paper was commissioned by Museums Australia, but rejected)
© Donald Richardson, May,
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
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
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
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).
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
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.