Expanse: Aboriginalities, Spatialities and the Politics of Ecstasy

University of SA Art Museum 4 September - 3 October 1998 Curated by Ian North

Today, by coincidence, two papers came into my hand. One is a review of the 1998 Sydney Biennale, whose curator is alleged to say that works of art do not differ significantly from everyday things. The other - an essay accompanying an exhibition called Expanse at the University of South Australia's new Art Museum is by its curator, Ian North, who says that they don't and they do.

Having seen neither of these exhibitions I have no opinion about their merits; but what Professor North says and implies about the right way to approach art - not only in this case but in general - is importantly arguable.

He begins by conceding vital ground to the curator of the Biennale, only to demand it back again. He writes:

Trumpets heralding the end of high art have long since cracked its walls. ... The evacuation of the citadel has been sufficiently complete to allow one a scavenger's licence to pick up what is left, because there is little, it seems, at stake.

But surely there is a lot at stake. Suppose, just suppose, that these curators agree that works of high art display no valuable and distinctive property that is absent from low art and ordinary things. Suppose they agree that what counts, for art appreciators, is not intrinsic to the works (as if the artness of art were like the sweetness of sugar) but the chosen attitude or approach of the viewer. Suppose they agree that anything at all - whether it is paraded as high art, low art or not-art - is given artistic standing not by any objective possession of 'quality' but by virtue of being mused about, or responded to, in the proper way.

Even so, it must be the case that some things are better adapted to this passive role than others. If curators did not believe that objects of contemplation are differentially rewarding when properly approached, much less trouble would be taken to select between alternatives and to guide the spectator's approach, both explicitly by exhortation and implicitly by various devices of framing.

Curators must also think that the system of rewards (albeit variable, according to one's choice of frame) must be widely enough recognised and shared to be worth a public celebration. If it were not so, then who would bother getting up an exhibition? One might as well walk the streets, responding artfully to this and that like a perpetual Duchampian rendezvous. And if it is so, then what does the difference amount to, between thinking of an object as having quality and thinking of it as being disposed to reward a properly directed scrutiny?

Somebody must be right and somebody wrong, about the disappearance of art into the everyday - unless they are both wrong. That there is, after all, very much at stake is shown by Ian North's immediate reductio ad absurdum of the opponent to whom he has just conceded. He first invokes the Popperian criterion that a single counter-example is sufficient to refute a thesis (in this case, the thesis that 'the citadel of art has been evacuated'), and then he offers us five: Jon Cattapan, Rosalie Gascoigne, Antony Hamilton, Kathleen Petyarre and Imants Tillers, whose "...work in aggregate cuts across the details and debates of recent Australian art history to indicate new ways of being in Australia.' There is even a sixth outsider - John D Moore (1936) - just in case.

His essay on the general theme of art works as models or metaphors of contemporary Australianity is lengthy, allusive, sensitive and elegantly structured. He cajoles us to respond to his selection in the light of ideas - some of them distinct and some only hazily nascent - about nature and culture, about place and extension, about space and landscape, about identity and ecstasy and, most centrally, about Aboriginality. On this theme he is emphatic:

The combination of spirituality and pragmatism, of emotional and practical imperatives, also explains why Aboriginal art is often dazzlingly superior to most non-indigenous Australian art.

And then:
Beyond the razor contradictions of shared and separate Australian histories, including an aching mismatch of ecological perspectives, we are all becoming more Aboriginal even as we become more global. Without wishing to revive myths of redemption, it is clearly as wrong-headed to deny the influence of land, country, or countries, as it is to look for an unchanging essence of Australianness.

One might consider this a perfectly reasonable way to proceed; although it raises a question (that is not unanswerable) about why a selection of works on the basis that they reward just this kind of contemplation, rather than some other kind, should be the authentic, art-status conferring, way to go. The answer (to which I find myself attracted) might be that it does not have to be just this kind of contemplation. Another kind of contemplation, in which one muses in the presence of the works in quite a different way, on quite different questions of wonder or concern, might serve equally well (although of course for different modes and topics of reflection one might well choose different works).

If we ignore his opening misdirection (for it quickly emerges that he should have conceded no ground at all), nothing that he writes excludes the option that art might well be 'about' other matters entirely. Quite rightly he neither states nor implies that in order to score as art a candidate object must "...indicate new ways of being in Australia." Very obviously, Chinese and Brazilian art do not do that.
But he does not at all discourage us from supposing that the arts of these locales should indicate ways of being in China and Brazil. How close to the theoretical centre of his idea of art is the nexus between the objects scrutinised and the cultural construction of identity? The nearest we come to an answer is almost at the end of the essay, in a section called Coda: a confession

All of the artists in this exhibition I selected because their work is expansive, extending beyond the formal, the fashionable and the incestuous. This is implicit in the aesthetic power of their art, for me the first and final point of attraction, by which particular combinations of formal beauty and powerful ideas intertwine inextricably to form statements of singular value: a conjunction of nature (beauty) and culture (ideas).

There is much to wrestle with here. For example: is formal beauty a kind of box for the presentation of ideas (like the design and binding of a book), or is formal beauty the peculiarly meritorious presentation-of-ideas (so that differently presented ideas would be different ideas)? And what are we to make of this parenthetically intimate association of ideas with culture? On the supposition that cultures are essentially located it would seem to follow that the doctrine of art as the process of identity-construction by metaphor-making (if that is his doctrine) cannot but be true.

However, we are by no means obliged to make that supposition. We may well think that there are cultural constructions (ideas) with aspirations to universality: notably in science, religion and philosophy. Should we read him, then, as offering a principle of demarcation between art and other cultural domains? If so it will not only be the case that works of art are by no means everyday things, but also that many things currently passing as works of art (perhaps in the Biennale?) are fraudulent because they play no convincing role in anyone's construction of identity.

These thoughts are highly speculative, as they should be in response to a stimulating essay; but one thing at least is testable. Do the works that he has chosen convincingly reward an interrogation of the kind that he urges upon us? And if they do - as seems to me quite probable - is that the key with which to unlock the 'aesthetic power' of everything?

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