For this post Iconophilia is pleased to draw on the recent essay by Darren Jorgensen, “Bagging Aboriginal Art: The Intervention and the community art movement” first published in Arena #111 (March – April 2011) pp 38-42.
Jorgensen writes: “In the wake of a 2007 Senate Inquiry into the shoddy ‘carpetbagging’ practices that work to rip off remote Aboriginal artists, one would think that the ethical alternative of remote art centres would be looking good. Yet in the mainstream media at least the centres find themselves more embattled, and the journalist whose work sparked the enquiry, The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell, has changed his mind about the centres’ place in the greater Aboriginal art industry. After supporting the work of art centre co-ordinators across the deserts and Top End of the country for many years, Rothwell’s writing now holds art centres responsible for a deterioration in the quality of Aboriginal art.
“The reason for this shift, however, appears to have less to do with Aboriginal art than its changing political context. In “The Intellectual Class should support the Intervention,” Rothwell complains about welfarism and the chattering leftist class (Australian, December 3 2007). It was also in 2007 that Rothwell shifted his longstanding support for art centres. His writing was always a touchstone of positive news in a newspaper otherwise dedicated to constructing the most troubling representations of Aboriginal people. And this style of reviewing has continued, contributing valuable accounts of artists’ work in remote Australia. However Rothwell has also begun to pen another kind of position, coincident with the government’s own. My argument here is that this position has spilled into his writings on the work of Aboriginal artists themselves, in a worrying conflation of the politics of the moment with opinion about the quality of art from remote communities.”
Iconophilia has also commented on Rothwell’s perverse usage of the figure of death in his writing from this period, (cited here, referencing back to April 1, 2006) and his later more pessimistic view of the contemporary developments in Aboriginal modern art – a concept first articulated by Ian McLean, from which Nicolas Rothwell would surely resile.
Jorgensen marks June 2007 as “the turning point in Rothwell’s writing, …the month that the Senate inquiry made its recommendations, and the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was released and served to justify the Intervention. When Rothwell released his first pessimistic essay about the future of art centres, “Colour fades into Shadow”, on June 22, the Howard government had just announced its intention to stage the Intervention on 20 June. He argues that few art centres “are profitable, and making large new funds available to them will not automatically change this picture,” and that “the policy map in place today is really a subsidised culture industry program.” The real crunch comes later in the essay, where Rothwell somehow aligns the death of a young artist with his argument about the Aboriginal art industry:
The attempt to fund, and fence, and define this creative current carries its subtle, inevitable costs. Deep in the Western Desert, at Kintore, the heart of the Pintupi painting movement, and the source of the Centre’s most collected art, a young man died of a heart attack in the smart new clinic building a week ago.
Jorgensen continues: “The tragedy that Rothwell builds around the failure of the Aboriginal art industry, and more specifically the profitability of art centres, is bizarrely to blame for the tragedy of this youth’s death.”
This is however a characteristic trope in Rothwell’s writing (see his “The Vanishing”, December 13-14, 2008). He methodically exploits Indigenous tragedies (historical or anticipated) to illustrate systemic issues, then holds the sociopolitical context to blame for the specific instance he references – with little concern for the effects such invasions of privacy may engender. As a journalist Rothwell seems to have little respect for the ethics of permission or reference to his sources. And he’s always on the lookout for a catchy turn of phrase. Thus most recently (Australian, April 30) he announces that the whole culture of North West Aboriginal Australia is committing suicide: “an entire culture, acting collectively, destroys itself.” And here, Jorgensen engages with his claim that it is the art centres that are “mining” Aboriginal culture:
“This gloss of art with tragedy, that confuses sentiment with rational argument, strikes a theme that will recur through many of his recent essays on Aboriginal art. The problem is not only that he defers to tragedy in order to make arguments about the art centre system, but that his place as the most influential critic of Aboriginal art becomes confused with his role as a political reporter. The art itself comes to appear tragic, as it stands for the demise of an entire era of remote communities, and ultimately the era of self-determination. His tragic view of art centres is little different from the government’s own moves to close outstations, end CDEP and override the Aboriginal governance that has been the backbone of remote communities. Thus in 2008, reviewing the annual Telstra awards, Rothwell writes of art centres:
The upshot is a vast production of market-based art designed to appeal to Western eyes. To succeed, it must be within the accepted template, it must be recognisable, almost brand-like. It is, to borrow anthropologist John von Sturmer’s devastating term, neo-traditional, and it is best if it comes from a new, ‘undiscovered’ art community, where prices and speculative profits are rising at speed. (Australian, August 15 2008).
“I have not been able to find the relevant Sturmer essay, but in my own field of art history, neo-traditional is not a pejorative term. It is instead interchangeable with neo-classicism, or simply classicism, that simply describes a form of art that refunctions older subject matter in a new way. In this same article, Rothwell goes on to further the analogy between the mode of production of Aboriginal art and its quality, arguing that,
The bitter truth is that much good art now comes from private dealer channels, and a great superfluity of market-driven, mediocre work flows out of art centres in the remotest corners of the continent.
Indeed, art centre minders seem in danger of overreach: desert and northern artists want to maintain their culture themselves, they want the freedom to do so, more than the help. The art centres, like all the art trade, are mining culture. To many artists, all those coming to buy look, in essence, much the same. (Australian, August 15 2008).
As Jorgensen rightly points out: “The analogy between mining and culture only represents a problem if one does not recognise the modernity of remote Aboriginal communities. The communities and outstations that host art centres are an invention of postcolonial times, as is the contemporary Aboriginal art movement. That artists are able to recreate culture for the artworld should be celebrated for its innovation and success, rather than condemned for its capitalisation. The contradiction within his writing is the difference between the community arts model and the expectations that the high art artworld has of Aboriginal artists… If there is one thing that the Aboriginal art movement should teach us, born as it was out of great disadvantage, it is that great art happens in spite of its circumstances, rather than because of it.”
There is clearly an ethical and economic conflict at play in the different practices of the Aboriginal-owned and run art centres (of which there are perhaps a hundred across Aboriginal Australia) and the ways and means of so-called carpetbaggers – those independent and self-interested dealers who bypass the art centres to exploit the vulnerability of individual artists. The capacity of independent dealers to control and influence the (aesthetic) direction of an artist’s work is at the opposite end of the scale from the ethical responsibilities that are a constant issue with art centre managers. Here Jorgensen points to the underlying resilience and authority of the artist in either context:
“A good manager not only administrates the business of day-to-day painting, exhibitions and finances, but gives artists guidance as to what makes their paintings more successful. It is on this point of quality that Rothwell’s criticisms of art centers are harshest. For in the artworld the facilitation of work and its sale is the role of dealers rather than community workers. Yet Rothwell overstates and generalises the influence these managers have on the art. Artists are always and finally responsible for their own production, and managers, like dealers, can do no more than advise. Arguments like this presume that Aboriginal people have no agency, and imply that art centres themselves are the dominant partner in their relationship with artists. They do not take seriously the fact of their Aboriginal governance.”
And so Jorgensen continues, making the point that art centres are, in relation to their sociocultural benefits, grossly under-funded. And, that the range of models of engagement with the art world and the art market, from Jirrawun to Warburton, frames the options available to the arts centres and their managers.
“The Jirrawun and Warburton models suggest that the art centre is not the only way forward for Aboriginal art, but also that the choice between the free market and art centres is not as starkly defined as all that. By comparison with Jirrawun and Warburton, art centres represent something of a middle road, marking out the compromise between the market for Aboriginal art and its place in remote communities. The ongoing success of the art centre model in creating and maintaining markets for Aboriginal art makes economic criticisms of their practices difficult to sustain.”
Jorgensen then digs deeper as he explores the overlaps and contradictions between Rothwell’s roles as as a senior journalist with the Australian, writing as often on Aboriginal art as on the politics of the Top End, as much as he ruminates on his own enlightenment. Jorgenson perceptively points to Rothwell’s influence and authority with other critics:
“…in an essay in Art Monthly Australia by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s art critic John McDonald, [who] quotes Rothwell in an account of the trials of the dealer John Ioannou (“Tommy Watson and the politics of the Indigenous art market,” April 2010). When Ioannou signed up the art centre at Wingellina, in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia, to his own Agathon Gallery in Sydney, he broke the ethical rules that underlie the system… The facts that McDonald gets wrong in his essay only betrays the level of misunderstandings circulating about the Aboriginal art industry, even among Australia’s top critics. When McDonald writes that, “There is always the temptation to give a successful artist a smaller cut, perhaps no more than twenty-five percent of a purchase price,” at an art centre, he misunderstands the regulations that these centres operate under… In his statement “There have been instances when record keeping was virtually non-existent” McDonald could just as easily be referring to Ioannou. Neil Bell, in an Organisational Audit of Irrunytju Arts commissioned by Desart, found that Ioannou had not documented transactions or agreements with the artists he represented…
Jorgensen then asks: “What is the source of Rothwell’s change of mind? What continuity lies between his recent ambivalence toward art centres and the pre-2007 journalism on carpetbagging that made him such a pertinent critic of the Aboriginal art industry in the first place? It lies in a romanticism about Aboriginal artists, a romanticism that has long characterised his reviews of Aboriginal art in The Australian. The exuberant prose with which he celebrates the renaissance of Aboriginal Australia is bound by the romantic contradiction of a disappearing frontier. As the old artists die, Rothwell is concerned that there will be no more great artists, no more hunter-gatherers who once relied on their senses to survive, and who now employ these senses to brilliantly paint. Turning to a free market is a way of keeping the frontier alive in the face of the demise of the first contact generation. This is the point at which the ideology of Rothwell’s political reportage spills into his art criticism. Numerous reviews end by evoking the passage of Aboriginal artists, and the end of Aboriginal art as we once knew it.
“These pessimistic conclusions can be read as the other side of Rothwell’s romantic coin, the one that wants to preserve the frontier while being critical of it. He writes at the juncture of an era of self-determination and a new era of assimilation, of art centres as signs of a compromised vision of Aboriginal autonomy and the end of the illusions that this autonomy brings about. Carrying their anti-colonial and anti-paternalistic colours, Rothwell and McDonald thinly disguise a neo-colonial position of assimilation. Tracing the demise of elderly artists and remote communities becomes the opportunity to rebirth the Aboriginal art movement in a market freed of its responsibilities to remote communities. Art centres become a sign of the stasis of the market rather than its excitement; where they were once a sign of Aboriginal autonomy, now they signal Aboriginal oppression.”
Jorgensen concludes: “Yet if there is one legacy of the self-determination era that should be praised for its total and unremitting success, it is the art centre. In economic terms, these centres generate capital in places popularly thought to be economically unsustainable. If some public funding is necessary to keep this capital in community hands, this minor expense should be seen less in terms of what generates high, collectable art, but in [the same] terms [as] having a national orchestra. If it is necessary for Australia to have an orchestra for reasons of cultural prestige, surely it is necessary to have an indigenous people capable of sustaining what is the most original contribution, if not the only original contribution, that Australia has made to global culture.”
Iconophilia thanks the author for his permission to publish this abbreviated version of the original Arena article.