The Artist is a Thief



review by Paul Dawson




  The Artist is a Thief
Stephen Gray
Allen & Unwin 2001
ISBN 1-86508-533-2
282pp, $19.95


With a generous $20,000 prize and the backing of a national broadsheet, the Vogel award is the most prominent literary competition in Australia. In fact, it has the cultural status of a literary prize, alongside the Miles Franklin and various state premier's awards. The interest of these prizes lies in which industry heavyweight will receive a lifetime achievement award or which wild-card will be acknowledged by the literary establishment, so entering the canon of Australian literature. The interest of the Vogels lies in what new work will be introduced to our literary culture; although it seems odd that we have to wait a year before the novel appears, long after the initial publicity has faded. While the prize is for an unpublished manuscript, the winning entry tends to be a debut novel (the book under review is one exception). Furthermore, the competition is seen as an opportunity for young writers to bypass the slush pile and achieve instant recognition (although with an age limit of 35 years it would appear that writers age differently from other citizens).

As a result, more than most literary prizes, the Vogels can be seen as a barometer of cultural preoccupations, mapping shifts at the edges of literary culture: here is where the direction of young writing appears to be moving, or at least where judges and publishers want it to move. Andrew McGahan's Praise won in 1991, at a time when publishers were seeking the voice of contemporary youth, and it prefigured the onset of 'grunge' fiction. Helen Demidenko's The Hand That Signed the Paper won in 1993, contributing to public debates about the responsibility of writing history (think of Keith Windschuttle's 1994 The Killing of History). Furthermore, its success seemed almost to be a reaction to the ostensibly limited preoccupations of young writers. It could be argued that Richard King's lightweight Kindling Does for Firewood was a safe option in the wake of the Demidenko scandal in 1995. Love and Vertigo by Hsu-Ming Teo offered a rare exploration of Chinese-Australian identity a few years after Pauline Hanson tried to stir up alarm over swarms of Asians in our country.

Stephen Gray's The Artist is a Thief, winner of the 2000 Vogel award, is also a timely book, centred as it is around a forgery scandal involving an Aboriginal painter, Margaret Thatcher Gandarrwuy. Questions of authenticity and appropriation in relation to Aboriginal art have been forced upon public debate in recent years by Leon Carmen's 'memoir' under the name of Wanda Koolamatrie and Elizabeth Durack's assumption of the Aboriginal pseudonym, Eddie Burrup. These scandals are part of broader intellectual debates regarding reconciliation, the "'culture wars", and political correctness.

Rosemary van den Berg argued in 1998 that Durack was "stealing our culture and our intellectual property rights." These are precisely the aspects of Gray's book which are played up by its publisher, Allen & Unwin (the biographical note points out the author's academic work in this area). The Artist is a Thief does not live up to its publicity, however, or the claim that it is "a philosophical detective novel with a difference." Certainly there are elements of detective fiction, for there is murder and intrigue and an exposition-laden denouement where the "mystery" behind deliberately obscured events is explained to us (a structural flaw of the genre itself). The phrase "with a difference" is the escape clause here, for the book would surely fail expectations if read as an example of the genre. Perhaps the skills of a detective are required to pick up the "philosophical" elements of the book, for I felt that it merely skirted around its apparent drawcard: the differences between Aboriginal and Western concepts of art, and their relationship to cultural identity.

The title itself alludes to this drawcard, suggesting that the book might address both the cultural clash and the potential theoretical overlap between Aboriginal notions of authenticity in art, and supposedly postmodern concepts of appropriation as an artistic practice. There are a few dismissive references to postmodernism in passages of dialogue, and in quotations from books and reviews which the main protagonist, Jean-Loup Wild, is reading, but not enough for this novel to provide any clever or insightful commentary on its underlying philosophy, and not enough for postmodernism to really figure in the plot of the novel. There are also a few references to the complexities of Aboriginal art, but despite the apparent centrality of forged Aboriginal paintings to the plot, the exploration of these ideas seem to be consigned to a few undeveloped thoughts of Jean-Loup in the epilogue.

The reason for this is not because Gray is incapable of or unwilling to really tackle these issues, but because the structure of the book causes them to be subsumed by other elements. As a financial investigator into the accounts at Mission Hole Art Centre in the Northern Territory, Jean-Loup finds that his investigation is inextricably linked with the cultural and political life of the Aboriginal community in which the centre is located. This casts him in the role of "detective", for the possible forgery which prompted his investigation is linked to a murder in the community. Dramatic conflict is thus produced by the clash between the bureaucracy of whitefella law and the "negotiated truth" of the Aboriginal community, not between differing views on the importance of art.

At a crucial moment late in the novel Jean-Loup remembers a conversation he had in Melbourne. His erstwhile lover, Linda, tells him: "There are no answers in religion anymore; why should we look for them in art? Postmodernists are only allowed to ask questions." This, in a literal sense, is Jean Loup's role in the book. As an outsider to the community, the bulk of his dialogue seems to be the posing of questions to other characters, rendering him little more than a vehicle of exposition at times. The main problem with this device is that Jean-Loup is not just an observer, his character is the focus of the book - and yet we never really get a sense of this character.

Jean-Loup lives in "new wave, millenial Melbourne: the freeway extensions, the new luxury apartment blocks, City Link." When he sees an advertisement for a financial manager at Mission Hole Aboriginal Community he is drawn to it as a means of liberation from his life. There is an embarrassing "sea-change" moment when he is inspired by the sound of children playing footy in the park and rips off his shoes and socks, running with abandon towards a tree, presumably to hug it. There is another reason for his attraction to Mission Hole, however. Seeing the ad "was the closest thing he had ever received to a message from the spirit world" because this is the place where his sister, Duchess, was born. Little is revealed of Duchess and this is one of the mysteries we must wait to be explained.

It is this set-up which encourages us to see the book as some sort of personal odyssey, a journey towards peace or enlightenment in outback Australia. And this is why Jean-Loup's blandness, his largely functional role in the unfolding of the plot, seems unable to carry the weight of the dramatic focus on his character (manifested in his anxiety over his relationship with Duchess and his father, his life and career in Melbourne, his love affair with an Aboriginal woman). His sense of frustration at the closed community, his cultural dislocation, are convincingly evoked, but the effects this has on him are not really explored. At the same time, it is the focus on Jean-Loup himself which causes the other more interesting aspects of the book to remain underexplored.

At times I was reminded of Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright, structured as it is around a city person plunged into a remote rural community, disoriented by all its roughness and insularity. And in the same way the memory of a woman haunts the protagonist of Cook's novel, so the memory of Duchess haunts Jean-Loup. Overall, the various strands of the book - the "mystery" plot revolving around an artistic scandal and a murder, the broader "philosophical" themes, and Jean-Loup's odyssey - are not sufficiently balanced or interwoven for any real substance to emerge from the book, giving it a somewhat sketchy quality.

I could also not help but wonder if this novel would not work better if written in the first person, rather than the third person limited. There is something overtly selective about the moments we are granted access to Jean-Loup's thoughts, as if they are merely to advance the plot rather than to develop his character. If the novel were in the first person, every word would be an indication of character and hence we would gain a greater sense of intimacy or understanding even though he flits through the book as a detached questioner. Towards the end of the novel Jean-Loup observes: "I feel as though I'm being shown the surface of a story, and as soon as I start to explore the next level I get shut out." This is the very story which is being narrated to the reader through Jean-Loup's point of view. As a result, it seems an accurate description of the reading experience. Very postmodern.





van den Berg, Rosemary. "Intellectual Property Rights for Aboriginal People." Oceania Newsletter 20 March (1998) Return to article



Dr Paul Dawson is a lecturer in Writing in the English Department of the University of New South Wales.



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Vol 6 No 1 April 2002
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady