The dearth of criticism

Some artists are often heard to complain about the lack of honest criticism of Aboriginal art. But in such a limited sphere, criticising an Aboriginal artist in formal or aesthetic terms, or at a deeper level, is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Too often, critics play the man and not the ball. Can we handle the truth?

Vernon Ah Kee mediohcre 2011, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 180 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

...Aboriginal art has reached the point where it's all being reduced to the level of mediocrity. That’s what a dearth of criticism does to an artform.
Vernon Ah Kee

Some artists are often heard to complain about the lack of honest criticism of Aboriginal art. But in such a limited sphere, criticising an Aboriginal artist in formal or aesthetic terms, or at a deeper level, is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Too often, critics play the man and not the ball. Can we handle the truth? Some argue there isn’t a critical mass yet, that the Aboriginal art world is too limited a sphere, that it is almost too interconnected, making professional criticism from 'within’ a risky business. Vernon Ah Kee makes the point that "there’s a lot of bad art. But outside of the Aboriginal artforms the bad art is called out for what it is. That does not happen in Aboriginal art. So let’s have some of that, hey?"

As the Canadian Métis artist David Garneau says in his essay in this Artlink: “It is one thing to critique the colonial-capitalist-racist-patriarchy you find yourself born into; it is quite another thing to call-out your cousin in public”. The genuine fear of redoubling the effect of racism, of exposing hidden tensions, of being seen to argue in public or to inflict hurt are all legitimate fears that can complicate the fairly straightforward object, which is to explore ideas honestly, as you might want in a free society. Surely the other key objective is to build a stronger practice among Indigenous artists, honed or at least partly informed by constructive, professional criticism. But do critics, and does criticism, actually build stronger practice? Is art criticism a white thing?

There is a lot of Aboriginal art but there are too few critics. I often question existentially why we need to write about art. It deepens my appreciation when I write about some art over another. But I’m not drawn to review things I don’t like. And so it is with most critics. There’s a Western historiography of art criticism, but it is a fairly recent tradition. The Guardian critic Jonathan Jones has complained about the fawning, uncritical tendencies within art criticism in Britain. So dissatisfied is he with the critical vacuum, that he says he’d be prepared to support an award for the most brutal piece of published art criticism. You might even say - internationally – that there is a crisis of criticism. Hal Foster, writing in The Brooklyn Rail, describes the post-critical phase “...dependent on corporate sponsors, most curators no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of advanced art.”

I should say I am not a critic. But as a journalist I can observe that there is a lack of honest criticism and I often question why. I don’t think it’s exclusive to Aboriginal art. That leads me to think about the sovereignty of Aboriginal art. Why should Aboriginal art, regardless of where it is made, be captive to a Western frame, even if it is destined for the white cube? Just as all art is ethnographic, isn’t writing about art inflected with its own Western ethnography, its own Western subjectivity? It presupposes we are all interested in the same thing when it comes to judging the merit of contemporary art. I am interested in the sociology of art, how it describes what Vernon Ah Kee calls the ‘Aboriginal position’. Language and subjectivity (even in art criticism) are part of the machinery of colonialism. Most of all, I am interested in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers see the contemporary art being made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practitioners; a new subjectivity that doesn’t other.

Some art criticism which appears in the mainstream Australian media is focused on traditional art produced in remote areas as the most authentic form of Aboriginal art. You could say a lot of art made in the urban context gets ignored, or labelled ‘angry’, or even worse, it is put down as ‘folk’ art. And let’s face it – some of the most widely read journalistic criticism is couched in ethnographic terms, as John Carty makes clear in his essay in this Artlink. The text of so many reviews is driven by the idea that Aboriginal art is mysterious and unknowable (like Aboriginal people), the phenomenon that has been described by Richard Bell as ‘Ooga Booga’. As I understand it, here Bell describes a psychology of reception, of handling and selling – not necessarily of production. Who could deny any Aboriginal person an income, wherever they live? Those artists who produce work that is focused on the contemporary Aboriginal experience, whose subject matter is contemporary, are not critically understood or the work is not even critically discussed or reviewed in the first place. Bell also draws a line between the aesthetic and political; a binary opposition which unsatisfactorily precludes one from the other.

It is fairly clear that we need to move the debate around Indigenous art into more critical terms. We need to be forthright and honest in our criticism. And furthermore we have a responsibility to understand the work from multiple perspectives. The independent curator Djon Mundine describes the process in almost performative terms: “Try to set it up as a subject and walk around it, and look at it from different perspectives and try to put it in a context, both Aboriginal and otherwise. And then think: is the criticism fair?” Most Aboriginal artists that I know have bitter personal experience of the lack of professional criticism of their work. Sometimes work is judged uncritically or by the same token, not at all. Sometimes, the work’s political or social context is not fully understood by non-Indigenous critics who may judge it in strictly Western aesthetic terms (“it’s ugly”, “poorly executed” and so on, valid as those criticisms might be). Some Aboriginal artists might feel let down by such criticism, given the social function of art.

The Utopia painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye has been called a modernist; devoid of cultural context her work has controversially been imagined to fit into the history of Western aesthetics. Art criticism can have a colonising effect: it might be driven or buoyed by a romantic desire to know the other, to reframe and decipher it. At the other end of the spectrum it might act to define Aboriginal art as merely ethnographic, to hermetically seal the white cube from incursion. Djon Mundine says that: “All art has to be social and meaningful to the society it comes from, and if it does that it has to be criticised or examined by that society.” Mundine is arguing for a more critical culture within Indigenous art, not just in terms of the nature and quality of the criticism but the way artists receive and answer that criticism. But criticism need not be a dialogue. It should however be constructive. The only thing at stake in criticism is the work; rarely is the artist’s reputation genuinely compromised by honest criticism. A friend of mine says repeatedly when this issue of personal offence arises: “for fuck’s sake, its only art”.

According to Mundine, the time has come for a new dialogue, and that we owe it to the work and the artists. “[Some] Aboriginal artists, are [doing] very well thank you and already have PR people to write about them. So the idea is to then think of other ways of contextualising what they’re doing rather than just describing the beautiful aesthetics…Put it in the context of other contemporary art practice that’s happening right now and recent historical moves in contemporary art...I think it’s most probably time to say alright, that these practitioners aren’t just token people.” Mundine is saying that we need to judge the work of senior practitioners more critically, precisely because they are not token. They deserve honest criticism.

Mundine has laid out a possible new way forward. “Now, how can we build up a more critical review? Well, the first thing is to stop yelling racism at people who do critical reviews. Some people are racist in the way they approach things but...not everyone’s racist, they’re just trying to look at the artwork in the context of that person’s career...So how can we build that [a more constructive critique] up? Two things: you’ve got to be very strongly honest about ‘did I really like it?’ And then the other thing about that honesty about it is, why do I really not like these things?...People talk about authenticity and other things and it might be a bad thing or old-fashioned in one way, but I look for honesty in art rather than how much you can get away with…[it] may be just time that’s needed for people to get used to saying they can disagree without taking that thing personally, vindictively. And that is about our honesty with dealing with each other.”

Vernon Ah Kee makes another relevant point: that we need a new critical language or vocabulary, what he describes as an Aboriginal vernacular. “We need to develop a language through which we can critique our own people, that’s missing too. You just can’t start hammering away with broad swords independently; there has to be a methodology to it.” If the dearth of criticism has produced mediocrity, then a more constructively critical culture, in which the quality and integrity of the work is more openly explored, might just produce stronger Indigenous art practice.