ART - AUSTRALIAN - BERNARD SMITH PROFILE
with Bernard Smith
Melbourne Saturday 22nd July 2000
For use in feature in Bulletin
you get to see the Mertz Exhibition?
a way, to leap from that to where you were first connected with art
through education in schools Do you have any sense of in the way in
which the world the world has changed in the past 60 years, Would the
concerns that got you interested, is education through art still
something that schools should be concerned with.
Yes without question I still think that Herbert Read who made it
world wide in public that the notion of education through art is valid
The idea of allowing Children free expression is psychologically sound..
Of course, things have moved on since then but I don’t think that the
basic position has altered.
the opposite is true with the screen as the page now and the emphasis in
the culture that it has become more important and more possible for
students learning off computers means that so much of what they know
comes from the visual
Yes but one still has to do it oneself and I have been tapping and
computers on all my life but I don’t think that helps people who are
concerned with the visual but is much more concerned with language so
that there is an even greater need to emphasise the use of the hand
visually than in the past.
the education of the visual is more when bombarded by the visual so that
the power of discrimination that comes from making it oneself so that
you learn how hard it is
Precisely. I took to criticism and art history in the late 1940s but I
had been drawing for four or five years before that and then painting.
It was a conscious decision to give up but it taught me a lot about the
difficulty. Of actually doing it
years ago you remarked that historians were still in the Medieval frame
of mind being fixated on the text and fearful of and unable to deal with
the visual as evidence Has that improved?
There has been a considerable improvement so far as some historians are
concerned. They are beginning to realise that when you face an engraving
or painting or any visual object that it is something more than an
illustration for a book. The picture also has a history and to use it
adequately one has to know where it came from and under what conditions
was drawn and what aspects was the originator, the artificer, seeking to
do. It has a history as much as a text has a history and historians are
taught to analyse texts as they emerge.
popular notion of Post Mod with its emphasis on the visual has made this
easier, more acceptable?
I am not sure whether post modernism has an emphasis on the visual
Theoretically it has been the reverse. It has taken place what they call
the linguistic turn which means that all the visual arts are reduced in
the final analysis to language. In my life I have noticed two major
paradigms One is really from Schopenhauer that all art aspires to the
condition of music and from the time that I started around 1940 to take
a serious interest in art history up to the 1960s
Interpretation wasn’t important. Language wasn’t important.
You looked at the shape and the form and that is really what I call the
time of the formalesque Now since the 1960s and 1970s there is a move
over to the linguistic paradigm, but I prefer to call it the turn to
meaning for there was much more than language involved There was
iconography, feminism coming in powerfully and Euro-Marxism. They all
hit the Anglo-Saxon world during the sixties and seventies. It meant
that all art aspired to the condition of meaning, not so much language,
but meaning, so that now interpretation and looking at the structure of
form virtually nothing, In both cases there has been a distortion. You
have to keep a balance. Shape, form, texture, colour and the things that
you see in a sense immediately and this gets us into very deep
philosophical problems by trespassing on the business of phenomenology.
Can we see before we give a meaning to our perceptions and it is in that
central problem is the whole theory of visual arts. We should not get
too far into that. But it has got so far into meaning now that people
like Derrida are trying to argue that when you draw you are virtually
blind because what you are doing is making a move on the surface with
the pencil and you can’t look at what you are drawing because you are
involved with making this movement which seems to me to be absolute
nonsense and reminds me of Zeno’s paradox. If the tortoise goes first
then the hare will never catch him because the tortoise has got a little
bit further. I think that Derrida is trying to say that it is movement
of drawing line is an instantaneous instants and the line
So we do keep our eye on both. is made up of instants. But
visually we don’t look like that. We have images and after images.
When I look at you I don’t see an infinite number of instantaneous
images. Memory comes into
the supposed democratisation of the visual by the introduction of cinema
studies which is associated with the post mod and associated with pop
culture you are saying that the visual is being devaluated.
Yes, because they all dissolve it. They are too much entranced by
the philosophers and have to get back to looking and looking visually at
the object rather than to theorise unduly about it. Philosophers are not
normally in the habit of writing history. Not normally and writing in
the habit of writing art criticism They are quite rightly in the
business of the universal problems of epistemology
there room for pleasure? The sheer pleasure of looking and touching, of
swooning in front of the work?
Precisely because the work has a presence and good art gives you a sense
of pleasure, of fitness. Again it is a great problem to know just why it
happens, that is the beauty of it and the mystery of it and it is
related to our enjoyment of nature and our enjoyment of things very well
put together. I suppose it goes back to the relation of fitness to
function but it is not necessarily that.
and Euro Marxism and post colonialism as sources of meaning have they
made it harder for pleasure so that when you look a painting or a woman
or a colonised person and what people are now trained to do is to
immediately make a political judgment so that it can’t be right
because it was made by a white man and so what you have to do is find
what is wrong with it.
There is a kind of eternal paradox here. Perhaps Gombrich was right.
There is only one norm and that is the classical norm He did not mean
that we all have to draw Greek statues but that when art changed it was
deviation from the norm and progress in an aesthetic sense depended on a
deviation from the classical norm. and there is only one norm not a lot
of other norms. So that you can see in the history of art, the Gothic,
Baroque Rococo, Neo-Classicism even are deviation from an original. That
said, I also believe that Mathew Arnold that all art is a criticism of
society and so we have the problem of art being a critique of society
and yet giving us a kind of pleasure What kind of pleasure is this? Is
it the pleasure of art or the pleasure of criticism? I think the two
things are indubitably linked. All great art has this quality of
criticism and Guernica was the great example in the twentieth century.
Yet there are other kinds of visual pleasure such as the one we get from
a beautifully made pot beautifully formed piece of ceramic art that is
not critical at all in that sense yet is just as real and gets us back
to phenomenology and the meaning of visual pleasure.
are responsible for most of these ideas and their project of teaching,
seminars and conferences and publication. Has the move of the visual
into the academic produced more problems than solutions?
I am sure it has. I was always opposed when I was setting up the
Power Institute against the idea that we should take the studio arts
into the academic courses because I thought, indeed was certain because
I had been to the States and I felt that it had destroyed the great
schools of art in New York and San Francisco had … The Humanities in
the universities are word places and good artists are not
really concerned with the word. They a re concerned with putting
the materials together, with techniques. What it did there was to set up
the Tin Sheds which was a service place like a tennis court or swimming
pool. This sounds
derogatory but it wasn’t that way because it set up a very critical
department during the Vietnam years. And it still goes on and is not
related to getting marks and you don’t have to get a PhD if you are
working in the Tin Sheds. You could work there if you were a professor
or a student and that is the best way to handle it in universities.
importance of the hand in making and was saying earlier that the studio
arts require practice and conceptualisation but those you have been
trained in connoisseurship and art history, do they not need to learn
how to hold a brush and make a mark? So that when they look at someone
else’s finished product, as you yourself had?
This is true. Roger Fry was an artist before he became a critic and I
have noticed that some of the most committed art historians that I know
began that way. Terry Smith and Ian McLean I think they realise how hard
it is. One has to admit that art history and kind of history and has a
history of its own that emerges in the German universities and some very
great art historians who have never been art historians, Panofsky and
we go back to another early strand of your career in art museums and
reflect on their expansion in the past 30 years. Is their contribution
in the Blockbusters that start in 1974 and now come at two or three a
year, what kind of general education for art and art history has the
blockbuster provided? Have Australians become more culturally literate
than when you were having to organise art education in the late 1940s?
I think there have been enormous changes and we had to fight to get a
small popular audience. There were collectors who were very well to do
but the art audience was very small and that has changed for the better.
I have nothing against Blockbusters but it is very difficult if you go
during the ordinary hours as a member of the public because you join a
queue and you look over somebody else’s shoulder before you are pushed
on to the next one so there is physical problem with Blockbusters. I am
not against the major masterpieces of the world moving around. Curators
have concerns about their protection but they were created to be seen
and many were created to be mobile which is why they put frames around
them. I think it is the business of the museums to let people see things
that come from other centuries and other countries.
am not all that keen on contemporary art museums because it is an
oxymoron. I think the place for contemporary art is in the commercial
galleries where it is bought and sold and values are established But as
soon as you put it into a museum you are saying that it has already been
through the business of valuing and is something worthy of presentation.
I can go back to the time when the AGNSW put on a joint exhibition of
Dobell and Preston and it was first time the Gallery had ever put on an
exhibition of living artists and the Art Society complained that the
Gallery was taking over the role of the Society.
were talking about the definition of Modernism and Post-Modernism. What
is your definition of Contemporary?
I think modernism is a kite with a long tail and contemporary is a kite
with a shorter tail while the present is a kite with no tail. The point
about a tail is that it keeps a kite going on a reasonably steady course
into the future but the contemporary with its relatively shorter tail is
more volatile up and down but serves a useful purpose but the present is
extremely volatile, goes up, and up and up and then down to what I might
call yesterday and is no longer with us. I think the modern and the
contemporary can go on quite well and when I first came the art world we
never talked about Modernism but the Modern Movement and we talked about
the contemporary and we always assumed that contemporary was a bit more
the immediate present than the modern but they worked quite well
is interesting because all -isms are retrospective nouns of action and
they come into existence only when the movement they refer to is mature
and thus is likely to have
an end. There were Protestants before Protestantism and Catholics before
Catholicism. I am talking semantically. When the Modern Movement became
Modernism we were moving towards that particular modern movement.
that the movement at which contemporary goes from a small-c to a
I have never thought about that. No, I think contemporary always has a
small-c. That is, it is normative and will never go out of date.
the fifties we got Contemporary Art Societies, using the Capital C.
Contemporary in that case was in a given time and place. Like
to the Blockbusters, mostly about Impressionism and Monet. If you were
to pick a show that Australians most need to see, is there a century or
school that you would like to bring in more of?
One thing about Impressionism is that it gives people a great deal of
pleasure. To my generation they were pleasurable.
They were designed to give pleasure, though Monet and Renoir had
a pretty tough time. and they were not looked at with pleasure at the
time of their creation which means that we do have to seek to give new
forms of visual pleasure by showing work continuously. The generation of
painters who grew up here in the post-war years creating a kind of
reputation for themselves here in the dealer’s market and the popular
mind and there is no reason why they
should not be looked at along with the Impressionists until we find
something else to give us pleasure. There is another paradox here
because the truly creative artists will always seek to create new kinds
of pleasure out of their own anguish and anxiety and it takes
considerable time before that hits the populace and that is why the
immediately popular is always strkes me as a bit of a paradox because it
has to be critical to surive to be good.
other source of pleasure in recent years was the Rembrandt and there is
a big section of the art loving public who wants to see the Old Masters
which are perhaps harder to organise such as the Golden Age of Spanish
and High German masters. Your teaching at Sydney was that people could
understand why was happening here recently if they knew the history of
I have always tried to be quiet critic of society I have always been
a traditionalist and called my first book Place
Taste and Tradition. That goes back to my reading. First I read the
Bible and then I read Marx and at the same time as I was reading Toynbee
who, although he got a lot from Marx indirectly, was a kind of a little
Christian. His Utopianism was that we would get he best out of all the
religions. True also of Theosophy. Against the influence of Marxism with
its emphasis on materialism, which I still take very seriously, there
was the influence of the Bible and Toynbee. But all of them gave me a
sense of what Braudel called the Longue duree, a long history; this is my disposition and that is
related to a sense of value. There is such a thing as a good and bad
art. A Rembrandt will always be regarded, by anyone who takes the time
to look at a lot of art, as a supreme master, just as anyone who spends
years listening to music will always regard Bach as a great master.
These things are set virtually in historical concrete. Against that, the
new generation has to work like hell because to create the new it is not
sufficient to be in the admiration of the past, another paradox.
are you reading at the moment?
I am reading The last of the
Mohicans which I find very difficult to get through indeed. I have
been asked to talk about it in Wisconsin because it is linked in with my
writings about noble and ignoble savages in the Pacific. I find it very
Judith Wright that I should have read some time ago, The
cry for the Dead. Her death partly provoked me into that.
Bordieu on The Rules of Art
who is the one of the French who is most likely to last. Much easier
than Fennimore Cooper.
your tour of the US in October you have nine university seminars
planned. Are these to lead the wretched heathen to the light?
Partly it is. I am mainly concerned and I want seminars not public
lectures to get 25 people to listen, discuss and ask questions. In
public lectures you can’t. You are built up as a VIP and people find
it embarrassing to ask questions in a big audience.
shall call them Modernisms and the Formalesque and inviting them to
address the issues that I am presenting them with.
among anthropologists in the US a major text. Yale did a new edition. On
Connolly’s basis that a book even mentioned ten years after
publication has made its mark. Modernism’s history has disappeared without trace in the US. Why
is there no flow on from the standing of European
BS: Jack Lindsay had a similar
problem. If you go from one area to another, people decide that since
you are specialist in Eighteenth century European and Pacific history,
why should you know anything about twentieth-century art in European and
North America? But I am linking it in my book with my notions of
cultural imperialism. I am
taking a world view. People could say it is Euro-centric but this is
where Modernism began before it was taken up brilliantly in the United
States. The only advantage I’ve got, which I made clear in the book,
is the advantage of distance. Blainey talked about he tyranny of
distance but distancing is also very important in gaining an overview
which is one of the advantages I have. I did not come new to the subject
because I had been teaching it for the greater part of my life. But I
was drawn to write about the art of my country. Not because I am a
nationalist, I never have been, but because I felt like A D Hope who
said that it is our responsibility to deal with our own art and that is
what the rest of the world expects of us. But we must remember that we
are part of a larger world and one of the problems with a lot of my
stuff is that my critics complain that I have thought of Australian art
primarily in terms of its influences from abroad. But this is truth that
we have to confront that we are a samll part of a much bigger world. We
will never overcome this because we are going into an electronic age.
You only have to look at the globe to see that the Southern Hemisphere
consists mostly of salt water and that most of population lives in the
north and that most of the human pressures are going to go on in the
north and we must adjust ourselves to that. It does not mean necessarily
that we will be marginalised but we have to make a virtue of distance.
Not a nationalist but also an critic of
BS: I am certainly drawn by my
generation I would not object to being called
I think that art is not a national thing but
an urban thing. It is essentially in cities, that what I call art in the
special sense It becomes national when the pollies take it on and sayt
hat this is Australian art, two or three represent us in the Biennale.
But it is again when the party is over. Most young artists don’t think
of themselves as nationalists. It is towards the end of their lives that
they like to think that they have made some contribution to their
culture. Arthur Boyd is a typical case. He became Australian of the
year, but in the best sense he was a universalist, he dealt with
universal problems but they were also his personal problems.
You have always lived in the city, never homo suburbiensis.
BS: I started in Burwood but I like to
live in lively places where ideas are going on and have never driven a
car so I have to live close in.
Your concerns with the urban environment,
with preservation, Federation style has been a continuing strand in your
work. Now there is urban infill. Do you get any sense that we are
creating those human pressures that were a source of artistic
creativity. Or is it a new kind of inner city are people who own two
cars and insist on owning a jeep to park under their 50-storey block. Is
it likely that this urbanism and the artists and st8udents drive them
out under the power of real estate.
BS: I don’t know the answer to that
question. There are periods in the history of cities when they provide
the right kind of environment to support artists. Minister of Culture
under de Gaulle Malraux realised that Paris was becoming too expensive
and set up Cite des Artes. I don’t know where that was a solution but
an admission that Paris in the 1960s was not the Paris of the late 19th
century. You could say that similar things might happen here. I do know
that young artists tend to live wherever they can find a place and if
they survive and make a do of it they then go out into the suburbs and
realise they do not need the stimulus of the cities but need isolation
to get on with their work.
We may see a combination of suburbs and
inner cities is being replaced by country towns? The city is now a
conurbation and we may see the smaller town on the edge as the new inner
suburbs for the young or outer suburbs for the old.
BS: Lots of examples such as Taos and
Fontainbleau but also Hill End out of Bathurst etc
[He then talked about another volume of
autobiography, following on from the multiple award winning The
Boy Adeodatus, portrait of a
lucky young bastard 1984
English Connection will be focussed on his wife Kate but including
her adoptive father, Cuthbert, a pedophile, who outlived two wives and
proposed to Kate just before she left for Australia in 1938.
But I had not changed the tape????
So these from scribbled notes:
Hopes to do justice to Kate and her
She gave him spaced, a life, a sophisticated
cultured, was a trained historian, never ambitious, wanted a family and
affection more than sex
She said he was one of the few people who
could control her
Never worshipped him and so kept vanity in
Will also cover his years in London with
Australian artists such as James Gleeson and Bob Klippel, Noel Counihan
and Inge King
Confined to 1940s so that he will have
something to do next by writing about the 1950s
He mentioned a play now on in New York, built
around a meeting between Niels Bohr and Heisenberg and the race for the
bomb. That afternoon is going to a local play called Crazy
Brave with Bohr’s daughter, and taking her a review of the play
from the NYRB.]
Later he will see MTC production of The
Death of a Salesmen.
One of the lines that struck me is
Willy’s ‘attention must be paid’, his plea for dignity, stripped
of dignity by their work but that they are entitled to dignity. A line
in Kurt Vonnegut about even if there were ever enough material goods to
go around there would never be enough dignity. The kind of society that
you grew up and came to consciousness in the 1930s, when there was a
shortage of material things for most people, followed by relative
affluence since the 1940s, are we closer to or further from the idea
that attention must be paid, from dignity.
BS: I get the feeling that we are
moving away from the sense of community and decency. The obvious answer
could be that we all tend to romanticise the past. But I think there is
more to it than that. Capitalism with its emphasis on self-interest
atomised the individuals and gives us less sense of community, help, and
dignity. I have noticed that with the young generation. I think there
has been a falling off. I don’t know what the answer to it be. Can a
purely secular society maintain a sense of community ethical and moral
values or not. Or does it require some kind of religion. With all their
excesses and perversion and fanaticism religions at least had kept the
sense of community going in society. I am not sure that the values of
the enlightenment, in which I grew up, and to which I still belong, can
supply that sense of the community. I do not know.
Rise in popularity of Aboriginal art is
part of our cannibalism of what we take as their spirituality to supply
what the Enlightenment and capitalism cannot provide?
BS: That is an interesting way of
looking at it. Many of us from the beginning realised that it was
Aboriginal that the northern hemisphere was interested in , not European
Australian art. It is only really since the 1970s that the dealers have
really dropped to that. I am ambiguous about it because as I see it it
has provided many, many aborigines with an economic base and it is the
only they can provide an important economic base and give them a sense
of dignity and place and helping to survive their own culture. That is
the positive side.
I see what was called traditional Aboriginal art, taking a very long
view of the matter, is essentially a mode of twentieth century art. To
me, it is the very late phase of the formalesque. If we look at it
closely from the bark paintings to the painting by Emily it reminded me
immediately of Jackson Pollock. The movement has been towards the strong
tradition is towards the values of the formalesque. It is an example of
what someone a long time ago called, and I have to do it in quotes, a
case of the ‘savage hitting back’. First of all, Picasso, if you
like to use the word, ‘cannibalised’ African sculpture and then the
indigenous people in turn produced modernism in the terms of modern art.
me, the more interesting thing is the work of urban aborigines who do
their best to relate their art to their contemporary problems as
Aborigines. That is why I ‘cannibalised’, if that is the word, Les
Murray’s word, ‘convergence’. Both sides of our culture will
benefit from a convergence from Aboriginal art of the critical kind and
the older kind. Not that
the other is unimportant, as I say, because it makes for a survival of a
You once remarked that what the English
liked in Nolan was the primitive.
BS: It is a form a of primitivism.
German tourists, when not hiking through the
Schwartzwald, are hunting the primitive in our desert. That is their
problem and the Aborigines have different problems. We can’t devalue
the latter on the basis of the former.
The exciting moments at those of interaction,
when and wherever the crossover takes place. Fringe dwellers are also
commenting the present as with the car doors at Euendimu.. points of
conflict and contact.
Modern architecture and the kind of house
you could now like to live in but we have to stop somewhere. Dorothy
Green was amused by a cartoon of a man who had gone up to St Peter who
looked through the book of his life to announce’ It appears that you
have done all that you ought to have done except to have read The
Mill on the Floss. Is there something you ought to have done?
BS: There are lots of books I ought to
have read. I ought to have taken more interest in contemporary
Aboriginal art. I have the little I can with the Boyer lectures and the
RAKA award for aboriginal artists and now with the publication of my
wife’s book. I felt it better to stick to my last. I know that I have
probably had more influence on anthropologist and sociologists than on
art historians, though I think of myself essentially as an art
historian. I don’t think that there are all that many art historians
You mentioned before about your not
writing a book on Courbet. Were there other projects that got left
BS: Courbet was the main one. Tim
Clark was working on his book just at the time when I realised that he
was doing it much better than I could. I got involved with other things.
I can’t think of any other major. I got published most of the stuff I
wanted published. Do you think I am finished?
I was thinking what an enormously productive retirement you have had
I can recommend retiring at sixty.
is what I meant by saying that you
as long as it is possible and get to the desk for those hours it
gives a shape to the day. That is what I meant
I have always been a routine man. Since I saw you last, I was absolutely
crippled with arthritis all over me for a couple of months until a
specialist put me on cortisone. It cleared it up completely. Reducing me
from 5 mg to 1 but if it returns we put it up. I kept on working through
that but I would not like to have to. I realise that people who work
even worse things, terminal illnesses, Margaret Kiddle, she got it
of the advantages of being your age is that you can take cortisone and
not worry about the long term.
I asked him about long term effects but he said: “Not at your age’
I said to him the other day about the softening of the bones but
he said that.
must confess that I am an addict since my arthritis because I have been
taking a sedative, not as I don’t take it until 11.30 at night and
then I get four hours perfect sleep. I am awake first thing in the
morning. The doctor said:
With people of your age I don’t mind at all if you become addicts’.
article of his appeared in the special issue of the Tate magazine for
the opening of the Tate Modern.
‘Modernism in its place’ it opens:
next: the infinite regress of Post-Post-modernism?
noting the new Tate is ‘Tate Modern, not Tate Post-Modern’
history conceived in terms of visual styles
called for analysis of the multiplicity and then for some synthesis of
will art historian take courage and give the Modernism of the first half
of the twentieth century a period style name?
this latest Modernism from its present role as the fall-buy of
follow this up with a keynote address to the International Congress of
Art History in London 3-8 September
he will be staying in the Chelsea apartment of Jill, the Duchess of
Hamilton for whose book on the botanical illustrations commissioned by
the Empress Josephine he supplied a preface
paper is far from sedate
it is Bernard the belligerent,
with a frontal assault on the brief given by the conference organisers
who want to dissolve periodisation
accuses them of inviting the profession to teach its grandmother to suck
defends some traditional position but then takes a turn so ‘radical
that no one in the northern hemisphere seems to want to talk about it’
a US tour in October
to go there to get attention, promoting ideas, not self or sales
his book on Modernism as the Formalesque, not formalist
on the afternoon of the interview he was going to see a new Australian
play, Crazy Brave which refers to those who are not just very brave but
who are crazy enough to attempt the new as he is doing in his 85th