A friend recently invited me to a Sydney gallery opening to see paintings by a group of first nations artists working in a remote outback community. Unfortunately, a few days before the show, the death of a close relative threw my diary into disarray, and I had to decline the invitation. But mixed with my regret there was, I confess, a sense of relief. Saddened though I was by the prospect of attending my stepfather’s funeral, the obligation to do so had released me from a duty which I know from experience to be just as onerous, but which is now the duty of all right-thinking Australians: pretending to admire and appreciate indigenous art. And if that strikes you as a culturally insensitive over-generalisation, let me start again with an alternative, entirely hypothetical scenario.
A friend invites me to the STC’s 2020 adaptation of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! I subsequently learn that this particular production of the internationally-acclaimed political farce will be performed in Italian and call my friend to apprise him of this not insignificant detail. To my surprise he still wants to go. ‘But you don’t speak Italian,’ I say. ‘True’, my hypothetical friend replies, ‘but that won’t stop me enjoying the play’. To which anybody with a functioning frontal cortex would respond, ‘Oh yes it will.’
T.S. Eliot once said that not speaking Italian should not deter anyone from reading The Divine Comedy in the original medieval Tuscan patois – preferably aloud. Dante’s language is so sublime, he maintained, that the sound of it alone conveys much of the beauty and power of the poetry. But he was as wrong about this as he was about April being the cruellest month (which everyone knows is Dry July). Claiming that you can appreciate literature written in a language you don’t speak is like saying you can get the gist of Einstein’s theory of general relativity by staring at the blackboard.
‘What about opera?’ I hear you say. ‘You don’t have to speak Italian to enjoy Puccini.’ And that’s true. Even a monoglot philistine like me can be stirred by a decent rendition of Nessun dorma – although it might take half a bottle of chianti to get me in the zone. But it’s the music that moves me, not the lyrics, and thanks to what’s happening on the stage I don’t have to read the program notes to understand what the songs are about. And I know there are people in the audience who speak Italian, are knowledgeable about Italian opera and that their appreciation will be greater than mine.
To enhance your appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, then, all you have to do is familiarise yourself with the iconography, symbolism and methodology common to all or most of it. Which wouldn’t be a thick book. Because Australia’s first nations were hundreds of different tribes, spread over an area ten times the size of Europe, each with their own distinct language and most of whom had no little or no cultural interaction with most of the others until about 50 years ago. When white people started buying their art.
There is, in fact, a small number of non-indigenous Australians able to identify the provenance and subject matter of bark or rock painting simply by looking at it. But that is anthropology, not art appreciation. There is a much larger number of non-indigenous Australians – and Americans, Europeans, and Asians – who buy aboriginal art and hang it on their walls. And the ones who can tell their dinner guests about its provenance and subject matter without recourse to the copious catalogue notes which accompanied it are to be congratulated. But can their appreciation of the product of a culture so alien to theirs really be any more profound than their appreciation of, say, an interesting fabric pattern or wallpaper design? Can they really understand it well enough, in other words, to know if it is any good?
And if this strikes you as middle-aged, white-male, post-colonial bigotry, let me say that I have exactly the same reservations about anybody of any ethnic extraction who claims to see meaning and merit, without the help of equally copious but far more pretentious catalogue notes, in anything which goes by the name of Abstract Expressionism. And especially anything by the high priest of that shameless, fraudulent cult, Jackson Pollock.
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