Art in decline as critics and judges hold back

In Attractions, Australian Cultural Exports, Australian Domestic Tourism, Business Resources, Harmonisation, Media and Communications, Momentum, National Headlines

From The Weekend Australian, 2-3 May 2015

Only a decade ago, at the frantic crescendo of the Aboriginal art boom, it was almost impossible to imagine the sheer collapse in prestige and financial value that lay ahead for the most prominent works by indigenous masters from the desert, the Kimberley and Arnhem Land.

No follower of trends in the market, or connoisseur of the fast-shifting painting styles of remote communities, no dealer or corporate art adviser ever dreamed that frontline desert pieces that once commanded six-figure price-tags might come to linger, unsaleable, in the back-rooms of struggling galleries or gather mould and dust in outback storage sheds.

But then, no expert predicted the impact of the global financial crisis that struck with full force in 2008, nor the compound blows rained down on the art trade by the federal government when it imposed tight restrictions on artworks held in superannuation funds and brought in a resale royalty system.

One besetting problem of the Aboriginal art scene was already very much in evidence, though, and its long-term consequences were entirely predictable. This was the silence of the critics — the near-total absence of any meaningful or clear-eyed assessment of indigenous art-making; the reluctance of specialists and enthusiasts to provide an index of quality, to judge or assess the outpouring of works from all across indigenous Australia, or construct a solid framework against which an artist’s adherence to tradition or their originality and particular brilliance might be gauged.

Diverse factors, historical and political, lay behind the blanket reluctance to critique and judge. This absence of conventional review or appraisal could be easily enough overlooked in the movement’s golden days, when a sharp expansion in the indigenous art sector was taking place, and promotion and presentation claimed priority. But in today’s conditions, in a period of extended market downturn, the lack of any critical language for Aboriginal art has a different impact. For if there is no well-developed, coherent or secure account of what constitutes good or bad work, what aspects of an indigenous composition are strong or beautiful, or repay close attention and the decoding efforts of the eye, it becomes hard to find one’s way.

Critical judgment is the bond that joins an artist to the surrounding world of viewers and admirers, and when judgment is absent or atrophied, even a prominent work on high-profile exhibition hangs in a void, undifferentiated, uncharacterised, almost invisible despite the spotlights on it. No conversation springs up around it, no response or signal travels back to its maker, it occupies the weightless space of a dream. The failure of critical endeavour here is intellectual and moral, for denying serious appraisal on racial grounds, because of an art-work’s Aboriginality, is the most patronising condescension of all. A kind of wilful blindness is the inevitable result. Consider two of the most keenly promoted indigenous art events of 2014, the Telstra-funded National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, held at Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art’s late season survey exhibition, Martu Art from the Far Western Desert. The work that won the $50,000 NATSIAA prize, Tony Albert’s We Can Be Heroes, was a photographic montage depicting a set of young Sydney Aboriginal men with red targets stencilled on their chests. It was a piece of political art.

In 2012, police at Kings Cross shot and wounded two Aboriginal car thieves, aged 14 and 17, who had lost control of their vehicle, struck a woman on the pavement and failed to stop. Albert saw friends of the two young men painted with the target emblems at a protest rally, and took this as the inspiration for his work, finding their gesture “incredibly profound”. Not one of the gathered critics took issue with Albert’s decision to present car-jackers as victims, or bothered to address the whiting-out in the work itself of the episode’s first casualty and true contours. Gelded of all its controversy, the piece was treated as an aesthetic jewel, and its success was another feather in the artist’s cap.

When the MCA’s much-hyped Martu exhibition opened at Circular Quay in September, it was plain at once that it was a visual disaster: a series of vast collaborative paintings, messy, vapid and overblown. One of Australia’s best-known desert anthropologists went to that first night and came away shocked by the impression he was left with: of images that were so sketchy they seemed almost to be fading before his eyes, and traditional story-cycles that were dissipating and losing all their force.

Other experts shared his reactions. None went public, for fear of damaging the Aboriginal cause. The process of art-world publicity continued: no reviews engaged with the look or the material presence of the paintings. Two kinds of silence, then: one, a reluctance to face or take seriously the propaganda element in much contemporary indigenous art; the other, a refusal to consider remote community works as art, deploying the tools of shape and colour, and subject to formal assessment on stringent lines.

Hence the present crisis of value. Thanks to heavy public funding and the conviction of cultural bureaucrats that indigenous art should be supported, and spun as a viable economic “success story”, there is a huge oversupply of Aboriginal art but no clear basis for grading it.

The problem has been long in the making. When Aboriginal artefacts were first traded and collected by European pioneers and field collectors, their beauty was evident but little attempt was made to find a way of absorbing them into the visual culture of the wider nation. They were exotic, they were tribal. When the western desert art movement began in the early 1970s, there was little fanfare.

When dot painting at last caught the imagination of the art world in the mid-90s, there was no extended process of appraisal, critical reception or exposition. The work was taken up by its advocates as a close cousin of modernism. The art’s first backers caught its formal grandeur and its seriousness: it was a fait accompli. Ever since, converts have typically fallen for the genre and loved it, or what it represents for them, unconditionally. A handful of scholars, such as John Kean and Vivien Johnson, have tried to build an approach road to these works, while the mainstream art historian Roger Benjamin has made bold efforts to respond to early desert paintings down strongly subjective lines.

But the fundamental problem has always been there, and it lingers still. Who will say which of the early boards painted in Papunya in 1972 and now hanging in pride of place in the National Gallery of Australia are the best of the group, on what criteria? And which of the 200-odd decorated poles from Arnhem Land that make up the Aboriginal Memorial are worthy of the most praise and attention? For many insiders of the indigenous art world, even to pose such questions is heretical and betrays a disrespect for traditional belief systems. But we routinely make just such judgments about quattrocento altarpieces depicting the Madonna and infant Christ, and rank these masterpieces of our own tradition and assign them market value on aesthetic grounds.

Several dilemmas constrain the would-be critic. No distinction between strains of Aboriginal identity can be drawn in polite discourse in Australia, and this complicates consideration of the relative strengths and merits of remote and urban indigenous art-making currents and their complex relationship. In the early days of Aboriginal art, advocates such as Rex Battarbee or Karel Kupka, promoters respectively of Albert Namatjira and early Top End bark painting, stood outside the state-funded culture network. They could say and write what they pleased. Hardly any such autonomous voices exist in today’s indigenous art world.

The high-end media is almost defined as a class product by its support for Aboriginal culture: a dismissive or strongly negative review of an indigenous art project in the elite news publications would be almost unthinkable. The specialist magazines that focus on Aboriginal art depend on Australia Council or state funding and are full of puff pieces, while the field’s best-known experts regularly write for ­commercial galleries, auction houses or private collectors.

The pattern extends well beyond the world of media and publishing. The credentialled authorities in the archipelago of state and national art museums and galleries, in bureaucratic roles or in university departments are funded to advance the cause of Aboriginal art, not to question its quality. The upshot is an interlocking culture club quite devoid of critical leanings. Criticism would be colonial, it would support the primacy of the Western world view. Groupthink of this kind tends to produce its own runaway effects. Several of the most highly praised and keenly collected indigenous artists of the past generation have been turned into cult figures despite the evident ugliness of their outsized, daub-like works: Emily Kngwarreye and the Mornington Island artist Sally Gabori, who died in February, are only the most obvious examples.

The point is not that criticism must be harsh or sweeping to be effective; it simply needs to be precise and wellfounded. The greatest of the formal critics of the century just past, Meyer Schapiro, a man at home both with modernism and the romanesque, laid out a set of useful guidelines for constructive critical engagement. Sensitive seeing, detailed description and a bid to focus aesthetic intuition through rich knowledge and rigorous theory — these were the key elements.

How might this method be applied in the field of indigenous art? It might, for instance, make plain that the tradition of making animal sculptures in the remote western Cape York community of Aurukun was introduced by missionaries, and that the primary form of expression there in pre-contact times was dance and body-painting. It might examine the material objects that senior desert artists themselves think highly of, and their personal sense of gleam and colour, rather than focusing solely on the works they make for sale, and for outside eyes. It might consider the distortions in the transmission of old stories down the generations, the weakening of law’s straitjacket, and explore the impact of such creative failures of tradition, rather than taking claims of unbroken tradition as pure fact.

It might even give weight to the role and influence of Western co-ordinators in shaping the direction of an artist’s work. Such a widened perspective, taking the whole frontier as the field of inquiry, would mark a step towards criticism in the classical, Schapiro sense.

Of course there is already a good deal of writing about Aboriginal art, writing that appears to be criticism and has criticism’s surface tropes, but stays firmly between the bounds of admiration and adulation. By now there are whole bookshelves full of this boilerplate: mono­graphs, esoteric texts of theory, gushing exhibition catalogues. One can make out several distinct schools.

There is politically engaged writing, which views Aboriginal art through the optic of resistance, cultural survival and the affirmation of racial identity, and validates work made with these goals to the fore. There is criticism that sets out from an anthropological perspective and seeks to decode remote area art by probing into ceremony and ritual, or tracing out the details of sacred sites in painted accounts of country. There is the work of academic art historians: the best-established figure in this field, Howard Morphy from the Australian National University, is a specialist in the complex Yolngu bark paintings of northeast Arnhem Land, and advocates a cross-cultural approach to indigenous work. Ian Mclean, at the University of Wollongong, views Aboriginal art as a contemporary movement that should be apprehended as part of a globalised cultural sphere. Lastly, there is the work of critics and curators who are themselves Aboriginal, and write and speak from this perspective: the most distinguished of them, Franchesca Cubillo of the NGA, is developing the notion that a distinctive indigenous aesthetic exists and must be factored into any ­viable appreciation of Aboriginal art.

But one critical approach is strikingly absent from this list of establishment responses to indigenous art: formal, technical criticism — criticism that takes the art object or image as a subject for close examination and seeks to find out how it achieves its effect; that weighs the relationship between form, texture, shade and colour; that goes beyond merely reading symbols to sensing their tonality; that finds in pattern and rhythm a form of conceiving and ordering the world.

How do the paintings, carvings and sculpted pieces work? What impact do they have beyond their immediate cultural frame? Understanding something of an art’s processes helps correct the tendency to admire all indigenous art in undiscriminating fashion and take anything made by Aboriginal hands as a vessel charged with spiritual resonance.

As it happens, all three of the gifted visual arts critics who have written for Review over the past 1½ decades — Giles Auty, Sebastian Smee and Christopher Allen — have tended to stay well clear of Aboriginal art exhibitions, but on the rare occasions when they have considered indigenous work in detail they have opted for strictly formal analysis: how did the Gija artist Paddy Bedford build up his fields of colour; how does the relationship between bright surface and sombre ground vary in the works of the Arnhem Land bark painter John Mawurndjul?

From such building-bricks a grasp of the ­intent of the artist can be developed; the emotional aura of a painting can be caught and held up to the light. But this kind of close reading, which exalts the art itself rather than the enlightened moral conscience of the critic, is rare in the extreme.

The most obvious consequence is uncertainty. The canon shifts around. Reputations rise and fall at dizzying pace. The relativism that grips the field breeds the inclusive displays one sees in the grand public galleries and museums of Australian capitals, where works of vastly different quality and cultural provenance hang side by side.

It also gives the judging of the many awards set up to support indigenous art a strangely arbitrary feel. Why this work and not another? The criteria and the preferences are subjective to a fault.

Of course this is the way of things in the contemporary art world and we are far from the rigid, constricting schemas that held sway in decades and centuries gone by. But the special ground conditions of the indigenous art scene multiply the problems of reading that we face.

Midway through last year, Raft Artspace in Alice Springs held a majestic show of works by the senior Spinifex artist Carlene West, a woman from the remote country of the Great Victoria Desert. Many who saw the paintings felt it was an exhibition of outstanding significance — the art event of the year. But why? Because the sense of desert law was so strong in the works, because the traditional symbols conveyed a sense of solemnity and calm, because the scale of the colour fields gave so clear a sense of the still, austere spinifex world?

What made this show so much more potent than other recent desert exhibitions? Much in the appeal of art is mysterious, but much is not: a matrix for assessment brings work into the light of comprehension. This is the challenge of meaning for Aboriginal art criticism.

Just as serious is the authenticity crisis. In the foundation times of the modern art trade, when paintings by Renaissance masters were first being offered for sale on the open market, great critical authority rested with connoisseurs of art history, figures such as Bernard Berenson, who provided attributions, separated the works of front-line artists from those of their followers and assistants, and spotted the forger’s telltale hand. They relied on technical and stylistic analysis, on their understanding of the flow of influences between schools and workshops and individuals, and on their concept of an artist’s thought-world.

Despite its shallow time horizon the Aboriginal art scene today faces much the same dilemmas. There is a slew of similar-seeming works by various hands, with a shared vocabulary of symbols. How to order them? The difficulties run very deep. In the European tradition, the artist came to be viewed as an inspired creator, imprinting his work with the marks of a recognisable, individual style. Traditional indigenous art-making is far more based in group identity: the family, the subsection, the clan, the language, the narrative song-cycle link.

Designs and emblems belong to a collective. These bonds help explain why the attribution of an artwork to a single creator can often be simplistic. A well-known, senior desert artist may allow family members to do the fill-in background on his canvas. Dependent relatives may copy works by prominent names — easy enough, once the particular technique an artist uses to achieve effects has been observed, and can be reverse-engineered. Painters of high stature may pour out repeated versions of their best-known designs, sometimes several a day — a practice one might call “self-copying”.

These features of remote community art-making pose grave problems for enthusiasts and collectors, who come to rely heavily on art centre and gallery certificates of authenticity as tokens of value.

Such ambiguities are troubling enough; deliberate frauds pose a difficulty of quite another order. Some artists fake the works of name painters; some simply imitate them, adopting a popular style, using as guide the catalogues now ubiquitous in art centres. There are Western forgers at work in the Centre; they were active in the Kimberley in the high art market years. The best-known face of the low-end market’s murk is the carpetbagger, who procures and sells budget versions of collection-grade work — but the problematic mid-range trade is evolving fast. There are interlocking networks of dealers, galleries and onsale houses that traffic in dubious paintings. These pieces make up a sizeable portion of the total market.

Recent articles by Amos Aikman in The Australian have highlighted this shadowy corner of the art trade. Prize-winning desert painter Barbara Moore confessed last year that she had signed a roll of canvases forged to look like her work. The extent of this practice is unclear. There are workshops and studios where the lines are blurred: one can find in the same place bad works by good artists, works made for them by their families, and pieces by copyists. The recent production of some name desert artists has been comprehensively faked; even the back catalogues of great stars are suspect. The pollution of the market is widespread.

The point here is not, or not only, that the art world has no robust mechanisms for dealing with this crisis of authenticity, or that the blue-chip galleries look on serenely while obvious fakes of their key artists sell in low-end trading outlets, thus damaging the value of significant painters and muddying the corpus of their works.

It is that critical appraisal fails to play its vital part. There is no benchmark. Exhibitions of undistinguished works from ill-managed art centres attract praise. Flamboyant works from suspect sources are promoted and sold. Without criticism, which can identify the true as well as the beautiful, the road lies open for the forger and the con-man, but also for promoters of the tide of hack work being brought to the art bazaar. There is thus a direct link between the lack of a critical language for the assessment of indigenous work and the present unease in the marketplace. That unease underpins the new centrality of blue-chip private holdings: the sale in March of works from the conservatively assembled, well-publicised and published Laverty collection secured high prices precisely because of the golden provenance.

What hope lies ahead for engaged criticism that might build a structure for this art tradition? Piety and collective thinking of the kind predominant today never hold for very long: man is a judging creature, and beauty and its opposite both call forth a strong response.

There are already gifted young professional critics keen to shed light: Henry Skerritt, now completing a doctorate in the US, and essayist Quentin Sprague come to mind. But their field of action is still constrained by the narrow scope of the Australian state-sponsored culture scene.

Yet a strong future for critics would also be a strong future for the young generation of indigenous artists issuing from the traditional landscape: Gunybi Ganambarr in northeast Arnhem Land; Daniel Walbidi in Bidyadanga, Western Australia; ceramicist Janet Fieldhouse in Cairns, Queensland. They all need viewing eyes that know and appreciate what they give the effort of their lives to make.

Half a century from now, when the present corrections and upheavals of the indigenous art market are done and Australia’s relationship with its Aboriginal core has reached a new equilibrium, it is certain that a well-formed language for criticism in this field will be set: works from the desert, works from the cities, works from the far north will all find their place in a broad tradition; their part in both indigenous culture and Australian history will reveal itself.

The only uncertain thing is this: by what path do we leave the dull plain of conformity and critical silence we occupy now, and begin the ascent to that happier, more contention-rich and light-filled terrain?

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