Tonsorial philosophy

August 26, 2011
Gunybi's installation from the WAIAA

My barber is a philosopher. By this, I don’t mean to compare him to those hairdressers who style themselves “creative artists working in the medium of hair”. Dimitri Kokinelis, barber of Gardeners Road, Rosebery, is a genuine thinker who devotes his time between haircuts to pondering questions of truth, wisdom, justice and nature. He has put together a small book of his ideas which are expressed aphoristically, in the time-honoured manner of more famous philosophers, inviting the reader to pause and ponder his meaning.

I wonder if amateur philosophers are as prevalent as amateur sculptors? The sheer volume of entries for each year’s round of Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions suggests there is an army of creative people tinkering away in their sheds and backyards. Perhaps there are thousands of would-be philosophers engaged in various professions, while pursuing the life of the mind.

There is a place for the honorable amateur in every field, although one can have too much of a good thing. Walking around the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair recently, I was struck by the relentless productivity of less-than-talented artists from many remote communities. It’s not true that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are natural artists, although there is obviously no shortage of enthusiasm.

For every Alick Tipoti, Sally Gabori or Rosella Namok, there are perhaps hundreds of very average painters, carvers and print-makers. Much of this escapes the commercial gallery system which with other forms of art acts as a filter that edits out most of the second-rate work. If I were feeling especially cynical, I might add that the public galleries then take the process a stage further by editing out the first-rate work.

Alick Tipoti, Sorerer's Mask

The art centre system adopts a more problematic stance by accepting the responsibility to provide income to an entire community. This means there is always pressure to sell works by a range of artists, even if collectors tend to respond to only one or two of your best performers. If this helps raise the general standard of living it has an obvious benefit, but one cannot pretend that it produces a volume of high quality art.

All dedicated collectors gradually become more knowledgable and discriminating in their purchases, even though the general public will buy cheap souvenir-style work in the most carefree fashion. But does the over-production of poor quality work tend to drag the entire industry down? I know dealers and collectors who feel strongly that this is the case. Personally, I’m not ready to pronounce judgement. In the indigenous world, art has a complex role to play. Nevertheless, if one tries to figure out why the Aboriginal art market has gone off the boil it may have something to do with the fact that naïve buyers bought too much mediocre work that didn’t hold its value. It’s a lesson that one should do a bit of research rather than go chasing bargains. Anyone who buys art as an ‘investment’, with no greater involvement, is guaranteed to take a fall.

There is no shortage of really exciting work about. Will Stubbs emailed to tell me that the prodigiously talented Gunybi Ganambarr had won the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards. Apart from one basic press announcement from the Art Gallery of WA, that’s all I’ve heard about this award. Neither is there much of a PR effort associated with the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. One hears nothing until it’s all over.

I’m told that Telstra, a corporation that many of us have grown to mistrust, secures naming rights for as little as $40,000 per annum. Coud this be true? If so, it’s a scandal. Instead of praising the telco’s support for Aborginal art, one feels like damning them for their miserly and opportunistic behaviour. Perhaps someone from Telstra can tell me the full story?

When one looks at the lacklustre nature of most visual arts PR, and the dearth of sponsorship and philanthropy, it’s hardly surprising that many galleries are struggling. In these great days, as Karl Krauss might have described them, one needs to be philosophical.