CRITIQUE OF MINYMA TJUTAKU, by the Spinifex women
Exhibited in Desert Mob 2006, in the Araluen Galleries, Alice Springs, September-October, 2006 (Illustrated in colour in the arts page of The Australian on 11/9/06) © Donald Richardson, September, 2006
Foreword: a problem
In spite of frequent pleas by Aboriginal artists and curators for the works of indigenous painters and sculptors to be discussed in similar terms and according to similar criteria to those used for western art, this rarely - if ever - happens. Thus, Aboriginal painting and sculpture is in a kind of critical Limbo - in spite of examples being hung alongside works by western artists in exhibitions and art competitions. It is a situation that begs for urgent redress because there are significant differences between the ways works in the two genres are conceived - a fact that, for the general public, is obscured by the use of similar media and execution. It is not a helpful situation that critical silence rules on this; hence this paper, which is aimed to generate discussion of the issue.
Discussion of Aboriginal works - by both white and black writers - is almost entirely confined to simply relating the 'story' that the work tells (or, rather, that the artist alleges that it tells). This is the most naïve and uninformed form of critical discussion when used in relation to western art. It characterises, for example, how many talk about Pro Hart's pictures - a reasonable thing, however, in his case, because he aimed for little else (and, incidentally, it is also the reason few of his works are in public collections). It seems that any black artist needs only to paint and exhibit to be regarded as a great master.
This is very different from the way western art is treated: discussion of Picasso's Guernica, for example, goes way beyond telling the story of the bombing of the Basque town in 1936.
Partly, this situation derives from the interest of the art market in its various forms and by its various operators in making money from the sale of Aboriginal works (the famous quote of a director of Marlborough Fine Arts Ltd - 'If it sells, it is art' - comes inevitably to mind). But, now that the many unsavory practices of this market are being revealed and investigated, this is an opportune moment to discuss and, hopefully, redress the situation.
It is a reasonable thing to ask why there has rarely - if ever - been an adverse comment published on any exhibited work by an Aboriginal since Namatjira first showed in Melbourne in 1938 - 68 years ago. The reason for this seems to be three-fold: for black commentators, it is black loyalty, a solidarity approaching chauvinism (an understandable-enough stance in any side-lined community); for white commentators, it is political correctness - eggshell-territory; for both it is that there is a lack of agreed principles on which to evaluate black art. This situation cannot be allowed to continue any longer. Admittedly principles must come from a white-art point of view but - as indicated above - this has been called for by black curators rather than white. And white art criticism has a long and established history that provides the only available starting-point. (We may regard, as a parallel situation, the need for western medical analysis to verify claims made for Chinese and other traditional medicines.)
(This discussion is not so much of this particular work itself but the picture taken as a paradigm case of similar works by Aboriginal painters in the Western Desert genre. It raises several issues which must be discussed and resolved.)
1. The freehand rectangularity of the picture's format indicates that it was painted before stretching, a common practice in contemporary Centralian painting. This, in itself, presents an endemic - and essentially insoluble - formal problem for this genre in that, when these pictures are stretched (and framed, when they are), which must be on geometrically-regular stretchers to conform to the conventions of western exhibition, irregular areas of unpainted canvas must be exposed on the margin/s. This treatment has been adopted here, and it is the preferred treatment as it records authentically the painting's genesis. But, it rarely happens; instead, smallish pieces of these paintings are cut off by their being pulled around the square and straight edges of the stretcher when the canvas is stapled to it. This rather radical modification of a picture's form would never be accepted by a western artist but, in Aboriginal art, it is never even noted or discussed by either the painters themselves or critics and commentators of whatever race. Compare this to when US abstract expressionists painted on unstretched canvases: they insisted that the framers be careful not to distort the form of the works in the process. This is a matter that calls for further critical discussion: surely, either every mark that a painter makes is a precious and inherent parts of the whole work or it is not? What can it mean if some of them are dispensable?
2. The picture is designated a 'collective' painting, which must mean that it was painted by a group of artists who share some values or traditions - a very rare thing in western art, which prioritizes the individuality of the artist. However, the blue skeleton of the painting (which, typically, would represent the travels of an ancestral 'creation' being, with stopping-points and meeting-places designated by circles and u-shapes) must have been drawn by the hand of a single, authoritative, person. This approach was observed by the writer who witnessed the creation of a traditional ground-drawing by (male) Warlpiri artists at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1994 (see Donald Richardson, Art and Design in Australia, Longman, 1995, p. 32.).
There appears to be no formal - or any other - reason for the random variation of thickness of this blue line; lines drawn in pictures by a Matisse or a Picasso - as well as those in Japanese and Chinese painting, on the other hand - are obviously very carefully considered and controlled as to thickness as well as to direction and delineation. This - a common aspect of this kind of Aboriginal work - probably must be attributed to insouciance rather than clumsiness; insouciance, that is, resulting from lack of concern for such craftship.
Related to this, is the fact that it is rare to see in any Aboriginal painting evidence of either preliminary studies, or revision or correction of the marks made (pentimenti); nor are either of these ever discussed in the literature - so it can be assumed that they form no part of this genre. It is pre-eminently of the alla prima method. This indicates either immense confidence and sureness of touch in the painters or insouciance of the sort mentioned.
3. There is no traditional justification for the use of blue, which did not exist in Aboriginal culture prior to European contact, nor - apparently - did any Aboriginal language have words for colours other than black, white and ochre. The other colours used, although - presumably - acrylics, approximate traditional colours.
4. Several hands are discernible in the in-fill areas, some spaces including more black, some more blue, dots; some use the concentric-stripe system that was used by the Ernabella children from the 1940s. (It should be noted here, however, that there is no evidence that this is an indigenous tradition: its only instances are in the work of girls from the mission school at Ernabella, in the Musgrave Ranges, South Australia - known as 'Ernabella tear-drops' or 'pretty flowers' - which were produced under white teacher instruction) (See Donald Richardson, Teaching Art, Craft and Design, Longman Cheshire, 1992, pp. 191, 196.) Thus, two traditions are in evidence in this work: the Ernabella tear-drop, a female tradition, questionably indigenous, yet as naive - and as universal - as the doodle (of which it is a species), and desert dot-painting, a modern derivation, in acrylic paint, from the ancient ground-drawings.
5. Formally, the work is an all-over pattern which covers the entire canvas with similar marks more or less evenly distributed across the entire surface. There is no clear major focal-point, only several minor ones, apparently randomly displayed. Colour distribution, too, is relatively uniform.
6. Such formal weaknesses (or insouciance) indicates the pre-eminence of literary content - the 'story' - over form. This makes the genre more like Chinese calligraphy than western art, although this is a time-honoured tradition with well-established and -accepted criteria and values, whereas Central Desert painting is a neologism without (as far is known) any established criteria. Works of this genre are, in essence, literature, rather than visual art. They are not even expressive visual art, a western genre in which literary content is privileged. To give another parallel in Western-art terms, it is illustration rather than art per se; yet another would be sacred art - and, hence, design.
It is valid to raise these issues in the whole context of world visual art for two reasons:
7 (a). In all the western modes which privilege literary content, the authenticity of the representation is paramount and eminently checkable, at least by the cognoscenti; but, in the Aboriginal context, explanation does not occur - just assertion. Nor is it asked for; the assertions that the story has been adequately and validly represented is - surprisingly - accepted by critics and collectors alike as being arcane and/or secret-sacred: it seems to be recognised that, to question this, is an unwarranted infringement of beliefs.
One construction of western desert painting is that it represents, in some way, the 'country' that is inherent in the 'story'. Thus, it can be compared with the work of western artists like John Olsen, Fred Williams and Pamela Kouwenhoven who interpret, by various degrees of abstraction, the Australian landscape. But, the difference is that impartial viewers can verify for themselves, through their own visual experience of the landscape, how well these artists have achieved their aims. However, the recourse to common visual experience is not available in relation to Centralian representations of 'country'.
7 (b). The principles of formal organisation of a picture or sculpture are neither imaginary, arbitrary or synthetic: they are physically and factually present and may be perceived, by those who have the eyes to perceive them, in any visual work made by an individual of any human race and, even, in any view of a natural scene (and in any photograph). For example, it is self-evident that da Vinci's The Last Supper is symmetrically organised (and why it is so). These principles must apply to Aboriginal works equally as well as to western art.
Finally, Aboriginal artists generally aspire to recognition by the art-gallery and art-market system as - as they see it - a means of explaining their culture to the west (in addition to providing them with an income). This is a reasonable and valid position to take, although it may be questioned whether it is valid as art. The ball is in Aboriginal curators' and artists' court to explain, clarify or redress these dilemmas. If this does not occur, the critical community has no alternative but to accept that Aboriginal and western art are radically different, separate, genres and not to be exhibited or considered otherwise. There would be no logical objection to coming to this conclusion, but - in the best interests of both Aboriginal and western art - this should be done rationally and openly, as it is in relation to other forms of ethnic visual expression.
One thing is certain: it is clearly invalid to regard Centralian abstract-looking acrylics as non-representational abstracts in the western Constructivist sense. Their value to their creators is much more than as colourful decorations, in spite of the fact that this is clearly the reason many western collectors purchase them.
Art and Money
Few will dispute the proposition that most visual artists have no idea how to make money. It is only the fortunate - or diligent - few who, after many years of working in poverty, amass enough disposable income to be able to live as comfortably as the average real-estate salesman and to be able to make significant donations to our public galleries - as Margaret Olley and James Gleeson have recently. But, the hard fact is - as many a survey has concluded - that most Australian artists live their entire lives in near-penury. What is worse, they accept this as their lot. Governments try, from time to time, to ameliorate this situation through agencies like the Australia Council and various grant-giving institutions, but they have no hope of moving the lumpen mass.
The current government position in this country is to agree with Plato that artists must change their nature if they are to have a place in civilised society. This could be achieved if they were encouraged - and assisted - to market their wares, like any respectable industrialist or businessman does. There is, after all, a vibrant art market in which - if we are to believe what the dealers tell us - the demand vastly exceeds the supply. And the techniques of selling have by now been well and truly established by the advertisers, realtors and super-markets. All that is needed is to marry the two - creation and marketing - and all will be well. Various schemes have been devised to do this, artists being instructed by marketing experts and other business people.
However, this strategy is unlikely to succeed as it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the principles of both the arts and marketing. Whereas it might be possible to teach some artists how to market their wares, few will have the time to do so. Marketing is a full-time specialist occupation: so is art. Authors and performers engage agents to market their talents, and visual artists have commercial galleries to take on the marketing of their products. In this way, each party pursues what he/she is good at and leaves the other to the other party - which is, after all, what all manufacturers of commodities do. Since art became a commodity with the breakdown of the academy system in the later 18th century, this has been the way it has been. It is difficult to see how this could change or be changed.
This flawed thinking is an aspect of the commonly-held, simplistic, belief that art is 'an industry', but - actually - nothing could be further from the truth. Artists in no way operate like industrialists do. Industrialists only produce things for which they have ascertained that there is already an established market. On the other hand, artists - if they are true artists - make things for which there cannot be an already-established market because no-one will have been able even to see the things they make before they have been made. Just because artists use money does not make them industrialists. Does this make families, religions and universities industrialists?
Another aspect of this flawed thinking is the fact that the Australian Taxation Office only recognizes artists as 'professional' if they are - in the ATO's eyes - 'in business for profit' (as the relevant ruling, TR2005/1, states). The operation of this ruling was challenged successfully in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in March, but the ATO seems not inclined to revise its stance: after all, it holds all the cards in its hand!
The Federal government's current approach is to encourage US-style business patronage for the arts, and this has been formalized as 'partnerships' between artists and businesses. Presumably, this is because business people are seen as more to be trusted to handle money than artists are. For this purpose it has established the Australian Business Arts Foundation (AbaF), which announced its 2006 awards this week. They went to businessmen and such organizations as the Australian Ballet, the Adelaide Bank Festival of the Arts, symphony orchestras and theatre companies. While these well-meaning attempts to assist artists should not be sneered at, it will be obvious that there are not many 'mute, inglorious Miltons' in the list. And there is little comfort for visual artists, the grants being mostly for the performance arts, no doubt because shows are entertaining and suitable for corporate outings.
But this is to be expected: it is inherent in the concept of partnership. The AbaF can only patronize artists who are already successful to some degree - that is, making a profit. It can only heap prizes on those who are already, in some sense, 'winners'. Business sense has replaced philanthropy - and conspired to keep the arts to safe forms and topics. And, of course, money so invested is tax deductible, especially if it is classified as advertising. Whatever, such patronage is good for a company's corporate image.
The government, of course, has quietly added to the AbaF's budget the money it had earmarked to fund a resale royalty rights scheme for visual artists. This scheme - which was intended to channel a small percentage of the enormous profits that are being made in the 'secondary' art market back to the creators or their heirs - was recommended to it by the 2002 Myer Committee report. However, the government took the objections of the dealers and collectors more seriously, so a unique opportunity to assists artists was lost.
The lamentable - and predictable - outcome of treating art as business or industry - and placing non-artists in control of arts institutions - has been revealingly exposed by the recent operations of the Royal Australian Mint. Last December, as part of its programme of funding its legitimate function by selling non-currency coins to collectors, the Mint released four such coins - silver five-dollar pieces, the first batch of a proposed set of eight. The ostensible purpose of the series - entitled 'Masterpieces in Silver' - was to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the introduction of decimal currency to the country in 1966. While the obverse of all these coins carried the head of the monarch, the reverse of each was taken from a painting by an Australian artist. These were Jeffrey Smart's Keswick Siding (1945) and Brett Whiteley's Self-portrait in the Studio (1976), both in the Art Gallery of NSW; Sidney Nolan's The Burke and Wills Expedition (1948; in the Nolan Gallery, ACT) and Russell Drysdale's The Drover's Wife (1945; in the National Gallery of Australia). According to its media release, the Mint's intention was to pay tribute to 'some of the nations (sic) most treasured artworks (sic)' and to 'accurately recreating the original masterpieces.'
But, there were curious and disappointing aspects of this venture. While it is understandable that the Mint would wish to choose Australian themes for its coins, only the Nolan and (possibly) the Drysdale would be recognized as typically Australian subjects by anyone who was not really familiar with the history of our painting. From the evidence of both the visual images themselves and the titles (which are included on the coins), the Whiteley, the Smart and (possibly) the Drysdale could have been painted anywhere.
And - in choosing these images - the Mint presented its in-house designer with a formidable challenge: to translate flat paintings into relief sculptures and rectangular pictures into the circular coin form. The latter was tackled in two ways: by using only details from the pictures (with the exception of the Nolan) and by surrounding these with abstract arrangements of vertical and horizontal lines - a clumsy and ineffectual ruse, one has to say. But, the modeling of all these images can only be termed gross. It turned Drysdale's delicate, drought-reduced trees into blunt stumps and Whiteley's willowy nude bust into a meaningless lump. This lack of sensitivity is most evident in the representation of the faces, which will inevitably be compared unfavourably to the subtly-modeled head of the Queen on the obverse. In the paintings, Whiteley's self-portrait is replete with existential anguish (it is, after all, a masterpiece which won the 1976 Archibald Prize) and the drover's wife is an icon of resignation; but, on the coins, both look simply vacuous. Apparently the archetypal shapelessness of the drover's wife was too subtle for the modeler, who was moved to give her a waist-line and to emphasize unnecessarily the folds of her dress - liberties that should never have been permitted. And the head is over-emphasized.
the Whiteley coin Self-portrait in the Studio (1976) (detail)
(See below for the Drysdale and Nolan coins)
The clumsy rendering is less obvious in the Nolan, which is in his semi-naïve style, although Burke and Wills stare out frontally from the coin, their rifles held akimbo, recalling Punch and Judy. The Smart, being a landscape without figures, suffered less in the translation and its linear qualities related better to the surrounding structure of lines and lettering - though probably only by chance.
To be fair, it is hard to see how anyone could translate the heavy pathos of the Drysdale and the Nolan and the complex play of imagery of the Whiteley into coin form. The Whiteley painting is an extremely sophisticated reflection on reflexion, its subtlety and complexity depending almost entirely on its being flat. And the artist himself is not actually represented in the picture apart from his two arms, one of which holds a mirror in which his face is reflected. This is the actual self-portrait, the drawing he is represented as doing having been barely begun - and it has a piece of his own actual hair collaged on to it. Surely this is territory into which angels would fear to tread?
Finally, the arbitrary arrangement of lines and captions, which relate formally to neither the pictures nor the circle of the coins, can only be described as aesthetically clueless. Perhaps the Mint's defence for this aberration might have been that this is 'post-modernist', but - by 2005 - this style was positively passé.
With the exception of the Nolan, the coins represented only details of the full works, but this was done without acknowledgement as such - which contravenes the moral rights of the artists as spelled out in the 2000 amendment to the Copyright Act, which proscribes derogatory treatment of an artist's work. That a government body did this instead of setting a good example to the commercial world - which frequently breaches the act - is reprehensible.
Given all this, it is relevant to question the very choice of these pictures as subjects by the Mint's management as well as the agreement of the owners of the pictures and the artists' heirs to cooperate. Surely the Mint at least realizes that coin design is a matter for specialists. There are many skilled metal designers in this country who would have created much more satisfactory coins than these.
Inquires about these indelicacies to the owners of the pictures yielded little enlightenment. The Mint, the Whiteley Studio and the Nolan Gallery never even acknowledged emails. So, too, initially, the National Gallery of Australia. And neither the NGA nor the Art Gallery of NSW seemed too perturbed about the matter. The Acting Rights and Permissions Coordinator of the NGA stated that 'the publication process for the coins produced by the Mint was followed in accordance with the NGA's terms and conditions of reproduction.' However, these conditions include that 'works may not be cropped.without the prior, written approval of the Gallery.[and] applications for details.will only be considered upon receipt of a realistic mock-up'; also, 'before publication a hard copy.must be returned to the Gallery for approval.' So the NGA must have colluded with the Mint's misuse of images under its control!
The NGA seemed to expect that using a detail only would have been acknowledged on the coins and it has 'notified [the Mint] of this omission.' How this would put the horse back into the stable is unclear. But the Project Officer: Curatorial Services of the Art Gallery of NSW acknowledged (after the event) that 'it is impossible to reproduce a rectangular artwork (sic) on a round coin' - surprise! surprise! This gallery also stated that the representatives of Drysdale and Whiteley 'gave the Australian Mint permission to reproduce the works and were involved in the process of signing off on the design(s).' And this was confirmed by the CEO of the Mint, who stated that not only did the Mint receive the 'overwhelming support' of copyright holders but also that 'all relevant parties cleared the final works.' And the remarkable fact is that this seems to be true. All the authorities responsible for the integrity of the artists concerned - all but one of whom (Jeffrey Smart) are deceased - 'signed off' on the designs. This is in spite of the fact that the NGA, for example, clearly insists that reproductions of works in its care 'may not bein any way altered' and that captions indicating the name of the artist and the title of the work must be included. As neither of these conditions are met by the coin which carries Drysdale's Drover's Wife - which is in the NGA collection - it can only be assumed that those responsible for giving permission to reproduce works are not qualified to do so - or else there is some other explanation: can it be that the questionable relationship that has recently been revealed between a curator of the National Gallery of Victoria and his commercial gallery-director former lover is a national genre?
How can it be that all the owners and agents colluded in such disrespect for the work of some of our greatest artists? Are two of our major government art galleries - as well as the Royal Australian Mint - being run by economic irrationalists who don't know much about art but don't care so long as they are making money?
While these 'masterpieces in silver' may have been worth the $195 asking price in silver content, it is hard to see that, in aesthetic terms, they are a paradigm for either Australian art or Australian coin design. They are hardly 'a collection that stunningly commemorates the artists and their images', as the Mint's hype states. It is so ironic that these coins were intended to commemorate the elegant and sensitive representation of our native fauna, magnificently adapted to the coin-form, which Stuart Devlin created for our original decimal coinage in 1966.
After this unethical and aesthetically degrading handling of the work of Australian artists was exposed in articles in The Adelaide Review ('Australian art gets tossed about', 9 December, 2005) and Australasian Coin and Banknote magazine, the Mint - thankfully - decided not to proceed with the rest of the series. Whether this decision was made internally or as a result of resistance from the curatorial institutions is unknown, but one would hope that these institutions realized their error and refused to cooperate further. However, all parties are - perhaps, understandably considering the amount of egg that must be on some peoples' faces - silent on the matter.
But the use by the Mint of paintings by Australian artists as coin reverses (although not works in public collections) has returned this year in another guise: the 'Great Australian Artist' series, which is - according to the publicity - 'a continuation of the Kangaroo Series'. A representation of a kangaroo with a joey by Rolf Harris, the first in this new series, has just been released. Two others are to follow, but the identity of the artists is, at present, a close secret.
The presumed relationship between great Australian artists and the kangaroo as a subject is an intriguing one because no instance comes readily to mind. But, the Mint chose Harris because of his song, 'Tie me Kangaroo Down' - which was performed by a children's choir at the launch of the coin in Canberra. However, the rationality of this decision is curious, for - as most will know - the song is not about a kangaroo at all, but about a stockman whose mate skinned him and 'tanned his hide after he died, Clyde.' In fact, the chorus uses the kangaroo as a bawdy metaphor for something human rather than macropodal. Surely someone in the Mint checked this out? It would not be surprising if some of the female choristers had a sly smile - or even tittered - as they sang.
However, it may be questioned how 'great' an Australian artist Harris is: he is not included in any authoritative book on Australian art and his work is not represented in any important public gallery. In this respect, he is like the late Pro Hart, who was a popular success but whose work was not considered to be of sufficient quality to be included in major public collections. Perhaps one of Hart's pictures will be on the next coin (although he is more noted for his representation of ants than kangaroos!).
But, in spite of this, there is no objection in principle to Harris designing a coin - so long as it is appropriate as coin-design. However, a glance at the illustration will indicate that what has resulted is a poor adaptation of a poor picture. The subject is a poorly-drawn and mawkishly anthropomorphic representation of a donkey-headed kangaroo mother and her offspring, embracing! This is a gross misrepresentation of kangaroo behaviour: the only times two kangaroos face each other is during mating and when males fight! Joeys relate to their mothers' bodies via the pouch, not the fore-legs or the head, as humans do. In art-historical terms, it is a marsupial 'mother and child' - even, perhaps, a 'Virgin and Child'!
And - as with the previous series - the coin's form is very defective. Although neither Harris nor the Mint will release a copy of Harris's painting, the Mint declares the coin to be true to what it describes as 'a stunning and realistic image.' But, none of the lines or shapes relate in any way to the circular form, which seems not to have been considered by the artist at all. Thus, adaptation would have been difficult, and - in an interview on ABC radio on 5th September - Harris's manager, his brother, Bruce, alluded to this. But, both Harris and the Mint skate over it, the latter (which is handling all enquiries) declaring that both are 'delighted with the result'.
The Mint's attitude in commissioning this coin in this way is puzzling. There must have been a considerable reason for its abandoning the previous series because, until quite recently, it was trumpeting its continuation in glowing terms. Yet, it is persisting with the same method again. Is this insensitivity, ignorance or arrogance, one wonders. Whatever, the hype continues as before!
Obviously, the Mint's administrators share the common inability to distinguish between art and design; but it takes little reflection to realize that - while both artists and designers operate creatively - designers have to make their creations work (i.e., they must be functional); and artist don't. For example, a coin does not have a 'way up', as a painting does. To contrast Harris's design with one that sits in complete comfort on a coin, we need only compare it with the currently-issued $1 coin - a beautifully-adapted image of a mob of kangaroos which depicts not only their character and grace but, amazingly in such a confined space, also gives a convincing impression of the Australian landscape. This should not surprise us as it was designed by the great Stuart Devlin.
One wonders why the Mint dabbles in 'art' when it has Devlin in its employ; but, obviously, this project is a money-generating stunt for both the Mint and the artist - whose signature, 'Rolf', is more prominent than the discreet marks coin-designers usually use. Regrettably, we are led to the conclusion that our major art institutions - and the Mint - are run by bureaucrats who, while they may know how to make money, know nothing about designing it - and nothing about art.
the Drysdale $5 coin the Nolan $5 coin
The Rolf Harris $1 coin