I have always been convinced that Australians don’t take their own art as seriously as they do art from elsewhere, from older, more established cultures and civilisations, the Greeks, Romans, Europeans and, more recently, North Americans.
I have always been convinced that Australians don’t take their own art as seriously as they do art from elsewhere, from older, more established cultures and civilisations, the Greeks, Romans, Europeans and, more recently, North Americans. These are the cultures that appear to count more in this country, most notably in our education sector where art history itself is embattled and Australian art history and theory rarely offered on the mainstream syllabus. We acknowledge and respect these other cultures, neglecting our own and our region: our place.
On one level it’s a viewpoint that suggests the doffing of hats and the acceptance of a colonial position whose history is drenched with privilege and genocide. This is also a provincial problem, marked by the fact that this sense of privilege hasn’t caught on or trickled down, so that the often unspoken history of this genocide persists, clouding the nation in guilt and grief. Is it this history, this shame, that white Australian privilege seeks to escape? For here we are residing in a country that boasts the oldest continuous living culture on the planet yet we hardly acknowledge this. We instead turn our gaze outwards, searching the horizon for the global north and the emblematic west, to emulate others elsewhere.
Do we look to elsewhere for ‘better’ histories and cultures in order to alleviate the pain of white guilt, to place contemporary Australia more neatly in the other ‘paler’ civilised world that – ironically - instigated the colonialism in the first place? We study these other cultures prolifically; we write about them, attempt to fit our white culture into the Euro-American canon in a bid to be accepted as ‘good’ white cultured citizens. We buy and consume more American and European culture – films, music, literature as well as visual art - than we do Australian or South-East Asian. We may buy more technology and hardware from the Asia region but we usually deploy it to watch or listen to North American and, to a lesser extent, European voices, images and stories. This is partly to do with globalisation and its popular cultural platforms such as Foxtel and Netflix that filter a Hollywood-rich diet of US and UK options dotted with free-to-air local content.
There have been persistent activist campaigns within the art world to get Australian content in the Biennale of Sydney, with fluctuating responses. But it’s not just the corporate imagination that sets the agenda, it’s also a feeling that Euro-American vision, interpretation and design is better, more respected – after all – it’s international, it’s global. To be Australian is to be nationalist, and for an elite with highbrow aspirations, this brings with it a real threat of downward mobility: the possible association with a would-be underclass assumed to be only interested in sport, meat pies and reality television.
Of course an interest in football doesn’t preclude an interest in would-be ‘high’ culture, but the ‘arty’ AFL supporter is more likely to be reading Deleuze than Terry Smith. Smith springs to mind because of his pivotal essay on provincialism in the Australian art world penned in 1974, albeit published first in the American journal Artforum (September 1974: 54-9). Here Smith outlined our proclivity for the European and the American and he coolly described our psychopathology as a nation of followers. A decade later Paul Taylor, the founding editor of Art & Text, followed up with his essay ‘A Culture of Temporary Culture’ (Summer 1984/5: 94-106) which basically said the same thing but in postmodern language more suited to its time. Taylor was convinced that we were continuously changing tack in a bid to stay fresh and attuned to international trends. This was nowhere more apparent than in the heyday of postmodernism when Australians digested an enormous amount of new French theory, embracing poststructuralism across the university curricula and throughout the art world.
It’s all very commendable in some ways: I’m always blown away by the level of critical discourse in the Australian art world, the amount of artists capable of running intellectual rings around unsuspecting visiting professors from elsewhere is remarkable and the debates thoroughly entertaining. But we lose something in the bid to be constantly on top of radical literature and visual culture from the would-be global north and west. In short we lose our own history and, as a result, we simultaneously lose something of our own gravitas on the world stage. We behave like a pack of overly-excited undergraduates eager to impress but end up regurgitating what the other already knows. It’s clever on an intellectual level, but from this perspective also tragic: what are we trying to prove? Who are we trying to impress?
It’s even more distressing that many of our intellectuals and artists leave Australia altogether, preferring to pursue careers in America or Europe. The brain drain in the last few decades has been damaging as our intellectuals leave to pursue original research elsewhere. Is it because at home no one takes them seriously? Is it because ‘over there’ they are recognised as creative thinkers? We now see the current ‘revolution’ in feminist philosophy, for example, being spearheaded by Australians such as Rosi Braidotti and Elizabeth Grosz from their vantage point in Europe and the US. Terry Smith, who could have arguably become Bernard Smith’s successor as the champion for Australian art history, has worked in America for decades. He still writes occasionally on Australian art but is disadvantaged by not being here. Artists have a history of the grand tour and many stay away for decades and sometimes permanently (Jeffrey Smart, Jill Scott, Tracey Moffatt). It’s such a drain that Artlink ran a feature issue on the topic in December 1998.
In the younger generation there is now a tendency to live both in Australia and overseas as Berlin, London and New York offer them more opportunities not only to be seen but, more importantly I suspect, to be taken seriously (Alex Martinis Roe, Sarah-Jane Norman, Lyndal Walker to name a few). Added to this drain of our intellectual and artistic capital is the fact that relatively few scholars in art history in Australia write on contemporary Australian art at all, preferring to pitch battle with Americans and Europeans on their own turf. We have generations of Australian Renaissance scholars, all experts on Italian culture from the Quattrocento. More recently, we see scores of PhD students researching American modernists and postmodernists hoping to publish the next acclaimed monograph on Robert Smithson or Cindy Sherman.
It is not only that scholars believe their efforts will be better rewarded elsewhere, that their careers will be enhanced by association with universities overseas, but that they believe that the American-European canon will enhance their standing in the field. Put bluntly, even just anecdotally most of our students are not interested in Australian art, or, not interested enough to write a PhD or MA length thesis on it. Another book on a long-dead Italian or a living American legend is preferred as the career path of choice. This begs many questions, not least of all: How did the university curricula fail to inspire young scholars to write about Australian art? There are thousands of monographs and essays that need to be written about Australian art and visual culture, the neglect is palpable, the opportunities for original research enormous.
Where are the generations of art historians building on the ground breaking work of the American anthropologist Eric Michaels?(1) The monographs exploring the ways in which contemporary Aboriginal painting has reinvigorated appreciation for abstract expressionism and the New York School?(2) Why are our professors saying to postgraduates: ‘Oh great, another thesis on Smithson?’ Why aren’t they steering young minds towards Australian art? The answer is simple: they don’t believe it’s a good career move. They think they shouldn’t interfere.
There still persists in white Australia across the board – and in the art world and university cultures in particular – a stigma, a feeling of being not quite good enough. But this doesn’t really stack up in an objective analysis or a comparison with the cultures overseas. Despite this history of neglect, Australia has a thriving contemporary arts industry. Many artists, critics, curators, gallery directors, public and philanthropic funding bodies and individuals have worked tirelessly for decades to nurture the visual arts. There is never enough money, particularly now that the full carnage of the Brandis cuts are starting to be made visible: arts administrator and artists bemoan the state of arts funding, and private benefactors are thin on the ground compared to their American and European cousins.
Yet the energy and enterprise of those committed to Australian art is compelling. In the last fifty years the growth in the contemporary visual arts sector has been dynamic and has given rise to many more opportunities for artists to exhibit both at home and overseas via the art fairs and biennales that now punctuate the global calendar. Funding bodies have also facilitated the export of Australian art through prolonged residency programs that allow artists to work overseas for short periods of time. The growth in privately run art galleries during this time has played a very significant role through marketing contemporary art and hence growing audiences and markets nationally and internationally. Museums and publicly funded galleries have also expended great efforts to maintain and grow their publics. The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane stands apart for its Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, which has been exhibiting art from our region since 1993 and boasts that 2.2 million visitors have attended this exhibition. The National Gallery of Victoria started paying attention to its specific locale in its blockbuster exhibition Melbourne Now (2013) while the Art Gallery of NSW regularly showcases Australian art. People are paying attention.
The growth in the production, exhibition and distribution of Australian art is a story waiting to be told. But like many great stories emanating from the sector, there are not enough scholars interested in critically examining this era of contemporary art. We could point to a few big histories or analyses of themes or genres, but in terms of book-length studies on the ‘big picture’ there has not been much scholarship.(3) There’s more, of course, if we consider specialist areas, individual artist’s monographs, survey exhibition catalogues and scholarly journals, but catalogues and journals are only widely accessible to those with an affiliation to a university library.
At the same time that we are registering the scholarly neglect of our visual culture, there has been a burgeoning of the higher education system in Australia and exponential growth in the visual arts Masters and Doctoral programs in our art schools. Concurrently there has been a rapid shrinkage in art history and visual culture studies in the universities. So at the same time as we are actively encouraging the production of more contemporary art, we are culling the potential for future scholarship. The arts industry is starting to experience the dearth of professional arts writers, trained administrators and curators who have a solid knowledge of Australian and contemporary art.
What can be done about the state of the knowledge that we have lost or are in the process of loosing so that the history of the visual arts over the last 50 years can be told? The most important thing would be to examine the school and university curricula and re-assess the emphasis that is being given to the Euro-American tradition. Money could be thrown at the problem – more grants, scholarships, and mentoring programs. A cultural tax could be introduced. But all of these things combined will not cure the national cultural melancholy, the feeling of inferiority. It will take a long time.
Yet what can be done immediately is this: we must archive, collect, store and protect. A lot of different groups and individuals need to do this to create a critical mass. Leaving it up to major institutions will, by default, mean that specialist histories and deep genre histories (especially experimental and ephemeral practices) will be lost amidst the weight of the mainstream, which is more likely to be judged according to Euro-American standards. Aboriginal art and culture needs special attention and a concerted and long-term affirmative action plan that will provide the financial means for practice and dedicated research across communities.
The digital world allows a democratisation of this archival project: it encourages us to store in the cloud. There are many archives in the cyber sphere jostling for attention, but not a lot of Australian material. The ones that spring to mind are: the Scanlines project at UNSW which collects media art since the 1960s (www.scanlines.net), the Australian Women’s Art Register (www.womensartregister.org), Stephen Jones magnificent personal archive of experimental video, performance and media art, smaller collections that I have been involved with like www.australianphotographers.org and the Australian video art archive (www.videoartchive.org.au) both of which were initiated by data collection from Australian Research Council projects. Most big universities are alert to data collection from research projects and some have archives that are publicly accessible. But since there is very little research on Australian art these repositories will not be as useful as they might have been for researchers in the sector.
Archiving is something we can do now. It’s an active investment in the future that creates storehouses of data for coming generations who may feel differently about their culture and want to write about it. This activity may appear small, local, and insignificant by world standards. It will not be the beginning of a Smithsonian in Australia but it will build on what has already been done and it will substantiate a practice of doing and caring for Australian culture. Archiving can be done on a personal, local and national scale. Stephen Jones’ archive in Sydney has certainly inspired others, most notably those committed to Scanlines. Jones’ research, drawing on his archive, was written up as a PhD and subsequently published with MIT Press proving that the North Americans are not adverse to publishing Australian content. But more needs to be done especially in the area of scholarship. Building a robust story about all aspects of contemporary Australian art and its histories will provide a more engaging presence for the wider cultural sphere thus growing multifarious publics to support, appreciate and nurture dynamic cultures. The Americans and Europeans have been doing it for themselves for centuries. This is how they became great cultures in the first place. It’s about time that Australia adopted a similar methodology: making art history is about writing and publishing as much as it is about production and exhibition.
(1) Eric Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
(2) Rex Butler recently analysed this phenomenon in his paper “What was Abstract Expressionism? Abstract Expressionism after Aboriginal Art”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 14:1, 2014, 76-91. See also Ian McLean, How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art, Sydney: Power Publications, 2011, and by the same author, the recently released Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art, London: Reaktion, 2016.
(3) Big picture histories include: Bernard Smith (with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote), Australian Painting 1788-2000, South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001 (Fourth edition, first published 1961); Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, West Melbourne: Nelson, 1980; Alan McCulloch, The Encyclopedia of Australian Art, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994 (Third edition); Charles Green, Peripheral Vision: Contemporary Australian Art 1970-1994, Roseville East NSW: Craftsman House, 1995; Anne Marsh, Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980, South Yarra: Macmillan, 2010; Sasha Grishin, Australian Art: A History, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press/Miegunyah Press, 2015.