ART - AUSTRALIAN - THE NECESSITY OF AUSTRALIAN ART - REVIEW
Necessity of Australian Art
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,
(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.
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?
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
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
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.