ABORIGINAL ART AND SUSAN McCULLOCH

© Donald Richardson, December, 2006




Susan McCulloch's sequestering of Aboriginal art away from Australian art in the European tradition in the recently-updated McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art (Miegunyah, 2006) is a very significant act indeed. Although, McCulloch gives no rationale for this change in format from the previous editions of the encyclopedia, it begs justification.

It has to be an aspect of the dilemma that Aboriginal art poses and which has been in the minds of artists and critics for some years now. Sebastian Smee (in The Australian, 27 November, 2006) and Robert Nelson (in The Age, 9 December, 2006) both give it some attention, but neither suggests an adequate solution to the dilemma. Smee characterizes McCulloch's attitude as 'symptomatic of [an economic] bubble mentality But things are bound to look different when the hype and cupidity die down' Nelson takes Smee to task for his negativity and suspects him of wishing to place western control over the genre. While recognizing the damage the market may be doing to the genre and the artists concerned, Nelson recommends that - instead - we should 'look at Aboriginal art in a humbler, more curious spirit, and work out what we can learn from it an how to assist its growth.' He seems to be unaware that many of us have been doing this for many years!

While both observe that Aboriginal art has not had any effect on western-tradition art either in Australia or abroad, only Nelson comments: 'why would it?' And herein lies the solution to the dilemma. Rather than it being a broad social issue - as some maintain - it may be that it is a purely aesthetic matter: a matter of what art actually is and whether Aboriginal 'art' is 'art' in the sense the West means by the term, and has done since at least the nineteenth century.

Apart from a few abortive tries in the early decades of the 20th century - notably by Margaret Preston - artists in the western tradition (in Australia, America and Europe) have, quite correctly, regarded Aboriginal art as inalienable. Their ability to make this distinction contrasts markedly with that of critics, curators and academics. Actually, the dilemma is not a simple question of whether or not - and by whom - Aboriginal art should be 'controlled'; however, it has reached a watershed and the art world must grasp the nettle now - and both Aboriginal artists and all artists working in the European tradition (some of whom, of course, are Aborigines) must do it.

It is almost exclusively a problem for Australia to solve. Although there have been considerable and significant exhibitions of Aboriginal art in Europe and America, they have been in ethnographic - rather than art - museums. There was a great stink in Germany in 1994 when an Australian dealer wanted to show contemporary Aboriginal works in Art Cologne. Permission was refused on the grounds that it is 'folk art' - a long-standing policy of Art Cologne, which is a showcase of contemporary art. At a time when many in Germany were coming to terms with the country's Nazi past, some condemned this decision as 'racist'. Eventually the work was admitted, but only after much public discussion in Germany - although not here - and after high-level diplomatic intervention.

It would seem that only in Australia is contemporary Aboriginal art shown alongside art in the western tradition and accepted for - and sometimes wins - open contemporary art competitions.

So - we have to decide, first, what are the characteristics of modern western art and, second, whether - or to what extent - Aboriginal art fits in. This is not an attempt to hegemonize Aboriginal expression but an acknowledgement that only western art has a coherent theory of art to build the discussion on.

Despite the common - misguided - belief that it is impossible to define art, there is little doubt that the key characteristic of modern western art is that it is the personal expression of an individual. While some art created by Aborigines passes this test, the majority of it does not. Many painters acknowledge the fact that their imagery is - or derives from - the communal and traditional, not their own individuality: indeed, in some cultural groups, individual expression is punishable by death. And there is little discussion of the aesthetics of Aboriginal works. The limited discussion that does occur is in terms of the work's 'story' and - while this is clearly the motivation for the work - it is the equivalent of a critical discussion of Picasso's Guernica only in terms of the historic destruction of the city by German bombers in 1936. Criticism of western works of art goes much deeper and broader than this.

Abstraction is another characteristic of western modernism and, even though - in the pictures of Kandinsky, Mondrian and the Constructivists - much more is intended than the mere pattern of coloured shapes that presents to our eyes, they have no narrative intent. On the other hand, while many Aboriginal works appear 'abstract' because they are innocent of any understanding of perspective, their raison d'etre is purely to tell the artist's 'story'. It is a narrative art - for those who can read it. The use of common materials blinds the innocent to this significant difference.

These are aesthetically weighty matters, which must be addressed. It is high time the Australian art world - both black and white - decided whether Aboriginal 'art' is art or not. Susan McCulloch, by turning McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art into what is virtually a two-volume work, seems to have made her decision: although she lists over 150 individual Aboriginal artists, the bulk of the first volume is taken up with entries on groups, families, galleries, researchers and writers on Aboriginal art.

This paper should not be construed as a general criticism of McCulloch's new book, which remains -as it has been since her father devised the first edition in 1964 - an invaluable resource; indeed, she is to be commended for placing the issue, however, tentatively, on the agenda; but we need a more coherent rationale than her sly nod to the art market.


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