Keep your eyes on the prize: Hold on, Aboriginal art competitions, ethical dilemmas and mining companies

In this article Djon Mundine poses a prolific and detailed insight into the world of art in relation to what art is, how can it be judged and as a re-occurring theme, the alleged honesty in contemporary art. Mundine predominately focuses on Aboriginal art and the political, ethical and criterial implications modern society imposes on it. That is to say what can be deemed an honest work of art that expresses the artists intentions but also allows the artwork to speak for itself. Mundine talks about indigenous artwork and how it was viewed by the original colinisers of Australia. Particularly how the colinisers set down criteria towards what a valuable artwork was. Further elaborating on competitions whereby artworks are judged in accordance to rules that pose more questions in relation to what an honest or pure artwork is. Mundine sites several quotations that portray interesting examples that reinforce his argument towards modern day criticism and objectivity. The final message being to what extent can any one person be declared appropriated to criticising artwork and judging its authenticity, quality and honesty. Mundine states that we should only hope for honesty in todays artwork irrespective of its outside marketed criticism. All in all Mundine presents the reader with an insightful article that will leave you questioning the integrity of today's critical approach to fine art.

Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and 'look' for trouble.
Alexis Zorba. [2 ]

It used to be felt that to judge an art prize, Aboriginal or otherwise, was one way to look for trouble; it could certainly be a diplomatic moment if not a poisoned chalice. A prize is an award given to a person or a group of people to recognise and reward actions or achievements. There is an Aboriginal saying: 'big name, no blankets'.

Which could equally apply to many non-Aboriginal artists. Thankfully official prizes often involve monetary rewards as well as the fame that comes with them. Prizes are given for a number of reasons: to highlight noteworthy or exemplary behaviour, and of course to provide incentives in competitions, etc. In general, prizes are regarded in a positive light, and their winners are admired. However, many prizes, especially the more famous ones, have often caused controversy and jealousy.

Aboriginal art is art made by Aboriginal people and as much as art is a physical object, an Aboriginal mind and an Aboriginal person is a work of art and a 'dreaming' in itself. Aboriginal people remain, live, think, create and continue to thrive in New South Wales in great numbers. What they do, think, imagine, act and create in their daily lives is their 'dreaming' and is art. It is the spirit of their lives and the land they belong to; a life raft for those drowning in a sea of dots. At Yirrkala in Arnhem Land in the 1950s artists were paid for their art with tobacco sticks and other trade goods for a long time before cash was used. Here by the 1960s bark paintings and woodcarvings were valued with a set of criteria:

1. The quality of 'craftsmanship';
2. Did the painting have 'a story'?
3. Will the painting be aesthetically pleasing to a 'white' buyer?
4. What is the size of the bark painting or carving? (and implicitly what was the amount of time expended in its production).

When I started formally in this field in the mid-1970s there was a similar set of attributes to look for:

1. Authenticity – did the artwork come from a tradition or references a tradition (possibly valuing the honesty of the artist and work);
2. Was it technically well-made – did the artwork show that the artist was technically proficient. Was the paint applied consistently, would it stay on the bark or canvas, the wood sculpture remain in one piece?
3. Finally, was it aesthetically pleasing – did its composition and form and message compel an emotional response (but from what set of aesthetic values?). What I look for is a form of 'gestalt', a holistic gesture and response – honesty in art.

People always look for the 'story' with Aboriginal Art from the desert and the north, well now we should recognise that every Aboriginal artwork has a serious story. If we replaced the 'authenticity' with honesty in the preceding points of reference these could almost apply to any artform and any culture.

'Next we talked about games and sports. I told them that in the United States we are very interested in sporting events, that in fact, we pay ball players much more than we pay teachers. I told them I could demonstrate a game and suggested we all make a straight line and run as fast as we could. The one who runs the fastest will become the winner. The people looked at me intently with their beautiful big dark eyes, then they looked at each other. Finally someone said 'But if one person wins, everyone else must lose. Is that fun? Games are for fun. Why would you subject anyone to such an experience and then try to convince him that he was a winner? The custom is difficult to understand. Does it work for your people?' I just smiled and shook my head 'no'.'
Marlo Morgan. [3]

It was then, and still is, one of the biggest myths concerning Aboriginal people that we were saint-like peacefully non-competitive people. We are human beings and act like every other society of human beings.

Roman Emperor Nero (37 - 68 AD) in his day entered many athletic, cultural, singing and harp-playing competitions, which he invariably seemed to win. He collected Gold Medals when he competed in the Greek Olympics of the time. In a similar vein at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (2000) the tour guide took us to a gaming room where a solid silver chess set was laid out ready to play – Catherine the Great was a gifted chess player; she was never defeated in her lifetime, the guide trumpeted! Sometimes the more things change – the more they stay the same.

In the present-day Aboriginal art world there is the contemporary Aboriginal artist who was judge for the competition they entered. They left the room when their art was judged of course (I'm told) but this must eventually lead to a situation where they'd end up spending more time in the toilet than judging. Unfortunately, unlike Nero, they still didn't win.

With so many competitions do they in fact encourage more art creation – and is it more good art? It seems to be the beginning of another season of judging and judgement. There is now an ever-increasing number of Aboriginal art competitions as well as any number of other open art award opportunities for artists such as the 'Blacktown Art Award' and the yearly 'Fishers Ghost Art Prize' at Campbelltown that are among a myriad of local cultural events. In NAIDOC week there are numerous art competitions including the 'Our Spirit Our Country Bandjalung Art Award' sponsored by The National Parks and Wildlife Service. There's also 'The Art of Place- National Indigenous Heritage Art Award' that began in 1993 by the Australian Heritage Commission in Canberra.

'We're no longer collecting art; we're buying people.'
Rene Richard, in Basquiat (1996). [4]

A colleague commenting on the number of art conferences asked, if there are so many more conferences is there more being said – what is actually being said – what is being listened to? What are the new ideas? Following these are the endless reviews by government of codes of conduct, ethical guidelines etc. How many people read them beyond the bureaucracy? Or are they simply the material for another enquiry or a refinement on the previous enquiry. What is needed is for people to actually practice the rules and ethics fully, not just read them.

Many small movements took place within the last ten years within our society. Without sounding like a prole-type character from '1984', I remember a time not so long ago when ethics would preclude being a practicing artist and a public curator. Whilst so employed would it have been unethical to offer your artwork to the institution you worked for, or another public collection? would it be unethical for them to accept it? could you enter any public competition as an artist while being so employed; or enter a competition of which your 'boss' was the judge; could you enter a competition of which you yourself were a judge?

Each institution of course is free to set its own standards. Once upon a time it was unethical for artists of all colours and creeds to receive money from mining companies – you could extract royalties from them but not do promotions for them. Strange days indeed?

A partner of mine; a paperback science fiction freak, told me a story of two 'Wizards'; one who tried to know everything and claim and control everything, the other in complete contrast, sought to divest themselves of everything not relevant. In Arnhem Land I was told that you may read something but you only really 'know' when you experience, when you hear it directly from us; then you know. Some may say let the art speak for itself – well, given the cultural divide can it really? You can of course know everything but then sap everything of ideas, meaning, and feeling from the art and the artistic statement – a certain shallowness prevails – a feeling of something missing. I think you can only know (perhaps should only know) everything in context (in practice).

Any serious curator in today's art environment cannot simply put together a number of artists in a 'survey' show anymore. And tell me if artists are 'warrioring', what are they fighting – certainly not the Intervention. If they were serious 'Warriors' they would have boycotted the opening if not the exhibition.

There are many histories of art, certainly a few Aboriginal histories. Usually to a particular view, for someone's particular benefit. In earlier writing I postulated there were five phases in the history of Aboriginal art; from the beginning of time till the end of WWII, the 'discovery of bark paintings from Arnhem Land (1950s-60s), the western desert painting (1970s-80s) movement, re-emergence of SE Aboriginal artists (1980s), and the fifth phase (1990s) where Aboriginal artists, curators and writers took to writing our own stories, our own histories, as against 'white western' art writers. The fifth phase contained the seeds of another sixth phase where the empire strikes back and co-opts 'aspirational' artists, young curators and writers in a form of neutering and assimilation. One of course should realise that when we talk of art, when we learn about art, when we see art it is 'white western art history' we see, we are told about and ponder on, framed by white western art institutions.

It should be a time of change. The Howard years could be seen as anti-arts, anti-cultural and anti-intellectual but many people in the arts actually appeared to be highly rewarded personally and financially during the Howard regime. There is an age-old western saying that 'people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones'. Many Aboriginal people of saner minds on the rare times they are asked, almost invariably refuse to comment on Aboriginal issues in the daily press and electronic media. And so it is then left to the usual suspects; our own gang of four who usually tell 'white audiences' reassuringly what they want and expect to hear - Blak fellahs are lazy. Blak fellahs are violent, Blak fellahs are stupid, Blak culture is useless really and holds us back, Blak fellahs waste money, Blak fellahs are corrupt and have to be watched, Blak fellahs are useless really. And everyone is happy.

I once wrote that there were a number of princesses in Aboriginal art, people whose work and careers would be showered with money, resources and praise (sometimes akin to the Emperor's new clothes) no matter what the actual purpose. There are an equivalent number of emergent princes. Whatever the project they seem to be guaranteed to just miss the mark. An idea out of time Рan event after the event. Just missing the mark was not just unlucky it was so important as to be disastrous, a kind of Pyrrhic victory. To fulfill John Howard's promise to the French, at least one million, possibly three million dollars, was spent to place beautiful important Aboriginal art into a room of invisibility at the Mus̩e du Quai Branly Рpossibly in a French literary reference to 'The Man in the Iron Mask', the Marquis de Sade in the asylum, or 'The Phantom of the Opera'.

Putting your own portrait in your photographic exhibition should be seriously thought about ethically – putting in your own portrait by your close friend, someone in a similar power position, is shameless.

'Didn't I tell you that I was the greatest!'
Muhammad Ali (attributed)

In the 'Archibald Portrait Prize' (AGNSW) what could be seen as a ruthless judging process takes place where a painting is brought before the judging panel and an 'in or out' decision made until a suitable small enough figure for hanging is reached. They are then hung and a winner chosen by the same judging panel. A similar process happens with the 'Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize'; and most other art awards. With the larger national 'Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award' a preliminary panel culls the number of entries which are then hung and a different pair of judges picks the final winners. Although being a judge three times for this award I have never been comfortable judging someone else's choices.

'In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.'
Andy Warhol (attributed)

All that being said, any program that encourages people to make their statement, to reveal their expression must be good. It's said that, more than Andy Warhol's somewhat cynical remark, art is part of life, almost a human necessity for any thinking, feeling person. Every choice or judgment has to be still, to a large degree, a personal response. I come back to it – what I really look for is honesty in art. It's said that most curators/judges are really only failed artists. Unfortunately though, most artists are really also failed artists according to their own personal and outside market criteria. What I look for is an honest attempt at an honest expression irrespective of the style or medium used. We all hope that of course they will succeed in their expression and that we, the audience, will survive their attempt.

1. Eyes on the Prize, this was originally an early-20th century Civil Rights song called 'Keep Your Hands On The Plow, Hold On' (or 'Gospel Plow'). In 1956, Alice Wine reworked the lyrics and renamed the song to become 'Eyes On the Prize'.

2. Zorba the Greek, 1964, Director Michael Cacoyannis.

3. Marlo Morgan, 'Mutant Message Down Under, a Woman's Journey into Dreamtime Australia' illustrated by Carri Garrison, chapter 20 Unchocolate-covered ants Element (Harper Collins) London 1995 p127.

4. Basquiat (1996) directed Julian Schnabel.