Book review Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons by Eric Michaels Allen and Unwin RRP $29.95
Eric liked to play the role of the cheeky outsider. Indeed, during our brief friendship, I sensed that he took a particular delight in ridiculing, prodding, and generally destabilising both the politically correct and incorrect. On some occasions he publicly attacked the very institutions that gave him sustenance. Certainly his essays in the posthumously published "Bad Aboriginal Art; Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons" reflect his relentless refusal to accept neat, politically-expedient constructions, (so often employed by the apologists of the 'Aboriginal industry'), or at the opposite end, the received wisdom of established academic discourse. Conversely, Eric could sometimes be terribly wrong. He would miss points of fundamental importance. He could be entirely oblivious to the untenable contradictions inherent within his own position, and he seemed also, to suffer from a curious, disabling ingenuousness.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Eric would tread on a lot of toes given the unruly and chaotic territory in which he chose to conduct most of his later work - anyone who has had a serious involvement with Aboriginal media or Aboriginal art will sooner or later offend someone - black or white. And even as Eric attempted to make some sense of these objects of his research (to put it in a way that he would have hated), the objects themselves were in a particularly emergent and indeterminate state. He saw the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, CAAMA, put the first Aboriginal radio station to air; participated in the opening of a 'pirate' TV station in the remote Aboriginal community of Yuendumu; was around when CAAMA launched a protracted and ultimately successful battle to control and operate the region's only commercial satellite television service, and witnessed the rapid transformation of traditional Warlpiri iconographies into desirable art-market commodities.
In the midst of this convulsive period, Eric toyed with a variety of roles. As Dick Hebdige puts it in his comprehensive introduction to the essays "Eric plays with tone and voice alternating between a range of personae (eg the veteran fieldworker, the obsessed boffin, the urbane aesthete, the mandarin, the trickster, the querulous outsider')."
One only needs to reflect on the kind of titles Eric gave to his essays in order to appreciate his variegated and whimsical style: "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got It - Who Needs It?" / "Hundreds Shot at Aboriginal Community: ABC Makes TV Documentary at Yuendumu" / "Hollywood Iconography: A Warlpiri Reading" / "Bad Aboriginal Art" and so on.
In the essay... If .""All Anthropologists are Liars..", we confront Eric the obsessed boffin attacking, in dense academic prose, anthropologist Fred Myers and his work, "Pintupi Country Pintupi Self". Essentially, Eric condemns Myers for what he believed to be his profound lack of "reflexivity" and his alleged indifference towards the 'true' concerns of his Aboriginal subjects, in whose mouths Eric dares to put this rhetorical question:
"What right have you to appropriate our lives and inscribe our histories to advance your own, and your culture's objectives without even considering if this may be at the expense of ours?" While Eric does provide us with an interesting, although familiar discussion of these problems of "reflexivity" and the ethnographic project, he seemed - at the same time - to be less than reflexive about his own ethnographic practice. For example, at the beginning of the essay, he qualifies his criticisms of Myers by declaring that "...[I] generally agree with his [Myers'] ethnographic facts." For Eric, these 'facts' were not the problem, it was Myers' "evidential and interpretive strategies" that were of concern. But I find it rather odd, if not slightly dishonest, that Eric could, on the one hand, blithely accept Myers' "ethnographic facts" while at the same time, argue - in the most strident possible terms - that the very means by which these 'facts', gain and maintain currency, are in themselves irrelevant "..is "Pintupi Country Pintupi Self" really a valiant effort that evidences definitively the limitations of anthropological discourse: proving that ethnography cannot resolve the contradictions of its own inscription practices or permit the ethnographer a reflexive position?" which begs the question -what was Eric doing in the ethnographic game if it had, as he seems to have believed, cannibalised itself? But then Eric always had an escape plan, he could relocate himself to another position - to that of the political activist for instance.
In 1986, Eric gave a lecture at the ASSA conference in Sydney entitled, Aboriginal Content: "Who's Got It - Who Needs It?" (which became the essay reproduced in this collection). I also happened to be in Sydney at the time, due to the fact that CAAMA - then my employer - was appearing before the full bench of the Federal Court in a last desperate bid to secure a television licence (as mentioned above). Both the Northern Territory government and Kerry Packer, who had just bought the other licence applicant NTD-8, were challenging CAAMA's right to the licence. During a break in the proceedings, I attended Eric's lecture and was utterly shocked by what I heard. Eric, it seemed, had turned traitor. He was publicly attacking CAAMA in a way that would have delighted our adversaries. In his discussion on Aboriginal television content, he was not only lumping CAAMA, the ABC and commercial television together and saying that all three organisations were merely employing constructions of 'Aboriginal content' to suit their own political and legal agendas - which of course was absolutely correct - but he was also implying that it would probably be better if CAAMA didn't control the licence! He argued that CAAMA's version of a televisual-Aboriginality would eventually assume a dominant presence - if it won the licence - in all remote Aboriginal communities to the detriment of other local languages and cultures. He advocated instead, an emphasis on localism - local TV made for and by local Aboriginal people - which was to be commended. In fact CAAMA had long been centrally involved in the establishment of community TV stations (ie BRACS – Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme). Our concern, at the time, was to gain some measure of control over the mainstream satellite television services that would inevitably enter such communities. Whatever the case, Eric and I had a major falling out, as the correspondence from Eric to CAAMA - published with this essay -will attest. Now, almost ten years after these events, it seems that we were both hopelessly naive. Although CAAMA won the satellite TV licence, and despite the installation of local TV stations in over eighty remote Aboriginal communities, including Yuendumu, where Eric worked. Aboriginal content - of any kind - is still struggling for production resources and air time, especially in the remote Aboriginal communities where the latest Hollywood blockbuster is as eagerly watched as anywhere else. Notwithstanding this rather pessimistic conclusion, Eric's essay does provide an invaluable account (despite its overtly partisan stance) of the complex debates and political struggles that were under way during this period, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the emergence of Aboriginal media.
It is not difficult to understand why this collection was named after one of Eric's last essays - "Bad Aboriginal Art". It is perhaps the most insightful and pertinent of his works. He finally drops the bitchy politicking that tends to disfigure the other work, and takes us on a stimulating tour through an aesthetic minefield in search of some 'bad' - or failing that - 'good' Aboriginal art. Of course we don't find either, but what we do discover is Eric's bravery in pursuit of his scholarly duty, which never avoids the more touchy aspects of this artform.
One of these aspects, central to his discussion, is the extent to which white art advisers and art markets influence or even determine what an Aboriginal artist might paint. He argues - rather convincingly - that non-Aboriginal fictions about 'the primitive' or 'the traditional' directly affected the stylistic development of the all pervasive dot-painting of Papunya. But he goes further, and speculates, in relation to the problem of authenticity in Aboriginal art, that direct white participation in the actual making of an 'Aboriginal' art work may be, at least according to post-modernist theory, relatively acceptable. Such explosive ideas are complemented by his even more provocative comments about the nature of Aboriginality: "The overarching class 'Aboriginal' is a wholly European fantasy, a class that comes into existence as a consequence of colonial domination and not before (although many Aborigines will make concessions to this fantasy, seeing possibilities thereby for political and economic power)."
Eric, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988, was always willing to break the ground over which others were not even willing to walk. In the process, he unearthed - or perhaps more to the point - forced to the surface, difficult and uncomfortable issues that in many respects remain deeply significant, vet still unresolved and unaddressed. In this sense Eric's work will continue to have relevance and purpose. I urge anyone with an interest in Aboriginal art or media, or who is afflicted with a post-modem condition, to go out and buy this book.
Reviewed by Philip Batty