What does the art of normal life, of real life, of all our lives, look like?

Songlines XXIX: A Celebration of Bark Paintings, Rebecca Hossack, Conway Street, London, 1st June - 29th July

Joseph Beuys, Boxkampf für die direkte Demokratie, Waddington Custot, Cork Street, London, 7th July - 9th September

In 1972, at Documenta 5, an art fair held every five years in Kassel, Germany, Joseph Beuys staged a boxing match with an art student, Abraham David Christian. The student fought on behalf of Representative Government, Beuys for Direct Democracy. Beuys won, on points. Watching the fairly fuzzy film of the event, showing as a part of the exhibition, it looks as if Abraham David Christian, clearly younger and fitter, really didn’t want to hit Beuys too hard. Beuys, on the other hand, looks a pretty handy boxer, which isn’t that surprising, given his other life as a German war hero, wounded the horrifying total of five different times. He was always meant to live.

So, forty-five years and nine Documentas later (Documenta 14 is currently showing in Athens and Kassel) we have Brexit, that no-holes-barred stouch between sense and madness. Britain (represented by ideological lunatics) is swinging wildly in capital cities from Brussels to Wellington, while everyone else is attempting to put on a good show, feeling pretty embarrassed about the whole thing, trying not to cause too much damage, or get too badly hurt.

I’m not sure that an ill-conceived referendum was what Joseph Beuys had in mind when he argued passionately for people to have a more active and direct role in their societies. He famously saw the whole of society as a gigantic work of art, a colossal gesamtkunstwerk, to which we all contributed as artists of the social, the political, the personal. But unlike Wagner’s total art, where the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts (or meant to be), Beuys was keener on a more down to earth vision of his creations and interventions. There is apparently some debate about his famous rescue by Crimean Tartars from the wreck of a fighter plane, shot down during the Second World War. He was, by his own report, wrapped in animal grease and felt (the material that is, made from rabbit fur) and this saved his life. Hard to get much more down to earth than being wrapped in animal fat and felt.

Beuys is the great artist of art which looks nothing like art. Art which looks suspiciously like normal life. Not so much ready mades as made readies. You want to save someone’s life? What you need is animal fat and felt; that’ll work (or maybe not, if he made the whole thing up).

The point is: what does the art of normal life, of real life, of all our lives, look like?

At Rebecca Hossack in Conway Street, if you’re quick (it was still there yesterday, the first of August) you can see some Aboriginal bark paintings, some older, some more recent, that make the same point in a different way, or a different point in the same way.

Australian Aboriginal art is a pretty vexed issue. Australian Aboriginals are a pretty vexed issue all around. I grew up in a small town with aborigines. I use ‘with’ advisedly. The aborigines were ‘fringe dwellers’. In other words, they lived under bits of corrugated iron down by the creek or out towards the rubbish dump. Apartheid existed in all but name. One image I remember clearly: the circus came to town; the whites, us, were seated on one side of the circus ring and we were being entertained by a clown; the aborigines were seated on the other side, too far away to see the clown who was ignoring them in any event; they, though, had their own clown; he wasn’t trying to make them laugh, he was simply playing something fairly mournful on a saxophone; the aborigines certainly weren’t laughing; it was a very dispiriting spectacle, and I’m ashamed to my core as I write these words.

What level of responsibility must we bear for the crimes of our parents, our ancestors? I suppose responsibility must be borne for those crimes which are ongoing. And certainly the current state of Australian Aborigines is as clearly a crime as anything you can name. But what to do about it? And what does art have to do with it? Isn’t art at least trying to make some kind of return, to help towards self-determination, self-respect?

Well, no, I don’t think so.

Here’s why: Joseph Beuys was all about art that engaged, that was involving; a kind of total art in the sense that everyone was responsible. Everyone was an artist and everyone contributed to all art and all society. We all owned all art and all society. This was a difficult and complex subject, and not uncontroversial, in post-war, Western Europe.

For Aborigines, there was (and is) nothing surprising, or controversial, or complex or difficult about this way of looking at art and society. This was how they lived every day of their lives. Everyone was an artist, all art and all society was owned by everyone and everyone contributed.

The problem arose (Australia-wise) when Europeans arrived with their odd concepts of individual ownership of art, of land, of stuff, of family, of houses, of animals, of religion, even of people. Worse was (and is) the concept of hierarchy, of merit, of esteeming their values above all others, of despising, disparaging, disrespecting, detesting, execrating (you think I have a thesaurus by me as I write?) anyone with other values, other ways of living, to the extent that those people become non-people, nothing, less than human, less even than their animals. This describes Aboriginals, then and now.

Someone (disturbingly it’s someone linked in my mind to Steve Bannon, paragon of the alt-right) said that politics is downstream from culture. And whoever it was wasn’t wrong. Culture, art, comes first. Aborigines would probably find little in that to disagree with. Art was the beginning. It wasn’t just a representation of the beginning, of a dreamtime figure, a Wandjina perhaps, or kangaroo god, but art was everything and everything was art. It isn’t outsider of naive art, it’s the ultimate insider, sophisticated, universal art. You want to know what the art of inclusion looks like? Look at Aboriginal art.

If there sometimes seems like there’s a Joseph Beuys hole in all his art, a space where he was, or ought to be, somewhere recently vacated, as if he has a need, a bit like Yves Klein, to remove himself from his art, for his work to be somewhere else, about something else, than him, Aboriginal artists, conversely, are completely present in the universality that they are in all and all is in them. Joseph Beuys knows that ultimately he is fighting, boxing, against his own artistic tradition. But for Aboriginal artists, to compromise their art, to put the name of the artist to the art, to somehow to try and act within a Western tradition that is all about negating all that they stand for. This is simply to give up the fight.

Australian Aboriginal art is about Aboriginal self-respect, about seeing art as upstream from their existential fight with a society which still values them as less than nothing, however much that society may try to value their art.

There is one bark painting in the exhibition that doesn't have the name of an artist appended. This is how all art ought to be. Art from which the artist has taken themselves away, not made the subject of the art themselves. It is Western art which has lost its way. Aboriginal art is pointing to the future.

Paul Corcoran