MANAGING CHANGE: ABORIGINAL 'ART'

(This paper was commissioned by Museums Australia, but rejected)

© Donald Richardson, May, 1999



Some recent developments have made it necessary that we revise our ways of thinking about and discussing Aboriginal 'art'. The revelations that the families of famous Aboriginal painters create works which the artists then sign as their own, and of the communal production of pictures by family- or clan-groups, have raised the question as to whether works produced in these ways can even be considered to be art by the gallery system and art market. In 1994, and again in 1998, the organizers of Art Cologne rejected works by Aborigines on the grounds that, being 'folk art', they were ineligible for entry in their fair.
On the other hand, in spite of the fact that certain Aboriginal artists have begun to request that their works be reviewed by the same principles that are applied to White artists, Aboriginal works are rarely discussed other than by simply recounting their 'story'. It seems that neither the critics, the galleries nor the art theorists are making much of an attempt to meet the challenges of these developments.
The crux of the matter is whether - and to what extent - paintings and sculptures produced by Aborigines, whether in the traditional milieu or in urban environments, can be considered to be art in the sense that this term currently has in Western culture.

WHAT ART IS
Actually, up till now, the theorists have not been much help in defining art at all -Aboriginal or White. One problem results from the need to separate the term from aesthetic concepts like 'beauty' and, thus, of using it as an honorific term rather than - or as well as - for a category of human activity. Thus, to say anything is 'not art' is to deliver an insult where only a categorization is intended!
It is a commonplace that the theorists cannot agree on a definition of art, but an examination of the works of the avant-gard masters of the last hundred years (rather than theoretical statements) indicates that they considered art to be the creative self-expression of an individual human. This is the only common link between the various schools and styles of Modernism - yet it is a most significant one.
It is important to recognize that art in this absolute sense is exclusively a phenomenon of the West, and only in the Modern Period, when conditions were right for its emergence. It rarely, if ever, exists/ed in other places and other eras. It is a totally different concept from that employed by painters and sculptors in most traditional cultures, including the traditional Aboriginal culture, where the creation of works is generally confined to the reproduction, without variation, of time-honoured paradigms.
However, whereas this constriction applies to traditional 'art', it does not apply to Aborigines who are working within the modern western tradition - as many are. The implications of this duality are discussed below.

DESIGN AND CRAFT
When we consider the whole realm of things which humans make and have made, we must accept that very few of them can be categorized as 'art' in the meaning the term has come to have in the modern West. Most of them are quotidian, functional things like clothes, food, buildings, vehicles and tools. This is not to say that some of them cannot valued over others for their aesthetic (or other) qualities, but the intention here is to distinguish the category from the evaluation of individual examples.
In recent years we have accepted the term design for the activity of creating unique and original functional things - clothing fashions and new buildings and consumer products, for example. But not all functional things are uniquely and originally designed: most motor vehicles, clothes, domestic objects, even houses - however serviceable they are - are clones of original paradigm examples. If we were to trace the histories of these we would find that ultimately a designer designed the paradigm (even though he/she may not have laid claim to the title 'designer'). This must apply even to traditional objects like teapots, trousers and carts.
So logically we have two categories of functional things which humans make - the unique and the mass-produced. Most would accept that the term design is appropriate for the uniquely created objects, but what to call the mass-produced? People who made them used to be called 'tradesmen', 'artisans' or 'craftsmen', so perhaps the term craft is appropriate here. To accept this logic, however, we have to recognise that common usage of these terms occludes it. We speak of the 'design' of a work of art, although 'composition' would be a less equivocal term. And the Crafts Movement often implied that everything that was not art had to be craft - even though the most highly-valued examples of functional things were always those which had been individually designed.)
Design and craft are functional. Art is not (but this is not to say it is useless!). On the other hand, all three may be present - and interrelated - in a single work like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling (see illustration).

ABORIGINAL ART/DESIGN/CRAFT
When works created by Aborigines are subsumed under this taxonomy we find that most can as easily be allocated to one or other of the categories as works by Whites can.
Traditional bark-paintings or ground-drawings follow closely time-honoured prescriptions and cannot, therefore, be considered 'art' in the same sense that a still-life by Cézanne is. Not only are they not original Warlpiri painters' expressions, they are essentially functional in the sense that they are considered instrumental to the preservation of a 'story'. In western culture they are equivalent to crucifixes and chasubles - never considered to be 'art'! So, they must be thought of as either design or craft, depending upon the extent to which they have been adapted to new conditions. This is not to deny the evidently excellent skill (craft) of their makers, nor to proscribe expressions of admiration for the works - things of great value in their own right.




Warlpiri men executing a traditional ground-drawing at the 1994 Adelaide Festival of Arts.
A strictly-controlled reproduction of a paradigm motif. Minimal skills were needed and
individual self-expression was forbidden. Not art, yet an absolutely magnificent work in it
own right, and a profoundly moving experience both for the men who 'sang' the story as they
worked and those who witnessed it. As functional as the Sistine Chapel ceiling.



On the other hand, works created by people from traditional cultures who (even though they may derive their subject-matter and concepts from their traditions) which can truly be described as creative self-expressions of individuals must validly be designated 'art' - and deserve to be treated as such, which means critical analysis and comparison to the works of White artists.
The categories are easily distinguishable and applied to individual works - if we have the will to do so. Only if critics, galleries and theorists adopt such a process will the problematic status of what is loosely called Aboriginal 'art' cease to be divisive. And the implication for public collections of these works (in Australia, 'museums' and 'art galleries') is that the traditional has its logical home in the museum and the creative in the gallery.


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