There is nothing in contemporary art today that conveys the stunning power linking the subconscious to visual imagery than Australian Aboriginal painting.  The current exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, from the peerless Kaplan and Levi collection of contemporary Aboriginal paintings, demonstrates, to me, how devoid of meaning are our own perceptions of the world, and how empty–truly nonexistent–is our kinship with the land, our fellow humans and the creatures with which we share the earth.  We have no collective memory of where we came from.


Of the world’s oldest continuous culture, the many Aboriginal peoples of Australia have given us through their painting the rarest opportunity to enter into a perception of reality that’s so rich and meaningful it’s beyond our comprehension.  We can know it but never feel it. Reality is a tricky word to use in relation to what these paintings depict.  To an Aboriginal, what they see as the reality of  time or landscape is a deep mixture of memory, creation stories, spirituality and physical presence, with no delineation between what we would regard as real or myth.  The word we use to describe this connection between the world of today and the world of creation is Dreamtime.


The first time I saw Aboriginal painting was in 1988 in Melbourne, Australia when my former wife and I visited the Victoria National Gallery and walked nearly speechless through its landmark exhibition Dreamings.  We had never seen anything remotely like these monumental paintings. It couldn’t have been any more revelatory than if we had stumbled into a convention of aliens.  We could not believe what we were seeing.


From that introduction we went on to collect eight paintings, now split between us, and to which I have added several more.  They are among the most precious possessions I own.

I fail to understand why contemporary Aboriginal painting is relegated to the sideshow of “ethnographic” art and not hung in the same galleries as Abstract Expressionists or, if not accorded that significance, at least among modern works of Western painters.  To even compare the intensity and richness of a painting by, say, Emily Kngwarreye to one by Damien Hirst is akin to comparing a late Beethoven sonata to a song by the Bee Gees (with apologies to the Bee Gees.)  The stupendous Aboriginal painting in San Francisco’s deYoung Museum is abandoned at the very rear of the arts of Asia-Pacific section of the museum.

I’m moved by these paintings in ways I never experience when looking at other art.  Haunting museums around the world since a child, I’m not a stranger to the broad range of artistic mastery.  I love Cycladic sculptures, Titian drawings, Manet portraits, Paul Caponigro photographs.  The Neolithic cave paintings shown in Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams dazzled me with their beauty and mystery. Who can stand in front of Picasso’s Guernica and not be silenced?   If I could afford to hang anything on my walls it would be Homer and Sargent watercolors.


Australian Aboriginal paintings are different.  Even after decoding their symbols and structure, their meaning lies just beyond comprehension, because each paintings is unique to its painter, or group of painters.  They tell stories. They celebrate aspects of the land that nourish and enrich the community’s lives.  They explain where their people come from and how they came to be.  They depict the origins of language and how things were named in the beginning.  I can only intellectually understand what an Aboriginal painter intuitively knows by instinct and heritage. And it has only been since the early 1970’s that this deep knowledge has been shared outside their own communities–often reluctantly.  This is secret knowledge– knowable, really, only within the clan.




The pleasure I get from looking at these paintings comes from a connection to something beyond myself.  I may not fully understand what it is, and for sure it is to something outside of my life and experience.  They push my idea of significance backwards and forwards.  I marvel at the colors, the intricate patterning of dots and lines, the multi-dimensional conceptualization.  I enjoy the stories told in the paintings.  I love that the traditions are carried by both men and women in the Aboriginal communities.  In some areas, such as the Utopia Station, the paintings are made exclusively by women, reinterpreting on canvas what they once painted on their bodies.


Like in any art market, the early paintings in the movement, from the 1970’s and 80’s, are the ones that command the highest prices at auction.  They represent the beginning and the artists are now the Old Masters.  The Seattle exhibition picks up in the 1990’s through the present, illuminating the development of the art among a younger generation.  A few of the last remaining elders are represented–Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwareye.  What a privilege to see these paintings in one place.


A World Without Advertising?

I wonder if we can imagine a world without advertising.  Forget for a moment that it’s advertising that supports all of the media we know: television programming, magazines, web content, radio.  The world would be much quieter; the landscape unsullied; our commercial experience would be limited to the very local.  Imagine how much brain space would be opened.  We would be in the 18th century–or before.  Would we lose very much?  Of course if we never knew a world with advertising, there would be no loss.  But if we did know the world as we know it today, how would we react?  Would we miss Apple bill boards along the highway?  Ads for Coca-Cola on TV?  Rolex ads in The Economist?  Motel-6 on the radio?

Many of us would say no, we would not miss advertising.  Philosophically it may be true.  I would wager, however, that most of us would be lost without the ubiquitous advertising sign posts pointing us to this retailer, that movie, this car, that computer.  Some advertising exists as pop culture in the landscape.  Think of Times Square or the Ginza. Some advertising is beautiful.  Some advertising can even make us cry.

Would the loss of advertising make us lonely?  Would we miss all the spokespeople who pitch us night after night?  Would we miss Larry King explaining the benefits of garlic?  Would we miss the public service ads asking us to send money to feed a child in India?  Would we miss seeing our heroes–Michael Phelps, Roger Federer, Shaquille O’Neill, Michael Jordan–shine the light of their celebrity on the things we want to buy?  (I’m 100% certain, on the other hand, that no one would miss political ads!)

For many, advertising is a solace, a connection to the world around them.  Just as robotic pets are used among the elderly to comfort and fill the spaces lost to age, abandonment and loss, advertising talks to us, telling us what we deserve, what we need, where to go, how to live a better life. “You Deserve a Break Today!” Some advertisers even want us to be grateful.  And many are.

For others advertising is a necessary evil, the inevitable result of a capitalistic culture, the scum on the rim of materialism.  Mass brands exist because of advertising.  Fast food, beer, cosmetics, cars, cruise ships, tooth paste–the list of what we buy is endless and what we buy, for the most part, is fueled by advertising.  An ad creates the desire for a hamburger, that sends us to MacDonald’s, which burns the rain forest to source their beef, that threatens wildlife, displaces people, and renders land unusable for generations.  Advertising has its consequences.

For those of us who work in advertising, it’s a craft, an art, a challenge.  We dissect the work into all its component parts and rationalize their intellectual content.  Art direction and copy writing are skills.  (That most copy writers have aspired at some time to be novelists is another story.) We can instantly comprehend the difference between a well written ad and one that isn’t; a well designed ad from an ad that looks like a dog’s breakfast.  Ads can be great because they’re simple and clever and cause us to see something differently.  “Think Small” is the classic example.  Top film directors create astonishing ads that dazzle us: Ridley Scott’s “1984” for Apple aired once and became legendary. Ad agencies like DDB became famous for creating ads that amuse us, stun us, cause us to question, cause us to dream.  There’s a book on Chiat Day titled Inventing Desire.

Most practitioners believe that advertising matters.  That great ads make a difference and bad ads are a disgrace.  Bad ads more often than not are ads that clients want–so say ad guys.   The poetic language is removed in favor of promotional copy.  The ad agency where I began my career, Benton & Bowles–famous for its work for package goods giant P&G–had as its slogan, “It’s Not Creative Unless It Sells.”  The agency didn’t attract the most creative talent.  Crest and Pampers didn’t suffer as a result.

Marketing as a practice and advertising as its child originated in the United States and has been exported around the globe.  Social critics decry the delusory effects.  What arose in 20th century America evolved inexorably from the great 19th century British trading empire, and before that the Dutch.  The British were so insistent that trade trumps national prerogative that they forced Japan to open its gates of self-imposed, and desired, isolation under peril of war.  (Puccini, then, would never have created his masterpiece.  What a tangled web we weave.)

How many times have you heard someone say, “What did we do before Google?”  I’ve said it myself.  Despite Larry and Sergei’s dislike of the industry, Google would not exist today if it didn’t derive its revenue from advertising.  Would we want our ability to search online to disappear overnight?  Even those who view Google’s mantra “Do No Evil” as fraudulent, would miss their favorite search engine.

In the priority of what I like in life, advertising falls close to the bottom.  Of course it’s also how I pay the rent.  There’s a survey somewhere in advertising lore that among the most respected professions, advertising ranks next to last, just above used car salesmen.  It’s a dilemma I think about every day.  It worries me.  It undermines self respect and engenders cynicism.  It’s a pact with the Devil.

Nothing changes without the will to change it.  “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.”  Imagining a world without advertising is as dreamy as wishing for Atlantis to emerge from the sea.  It isn’t going to happen.  Maybe someday the people who make the Big Decisions will agree to Stop It All.  The world would radically, inconceivably change, undoubtedly for the worse given the cycles of financial and commercial growth required to feed and employ the earth’s increasing population.  Goethe wrote, “Doubt can only be removed by action.”

In the meantime, I’m thinking about life on a Costa Rican beach as my Plan B.