A Riposte to Christopher Allen

A Riposte to Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 11.05.15

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Review

Of course (my italics), it is only the cultural meanings that give the works substance and authority”.

What a sentence! It could only have come from my long-time professional acquaintance, Christopher Allen – a man employed by the Weekend Australian for his strong and extraordinarily well-informed views on Western art. Why, he can spend half of a two-page essay backgrounding the philosophical, ontological and linguistic origins of an artwork before he bothers to describe it for us simpletons.

Unfortunately, the quote above is about Aboriginal art – of which he knows little; indeed, I'm pretty sure he has had the decency not to write about it before. Quite why he has chosen now to try to climb on the shoulders of his genuinely expert colleague, Nicolas Rothwell and traduce the essence of the latter's article in last week's Weekend Australian, it's hard to understand. While Rothwell was lamenting the absence of serious, informed criticism which would both assist the artform to survive and help viewers to appreciate it and Indigenous culture, Allen seems to think he was saying (over three challenging pages) 'it's all rubbish'.

Which it is to blinkered people like Allen, and the English Turner Prize-winning artist, cross-dresser and columnist, Grayson Perry who once used the pages of The Times to sneer that Aboriginal art “lacked the connoisseurship” that might allow him to give it a second thought. Mr Perry is featured at the MCA next summer!

Allen's comparable sneer is the phrase “primitivist authenticity” - which would only come to the mind of someone who has not considered either the possibility that a “distinctive Indigenous aesthetic” noted by Rothwell might exist in artists untouched by conformist Western art schools, nor the possibility that for many appreciative people, the art and its associated culture is a rare opportunity to enter into some small understanding of this ancient country that we perch on the edge of in an embracing, non-colonial way.

Of course – Allen would surely approve of that usage, adding authority to crass comment – he couldn't resist the phrase, “sacred cows”. But the numinous is something he approves of when it's associated with Western or Eastern religions. For they are “arcane and serious” - while he supposes that Aboriginal spirituality is not. He really should try to listen to someone like Gawirrin Gumana - artist, local Bodhisattva and a Sydney Peace Prize nominee from the Yolngu lands of NE Arnhemland about arcane and serious religious matters. By the way, Gumana has bothered to become a Christian pastor as well as being an elder in the Yolngu rites. But, as so many explorers and colonials did before him, Allen denies the possibility of a complex culture that the art which emerged from the Deserts in the 1970s was intended to reveal. Instead, he tellingly uses the word “assimilated”.

And the art of Papunya was also resistance against assimilation.

However, Rothwell (and I) both agree that there is far too much Aboriginal art today, much of it is decorative or intended for the tourist market – hence his call for a critical standard which would help to distinguish the fine contemporary art from the dross. He cites Carlene West, showing last year at Raft Gallery in Alice Springs, as “an exhibition of outstanding significance”. But he goes on to reveal why “criticism” of it in Allen's terms is so hard: “Because the sense of desert law was so strong in the works, because the traditional symbols conveyed a sense of solemnity and calm, because the scale of the colour fields gave so clear a sense of the still, austere spinifex world”.

Could a non-Indigenous person critique that?

Could it be that Ms West was also quite keen to sell her art and its associated portrayal of desert law for real money? And is that, in Allen's words, “market commodification”? I suppose Tim Storrier has never considered the market when he turns out yet another canvas featuring a burning rope in a desert that he doesn't live in?

But the ivory-towered and white blindfolded Allen is as uncertain about the market as he is about Aboriginal art. He has the curious idea that an over-supply of art can cause “inflation of prices”! Tell that to the buyers who rushed in to possess a little piece of Kaiadilt culture in the form of a Sally Gabori canvas, only to discover that she was so desperate to share the world that gave her dying language shape that she painted “a canvas a day” for a good seven years, according to Djon Mundine in the recent book featuring the Pat Corrigan Collection of the artist's work.

Finally, Christopher Allen despairs over the tag “between Rothko and Pollock’’, which Corrigan enthusiastically used to describe his feelings for Gabori's art. Allen dismisses, “It’s hard to imagine anything more nonsensical, irrelevant, and disrespectful to the real concerns of Aboriginal culture”. What does this master of the Indigenous think those “real concerns” are? In Gabori's case, I believe they were primarily to pass on her knowledge of an island life she'd been exiled from to grandchildren who didn't even speak the language which allowed her to make sense of her ancestry. After 50 years absence, I think it quite possible that her mental images of that life had instinctively taken something remarkably like an Abstract Expressionist shape in her mind.

Which is why I used that intuitive description of Corrigan's as the provocative headline on my review of his book. It obviously provoked Allen!

Christopher Allen is National Art Critic for The Australian and a former lecturer in art history at the National Art School, Sydney.

His original online opinion piece can be found here.


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