Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Exhibiting Western Desert Aboriginal Painting in Australia's Public Galleries: An Institutional Analysis, 1981-2002

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Exhibiting Western Desert Aboriginal Painting in Australia's Public Galleries: An Institutional Analysis, 1981-2002

Article excerpt

Introduction

Contemporary Aboriginal art, and the Western Desert painting movement in particular, now occupies a central position in the story of Australian art history. However, despite this recognition, Western Desert painting was slow to receive widespread critical and art-historical attention in the Australian art institutional setting. Eluding standard systems of art-historical classification, Australia's public galleries struggled to situate Aboriginal acrylic painting within the narrative formations of Australian and international art practice. This paper charts the exhibition history of the movement, commencing with Papunya's first appearance at a contemporary art event in 1981 until the movement's institutional commemoration some two decades later. An analysis of catalogues from key exhibitions reveals three common strategies used by curators to interpret this new visual culture. Based on art-historical and anthropological discursive formations, these interpretative frameworks are called the aesthetic, ethnographic and ownership discourses. This investigation concentrates on the activities of Australia's public galleries.1 As the traditional guardians of artistic standards, these institutions occupy positions of authority in the Australian art world.

Comparative interpretations: aesthetic, ethnographic and ownership

It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain the circumstances that gave rise to the Western Desert acrylic movement and the emergence of contemporary Aboriginal art more generally.2 This complex cultural phenomenon has been the subject of major studies already.3 Many experts, among them Fred Myers, have investigated the intricate social matrix that brought together Aboriginal painters, art critics and anthropologists, as well as curators, collectors and dealers.4 Like Myers' work, this paper makes reference to Arthur Danto's 'art world' concept.5 Art world, in the most obvious sense, refers to the tangible institutions and networks that constitute the artistic field of practice. Art world also refers to the intangible art-historical and theoretical doctrines that differentiate the cultural category of fine art from the universe of commonplace objects, or non-art. As defined by Danto, the art world is 'the historically ordered world of artworks, enfranchised by theories which themselves are historically ordered.'6 Although a useful concept, in the case of Western Desert painting art status was not determined by disinterested analytical debate or philosophical postulation alone. Even when the fundamental questions of cultural classification were posited in the literature, social, historical and economic realities were usually implicated in these discussions.7

The three exegetic frameworks covered here defy clear periodization. For the most part, there was a great deal of overlap and convergence in their use over the two-decade period covered. However, the aesthetic discourse was the most enduring of these. This evaluative perspective was informed by regular art- historical principles and used the vocabulary of art criticism to emphasise style, media and singular creativity. Conversely, the ethnographic discourse borrowed concepts from cultural anthropology and elevated subject matter over style. Despite downplaying the aesthetic preoccupation with media and stylistic elements, the ethnographic discourse was not necessarily antithetic to contemporary art thinking. This perspective found currency in the theoretical climate of postmodernism and was itself an extension of the 'art-in-context' interests that prevailed after formalism.8 Because both the aesthetic and ethnographic approaches were heavily mediated by the discursive practices of art history and anthropology, the ownership discourse emerged as an alternative point of view. This third perspective, informed by critical issues posed by post-colonial theory, challenged the universalising worldviews of both art history and anthropology. …

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