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The possible modernist: an ‘insider’ view

Paper presented by Dr Ian McLean, University of Western Australia
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22 August 2008

Dr MARGO NEALE: I described Professor Tatehata as an outsider view. The next one is what I have described as the insider view is as much as being here and not there. Whilst not as inside as the Utopian mob more inside than Tatehata.

We are going to have art historian Ian McLean who offers a view based on the Australian post-colonial experience. He overrides the need to articulate this seemingly irreconcilable sources we spoke of: how can this ancient black woman from the desert paint work that is so Eurocentrically western and modern, yet she does know nothing - those kind of ‘how to’ interesting ptpquestions. He has an answer - I am sure he doesn’t say it is the answer - that may go some way to explaining why he doesn’t see as much of an irreconcilable situation anyway. He argues instead that Emily’s form of modernism is indeed different from international modernism in both source and history but it is not unique to Emily. I will save the punch line for you, Ian. Please welcome Dr Ian McLean.

Dr IAN McLEAN: I am not sure if I have to give the paper now. Margo has already told you what it is about. I know Auntie Agnes has left but I would like to thank her for her welcome as well. I would like to thank Akira because he has in a way set up what I want to talk about quite well. What I really want to talk about is the Australian artworld’s reception if you like of Emily’s art and of Aboriginal art in general.

Last night we were told - I know this is also Akira’s dream - that the ultimate ambition is to take Emily to New York to the Museum of Modern Art. Why is this? Akira has just given us the answer. The answer is because Jackson Pollock’s paintings in particular cast a heavy shadow over the second half of twentieth-century art. To the generation that followed Pollock his paintings had made clear that the question being asked by modernism is: what does painting do, and as a corollary what, when all was said and done, is art about? This exhibition, some 50 years after Pollock’s death, demonstrates that no artist has grasped the nature and significance of this question to the extent that Emily has.

The visceral yet tremulous quality of her mark making, the calligraphic and courageous way it occupies the shape and surface of the canvas, and the light and shimmer that breathes from her performance, reveal the potential of colour and line to sound the depths of our being in this world. This is genius enough, but the real lesson of her work I think is the fragility and temporality of this quest for meaning, the necessity to keep re-invigorating it for the fear that it might be lost - thus the insistent repetition and enormous risk of each work. Some paintings, I think, fail miserably but when she strikes gold it really shines. As Margo’s labyrinthine layout revealed so tellingly, the secret of Emily’s work was no single painting but the quest itself. This has been the general reaction of many people to her work and to a lot of Aboriginal art. But what is extraordinary is that an Aboriginal artist has achieved what so many western artists fail to do. Emily has, better than any other artist I can think of, answered back this question that Pollock’s art raised.

This is enough to make Aboriginal contemporary art the biggest art story of our time. But the real wonder is the miraculous account of how not just Emily but a whole phalanx of fully initiated tribal elders from remote Australia, many of whom were raised beyond the colonial frontier as hunter-gatherers and still live according to a value system that is more or less continuous with an Ice Age cosmology, became celebrated contemporary artists, the toast of world art, travellers and guests of the global cultural scene. While still grounded in specific ancestral localities, these remote Aboriginal artists seemingly became, overnight, cosmopolitans like the rest of us moderns. Emily was the first of such artists to demonstrate this beyond doubt: she made paintings that not only looked modernist but were also ranked with the best of it.

So why equivocate? Instead of the possible or impossible modernist, surely she is one of the great modernist painters the world has known. Her paintings have been compared to those of Jackson Pollock, who was born around the same time as Emily but on the other side of the world. Their paintings and respective achievements might be very different, but the comparison is not entirely off the mark. It alerts us to something unique about modernism: it’s a truly global period style that has many local formations, including Emily’s distinctive Aboriginal modernism, as I call it.

The association of Aboriginal art with modernism is not new. Aboriginal art was first critically embraced by the artworld at the inaugural 1981 Australian Perspecta biennale in Sydney for its perceived modernism rather than its exoticism, which is how Aboriginal art had been embraced earlier. While I concur with this initial critical intuition, by modernism I do not mean those narrow stylistic definitions that then preoccupied critics, though abstraction is clearly the main reason why Emily’s art is considered modernist.

I have in mind a more general sociological model of modernism: the simple idea that modernism is the art of modernity. Modernism is the art of the world we live in today. This model allows us to avoid the implication that Emily’s art is simply derivative of canonical Western modernist styles, simply derivative or Pollock or Brice Marden, and instead focuses on its local aesthetic formation as an Aboriginal response to and engagement with modernity in central Australia. In this respect the modernism of Emily’s art is unremarkable - where modernity goes modernism will surely follow. What is remarkable is that Emily’s aesthetic achievement forces us to rethink those pervasive understandings of modernity and modernism as wholly Western experiences.

The exclusivity of what I am calling ‘canonical modernism’ - that is, Western modernism - means that it cannot be simply expanded to include non-Western artists. However, this is exactly what should be done, for it dislodges a foundational stone in the arrogant facade of Western modernism; namely, that unbridgeable chasm in the conceptual structure of Western thought - that void or opposition between the primitive and the modern, tradition and the new, the West and the rest.

The radicalness of Emily’s art can be difficult to appreciate today, nearly 20 years after her initial success. However, 30 years ago the possibility of Emily’s or any Aboriginal artist’s artworld success was unheard of. Pollock’s paintings were once considered extremely weird, but the notion of Aboriginal modernism was, in the terms of the 1970s artworld, beyond weird: it was, as Akira said, impossible. However, this is not the hurdle it might seem. As every undergraduate student of twentieth-century Western art knows, modernism is its own worst enemy: crisis is its oxygen. The very challenge of Aboriginal modernism - its very weirdness, if you like - is one reason it managed to get a foothold in the artworld.

How did this accommodation between two seemingly incommensurable practices come about? Modernism might generate a powerful self-critique, but any new modernism only has a chance if there is a vacuum in the current scene, which is generally caused by either an external or internal crisis that upsets the normal way of thinking. In my catalogue essay I mentioned a widely recognised example of an external crisis: namely, the profound political shift symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It inspired the renowned historian of modern art, TJ Clark, to claim that at this moment ‘socialism and modernism died together’. Clark, Eurocentric to the bone, predictably defined modernity as ‘a social order which has turned away from the worship of ancestors’. Yet he failed to see an even bigger wall come tumbling down in the same year at Utopia, when an ancestor worshipper emphatically demonstrated, in Terry Smith’s words, that Emily Kngwarreye was ‘an outstanding abstract painter certainly amongst the best Australian artists, arguably among the best of her time’.

However, Western modernism did not suddenly expire in 1989 as if crushed by a falling wall, creating a vacuum for Emily’s paintings to rush into. Emily was not the first Aboriginal modernist. Her stellar career as a contemporary artist was built on the back of the Papunya Tula triumph ten or twenty years earlier.

The crisis that initially opened artworld doors to Aboriginal art was well under way 20 years earlier in the 1970s. It was an internal artworld crisis, the whole edifice of New York modernism, which had dominated the world of art for the previous decade or two, was visibly crumbling. Artists began looking elsewhere, and this vacuum provided the first real opportunity, I think, for Aboriginal artists.

I am sure everyone in the audience knows something about the unprecedented success of the Papunya Tula art movement, for it has become a defining myth in Australian culture, as important as Australian impressionism. An essential feature of this myth in the 1980s was the perceived modernism of Papunya Tula - some even called it postmodernist. Such claims were mythical rather than reasonable because they contradicted all accepted ideas of both modernism and Aboriginal art. Why then did the Australian artworld suggest Papunya Tula painting was modernist when they knew that the artists were ignorant of or indifferent to Western modernism, and that the art, as the artists kept telling us, was not abstract but an elaborate iconography of an ancient ancestral cosmology? The obvious answer is stupidity.

The conceptual artist Ian Burn complained in the mid-1960s that the Australian artworld was intellectually challenged rather than intellectually challenging. This was evident, he said, in the way it blindly adopted the mannerisms of European and United States art without understanding its meaning or content. However, this stupidity worked for rather than against Aboriginal art, and I think it was a quite conscious stupidity. I will give you an example. Against his better judgement, in 1982 the Sydney critic Terence Maloon left an exhibition of Papunya Tula paintings in Sydney’s Gallery A convinced that they were, in his words, ‘the strongest and most beautiful show of abstract paintings I have seen for a long time’. Deliberately choosing to believe his eyes rather than his intellect, he concluded that the exhibition’s success as abstract art was a measure of the failure of the artists’ intentions. That is, they intended to paint some ancient cosmology instead they produced modernist art. In short, these ancestor worshippers had inadvertently stumbled into the arena of modernism and won gold. Maloon concluded:

The distance between the western desert and Gallery A is more than geographical, though, looking at these paintings, one can fool oneself into believing there’s no distance at all.

Not everyone was fooled, especially since intelligence had by now become a more valued commodity in the Australian artworld - this is the period of conceptual art after all. In 1984 the astute Australian critic and modernist artist, Elwyn Lynn, called Papunya Tula paintings:

… the Claytons of abstract art; what you swallow, rather uncritically, when you have given up Mondrian gin, Pollock whisky and Poliakoff vodka. The kind of abstract art you like when you do not like abstract art. There was a time when artists like Pollock were dismissed as creators of delirious wallpaper, but nothing could resemble tasteless, inert and repetitiously boring wallpaper [more] than some of these works.

However, even Lynn came around, and it didn’t take him very long. Four years later he praised the Pintupi painter Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri, comparing his work to the United States minimalist Frank Stella, saying, ‘Amazingly, there is more grace in every sense [in these paintings by Tjapaltjarri] than geometry.’ Previously he had just seen geometry as boring. Now he saw something that I think we see in excess in Emily’s show.

If one artist seemingly confirmed the wisdom of Maloon’s early foolishness, it was Emily, as her paintings seemed completely devoid of classical Aboriginal iconography and looked very much like American abstract art. However, intelligence would soon prevail, though the agenda was less reason and more politics. The problem with this artworld notion of Aboriginal modernism is that it seemingly devalued the Aboriginality of the artists. The look of the work, framed by the artworld’s love of Western modernism, was preventing an appreciation of the art’s content. Some very intelligent people began arguing exactly this in the 1990s. Emily’s art played a key role in this argument precisely because she was then the exemplary Aboriginal modernist.

This line of thinking was evident in the Emily retrospective curated by Margo ten years ago. Focusing our attention on the extent to which Emily’s ‘life, art and work diverge from Western norms’, - that is quoting Margo in the catalogue - Margo insisted that modernist theories:

… were alien to [Emily’s] own visual theory … which is firmly rooted in total ‘connectedness’ to her land, her spirituality and her being.

Roger Benjamin also dismissed the naivety of the artworld’s modernist interpretation. The title of his catalogue essay, ‘A new modernist hero’, was deliberately ironic. Believing that Emily’s modernist reception was a ‘case study in cultural misunderstanding, indeed mistaken identity’, he called for ‘a criticism more attuned to Aboriginal cultural values’.

While this post-colonial argument is difficult to refute on its own terms, it did not stick. Despite what our minds told us, our hearts could not deny the modernism of Emily’s art. In the ten years since then, this undecidability has become a feature of Emily’s critical reception. Now her art was modernist and Aboriginal. How could this be? Critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain it. The enigma of her work, said Rex Butler in 1997, is ‘particularly acute’:

… her work appears at once so close to us and so distant, instantly recognisable in its quality and yet emerging from some unlikely source.

However, this doubleness did conveniently chime with the spirit of reconciliation at the time. Another critic, Christine Nicholls, proposed that Kngwarreye’s paintings speak simultaneously to ‘Aboriginal people as religious art … [and] equally as abstract, expressionist, minimalist or postmodern’ to the artworld. Rex Butler took this line of thinking into new territory when he concluded that Emily’s paintings confront us with ‘the very [universal] experience of art itself’, which is where I began. Emily’s paintings might defy the Eurocentric logic of Western modernism - because how could an Aboriginal artist be a modernist - but they confirm its underlying philosophical claim; that is, the Kantian universal aesthetic. That is what Rex Butler is arguing. It is as if Emily arrived at the prize of modernism by a wholly unexpected and un-modernist route. Butler thus wondered, wrongly I believe, if ‘a whole period of Aboriginal art was now coming to a close’, as if the unexpected Kantian effect of Aboriginal art had catapulted it from a tribal to a modern domain. Emily’s achievement, he speculated, foreshadows:

a kind of ‘post-Aboriginal art’, an attempt to fuse Aboriginal and Western art, so that almost nothing of what we call ‘traditional’ Aboriginal art remains.

The reason why I reject this conclusion is briefly discussed in the second part of my catalogue essay. I argue there that central Australian Aboriginal artists have been remaking their locality in the new post-contact circumstances of their neighbourhood for over 100 years. Our ignorance of these early Aboriginal responses to what I am calling frontier modernity, especially at the aesthetic level, is the main reason that Emily’s art seems such an enigma. It is as if it came from nowhere but in fact it did come from somewhere - not only thousands of years of Aboriginal art but 100 years of post-contact experience.

A cursory glance at the well-documented history of remote Aboriginal painting over the previous 30 to 40 years reveals the capacity of its artists to aesthetically engage with modernity in terms of their own locality - their Dreaming. But even if we accept this, what changed in the conceptual architecture of the artworld’s thinking to allow Aboriginal modernism into the fold?

The elimination of two or three previously paradigmatic principles of Western modernism readily come to mind. If anyone has done first year art history at university you will know these two principles. One is what is often called the historicist justification of European modernism, which sort of means the art movement we had to have because of the modernity we live in; and, secondly, the decisive role of an urban avant-garde based in a few large centres like New York and Paris. These two paradigms have been swept away in the last 20 or 30 years at the very time that Aboriginal art exploded onto the artworld. But the most important change has been the West’s own response to its place in the world.

The ideology of Western modernism, most evident in its war on tradition, has its origin in the universal values of the Enlightenment, such as universal rights and freedom, that underwrote Europe’s sense of self-importance in the modern period. Its most bitter fruit was Social Darwinism - that tale of humanity’s march from the primitive to modern, from the dark Stone Age to the light of European civilisation. Yet at the same time, as Bernard Smith likes to point out, no art movement has been so cosmopolitan, so open to different cultures, and especially tribal ones, as European modernism. However, this cultural relativism did not erode the culture power of Western centres. While providing an umbrella for the revival of ethnic cultural practices, it was not the platform for cross-culture praxis or meaningful exchange between these different cultures, because Western centres retained the copyright on these universal values of freedom, cosmopolitanism etc. We have not, until very recently, been prepared to think outside the box of European intellectual history and recognise these other values in other places in other cultures. For example, why are we so fixated on the cosmopolitan antics of European modernists and intellectuals? What about the modern cosmopolitan experiences of indentured labourers, convicts and slaves, migrants and refugees - what Homi Bhabha called ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’.

This idea of vernacular cosmopolitanism is, I believe, particularly useful in understanding Emily’s achievements. Cosmopolitanism is usually defined against the vernacular or local but in today’s global de-centred world these two contradictory ideas of the vernacular and cosmopolitanism seem two sides of the same coin, a sort of contrapuntal and turbulent way of being in the world in which the hunger for travel and the longing for home - something I think everyone in this audience feels - at the same time are bound up in the same unpredictable emotional mix.

In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of stangers, [Kwame Anthony] Appiah called it ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’, another contradiction, and like Bhabha argued it is as much a feature of the contemporary world as it is of all times and cultures. Appiah believed it was a universal human sentiment, that we wanted to be both here and there at the same time and that we could only know what here was by being there.

The notion of vernacular or rooted cosmopolitanism provides not just the leverage to think about Emily’s paintings in terms of contemporary global art but also opens a new perspective on the continuity of her art with Aboriginal traditions. It suggests that there was always a cosmopolitan impulse in traditional Aboriginal art and life no matter how grounded Aboriginal being or identity is in a particular locality. The Aboriginal ancestors, after all, are quantum beings; that is, cosmopolitans who are in several places at once. The waterholes with which they are associated do not own them; the ancestral heroes come and go, moving across the land and ocean and into the sky as well; their journeys are simultaneous narratives of the local and translocal, the here and there. Aboriginal art, like these watering holes, is a cosmopolitan place, a place where strangers meet. In this, Aboriginal art is no different from other art. This is not to diminish the miracle that is Emily’s paintings, but it is the miracle of all great art, which is to picture the incommensurability or the impossible. Like those 1968 Paris students, Emily’s art demands the impossible - which was going to be my last sentence. But we could also say that I think this particular global moment in our world was a moment for Emily’s art. It is almost as if this ancient art was waiting for now to be seen because of its vernacular cosmopolitanism. Thank you very much.

Date published: 8 September 2008