (as I’ll refer to them generically) by producers of art–the artists, mostly Aboriginal, who feature in the book’s pages–the real focus of McLean’s investigations is on the reception and interpretation of the art by those who, in one way or another, find their livelihoods in the appreciation of art.

Some might take exception to this tack, seeming as it does to concentrate on the market more than on the artists, and indeed, in other venues, this approach has been excoriated as colonialism.  The beauty of McLean’s comprehensiveness, though, is to give ample space to some of these views, and to include where possible, statements from artists themselves (admittedly mostly, though not entirely, artists like Judy Watson and Richard Bell who are comfortable engaging critically with the marketplace).

The book opens with a long essay by McLean entitled “Aboriginal art and the artworld” in which he traces the intersection of the two cultures, Aboriginal and settler, to try to come to an understanding of why Aboriginal art in Australia has become an important, perhaps pre-emininent, part of the aesthetic discourse in ways that have not been mirrored in Europe and the United States.  He admits that the critical literature on Aboriginal art has yet to produce a complete historical synthesis of the achievements of the artists.  But he also insists that the impact of the astonishing vitality of the art has forced Australian art critics to re-examine the foundational discourses of their discipline and to seek out new methodologies.  This process is far from complete, as John Carty has eloquently argued, but McLean’s goal here is, in part, to provide a sourcebook for future studies, to delineate the issues that need to be addressed, and to secure the validity of the enterprise in terms of the dominant Western critical discourse.

McLean’s essay looks back to the time before the Papunya revolution to the point when Australians first began to engage with the artistic output of Indigenous peoples.  He looks at the defining questions of fine art, modernism, authenticity, social and cultural integration, and self-determination.  He then examines how these issues led to the first engagements of curators with Aboriginal art, beginning roughly in the 1960s and continuing for the next two decades.  Once the curatorial world (art galleries and museums) had invested in the collection of Aboriginal art, critics and historians began to follow along, turning their theoretical and investigative minds to explanations of the social and aesthetic phenomena that the art threw into relief.

Growing interest in Aboriginal art not only in Australia but also in Europe, through the work of Karel Kupka, early French exhibitions like D’un autre continent: l’Australie, le rêve et le réel (1983) and Magiciens de la terre (1989), and in America with the tour of Dreamings (1988) coincided with the ascent of post-modernist critiques of art and the theoretical fallout from the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern exhibition in 1984.  This was followed by increasing commercialization of the Aboriginal art market in Australian in the 1990s, and the growth of art produced by Aboriginal people living and working in metropolitan centers.

In the past two decades, there has been an increased presence of Indgenous voices in these dialogues.  Much of this has been critical (in the sense of negative) but much has also been simply demonstrative or documentary.  It includes the positions taken by the members of the Aboriginal Arts Board, beginning in the 1970s, the political proclamations of activists like Gary Foley, the scholarly investigations of Marcia Langton, and the increasing visibility of statements by artists like John Mawurndjul in this century.

Having thus set the stage, McLean turns the bulk of his volume over to the voices of the artworld itself.  The first section of the anthology, “Becoming Modern,” explores issues and attitudes from a historical perspective and provides further background.  McLean has provided “titles” for his extracts that differ from the titles of the original works reproduced throughout the anthology, and a good flavor of the content of this first section can be gleaned from the table of contents wherein one can see that the titles (or headlines) of many of his selections begin with the words “Aboriginal art is …”  The predicates for this statement include the words of the following list: cultural adaptation; ritual revival; not traditional; esoteric; intercultural; traditional; international art; universal; country and western (Judy Watson’s contribution); and changing (John Mawurndjul’s).

The next section is “Zones of Engagement.”  Each of these presents short commentaries from  a geographical or cultural arena, and each is replete with contributions from acknowledged experts.  Luke Taylor, Howard Morphy, Nigel Lendon, Banduk Marika, and Ivan Namirrkki present on the art of Arnhem Land.  Contributors to the section on the Western Desert include Nic Peterson, Imants Tillers, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Eric Michaels, John Kean, and Fred Myers.  Lin Onus, Djon Mundine, Marica Langton, Brenda Croft, Gordon Bennett, and Judy Watson dominate the section on Urban Australia.

The last two sections of “Zones of Engagement” offer perspectives from “the Australia artworld” and “abroad.”  These deal less with the making of art than with its critical reception in commercial and academic circles.  Tim and Vivien Johnson, Terry Smith, and John Mawurndjul are among the Australian contributors here.  From abroad, Suzanne Pagé, Lance Bennett and Jill Montgomery discuss the art’s reception in France; John Weber, Ronald  Jones and Fred Myers report from New York.  Howard Morphy offers a perspective from London, Andrei Kovalev from Moscow, and Bernhard Lüthi from Düsseldorf, while Djon Mundine looks broadly across Europe and the United States.

The third set of selections is broadly termed “Issues.” It is the longest of the volume, and covers questions of gender, ethics, modernism, aesthetics, appropriation, commerce, and politics.  I found this part of the book to be the most fascinating and thought-provoking.  Although there is plenty to debate in the material presented earlier, these are the most contested areas in current critical discourse concerning the place of Aboriginal art in the contemporary, globalized marketplace as well as within the cultural sphere of Australian society itself.  There is a huge variety of viewpoints presented, from a similarly diverse cast of contributors.  Academics (Terry Smith, Roger Benjamin and Marcia Langton) butt up against the promulgators from the popular press (Nicolas Rothwell, Sebastian Smee, Robert Nelson, and Louis Nowra).  Christine Nicholls, Apolline Kohen, and Eric Michaels offer perspectives from the coal face.  Pijaju Peter Skipper and Ngarralja Tommy May offer perspectives from the bush, while Richard Bell speaks from the big smoke.

Finally, there is the briefly considered question of “Futures.”  Most of the selections from this section were written since 2001.  In some ways this is the least satisfying part of the book. It rehearses on the one hand the themes of the passing of a way of life, if not a culture, that has defined much of the Aboriginal art that is now considered canonical.  On the other hand it indulges in speculation, abstraction, and theories of “post-Aboriginality” without ever advancing a reasonable definition of that concept.  Perhaps this reflects  growing concerns about the viability of the marketplace (although all of the essays predate the GFC, the resale royalty, and the changes in superannuation regulations that have shocked the market in recent years).  Perhaps all this simply reflects the unknowability of what has not yet occurred.

The book concludes with another essay by McLean, which offers the explanation, finally, of “How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art.”  Essentially, the concept begins with the problem of modernism’s exhaustion.  The social, psychological, aesthetic, historical, and theoretical frameworks that characterized the great artistic achievements of the first two-thirds (roughly) of the twentieth century have run their course.  The notions of individualism and the veracity of the subjective experience that characterize much of twentieth-century art collapsed along with the imperialism that had defined much of modern history; post-modernism showed that the supposed objectivity of Western science and positivist thought were just as arbitrary and indeed subjective as the interior monologues of twentieth-century literature, and just as prone to error.  The hope of discovering “Truth” vanished.  Instead, the key insights of Modernism were turned on their heads, deconstructed, and the multiplicity of experience seemed a better signpost in the search for a description of the human condition.

Politically, the collapse of empire brought about a resurgence of Indigenous culture and the desire for some form of Indigenous autonomy.   We are now, in the twenty-first century, accustomed to seeing Chinese art of recent pedigree in commercial and curatorial art spaces; art by leading African practitioners such as El Anatsui seems to be among the most exciting work on the scene.  Thus “contemporary” art, defined not simply as “art of the now” but as a discrete movement that can be recognized as distinct from Modernism, is intrinsically, perhaps essentially, an art of globalization.  It is art that not so much rejects the Western canons as operates outside them while at the same time infiltrating them.

This is not art that was created by opposing Modernism, as the Minimalists aimed to counter the supposed excesses of Abstract Expressionism or as Impressionism tried to expose the limits of Realism.  Rather, contemporary art emerged outside the sphere of Modernism, independent of it and not quite in opposition to it, for opposition in some ways grants the old order at least a nominal validity which it seeks to overturn.

McLean locates the first and most significant emergence of the new order in Papunya.  The work that was produced there in the 1970s and 1980s escaped the “limbo” of “traditional fine art” or “ethnographic fine art” and jumped straight into being understood as “contemporary art.”  It did not so much repudiate the progressivist, teleological biases of Modernism as operate in a sphere completely other to them, one that cast into high relief the “basic ontological gap” between Aboriginal and Western ways of thinking, perceiving, and responding.  Here is McLean’s conclusion:

In the 1980s Papunya Tula painting revealed to the artworld something about itself that had not yet been brought into focus by Western contemporary art.  Because the constitutional differences of modernist no longer mattered, Aborigines initiated in tribal lore could also make contemporary art.  This lesson, that difference was the opportunity for something more, is also the first prerequisite of globalism.  In a straightforward historical sense then, Australian Aborigines were amongst the first to show an artworld, raised on the ethnocentric and historicist blinkers of European modernism, what contemporary art after modernism felt like.  In doing this, they played a decisive role in the artworld’s globalisation at the end of the twentieth century.

The video below captures Ian McLean’s address at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2012 on the subject of how Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art and expands on the themes he introduces in his paired essays in the book.  But it in no way captures the richness of the source material that this superb anthology, reference work, polemic, and compendium of thinking on the subject brings together.  How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about Aboriginal art or who seeks even a basic introduction to the complexities of what may be not simply the “last great art movement of the twentieth century,” but the first of the twenty-first.

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