The Necessity of Australian Art
By Ian Burn, Charles Merewether, Ann Stephen, Power Publications
Review in Art Monthly, May 1989, pp. 7-9.

Dear Bernard,
“I’ve been sent The Necessity of Australian Art for comment and discover that you’ve been leading me, and a flock of others, astray by taking art works as the focus for your criticism, and not the art institutions. Seems you should have been born William Moore and not Michael Tierney.

One fruitful aspect of this allegation is its prompting me to put some questions I’ve wanted to ask you for some time. Perhaps we could conduct this interview by post? Before the first question direct, here are a few background thoughts from which to develop particular queries later.

1.The Necessity of Australian Art moves from your first book, Place, Taste and Tradition (1945), to your next survey,  Australian Painting (1962), without stopping to consider the catalogue you compiled for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, or European Vision in the South Pacific (1960), surely the pivotal research in our oeuvre. Though concerned mostly with the products of non-Australians, and stopping at 1850, the investigations for your doctoral thesis that went into European Vision provided the occasion for you to think a way through how ideas and techniques operate against and around each other. From that point, you developed an attitude to the relations between the world and its observers, independently of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. The Art Gallery Catalogue supplied some, if by no means all, of the raw data that you needed to fill Australian Painting with the density of detail that you had lacked when preparing Place, Taste and Tradition.

So, Australian Painting was quite some distance away from Place, Taste and Tradition because of amore refined materialist method by a more plentiful stock of information. The concepts about perception that you developed for European Vision combined with the information you had acquired while composing it and the Catalogue. The links between empirical investigation and visual conceptualisation were the processes you discussed in European Vision, while your own writings were undergoing a case study in that interlock of data collection and concept formation, which transformed what you henceforth wrote about the visual.

Assuming that I have got your trajectory more or less right, did you relate what you found out about the vision of Europeans to your ways of seeing? How do you explain this connection today?

2. These epistemological elements were being worked through in an altered ideological climate, and were fashioned by our personal and political reaction to the Cold War. In the mid-1940s you could be aggressively anti-fascist. By the late 1950s, reasons multiplied for not being so openly radical.

To account for Australian Painting requires asking how the improved theoretical apparatus from European Vision, and your expanding information base, connect with those political drifts and career opportunities.

These political aspects need to be seen in terms of the demographic developments that were making employment opportunities available. Jobs for anyone had been hard to come by. That began to shift during the 1950s with a move towards professionalism throughout the economy. Your doctorate was one of the first undertaken in Australia.

So the political degutting of Australian Painting needs to be located in the context of the doors then opening to large numbers of Australians who acquired certificates of competence during the post-war boom in bureaucratization associated with the Menzies era. You could become a curator without a Diploma in Curatorial Studies – none such existed here.

The depoliticized tone of Australian Painting has to be heard through the tooting of a Holden, the squeak of a Hills hoist and the spluttering drone of the Victa mower, that is, through the changes wrought on the working classes by the mass marketers, with their televised stimuli into hire-purchase debt traps. This mass market state provided one of he bases for the art market that sprang into live around 1960. I am persuaded neither by William Moore nor by The Necessity of Australian Art that there was an art “boom” in the 1920s. As Marx said of John Stuart Mill: on the level plain even a tiny mound can loom like a mighty peak.

To say that Australian Painting involved a political retreat does not mean it was a sell-out. You did not travel the road taken by Greenberg. To some extent, you expressed your values by the space you allotted to different artists, especially those you either left out or merely listed. Even the 1971 edition of Australian Painting remained radical, by going to the root of social relations, in a way which the coruscations from Robert Hughes’s The Art of Australia (1966) could not match, no matter how heavily he lent on your books.

3. A connected point crystallised when I red The Boy Adeodatus (198 ), though I did not raise it in my review for the Sydney Morning Herald because its explication needed too many lines, more than I have now.

The cultural cringe is seen usually as a relation between Australia and other places. I don’t deny that aspect, though it is a phrase I try to avoid using since its reiteration reinforces the very attitudes it is supposedly attacking. Inside Australia, another strand of cultural cringing operates for those of us making our way between classes. You were taken into a family for whom the university seemed as remote as Mars. Shifts for the survival of capitalism required that thousands like you move from the ranks of the so-called unskilled proletarians into the strata of intelligentsia. Students from families where European high culture was an accepted experience did not inherit so great an uncertainty about where to aim. Outsider status allowed some noveaux pensants to fulfill ambitions that might never have been approached if you had grown up knowing where the limits were supposed to be. Sir Sid Nolan is an instance of how far this anxiety might conduct a tram-driver’s lad; Arthur Boyd is, as for so much else, a perfect foil, his doubts being grounded in a long family acquaintance with European cultures. Somewhere in these criss-crossing is a theme about the drive and tone of Australian cultural and social scientific life, its abrasiveness and retreats. As an immigrant society, new waves of outsiders keep on being stirred into the intelligentsia.

Treating the previous paragraph as a rough sketch, we can proceed to a few of the questions provoked by reading The Boy Adeodatus.

When you returned to Sydney to head the Power Institute and the Fine Arts Department, you had to deal with the Point Piper crush, with your scholarly reputation being in Australian studies. Herald editor, John Douglas Pringle, wrote of ???????. Did you feel any need to prove that the commo bastard was mater of the bourgeoisie’s game?  Was your liking for the term “taste” an indicator of this internalized class struggle? (“Taste” is more revealing about your approach than “style”.)

4. Which carries me to what might be considered to your anti-nationalism in art. How ironic that anyone could have seen The Antipodean Manifesto as a blast for Australiana. Some of your resistance came from your experience with National Culture under the Nazis and their local admirers. I wonder whether your attachment to the study of European art was more than just the pedagogical point that we cannot know European Australia without knowing Classicism, Christianity and the Renaissance, a point I accept.

You have now made your peace with Norman Lindsay, which did not surprise me, because his “nationalism” was similar to yours in as much as he wanted what he took to be the best for Australia, namely, the Renaissance.

A noticeable feature of your years at Sydney was that they did not coincide with a rush of studies about Australian art, such as those that had come earlier from Melbourne into the Lansdowne series. The émigré, Franz Phillip, could do write on Arthur Boyd and supervise post-graduates on the Heidelberg painters because he was secure in his Europeanness. As one measure, we could tote up the theses on Australian topics while you were in charge, and how many of them got Firsts.

5. Paralleling this gap between your writing about Australia and your not promoting others to do so has been the emphasis you give to craft as a practice without your having written its history, with a partial exception for printmaking.

Ages ago, I read a review in the Times Literary Supplement (13 January 1978) by Hugh Sykes-Davies in which he observed how great a shock he had got to find his youthful writings and friendships being used as raw material for an account of the 1930s. He did not condemn the younger man because his interpretation differed from Davies’s memory of those times. On the contrary, the disparity led him to doubt what he himself had written about other authors.

Bernard Smith responded in Art Monthly, June 1989, pp. 2-5.