Truth, Beauty, and Pintupi Painting

Fred R. Myers

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This paper is concerned with the historical development of acrylic painting on canvas for commercial sale by Western Desert Aboriginal people. It is argued that Pintupi paintings should be understood within a special interplay between producer and consumer as one point (among many) of accommodation and/or interpretive struggle between an Aboriginal people and broader Western society. I begin by showing how Pintupi evaluate their productions in a new sociocultural context, stressing its continuity with religious tradition. At one level there is a conflict between Western and Pintupi standards of evaluating visual form—with Westerners emphasizing “beauty” and Pintupi stressing the paintings’ truth value as coming from the Dreaming. But the material conditions of producing, distributing, and appreciating this symbolic form have changed, and new potentials have been generated for form, leading to changes. At another level, however, it is a resistance of Pintupi painting to domination by European forms which makes it saleable in the West as authentic, ironically reinforcing the traditional evaluations. Nonetheless, it is necessary to ask whether the painting as a form, stylistically, affects its value or significance for Pintupi. To address the question of “aesthetic function, ” I draw on Jakobson to develop a more general conception of incipient sensibilities for the materiality of signs, of changing dominant communicative functions in the production of visual form.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)163-195
    Number of pages33
    JournalVisual Anthropology
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Jan 1 1989

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Cultural Studies
    • Anthropology


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