Painting Culture

The Making of an Aboriginal High Art

Painting Culture


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Book Pages: 440 Illustrations: 8 color photos, 46 b&w photos, 78 line drawings Published: December 2002

Author: Fred R. Myers

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Native and Indigenous Studies

Painting Culture tells the complex story of how, over the past three decades, the acrylic "dot" paintings of central Australia were transformed into objects of international high art, eagerly sought by upscale galleries and collectors. Since the early 1970s, Fred R. Myers has studied—often as a participant-observer—the Pintupi, one of several Aboriginal groups who paint the famous acrylic works. Describing their paintings and the complicated cultural issues they raise, Myers looks at how the paintings represent Aboriginal people and their culture and how their heritage is translated into exchangeable values. He tracks the way these paintings become high art as they move outward from indigenous communities through and among other social institutions—the world of dealers, museums, and critics. At the same time, he shows how this change in the status of the acrylic paintings is directly related to the initiative of the painters themselves and their hopes for greater levels of recognition.

Painting Culture describes in detail the actual practice of painting, insisting that such a focus is necessary to engage directly with the role of the art in the lives of contemporary Aboriginals. The book includes a unique local art history, a study of the complete corpus of two painters over a two-year period. It also explores the awkward local issues around the valuation and sale of the acrylic paintings, traces the shifting approaches of the Australian government and key organizations such as the Aboriginal Arts Board to the promotion of the work, and describes the early and subsequent phases of the works’ inclusion in major Australian and international exhibitions. Myers provides an account of some of the events related to these exhibits, most notably the Asia Society’s 1988 "Dreamings" show in New York, which was so pivotal in bringing the work to North American notice. He also traces the approaches and concerns of dealers, ranging from semi-tourist outlets in Alice Springs to more prestigious venues in Sydney and Melbourne.

With its innovative approach to the transnational circulation of culture, this book will appeal to art historians, as well as those in cultural anthropology, cultural studies, museum studies, and performance studies.


“Myers is careful, at frequent intervals, to draw lines back to underlying contemporary anthropological theoretical issues. Here again he is able to encompass and draw on wide and deep scholarship.” — Peter Sutton , Oceania

"A major book on the social processes involved in the establishment of Pintupi painting as art for a global market. . . . The book is a key text for those interested in the anthropology of art. . . ." — Luke Taylor , The Australian Journal of Anthropology

"Rich, detailed description and penetrating thoughtful analysis. . . . The book delivers on its implicit promise to make it worth one's while to learn about all of that background and pays off in a deep understanding of how art gets to be art. . . . Most of all, Myers's book shows that there is just no substitute for solid fieldwork." — Howard S. Becker, American Ethnologist

"Myers is well suited to the task of nuancing the intersection of anthropology and art. . . . One of the strengths of Myers analysis is that precisely because he does not take his subject as already constructed, complete, and self-evident, his narrative is a compelling read, as well as a detailed analysis of a complex cultural scenario." — Diane Losche , Social Analysis

"One of the many virtues of this book is its vigorous review of the literature that informs the analysed data. . . . Painting Culture reminds us of the rich and subtle virtues of scholarship that engages its material with meditative and patient eye. Here is a challenging book about a sensational subject, which has avoided the twin demons of shallow journalistic imperative and disaffected, disengaged academic obscuration. This is a landmark contribution to the subject of Aboriginal art." — Françoise Dussart, Anthropological Forum

"Theoretically, this book is state-of-the field, engaging frequently with prominent analysts of cultural dynamics. . . . This book bears the fruit of sustained ethnographic commitment of a sort that is becoming increasingly rare in anthropology. . . . Painting Culture makes a monumental contribution to understandings of the cultural, political, and economic dimensions of an increasingly globalized world." — Sally Price , American Anthropologist

"Through detailed discussion of the controversial spaces of Aboriginal art, meaning and identity in a white-dominated settler society, Painting Culture entangles the histories of all contemporary Australians, outlining the possibility of a future in which the original inhabitants of this nation have power, respect, their identity and land, and the best wishes of all folk. It is truly amazing how such simple things as some beautiful paintings on canvas boards can embody such brilliant hopes and aspirations for the future of Aboriginal people in Australia. But they do, and Myers's book traces the historical agencies behind this sense of power and hope in contemporary Aboriginal painting culture superbly." — Adam Brumm , Australian Journal of Politics and History

"Years before its much-awaited publication, Painting Culture had cast its shadow, like some spectre of mingled threat and promise, across the fractious institutions of the Australian art market. Word, from time to time, would scurry around: Fred Myers, the renouned, long-silent American anthropologist who knew everything about the Centre, was writing a book that would be definitive—the necessary account of Western Desert Aboriginal art, its origins and trajectory, its marketing, its flowering and contemporary fate. . . . Here, at last, it is, brought to the light of day by theory-loving Duke University Press, clotted with radical insights and festooned with praise from leading lights in the anthropological world. . . . These rich, closely observed passages in Painting Culture are unique explorations of intent and virtuosity among the first-generation Pintupi painters; they have a wondrously persuasive, interlocking tone of detail." — Nicolas Rothwell , The Australian

“Aside from being an extraordinary feat of scholarship at the intersection of art, anthropology, and the renewed interest in material culture, this long-awaited study is equally a fulfillment of the many recent envisionings of an ethnography of movement and circulation. Only an anthropologist with as keen a sensibility as Fred R. Myers’s for the present epoch of change in both anthropology itself and the peoples it has long studied could produce a work of such focus and scope.” — George Marcus, Rice University

“Fred R. Myers has been in a unique position as a participant-observer of an art movement from its local beginnings to its international recognition. This book is a work of enormous significance, relevant to debates in contemporary art theory and cultural studies as well as in anthropology.” — Howard Morphy, Australian National University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Fred R. Myers is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at New York University and President of the American Ethnological Society. He is the author of Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self; editor of The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture; and coeditor of The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Anthropology and Art.

Table of Contents Back to Top


Introduction: From Ethnoaesthetics to Art History

1. Truth or Beauty: The Revelatory Regime of Pintupi Painting

2. Practices of Painting: A Local History and a Vexed Intersection

3. The Aesthetic Function and the Practice of Pintupi Painting: A Local Art History

4. Making a Market: Cultural Policy and Modernity in the Outback

5. Burned Out, Outback: Art Advisers Working between Two Worlds

6. The “Industry”: Exhibition Success and Economic Rationalization

7. After the Fall: In the Arts Industry

8. Materializing Culture and the New Internationalism

9. Performing Aboriginality at the Asia Society Gallery

10. Postprimitivism: Lines of Tension in the Making of Aboriginal High Art

11. Unsettled Business

12. Recontextualizations: The Traffic in Culture

Appendix: A Short History of Papunya Tula Exhibition, 1971-1985




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Winner, 2008 J. I. Staley Prize

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2949-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2932-9
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