Rich and Poor Craft in Australia
This is a lecture give as part of the Objectspace NZ series in Auckland 2 October 2008. Damian Skinner provided a response which can be found here.
Kia ora koto. Thank you for inviting me here this evening. Where I come from in Melbourne we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the people of the Kulin nation.
The aim of tonight is to continue the dialogue between Australian and New Zealand craft. So close, yet so far apart. In the past, Australians have been most curious about the relatively close relationship between Pakeha and Maori, a stark contrast to the worlds separating Whitefella and Aboriginal. Yet in both countries, the difference between indigenous and non-indigenous seems absolute. Any pretence that Pakeha and whitefella have to spiritual connection with their land is prey to allegations of new age mysticism.
So tonight I’d like to open this dialogue up by introducing a related binary that is ubiquitous yet seemingly more fluid than that separating peoples of first and subsequent nations. It partakes of a similar dialectic between victim and oppressor, though it opens the possibility that there is something of value in the dominant part. It is as much about the future as it is about the past. And it is an opposition particularly relevant to craft in this side of the world, especially jewellery.
So says Joseph Stalin. Rich and poor seems one of those dividing lines that cuts deeply through space and time. Negotiating this difference is one of the main tasks of religion, particularly our Judeo-Christian heritage which identifies poverty with blessedness. And it’s uppermost in our minds today as we gaze into the future. We position ourselves as part of that lucky 10% who have enjoyed the benefits of Western capitalism. But now the rest of the world is rapidly catching up, we fear that there will not be room enough for all of us—as we read on t-shirts, ‘if everyone in the world lived like you, we’d need a planet five times as big.’ From where we speak downunder, even the poorest among us is embarrassingly rich in global terms.
So says Benjamin Disraeli.
There are other fault lines as well: women are from Venus and men are from Mars. But while gender is a relatively symmetrical difference, the structural relationship between rich and poor is one to many. It suggests an imbalance in which the few possess far more resources than the many. As is uppermost in our minds with the recent financial crisis, we know that our privileged position in the world is dwarfed by the fat cats in Wall Street. Despite neoliberal reforms, the gap between global north and south continues to grow, with income in the third world about 18% that of the first world. This discrepancy suggests an obvious injustice that requires political action, or at least tax reform.
But can we imagine a world without rich and poor? While we can dream of socialist utopias, over the course of time they have proven to be elusive ideals—some elite always seems to rise to the top. Rather than deny reality, would it be better to understand it in its own terms? Rather than an imbalance, there’s an argument that the relationship between one and many is a phenomenological universal, similar to the relation between figure and ground. We construct meaning from the world by condensing it into nodal points.
Rich and poor as aesthetic categories
From this more Buddhist perspective, we can view rich and poor as modalities that are each worthy in their own right. They are in a relation of mutual dependence. While the rich acquire finery to distinguish themselves from the poor, there is often an element of respect for the spiritual power that poverty is seen to engender. Hollywood celebrities make their pilgrimage to poor African countries in order to ground their moral selves in the life of necessity. The most sought after designer jeans are faded to give their white collar wearer a patina of farm labour.
And on the other side of the track, nothing so defines the poor person as bling. The English ruling class appears dowdy compared to the Pearly Kings and Queens of east London. I live in the suburb of Brunswick, otherwise known as wedding city, containing sumptuous costume and jewellery shops that enable the children of poor migrants the one day in their life when they can pretend they are upper class. The global culture of bling is inhabited by those on the economic margins looking in.
You could say that rich and poor are most keenly observed from without.
Each represents its own creative strategy. To be rich is to practice a detachment from the mundane world. It is to inhabit a dream with its own internal logic. Art is valuable for its own sake, transcending the necessities of life. We follow the masters and privilege cultural genealogies. It is to follow baroque turns that lead to ecstatic sublime. We are overwhelmed with splendour.
To be poor is to return to simple necessities. It is to enjoy the common things that bind people together. It is to take things as they come, rather than as you might wish them to be. I’d argue it is a more Protestant attitude to the world, known to us in the street as modernism.
Art seems naturally at home with the rich, given the role it plays as surplus capital which the poor cannot afford or understand. But we know from astute observers of social life like Pierre Bourdieu that the bourgeoisie is not a monolithic force, but contains an opposition within itself particularly between economic and cultural capital. Those like us, wealthy in cultural capital, can often position ourselves against elitism.
There are breakaway movements in a variety of media. In Poland, the director Jerzy Grotowski established a poor theatre that sought to strip away all the paraphernalia of the stage and return to the simple art of acting. We find this reflected in a less sober manner in the films of the Dogma school, particularly Lars von Trier, in its vows of abstinence from technologies of illusion such as soundtracks and editing. Most famously in Turin the school of Arte Povera arose to take art out of the commodified gallery world and open it to the common life of the street. Needless to say, these poor arts are inevitably the almost exclusive business of elites.
Relative the visual arts, it seems that craft cleaves more closely to the poor. This is most evidently the case with the Arts & Craft movement, which honoured the handiwork of rural peasant and cottage weavers. For Ruskin…
Part of the productive tension between craft and design inherits this perceived difference between the domain of modest handwork and expensive consumption.
It is within this context that we might view a strong force of development in recent Australian craft. In order not to crudely reduce individual practices to a simple rich/poor dichotomy, I organised different categories of practice to the individual paths created by makers.
It should be noted that like all categorisations, these are provisional and are designed to reflect what makers are attempting to express differently in their work while relating it to a common narrative. This is not to deny that there are many other narratives which these makers are engaged in.
Since gathering these makers together, I’ve since sought to think about the other side of the river. If we don’t tie richness to the unfair distribution of resources, then we need to give it its due as well. This dichotomy seemed particularly stark in the case of jewellery. Though poverty seemed very much at home in the puritan modernist setting of a space such as Gallery Funaki, this is rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the craft boutiques popping up around Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Here we find the antithesis of realism in works evoking fantasy worlds of the European folk tales. These shops are an enchanted forest of wolves, bears, deer and rabbits.
Such a division creates an obvious critical challenge. It is easy to dismiss this turn. It seems part of a Harry Potter renunciation of the world following the trauma of 9/11. And certainly from a southern perspective, it seems a denial of place—the worst example of Melbourne’s dreamy Euro-centricism, denying its position at the bottom of the southern continent by creating a fantasy Europe of Italian cafes and French fashions.
But practicing the labour of the negative, we must try to understand what this rich path holds in its own terms. While not necessarily a dominant form of practice in craft, there are a few startling examples of those who have followed this lonely path. There is around the more playful dialogues between jewellers such as Barbara Heath and Ray Norman a sense that jewellery can engage with dreams. Pierre Cavalan’s opus based on the seven sins is an enjoyment of tradition. But the most startling example is no doubt Robert Baines, whose work evokes other worlds, alternative histories, in a form that draws on the mysteries of ancient jewellery techniques.
This division between rich and poor is certainly not unique to Australia. We can see recently a powerful move towards rich art in the baroque turn of contemporary design and the rush to enchantment in visual art and cinema.
The shared opposition
In the context of this talk in New Zealand, we naturally focus on the extent to which this conversation between rich and poor relates to a shared condition as outposts of a distant empire.
Poverty seems to define the part of the world we both inhabit. There is the spectre of starving millions on the Horn of Africa, but also the romance of popular leaders like Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. We are very much the rich family who find themselves on the other side of the tracks, intrigued by the joyful communalism of our neighbours, but still identifying with relatives and friends up on the hill.
Yet this should not blind us to the richness at hand. Our poor cousins in Argentina have very much embraced the rich path, evident to us particularly in the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, the prophet of inauthenticity for whom ‘Reality is not always probable, or likely’. Borges argued for an authentic inauthenticity. To reflect one’s immediate environment is not always an appropriate response to place. In his essay, ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, Borges quotes Gibbon’s observation that there are no camels in the Koran. For Borges, this is ultimate proof of its status as an Arabian text, where camels were so ubiquitous there was no need to mention them. We naturally focus on the figures of our imagination, rather than the ground of everyday.
By contrast, the colony of Australia has arguably the most humble origins of the South. After the first influx of the dregs of British society, thieves and vagrants, Australia received a wave of economic refugees fleeing industrialisation of north England, the famines of Ireland or the land clearances of Scotland.
We experience the sometimes agonising choice between the solidarity to our class or an aspiration to charge the credit card with the luxuries we previously would have stolen. Over generations, we drifted away from our ethnic and class loyalties to the dream of home ownership garnished with plasma flat-screen televisions and fuelled by shiploads of metal and coal.
This reinforces our sense of alienation from the land, which refused to conform to the calendars and almanacs we brought from Europe.
Henry Lawson ‘The Bush Undertaker’, in (ed. ) While the Billy Boils , p. 7
But there’s still a sense of having left something behind. In Australia, poor craft can be seen as a return to our alternative identity as people of necessity, of make do.
Across the ditch
And so from across the ditch, there is the romance of the land of Pakeha and Maori. From a land of Anglophiles and Whitefella dreaming, appears a culture whose inhabitants know their place. The strength of tangata phanua and fraught resistance to white colonisation has provided Maori with a firm continuity their land. And the Kiwi Whitefellas who can dance the haka have found a place for themselves in between exile and false authenticity. They seem authentic strangers in their land. Of course, it could be argued that this image is best seem from without.
While the opposition between rich and poor is more relevant to Australia, both countries have developed a culture around the dialogue between authentic and inauthentic. In Australia, this dialogue engages the humble realm of the everyday with the aspirations of exotic dreams. In New Zealand, the bicultural conversation binds the Maori connection to land with the Pakeha world of possibility. The authentic and inauthentic mutually define the other. Their relationship is fundamentally that of word and thing—the abstract inauthentic language of meaning and the concrete authentic beingness of the thing in itself.
This is the kind of dual universe that resonates through the thinking of phenomenologists like Martin Heidegger. It is an important business of cultural expression to interrelate word and thing. What crafts offer is a specially powerful capacity for the alchemical transformation of material reality, to give voice to the ordinary. And so we find that in countries like Australia and New Zealand, each charged with the project of weaving their differences together, craft has a significant role to play.
But while bringing these oppositions together, we should never lose track of their difference. While we might enjoy the poor aesthetic, we must remember that we do so from a rich position. Dialogue between other cultures with parallel binaries is critical to remind us who we are.
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray
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