The market must acknowledge its role in the commidification of indigenous cultures through cultural objects....What the market must acknowledge is the relationship of interdependency which exists between itself and the artists that it promotes and as such, the market must ensure that its actions do not prove detrimental to the artist and the community in the long run.
Many indigenous cultures are identified by the communal base of the society. Activities such as gift-exchange, which formed the basis of trade, served to reinforce inter-tribal and personal bonds, achieving a communal, as opposed to individual, benefit. The concept of a communal benefit extends to other activities including the production of cultural objects which, when placed in a non-indigenous context, may be viewed as art.
In many indigenous cultures, the influence of western ideas and technologies has seen a shift from the communal base. In particular, exposure to the benefits and detriment of the cash economy has led to the individualising of activities. This is reflected in the development of the Aboriginal art industry where artworks are commonly produced by recognised individuals, specifically for the art-market. However, the commodification of individual art activity may be detrimental to indigenous societies in two respects: (a) The corruption of indigenous objects leading to a decline in their cultural value; (b) The promotion of individuals at the expense of their position within a communal society. These problems will be examined in the light of the emerging Torres Strait art industry. Similar problems have been identified in the Aboriginal art industry and comparison with this may assist in reaching a solution for the Islander industry. The Islander art industry is embryonic and as a result, application of solutions to the identified problems at this stage may prevent future difficulties.
TORRES STRAIT ART
It is possible to define aspects of Torres Strait material heritage under the concept of art. However, Torres Strait 'art' has been largely subsumed under the national and international recognition of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. In one respect, this has protected Torres Strait material culture from the deprivations wrought by the cash economy which results from the sale of cultural artefacts as art. Further, the self-sufficiency of Islander culture, because of its physical separation from the Australian mainland, combined with the lack of public exposure at a national level, has meant that the development of the material heritage has been dictated by Islander needs. However, the expansion of the art-market into the Torres Strait because of an interest in the artistic merit of particular Torres Strait sculptural forms, poses a threat to the position of Islander individuals who create such objects.
In the past, the material heritage of the Strait has been regulated to the field of anthropological curios. This has changed in recent years, with TAFE art courses being offered in Cairns and the Torres Strait for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Graduates are schooled in western art practices, working with traditional and western mediums. As such, these individuals practise and conform to the western concept of artist.
The traditional material culture of the Torres Strait, however, has a strong sculptural base. In recent years, the aesthetics of such objects have been recognised by art institutions who have begun to actively collect in this field. The primary objects being collected are a particular sculptural form unique to the Torres Straits. These are loosely termed dance machines, or ëplaythingsí in the vernacular, and are used in specific dances accompanied with specific songs.
Many of these machines have moveable parts which are manipulated during the dance to expose a variety of natural forms such as rising and setting star constellations (refer to photographs 1 and 2) or fiery comets (refer to photographs 3 and 4). The exposing of different forms, combined with the use of objects on mass by uniform lines of dancers, are integral part of the aesthetic of such objects.
Dance machines are generally grouped according to gender with machines used by male dancers more likely to incorporate complex mechanisms. Female machines are less complex or have no moveable parts, relying on the simplicity of form which are often in the abstract. An example of a female abstract machine is the sik from Yam Island (refer to photograph 5). The feathers on the machine represent the sea spray, or form, which is blown off the top of waves during stormy weather. The star in the middle represents the morning star. The fish-tail ends and rainbow in the centre of the bottom panel are purely decorative. The blue squiggles along the bottom of the panel represent waves.
Dance machines are generally produced by individuals who have not received a formal art education. The use of the term artist to describe such individuals is misleading because of their role in Islander society. Although any community member is permitted to produce such objects, those who do are also invariably the composer and choreographer of the song which accompanies the machine, as well as lead singer and lead dancer. Further, the production and use of dance machines originate from a community based. This means that the creator of such objects remain anonymous resulting in a particular design being attributed to the island of origin rather than to the individual. This indicates that the designs of such objects are owned communally and therefore cannot be commodified and sold in an individual context. The multiplicity of function of the creators, as well as their anonymity in the wider Islander society is an indication of the communal role of such individuals.
THE CORRUPTION OF THE ISLANDER MATERIAL HERITAGE
The demand for Aboriginal art has led to an increase in its production. Its popularity has produced a disparity of price, ranging from as little as a few dollars to the huge sums paid by art institutions and private collectors. This has led to a dispute about the authenticity of Aboriginal art which fall into the cheaper end of the art market, as well as a debate between inferior and superior art. Such a development is readily translated to the Islander art industry.
It is possible to propose that the collecting of Islander cultural objects by state institutions may lead to an increase in the production of such objects for the purpose of sale. At present, the ideas for and designs of objects are dictated by local needs. The risk exists that an increase of such objects for the purpose of sale may lead to a decline in quality at the expense of cultural needs. The commodification of these objects means that designs may eventually be dictated by the needs of the art-market subject to the purchasing power of those collecting.
Invariably, ëseriousí art collectors originate from a non-Islander society, and collect objects based on their own cultural aesthetic. At this level of the collecting process, it appears that the collecting does not occur without a recognition of the cultural context in which the object was produced. This is seen in state institutions where a non-Aboriginal aesthetic balanced by the relevance of the art to the culture generally determines what is collected. Such a situation does not necessarily mean a decline in the quality of the art as it is assumed that in order for an artist to benefit from such collecting, the art produced must conform to certain requirements. Although this supports the argument that a western aesthetic dominates the art that is produced, the loss of an objects cultural value may not occur. The problem arises when such collecting leads to the desire of the general public who may not have the funds to buy what is inevitably the best representation of such objects, to seek cheaper alternatives. Such a situation means that a ready market for cheaper alternative will emerge. This phenomenon may be argued as being the catalyst for the emergence of tourist art, and the subsequent debate between superior and inferior art. This also acknowledges the influence that major collecting institutions and individuals have in shaping the art market.
The emergence of cheaper alternatives indicates that indigenous artists are more concerned with making a profit rather than the quality of the art. The supremacy of money over quality should not, however, be viewed as necessarily negative. In a society where the majority of Islanders rely on public welfare, the ability of an individual to make money through his or her efforts represents a step towards freedom from government sponsorship and ultimate self-determination. Further, participation within the art market allows Islanders to participate equally within the economic market, which may represent a beneficial shift in how indigenous cultures are perceived.
The ability to derive an income from art, however, means that a decline in the quality of work could result in those forces which shape the art market being dissuaded from future collecting. This possibility poses a special danger for the Torres Strait because of its small population base. In Aboriginal Australia, the range of different cultural groups and the distances between groups, means that there is always the scope for innovation and development to occur, thus satisfying the shifting demands of the art-market. The size and homogeneity of Torres Strait culture means that the appropriation of ideas between different islands, and the competition by artists for the collectors dollar, poses a real threat to the infant industry.
THE INDIVIDUALSING OF COMMUNAL INDIVIDUALS
The art market, as such, requires the individualising of artists. Although the art-market tends to acknowledge the relationship of the object to the culture, the debate exists that this is an industry which needs to operate along lines of standard market principles. As such, the market requires the individualising of artists, particularly the ability of attributing a particular work to an individual. The non-indigenous perspective of the market emphasises the individual relationship between transactors, in particular the needs of the buyer. This means that individual competition is encouraged to ensure that quality can be achieved with minimum expense. Such a situation denies the benefits which the market provides for the artist and culture, and the position of the artist within this culture. What this indicates is that the ability to derive an income requires the artist to work individually in order to achieve maximum profit. This individualising of artistic activity, however, may lead to a conflict between the artist as an individual within a society that is communal.
Inevitably, achieving fame within a communal society may create serious social problems. The promotion of individuals above the community, which may involve a degree of fame and associated benefits particularly monetary, may lead to jealousies an an inability to deal with the new status of the individual. This may lead to eventual social dislocation and ostracisation. What appears as an empowerment of the artist in the west, may be detrimental at a community level. The long term result may be self-destruction of the individual or a decline in the quality of the art. Should the latter situation occur, the art-market may then seek an alternative, leaving the artist alienated in both societies.
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
There are numerous solutions to the identified problems, many of which are radical s they entail a restructuring of the art market. The solution offered here has a theoretical base and involves the recognition of the interdependency of indigenous and non-indigenous societies. Interdependency is possible with the recognition of the sale of indigenous art as gift-exchange as opposed to a commodity transaction. The importance of gift-exchange lies with its connection to the communal nature of the traditional practices, in particular the relationship of interdependency between the giver and receiver of the gift. In order to establish gift-exchange with the sale of art, it is necessary to acknowledge that the aesthetic appreciation of such art is derived from its traditional context and an indigenous aesthetic. Such an appreciation of the art entails a transition from evaluating the art on a commercial or aesthetic basis, to recognising its status as a cultural bond. This changes the view of indigenous art as commodity. Further, the theory of gift-exchange serves the purpose of defining the importance of an artwork as an acknowledgment of the indigenous contribution to the wider community. This results in the acknowledgment of indigenous art as priceless, irreducible to a market value.
Further, instead of viewing the art as the creation of an individual, establishing the art as a gift recognises the connection of the object to communal practices. This may overcome the conflict between the different social values in indigenous and non-indigenous communities which arises from group membership and communal interests in the former being in opposition to individual freedom and private interests in the latter. Failure to reach a common ground between the two will perpetuate the alienation of indigenous communities, creating further obstacles to self-determination.
To achieve the acceptance of gift-exchange within the art market entails the recognition of a relationship of dependency instead of individuality. Such a relationship indicates that transactors are not independent and anonymous, operating rather in a localised and communal environment. Instead of the outcome of the transaction being a termination of the social relationship, the theory of gift-exchange provides for a continuing social relationship. In such a situation, there is scope for the recognition of the responsibilities of the market to the indigenous culture and individual. The theory is that in gift-exchange, the artwork is ëanthropomorphisedí with the personality of the artist and the context that led to the creation of the art. The inter-dependency that forms the basis of gift-exchange means that the receiver of the artwork acknowledges the relationship of the art to the community and the inalienability of this relationship. By contrast, the object within a commodity exchange remains inert with a relationship of exchange occurring between the objects, rather than the transactors.
In the end, the theory of gift-exchange recognises quality and people, whereas commodity exchange valueís quantity and objects. Reassessment of the present market principles may, therefore, lead to an understanding of the role of indigenous art and individuals within the community, and the responsibilities that the art-market has to both.
In conclusion, the market must acknowledge its role in the commodification of indigenous cultures through cultural objects. To deny the existence of inferior art in favour of superior indigenous art is to deny the role of the market in the creation of both. This acknowledgment, however, should not be a disincentive in the collecting and support of indigenous art. There are enormous benefits to be gained by indigenous artists participating in the market. In a society which relies on welfare, the ability to profit from a skill is a step towards self-determination. Further, the exposure of Torres Strait art at a national and international level achieves a recognition of the differences between Aboriginal and Islander societies, in particular the different needs of Islanders at a social level. What the market must acknowledge is the relationship of interdependency which exists between itself and the artists that it promotes and as such, the market must ensure that its actions would not prove detrimental to the artist and community in the long run.
Jeff Berg, "Moral Rights: A Legal, Historical and Anthropological Reappraisal" 1991. 6 International Property Journal 341.