“I could have painted that”—Complex simplicity in abstract art

Abstract art: Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Abstract art is often ridiculed by the uninitiated observer—”I could have painted that” are words you often hear whispered in galleries.

This statement contains a hidden argument: This painting could have been created by me because it requires little technique. I am not an artist; therefore it cannot be considered art.

Summer Collection by Jan Nelson is a case in point. The straight horizontal lines are indeed something that anyone with a basic ability to hold a paintbrush ostensibly could recreate. But is this a valid argument against the status of this painting as a work of art?

Abstract Art

Traditional concepts of visual art are focused on skill, with the highest level of skill perceived to be the faithful representation of what we perceive to be our external reality. The history of art seems to follow an evolutionary trajectory from the early beginnings in caves to the photo-realistic oil paintings of the seventeenth century. For the casual observer, this evolutionary process is reversed in the early twentieth century when abstract art makes its entry. The strip of images shown below shows this evolution, starting with a naturalistic painting of a tree.

Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan started his career by painting impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen second from the left. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. He experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.

mondriaan

Contemporary art is no longer restricted to a copy reality, but a way to interpret reality through the observation and technique of the artist. Originality and visual impact are now more important than mere skill of faithfully reproducing what is seen.

Next time when you hear somebody say that they could have painted this, simply ask: “Why didn’t you?”.

Catholicism is a Pagan Religion: Examples from Portugal

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

For hundreds of years Catholics converted tribal people from all over the globe to Christianity. This conversion was often combined with violence and conquest in a zealous quest to drive out the “false gods” of paganism.

But Catholicism itself is more like a pagan religion than it wishes to admit. During Eucharist, believers eat the actual body of Christ — not symbolic, but the real flesh as dictated by Papal dogma. This is pure magic and no different to the tribal rituals they once abolished. In Lisbon I got caught up in a large procession, Corpo de Deus, where this miracle was celebrated.

Another fine example of catholic paganism in Faro is the Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of the bones. An alter built from the bones of monks as a reminder of the temporal nature of our existence.

If anything all this makes Catholic religion a lot more interesting than the austerity in Protestant churches. The ability of Catholicism to incorporate ancient local customs has been its secret to success over the world.

The Evolution of Magic as an Art Form

One of the most interesting developments in modern painting is the movement towards abstract art. Although this form art is often controversial and ridiculed by those who do not know how to appreciate it, its development is a very deliberate movement away from the confounds of naturalist painting. Abstract painting is quest to find the essence of painting, stripped bare of its relationship with reality it expresses ideas and dreams rather than things.

This is no better illustrated than by the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan. He started his career by painting naturalistic and impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen in the top left below. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. Mondriaan later experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.

The evolution of painting and magic

The evolution of panting and magic.

The same type of evolution can also be seen in conjuring. The naturalistic painting style can be compared with the time when conjurers pretended to be real magicians. Dressed in exotic clothes, summoning spirits and uttering occult words to impress their audiences. Magic as we know it today started with Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, more often than not labelled the father of modern magic. He created the iconic figure of the gentlemen magician in evening dress, pretending to be a real magician. This modern form of magic lasted for more than a century. But now the stereotypical idea of the magician has been destroyed by post-modern conjurers such as Penn & Teller and David Blaine. They perform in ordinary clothes, no longer even pretending to be real magicians. The magician is no longer somebody pretending to be somebody else, but has become an independent archetype. Interestingly enough, some magicians went totally against this development and created the Bizarre Magic movement in which they try to relive the early days of magic. The abstraction in conjuring is, however, continuing.

Conjuring is making its next breakthrough to the complete abstraction of the magician, just like Mondriaan’s paintings are complete abstractions of what art once was. This new magic is stripped down to its bare essentials. One magician who is moving down this path is Canadian Jay Sankey. He creates magic with ordinary objects, bolts and nails, straws, key rings and anything he can get his hands on. All but gone are the playing cards, coins and sponge balls and other even stranger props. The future of magic is a simple and direct bending of reality. Just like abstract art can be confused with a child’s painting, abstract magic is deceivingly simple, but is laced with psychological subtleties to create extraordinary experiences.

Levels of meaning in Aboriginal art

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

The descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia have a unique culture passed on through story telling, ceremonies and aboriginal art. Their art  has become very well known during the last decades, specially the iconic dot-paintings of the central desert people and the hatched line drawings of the people of Arnhem Land.

The past week I visited Darwin and the World Heritage listed Kakadu national park in the tropical North of Australia. On the way back from Kakadu we stopped at the Didgeridoo Hut, a great place to buy Aboriginal art in the quaintly named town of Humpty Doo. I bought a nice work with the title ‘Namarrgon’ by Arnhem Land artist Joshua Bangarr.

When I was ready to pay for the work of art, the person at the counter said: “This is not art” and continued to explain the deeper significance of this picture. To say that this is not art because the painting has deeper meaning is an confusing comment. I was tired from a long trip and did not want to argue the point with him, so I will do it now.

His comment is confusing and what he tried to say is that this is not ‘Art for art’s sake‘ (l’art pour l’art). There is, however, no such thing as art without meaning. Art divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function is not art, but decoration. The only difference between Aboriginal art or works from the university educated art establishment of the Western world is that in the former meaning is provided by the tradition the artist is embedded in, while in contemporary European art, meaning is provided by the individual artist. Australian aboriginal art can be analysed on four different levels.

On the first level all we see is the actual painting itself. For the Namarrgon painting this level of interpretation is the actual figure of the lightning spirit. Although the work is painted in acrylic, Bangarr only used the four traditional ochre colours: red, yellow white and black. The painting is not brushed, but created with the stem of a freshwater reed. The hatchings are used to communicate the clan, kinship (skin) and country of the artist. No only the design, but also the thickness of the line is used to differentiate patterns and express who owns this design. The composition of most works in this genre are straight forward two-dimensional representations, such as is the case in this work.

Depiction of namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

Depiction of Namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

The second level of meaning is the lightning spirit dreaming story, the mythological level. Ancient depictions of Namarrgon can be found on many rock escarpments around Kakadu and Arnham Land, such as the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, shown here. In the mythology of the Kunwinjjku people Namarrgon is responsible for the spectacular thunder storms in this region, between October and November at the start of the wet season. He has lightning rods emanating from his head through to his genitals. Stone hammers hang from his elbows and are attached to his knees which he uses to create thunder, akin to the Norse god Thor. His body shape represents the Leichhhardt grasshopper, which are considered the children of Namarrgon. The colours used in the work are also symbolic. Yellow is used to symbolise the sun, red for the blood of the earth and white is the colour of body paintings for ceremonies. The colour black has secret meanings.

As we move to the third level of meaning less is known publicly about these paintings because in Aboriginal art, the sacred is closely related to the secret. Dreaming stories are on the surface simple mythological stories of ancestral beings, but on a deeper level they provide clues on how the landscape is organised, the seasonal availability of food and other practical hints on how to survive in the sometimes harsh Australian climate. The appearance of the Leichhardt grasshopper signals to the Aboriginal people, who traditionally did not have a formal calendar, that the time of thunderstorms is about to arrive and that they need to seek shelter from the damaging lightning strikes.

At the deepest, fourth level of meaning, the dreaming stories depicted in the art contain metaphysical truths. Only the elder generation of the people that maintain this dreaming know these truths. Uninitiated balanda (white people) can only guess at the deeper meaning. A friend suggested that the fact that the head and genitals of Namarrgon are connected is a lesson about male psychology. While this seems certainly plausible, Joshua Bangarr did not provide any clues on the meaning of this painting.  This deep secrecy is what is so fascinating about Aboriginal art.

Deception in the Arts

Canadian magician Jay Sankey recently asked himself why there is such an obsession with the method of magic tricks. This obsession comes from both sides of the stage curtain. Magicians spend most of their time perfecting new ways to achieve the same old effects. Spectators are obsessed with the method because they are presented with a mystery that the magician is unwilling to explain.

Sankey is correct that almost every art form uses a kind of deception. Realistic art aims to make us believe we see something that is not there. Actors pretend to be somebody they are not, dancers hide the enormous physical strain they are under and magicians hide the real cause of the effects they create. I think that it is this focus on the method that is preventing magic from becoming an important form of performance art.

There are two reasons for this obsession: firstly, secrecy is inherent to magic because we present occurrences where the actual causal relationships are obfuscated from the spectator. This secrecy is not the case in any other form of arts where deception is used to support a story. In practical terms, the magician deceives to make something happen without physical cause while a dancer or actor deceives to tell a story or communicate an emotion.

A good example is the movie Avatar — a feast of visual deception. But because there was a story (albeit a one-dimension one), attention was moved away from the method. And the most interesting part is that movie makers even expose their methods on the obligatory “making of …” DVD so that everybody who is interested can find out how they were deceived in believing in a three-dimensional world.

Jim Steinmeyer writes in Hiding the Elephant that one can only truly understand the art of magic if you understand the magician’s secrets:

To appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician.

This idea has recently been confirmed through scientific enquiry. A group of people were subjected to an fMRI brain scan while watching a video of a magic trick. The research showed that looking at a trick triggers specific parts of the brain- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — that are associated with the detection of conflict and cognitive control. This finding means that people watching magic tricks are placed in a position where they will focus on method because as their brain seeks cognitive control.

Deception study: fMRI of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

fMRI study of impossible causal relationships in magic tricks

The cognitive control prevents spectators from truly experiencing magic as a form of art — suspension of disbelief is made impossible. Most people are well educated and do not believe in real magic, leaving little room for actual suspension of disbelief. There is also a social contract between conjurers and their spectators that although an admission of deception is made, the method will not be revealed.

Deception in the Arts

One form of magic where this is still possible is mentalism. The main reason for this is that the science of the brain is not as advanced as the science of physical objects and thus, following Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, there is still a lot of room for people to believe in magic. Clarke’s law states that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Because technology about how or mind works is still in its infancy, many people are prepared to believe that Uri Geller can bend metal with his mind and John Edward can communicate with deceased people. Some people believe so firmly in paranormal powers that some proclaim that English mentalist Derren Brown possesses supernatural powers, even though he clearly admits being a magician. These people believe that Brown wishes to keep his special powers a secret!

This week the controversial television show Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed is aired on Australian television. Too many magicians, this seems like the end of the world. Their cherished secrets are being squandered for the sake of ratings. I agree with them that these shows are not of high quality, but not because of their content.

Exposure in magic is a double edge sword. It would, of course, be self-defeating to explain tricks while performing magic, just as it would be very annoying to have the special effects in a movie explained to yo while watching the story. In the early days of filmmaking, exposure of the secret techniques to create special effects was very controversial. This knowledge is nowadays freely available, and people still watch movies!

In some way, exposure can be good for magic. The only people I ever here speaking of magic as a form of art are magicians themselves. They do so because magicians know what it takes to do good magic. Magicians do not focus on the secret but on presentation. They can switch off their cognitive control as they know the methods. This knowledge gives yo a freedom to enjoy magic at a whole different level. And lastly, the fact that magicians can quite easily be deceived supports this view.

The Art of Deception: Magic as a Theatrical Art

Is magic a form of theatrical art or a whimsical sideshow performance?Magicians are not regarded as artists in the same way as actors, dancers and musicians are. Magic plays a modest role in the world of show business and is more aligned with sideshows and circus than with theatrical art. Most would deny magic the status of an art form as it has a lowly status in the hierarchy of the dramatic arts.1 Not perturbed by their lowly status, magicians themselves often refer to their performances as an art form.

Are magicians artists and is performing magic an art form in the same way that other forms of ‘serious’ theatre are art? Discussing whether magic is an art or not is almost futile as there are many equally valid interpretations of what constitutes a form of art.

As an art form, magic is an informal form of theatre that resides in the niches of contemporary culture. Most people rarely experience a live magic performance and would struggle to recall the names of magicians. The majority of magic performers does not appear on television or works in regular theatres. They perform in many types of venues not traditionally associated with theatre, children’s birthday parties, restaurants, the street, at conventions and so on. This unique nature of magic implies that it cannot be analysed in the same way as you would a traditional theatrical performance. This essay proposes that magic cannot be examined using the traditional concept of theatre but that it is a form of ‘epic theatre’ as conceptualised by Bertold Brecht.

Theatrical Art

Theatre is traditionally considered to be a ‘closed’ Aristotelian form of art, characterised by the unity of time, place and action.2 The objective of ‘closed theatre’ is that the audience to temporarily forgets that they are watching actors on a stage. The role of the writers, actors, directors and others is to ensure the “suspension of disbelief” by spectators. The audience is enticed to believe in the virtual reality staged in front of their eyes. Nineteenth-century French magician Robert Houdin, the father of modern magic, is famous for saying that a magician is an actor who plays the role of a real magician.3 Houdin’s definition of a stage magician matches the Aristotelian concept of theatre. In his view, the objective of magical theatre is to convince spectators that the person they are watching is a real magician, a person that can contravene the laws of physics. From this perspective, a magic show is an Aristotelean art form, assuming the magician can, at least temporarily, convince spectators that she possesses supernatural powers.

However, the closed concept of theatre cannot be generically applied to contemporary magicians. Any intelligent observer realises that magicians use devious techniques to create the illusion that he evokes magical powers. The audience is astutely aware that a conjurer cannot produce playing cards from thin air or cause balls to penetrate solid metal cups. For magic to be considered theatrical art in the traditional sense, it requires spectators to suspend their disbelief. Modern viewers are, however, not able to fully immerse in the magical world created by the magician to the same extent that they are willing to suspend their disbelief when watching a film or play.

The intellectual challenge inherent in magic theatre engenders a tension between the audience and the magician. “How did she do it” is always on the mind of the spectator. The main difference between magicians and actors is that magic performances are often about the adventures of the props in the hands of the magician, while plays and films are about the adventures of the individuals themselves.4 The lack of human interest in most magic makes it almost impossible for disbelief to be suspended. Perhaps there is another way to interpret magic performances.

Magicians and Bertolt Brecht

A significant difference between traditional closed theatre and magic is that conjuring almost always involves direct communication and interaction between the performer and the spectator. In traditional theatre, there exists a so-called fourth wall, an imaginary division between performers and audiences. The fourth wall is an invisible one-way screen placed on the edge of the stage. The audience can see and hear the actors, but the characters played by the actors, cannot perceive them. In a magic show, especially close-up magic, this wall doesn’t exist as spectators form an active part of the performance. “Pick a card, any card”, are commonly heard words in close-up magic shows and the observer participates in the performance. Traditional theatre occasionally breaks through the fourth wall when a character in a play refers to the fact that they are part of a performance. These considerations imply that the Aristotelian idea of theatre does not apply to magic, in particular, close-up magic.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed a view of theatre that contrasts the Aristotelian view. One of the techniques he used was the distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt). This effect happens when an actor, implicitly or explicitly, indicates being part of a performance, deliberately breaking through the fourth wall. In Brecht’s concept of theatre, actors often break through the fourth wall and spectators are not expected to identify emotionally with the characters. In Brechtian theatre, audiences are rationally engaged with the proceedings, which he calls this epic theatre.5

A magic show cannot be analysed according to the rules of traditional theatre but are best interpreted as a form of epic theatre. In magic, there is usually no need for emotion or storytelling. Magic has an inherent story to tell, embedded within its very nature. Each magical effect contains the powerful message that reality is not what it seems to be.6 Magic performances are thus an inherently philosophical form of theatre. The magician temporarily creates a virtual world where miracles are possible. It is in this Brechtian sense that magic theatre can be considered a theatrical form art. Magic is a form of epic theatre in which the magician presents the ordinary in an unusual way. The magician indicates the horizon of reality and creates an intellectual challenge for the audience. Not a simple puzzle to be resolved, but a deeper truth about how we experience reality.

This concept can be demonstrated using two examples.

Fred Kaps

Fred Kaps (1926–1980) is one of the best magicians of the last century. Kaps, the stage name of Bram Bongers, had an inimitable performance style, characterised by flawless technique and an engaging presentation. Kaps is the ultimate conjuring actor, and his performance of The Homing Card is an example of dramaturgic perfection.

In this performance, Kaps is in constant conflict with himself as he experiences a series of escalating emotions. The first time he notices the wrong card he is surprised but ignores the issue. The second time the trick goes wrong, Kaps is embarrassed and tries to figure out what’s going on. The third time the wrong card appears he is disappointed in himself but proceeds nevertheless. The fourth and last time the wrong card appears, he even shows anger and eventually capitulates.

This performance is and example of an Aristotelian form of theatre, but not following Houdin’s concept of the actor playing a wizard. Kaps does not pretend to be a real magician, but a plays the role of a failed stage magician.

Tommy Wonder — Epic Theatre

Another Dutch magician is Jos Bemelmans, better known as Tommy Wonder. Bemelmans wrote two of the most influential books in contemporary magic, in which he thoroughly analyses the dramaturgy of a magic show.7

The spectators in this show actively participate, demolishing the fourth wall. The routine consists of several stages, with increasingly strong effects. A distinctive aspect of this performance is the appearance of the pompom and the pouch under one of the cups. In traditional versions of this trick the final climax is the appearance of fruit or bigger balls. Tommy Wonder’s performance is a high-quality piece of magic where spectators are continuously astonished. The power of the close-up magic is not the proximity between the performer and the audience, but that the audience actively experiences the magic, instead of passively consuming the performance.8).

This performance can not be analysed following the traditional view of theatre, but is a prime example of epic theatre. There is no fourth wall and the performance is not about a story, but about pure illusions. This performance creates an intellectual challenge for the audience, which is what Brecht sought to achieve in his form of theatre.

Magic as Theatrical Art

Perepectives on Magic: A book about scienctific views of conjuringMagic is a form of epic theatre as explained by Bertolt Brecht. Most magic performances are not traditional theatre, in which disbelief is suspended, but performances where the magician conveys an alternative worldview. Magic is not about storytelling or intellectual challenges but, at least temporarily about taking us back to a natural state of astonishment, the child’s world view.9

Like to know more? Read my book Perspectives on Magic for more scholarly reflections on theatrical magic.


  1. Michael Mangan, Performing Dark Arts. A cultural history of conjuring (Bristol en Chicago 2007). 

  2. Disselkoen, Dick ed., Twaalf Opera’s als Spiegel van hun Tijd (Heerlen en Nijmegen 1993). 

  3. Julian M. Olf, ‘The actor and the magician’, The Drama Review: TDR 18 (1974) 53-58. 

  4. Eugene Burger en Robert E. Neale, Magic and Meaning (Seatlle 1995). 

  5. Disselkoen, Twaalf Opera’s

  6. Burger en Neale, Magic and meaning. 

  7. Tommy Wonder, The Books of Wonder (Seattle 1996). 

  8. Paul Harris, The Art of Astonishment I (California 1996 

  9. Paul Harris, The Art of Astonishment I (California 1996). 

Larapinta Dreaming—Australian Aboriginal Art of the Central Desert

Larapinta Dreaming

Marylin Armstrong, Larapinta Dreaming, acryl on canvas (63 x 41 cm). Private collection.

Australian Aboriginal art is one of the oldest art traditions in existence. The Australian continent was populated about 50,000 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Aborigines. The culture of the Aborigines is in many respects unique in that until the nineteenth century they had  very limited contact with cultures outside Australia.1 One of the most striking manifestations of contemporary Aboriginal culture of the central desert area are the iconic dot-paintings, a distinctive style of painting in which an ancient art form is expressed with modern materials and in a modern context.

Aboriginal culture was, before colonial times, largely determined by the natural environment in which they lived. Material culture was limited to simple practical and ritual objects.; spears, baskets, shields, ritual and ceremonial poles were all adorned with culturally specific patterns. Aboriginal artists were strictly tied to the tradition in which they lived and their creativity was bound by conservative traditions and rules.2 The art was expressed using materials naturally available, such as rocks, sand, wood, bark, beeswax, reeds and the human body, including blood. The people of the central Australian deserts expressed their art predominantly in temporary sand drawings, body painting and more enduring rock paintings and engravings.3

The culture of the Aborigines traditionally revolves around what is commonly known as the Dreamtime. This is an primordial mythological period which is the source of all social, legal, practical and metaphysical knowledge. The Dreamtime is transferred from one generation to the next by using landscape related stories called Dreamings. These stories are passed from father to son and from mother to daughter and each story is managed by an individual or by clan groups. Most stories of the Dreamtime are strictly confidential and known only to initiates of the Dreaming. Dreamings are usually stories of mythical creatures, travelling across the land. Landscapes associated with these stories are allocated to family groups and individuals.4 Each location is managed, for example through fire stick farming, by a group of men or women and only they know the esoteric meaning of the place, as expressed in the Dreaming.5

Australian Aboriginal Art

Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)

Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)

The characteristic patterns of central desert Aboriginal art, such as the iconic dots and concentric circles, are a symbolic language used to propagate the stories of the Dreamtime. These symbols are related to the specific language groups and clans that create the art. The art from the central desert people is dominated by dots and geometric symbols while the art of the Arnhem Land people is more figurative enhanced with specific hatching patterns. These are not schools of artistic groups with common ideas, as is the case in Western art, but are culturally, geographically and genetically related groups of artists who draw inspiration from the same Dreamings.6

Aboriginal art is experienced in a very different way than Western painting. The biggest difference is that the traditional art is entirely utilitarian., there is no concept of art  for art’s sake in Aboriginal culture. The works are exclusively manufactured to express the stories of the Dreamtime to pass them on to future generations. Body painting is undertaken for rituals in which events from the Dreamtime are enacted. Sand Mosaics are experienced by a ritually singing and dancing through them, destroying them in the process. The painters of central Australia manufacture their contemporary works, which are  mostly derived from traditional sand mosaics, horizontally on the ground and not vertically on an easel.7 The works of Aboriginal artists in museums is, however, almost invariably displayed vertically, following the conventions of Western art. One exception is the Art Gallery of South Australia where a monumental work of Clifford Possum is exhibited horizontally.

Aboriginal art as we currently know it is fairly new and became appreciated by a wider audience in the nineteen seventies. Geoffrey Bardon, who worked as a teacher at Papunya Tula, brought this form of art to the attention of the Western world. Papunya Tula is one of many settlements for aboriginal people that were established by the Australian government in the middle of the last century. People were forcefully removed from their traditional territories and taken to the settlements. This caused tension and immense stress because the people were separated from their traditional way of life. Geoffrey Bardon observed the importance of drawings in their culture and provided the men in Papunya Tula with materials to express their traditional art with contemporary materials.8 The men painted a mural on a blank wall in the settlement which was the starting point of the now world renowned central and western desert art movement.

The use of new materials has opened up a whole new world for Aboriginal art and has become a distinctive style in the global contemporary art scene. Tradition and contemporary art are also separated in the exhibition space. Contemporary works are exhibited in art galleries while traditional works, such as baskets, boomerangs and painted objects, are exhibited in the anthropological museums. The inspiration for both is, however, the same: the stories of the Dreamtime.

A particular design can only be used by a  limited group of people, the owners of that  particular Dreaming. The designs of Aboriginal art from the Western desert are almost entirely abstract in nature and each painting has several layers of meaning.9 Aboriginal art can thus not exclusively be interpreted from an immanent perspective as the true meaning of the work lies outside the picture itself lies, i.e. is transcendent to the painting. The full meaning of the painting is always more than what can be seen on the surface. To come to the true meaning of the paintings, it must examined at different levels.

On the first level of meaning, the paintings in the western and central desert tradition are dominated by the many dots in both background and foreground. The paintings generally do not include figurative elements, but a culturally specific symbolic language of concentric circles, animal tracks and other shapes.10 The paintings from the early modern period are almost entirely abstract in nature and are close to the traditional sand mosaics  and paintings from which they are derived. The available colour range is traditionally determined by what exists in nature, mainly ochre based.11 The contemporary art of central Australia has more or less detached itself from the strict traditions and uses more colours and contains more figurative elements, as shown by the work discussed below.

Interpretation of Larapinta Dreaming

Interpretation of Larapinta Dreaming

At the second level, the paintings depict the natural landscape that is connected with stories from the Dreamtime. Geological structures are interpreted as affected by the activities of the Dreamtime ancestors that roamed the land in primordial times.12 Sand mosaics were traditionally used to illustrate stories from the Dreamtime and were a vehicle for knowledge about the landscape and communicated the places where water and food could be found.13 Because of the limitations of drawing in sand, a rich symbolic language is used to express the Dreamings. Concentric circles represent a stone or a place where water and food can be found and with two or four U-shaped lines around it, this symbol represents a camp fire with men (two lines) or women (four lines).14  Contemporary Aboriginal painting has lost this function of knowledge transfer because it is produced for an uninitiated audience, but the meaning is still contained within the traditional designs.

At the third level, the designs are seen as representations of ceremonies which are conducted to re-enact the epic journeys of the Dreamtime ancestors. These ceremonies are conducted as part of a cultural calendar throughout the year. At this level, the paintings are multi-dimensional and express a series of events in time in one image.15

On the fourth and deepest level the paintings contain a metaphysical knowledge that is known only to insiders of the Dreaming. Not much is publicly known about this deepest level of interpretation since this knowledge secret. In traditional Aboriginal culture, the sacred and the secret almost fully overlap. The emphasis on secrecy in Aboriginal culture can cause cultural tensions in the contemporary world.16 It is not only forbidden to share knowledge with outsiders, even within the Aboriginal culture there are strict rules on the distribution of knowledge. The website of The Art Gallery of South Australia warns for the esoteric content of the displayed works: “… this site may include images of a culturally sensitive nature. All efforts have been made to ensure that restricted works are not included.”17

There have been problems with the exhibition of works that depict secret stories. According to Bardon the curiosity of art enthusiasts to know the secret meaning of paintings has lead developing more complex and busy designs to obfuscate the deeper meaning of the paintings.18 Aboriginal Artist Tim Leura considers the patterns he paints on canvas to be mere toys. The serious work is painted on the bodies of people or on the ground when undertaking a ceremony.19

Larapinta Dreaming

I purchased Larapinta Dreaming in 2003 from one of the many galleries that are dotted around Alice Springs. Aboriginal art is terribly popular among tourists and it is therefore an important source of income for many Aborigines.

Larapinta Dreaming is painted in acrylic on canvas (63 x 41 cm) by Marilyn Armstrong from Hermansburg near Alice Springs. Marilyn was born in Jay Creek community, in the red heart of Australia. As a child she came into contact with famous Aboriginal painters such as Albert Namatjira and Clifford Possum and in 1986 she started to paint Dreamtime stories herself.20

The most striking element of Larapinta Dreaming is the oval ring of caterpillars, the ‘larapinta’, encircling a collection of emu and dingo tracks. The background of the painting is entirely made of dots in varying colours, except for the central part of the composition. The colour palette of this work contains many bright colours, a recent development in contemporary Aboriginal art.

The back of the painting illustrates the second level of meaning:21

This area got many sacred sites and there is one where the dogs vomit other side is where the women had been meetings, dances and also the caterpillar dreamings where the Aranda people camp is. Marilyn Armstrong, Mbilja Nampitjinpa (Skin Name).

On the second level of meaning, this painting refers to the Macdonnel Ranges, the geological formations around Alice Springs that are reminiscent of caterpillars. This painting is thus probably a reference to an unnamed ceremonial place in the Macdonnel Ranges.

Since I am not privy to the deeper meaning of the Larapinta Dreaming I can not comment on the ceremonial and metaphysical significance, which constitutes the third and fourth level of meaning. I could speculate that since this was painted by a woman, the vomiting might be related to morning sickness of pregnant women and that this painting refers to a place where pregnant women gather and share knowledge with the elders. However, this is pure speculation on my part.


  1. Prior to colonisation, the people of Arnhem Land had contact with people from current day New-Guinea and Indonesia. Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt, The world of the first Australians. Australian traditional life: Past and present (Fifth edition, Canberra 1996), p. 17. 

  2. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 411. 

  3. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 408. 

  4. Bardon, Geoffrey, Papunya Tula.Art of the western desert (Marlston 1999), pp. 2-3. 

  5. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 412. 

  6. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 409. 

  7. Jackson Pollock is an example of an American painter that produced his works horizontally. 

  8. Bardon (1999), p. 22. 

  9. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 413. 

  10. Stokes, Deidre, Desert Dreamings (Port Melbourne 1993), p. 9. 

  11. Bardon (1999), pp. 125-126. 

  12. Bardon (1999), p. 6.] 

  13. Cowan, James, Aborigine dreaming (London 1992), p.7; Bardon (1999), p.8. 

  14. Stokes, Deidre, p. 9. 

  15. Bardon (1999), p.8, pp. 132-133. 

  16. See my 1998 article: The Spirit of Uluru

  17. Art Gallery of South Australia, Copyright notice, www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/content-copyright.html (juli 2007). 

  18. Bardon (1999), p. 127. 

  19. Bardon (1999), p. 123. 

  20. ABC, Western Desert Art, (Accessed 5 March 2004). 

  21. The skin name refers to the aboriginal kinship system. 

Academic philosophy: Does it play a role in society?

Academic philosphy

Philosophers on strike.

I have been studying philosophy at university level for eight years now. See my previous Blog, The Philosophy Race, on why I have been so slow. On the odd occasion, however, I doubt whether I should actually continue studying. Studying a university degree and having a full time job is quite a task, which does not leave much time for philosophical reflection outside the curriculum. The ‘train’ relentlessly keeps on going and there is simply no time to stop along the way and explore some side avenues.

Sometimes I am also disenchanted with academic philosophy as it tends to be extremely technical and tedious. Although I understand that issues can become complicated and convoluted—specially with 2500 years of history behind them—a philosopher should be able to break free from these bounds and create new philosophy.

There are thus two kinds of philosophy. Passive philosophy: the reflection upon what has been written and the subsequent academic analysis of this; and active philosophy: the creative process of producing new philosophy.

One of the problems of contemporary philosophy is that it is part of academia and therefore dependent upon government funding. To be be able to continually justify this funding, academic philosophy has become almost like a science, rather than a creative art.

Looking around the media landscape we see pop stars and movie actors proclaiming their philosophy on many subjects. It is interesting to note that one of the first major philosophers also was an artist—Socrates was a stone mason—proclaiming his philosophy to his fellow Athenians. Academic philosophers of today still use his thoughts as a source but are a long way from his influence upon society.

But Socrates was not loved by most of the Athenians, as he was sentenced to death because he supposedly had a negative influence on the youth of Athens. Are academic philosophers afraid to come out of their ivory tower and join the social debate? Why should we rely on pop stars, actors and politicians as our beacons in life? Philosophy should go back to the market place!

Thus spoke Zarathustra and left his cave, glowing and strong like a morning sun (Friedrich Nietzsche).