THE FORUM on a critical dilemma
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.