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Aboriginal Art and Australian Society

Aboriginal Art and Australian Society

Laura Fisher


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The Aboriginal art movement flourished during a period in which the Australian public were awakened to the implications of the state’s decision to confront the legacies of colonisation and bring Aboriginal culture into the heart of national public life. Rather than seeing this radical political and social transformation as mere context for Aboriginal art’s emergence, this study argues that Aboriginal art has in fact mediated Australian society’s negotiation of the changing status of Aboriginal culture over the last century. This argument is illustrated through the analysis of Aboriginal art’s volatility as both a high art movement and a phenomenon of visual and commercial culture. This analysis reveals the agendas to which Aboriginal art has been anchored at the nexus of the redemptive project of the settler state, Indigenous movements for rights and recognition, and the aspirations of progressive civil society.

At its heart this study is concerned with the broader social and cultural insights that can be gleaned from conducting a sustained inquiry into Aboriginal art’s contested meanings. To achieve this it focuses upon the hopeful and disenchanted faces of the Aboriginal art phenomenon: the ideals of cultural revitalisation and empowerment that have converged upon the art, and the countervailing narratives of exploitation, degradation and futility. Both aspects are traced through a range of settings in which the tensions surrounding Aboriginal art’s aesthetic, political and significance have been negotiated. It is in this dialectic that the vexed ethical questions underlying Australia’s settler state condition can most clearly be identified, and we can begin to navigate the paradoxes and impasses underlying the redemptive national project of the post-assimilation era. 

This book is an investigation of the way the Aboriginal art phenomenon has been entangled with Australian society’s negotiation of Indigenous people’s status within the nation. Through critical reflection on Aboriginal art’s idiosyncrasies as a fine arts movement, its vexed relationship with money, and its mediation of the politics of identity and recognition, this study illuminates the mutability of Aboriginal art’s meanings in different settings. It reveals that this mutability is a consequence of the fact that a range of governmental, activist and civil society projects have appropriated the art’s vitality and metonymic power in national public culture, and that Aboriginal art is as much a phenomenon of visual and commercial culture as it is an art movement. Throughout these examinations, Fisher traces the utopian and dystopian currents of thought that have crystallised around the Aboriginal art movement and which manifest the ethical conundrums that underpin the settler state condition.

'Like any tightrope walker, Laura Fisher has a finely attuned sense of balance. Her clear-sighted analysis of the historical record takes her beyond the moral high ground and ideological posturing that for decades have stifled intelligent discussion of the mixed blessings of Aboriginal art’s success. This book should be essential reading for anyone to whom Indigenous art is more than a just a pretty picture.' —Vivien Johnson, former NewSouth Global Professor, University of New South Wales and author of 'Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists'

Laura Fisher is a sociologist and art historian based in Sydney, Australia. She is pursuing a range of research interests around art in the public domain, visionary outdoor environments, the cultural economy and Aboriginal art. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney.

Table of Contents

Section Title Page Action Price
Front Matter i
Half-Title i
Series ii
Title iii
Copyright iv
Dedication v
Contents vii
Preface and Acknowledgements xi
Chapters 1
Introduction 1
Part I. Governance, Nationhood and Civil Society 15
Chapter 1. New Intercultural Relationships in the Post-Assimilation Era 17
1.1 Cultural Trauma in Australian Public Culture 17
1.2 The End of Assimilation and the Rise of Aboriginal Culture 18
1.3 Paul Keating, Indigenised Settler Nationalism and Reconciliation 27
Chapter 2. Aboriginal People Mobilising Aboriginal Art 31
2.1 Aboriginal Art Mobilised in Political and Legal Domains 31
2.2 Aboriginal Art, Activism and Pan-Aboriginal Identity 33
2.3 Urban Indigenous Aesthetic Public Spheres 38
Chapter 3. Understanding Aboriginal Art Subsidy 41
3.1 ‘Meaningful Work’: Making Sense of Aboriginal Art Subsidy 41
3.2 The Ambiguity of Aboriginal Art Sector Policy 46
Chapter 4. The State Mobilising Aboriginal Art 49
4.1 The Acquisition, Endorsement and Appropriation of Aboriginal Art and the Growth of Aboriginal Public Culture 49
Chapter 5. ‘Aboriginal Culture’ at the Nexus of Justice, Recognition and Redemption 57
5.1 Cultural Loss, Cultural Rights and Keeping Culture Strong 57
5.2 Aboriginal Art as Metonymic for Aboriginal Culture 64
5.3 Conclusion to Part I 68
Part II. Contemporary Aboriginal Art in the 1980s 71
Chapter 6. The Emergence of Aboriginal Art in the 1980s 75
6.1 The Cultural Cringe and Provincialism 76
6.2 The Emergence of Contemporary Aboriginal Art 77
6.3 Artistic and Critical Approaches to Aboriginal Art 79
6.3.1 Cultural convergence and rapprochement 79
6.3.2 ‘Killing me softly’: cultural colonialism and ethnocide 81
6.3.3 Landscape and tribalism 83
6.3.4 Appropriation 83
6.3.5 Postmodernism and conceptualism 86
6.3.6 Social justice 88
6.4 The Overseas Reception of Aboriginal Art 89
6.5 Postcolonial Critique and Urban Aboriginal Voices 93
6.6 The Bicentenary 96
6.7 Conclusion to Part II 97
Part III. Negotiating Difference 103
Chapter 7. Negotiating Aboriginal Difference 105
7.1 Four Facets of Difference 105
7.2 The Cosmopolitan and the Tourist: Being an Outsider with Aboriginal Art 111
7.3 Authenticity and ‘The Story’ 113
Chapter 8. The Art/Anthropology Binary 117
8.1 The Disciplinary Relationship between Art and Anthropology 121
8.2 Western Secularisation and the Differentiation of Primitive Art 125
8.3 Anthropology, Colonialism and the Urban Aboriginal Art Movement 126
8.4 Conclusion to Part III 129
Part IV. Aboriginal Art, Money and the Market 133
Chapter 9. Ethics and Exploitation in the Aboriginal Art Market 139
9.1 The Bifurcation of the Aboriginal Art Market 143
9.2 Where Does the Value of Aboriginal Fine Art Reside? 145
9.3 Morality and Money in the Aboriginal Art Arena 149
Chapter 10. ‘Aboriginal Mass Culture’ and the Cultural Industries 155
10.1 A Critical History of ‘Aboriginal Mass Culture’ and Visual Culture 155
10.2 Aboriginal Art and Culture and the Cultural Industries 160
10.3 What Do ‘Aboriginal Mass Culture’ and the Cultural Industries Do to Aboriginal Fine Art? 164
10.4 Aboriginal Artistic Labour, the Economic Imperative and the Crisis of Aboriginal Art’s Value 166
10.5 Conclusion to Part IV 170
Conclusion 173
Back Matter 185
Notes 185
References 199
Index 235