THE FO­RUM on a crit­i­cal dilemma

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - FRANK CAMP­BELL

ABO­RIG­I­NAL art is in cri­sis. Some as­pects are familiar: cor­rupt deal­ers, au­then­tic­ity, the sell­ing of of­ten se­cret cul­ture as a com­mod­ity. But be­neath lies a ques­tion that is rarely asked and never an­swered: how do you as­sess Abo­rig­i­nal art? Crit­ics and com­men­ta­tors are paral­ysed by a cock­tail of in­tel­lec­tual be­muse­ment, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and in­sti­tu­tional threat.

Cel­e­brated Aus­tralian artist Mar­garet Pre­ston ( 1875- 1963) set the tone. The first Aus­tralian artist to treat Abo­rig­i­nal mo­tifs se­ri­ously in her art ( she has since been posthu­mously sav­aged for her im­per­ti­nence), Pre­ston wrote in 1941 that Abo­rig­i­nal art ‘‘. . . must not be judged on its tech­ni­cal qual­ity, but its in­tro­spec­tive char­ac­ter’’. The first jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for crit­i­cal si­lence was on the record.

Ec­cen­tric Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­o­gist Eric Michaels ( 1948- 88) at least raised the ques­tion. He said no Abo­rig­i­nal art was ever de­scribed as bad, but ad­mit­ted, ‘‘ I have failed to de­fine bad Abo­rig­i­nal art’’ be­cause there were ‘‘ no cri­te­ria’’ to as­sess it. He was no art critic.

Abo­rig­i­nal art is hot and the pal­ette of ad­jec­tives is lurid: bril­liant, mag­nif­i­cent, mes­meris­ing, ex­u­ber­ant, per­fect, sub­lime, dra­matic, lyri­cal, be­guil­ing, bold and unique. My favourite is ‘‘ in­ef­fa­ble’’, de­fined as ‘‘ de­fy­ing ex­pres­sion or de­scrip­tion’’. Which is pre­cisely the point. There is no crit­i­cal anal­y­sis at all. Just a hint now and again de­signed to pre- empt neg­a­tiv­ity, as in ‘‘ seem­ingly naive’’ and ‘‘ such as­ton­ish­ing bril­liance and fe­cun­dity from the hands of ‘ un­trained painters’ ’’, or ‘‘ dec­o­ra­tive with­out be­ing dec­o­ra­tion’’ ( there is no dead­lier put- down in the art world than dec­o­ra­tive), or ‘‘ messy [ but] . . . it is this very spon­tane­ity which im­bues [ the art] with an hon­esty of ex­pres­sion, for th­ese are paint­ings loaded with mean­ings’’. Which brings us neatly back to Pre­ston.

‘‘ Cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance’’ alone jus­ti­fies the bar­rage of su­perla­tives. Cul­ture con­quers crit­i­cism. Ques­tion that taboo and you will be cast into the wilder­ness. If non- Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple buy slabs of cul­tural mean­ing to hang on their walls, is it an­thro­po­log­i­cal voyeurism or art ap­pre­ci­a­tion? In re­al­ity, in­vest­ment, dec­o­ra­tion and fash­ion prompt peo­ple to buy art. But that’s an­other story.

Some art crit­ics have railed against the tide of un­crit­i­cal praise, not least their own. Se­bas­tian Smee, who hopes that ‘‘ when the hype and cu­pid­ity die down . . . more ob­jec­tive ways of talk­ing about Abo­rig­i­nal art [ will be] found’’, also thinks that the Pa­punya gal­leries in Alice Springs ‘‘ are the Vat­i­can of the desert’’. Abo­rig­i­nal art is, Smee as­serts, ‘‘. . . the finest artis­tic move­ment in to­day’s Aus­tralian cul­ture’’, a high art, no less.

Yet Smee’s ten­ta­tive cri­tique brought a pointed ri­poste from Robert Nelson: ‘‘[ Abo­rig­i­nal art] be­longs hap­pily on the wall along­side the best West­ern pic­ture- mak­ing, with its for­mi­da­ble com­po­si­tions and vis­ual logic.’’ Fol­lowed by the killer punch: ‘‘. . . it also con­tains a sa­cred cos­mol­ogy . . . that guides the artist’s hand with en­chanted pur­pose’’. As en­chanted as those church­fuls of naive Catholic art, which would never pass muster at Sotheby’s?

Ni­co­las Roth­well is also sus­pended painfully on the barbed- wire fence of Abo­rig­i­nal art crit­i­cism. He rightly says you’ll ‘‘ search in vain’’ for crit­i­cism of Abo­rig­i­nal art. So let it flour­ish be­cause Abo­rig­i­nal art ‘‘ needs no spe­cial plead­ing’’, even as crit­i­cism ‘‘ ap­pre­ci­ates, hus­bands, sup­ports’’. With crit­ics like that, who needs friends? It gets worse ( or bet­ter, if you’re an Abo­rig­i­nal artist): don’t dare judge Abo­rig­i­nal art by ‘‘ re­ceived aes­thetic stan­dards’’, Roth­well wisely warns, or you’ll be ac­cused of ‘‘ re­peat­ing the sins of colo­nial­ism’’.

See what I mean about be­ing cast into the wilder­ness? I’ve booked a sand dune al­ready.

But at least Roth­well and Smee are ask­ing ques­tions. Robert Hughes rhap­sodises about the ‘‘ strik­ing beauty and for­mal in­ten­sity’’ of Abo­rig­i­nal art . . . the last great art move­ment of the 20th cen­tury’’ and ‘‘. . . the most im­por­tant art move­ment to­day’’. At the risk of in­for­mal in­ten­sity, what does this apoth­e­o­sis of Abo­rig­i­nal art say about all the rest? We know what Hughes thinks about Pro Hart for ex­am­ple: ‘‘ parish pump in­com­pe­tence’’. Quite so. A crude, repet­i­tive trum­pet­ing of bush cliches. True, peo­ple love Hart, but the sen­ti­men­tal­ity of the un­tu­tored never swayed a learned critic.

Dou­ble stan­dards? Hypocrisy? The crit­ics’ defence is that Abo­rig­i­nal art is unique and not sub­ject to ‘‘ re­ceived aes­thetic stan­dards’’. They say ( var­i­ously) that Abo­rig­i­nal art ‘‘ at first sight’’ looks ab­stract, ex­pres­sion­ist, modernist or post­mod­ern. A con­tra­dic­tory range of choice and es­sen­tially ir­rel­e­vant.

Post- 1971 Abo­rig­i­nal art is mostly acrylic on can­vas, twodi­men­sional naive de­sign with very lim­ited tech­nique. For 25 years the pal­ette mim­icked tra­di­tional ochres. Now there’s a move to loud dis­cor­dant colours ( crit­ics fret about this un­tra­di­tional gar­ish­ness). Jux­ta­pos­ing bright colours, bor­dered by lines or dots, gives a cheer­ful im­age: of­ten very dec­o­ra­tive, but also naive and crude. Not prim­i­tive though.

Abo­rig­i­nal art is un­like rock art or tribal art, be­ing sub­ject to many un­tra­di­tional in­flu­ences. Be­cause the tech­nique is sim­ple, it can be learned quickly. Many thou­sands have done so. The mo­ment that any­one at­tempts three­d­i­men­sion­al­ity, the naivety is in­stantly ap­par­ent. Keep­ing it sim­ple en­ables a vast num­ber of paint­ings to be pro­duced. Fur­ther, the de­signs have be­come tire­somely repet­i­tive. That’s why we see Abo­rig­i­nal art ads bark­ing like shonky Per­sian rug ven­dors: ‘‘ Whole­sale out­let: save 30 per cent off re­tail!’’ A mar­ket col­lapse is in­evitable, which may af­fect es­tab­lished artists. As many Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties de­pend on in­come from art, this would be dis­as­trous.

Mean­while, ur­ban Abo­rig­i­nal artists are cru­elly ig­nored. They mainly paint in a naive West­ern re­al­ist or sym­bol­ist man­ner, with more skill but less an­thro­pol­ogy than their desert cousins. And non- Abo­rig­i­nal artists who’ve beavered away for decades must also re­alise their work is pro­vin­cial and de­void of pow­er­ful cul­tural mean­ing. Po­etic jus­tice per­haps, but hardly art crit­i­cism.

So if Abo­rig­i­nal art is naive, repet­i­tive twodi­men­sional de­sign, it can’t be high art. Not even mid­dle- brow art. Far from de­mol­ish­ing Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture with a racist art canon, to pre­tend that cur­rent Abo­rig­i­nal art is high art is pa­tro­n­is­ing and ul­ti­mately de­mean­ing.

Glob­ally, art is in a schizoid sham­bles. The tra­di­tional art canon sur­vives, but in con­tem­po­rary art an­ar­chy rules with its sim­per­ing familiar, celebrity. Art crit­ics have made Tracey Emin’s bed and now must lie in it.

By com­par­i­son, Abo­rig­i­nal art must seem a haven of tra­di­tional cer­ti­tude.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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