Art History For Artists or For Others

Thomas looks at the role of Australian art history within many of the countries leading undergraduate art courses. Discussed in relation to art museums and globalised art practice. Artists featured in this text are Robert Macpherson, Rover Thomas, Sydney Long, David Hansen, Tommy McCrae, Howard Taylor, Hossein Valamanesh and Tony Tuckson.

Undergraduate courses in the full history of Australian art are dwindling in the universities, says Joanna Mendelssohn, the commissioning editor for this issue of Artlink. So what about big broad-sweep exhibitions in the art museums? Are exhibitions like those I was involved with in the 1980s still possible?

Well, yes. I'm sure big comprehensive exhibitions are still hugely enjoyed by the broadest audiences. Indeed I believe they expect them. Remember, non-art museums use the term 'exhibition' for any public display, whether long-term or short. A visitor to what art museums might call a 'collection display', prepared and managed with very different kinds of energy and money than a temporary or touring show, is undergoing much the same experience as a visitor to a 'special exhibition'.

First, however, I wonder if the shrinking demand is chiefly within art-practice schools, like the University of NSW College of Fine Arts. What about traditional art-history schools? Though I think it might be relatable to shrinkage at Monash and Latrobe, undergraduate courses in Australian art are in fact flourishing, they tell me, at the University of Melbourne's school of Art History, Cinema, Classics & Archæology, and postgraduate studies are at full capacity. Elsewhere undergraduate demand for Australian art history might be steady whereas higher studies are active, for example at the University of Sydney's Department of Art History & Theory.

By the time this issue of Artlink appears Sydney should have filled its new half-time post, the Nelson Meers Foundation Lectureship in Australian Art History. The nation's only full-time designated Lecturer in Australian Art History is apparently Susan Lowish at Melbourne. She offers Indigenous plus whitefella Australian art, from early colonial to Ocker Pop; integration of the Indigenous and settler streams of Australian art history is the current trend nationwide. Almost everywhere, for example the University of Queensland, lecturers have to be multi-skilled, delivering international art as well as Australian. At Melbourne Charles Green, previously at UNSW's COFA, gives courses on contemporary Australian art and on international Biennales, no doubt similar to what the art students demanded in Sydney.
It looks as if young art-makers, as distinct from student art-historians or curators, prefer to turn up only for what's current in the biggest art markets, whether Australian or foreign. Surely it was ever thus.

For example, in June 1889, when we assume Melbourne art might have been as assertively Australianist as Tom Roberts's Shearing the rams, critic Fred Broomfield in The Centennial Magazine described how around that moment 'The great bulk of paintings would have represented&memories of Brittany, recollections of Florence, bits of Normandy, studies of Italian peasants, and sketches of Flemish horses'. Foreign, non-modern content apparently sold well in boomtime Marvellous Melbourne. Roberts' bush folk, at work in a small, obsolescent, low-tech woolshed, fitted that Continental template well, though his style was one of the latest fashions from Paris, namely Naturalism.

Young art-museum collection curators, loving all kinds of art, and starry-eyed about art-makers, are often shocked by artists' tunnel-visioned careerism. As Barnett Newman said in mid-twentieth-century New York, 'Art history is for artists what ornithology is for the birds'. (These days the remark is sometimes adjusted to 'Art theory is&') Art teachers forty or fifty years ago in Sydney seemed to know or care little about Australian art of the past when they conducted students around their local art museum. One excuse, to be fair, was the absence of a usable text before the appearance of Bernard Smith's Australian Painting 1788–1960. Those art teachers really wanted to see what was marketable, either in terms of sales or media attention: Monet or Picasso or Abstract Expressionism or some now-forgotten avant-garde movement, or Drysdale or Whiteley, but not John Glover or Tom Roberts or Rupert Bunny.

There's a difference today, and it's a good difference. It's not just the hot work at the international art centres that art students and young artists want to know about and emulate or challenge. Australian practice as well as the culture has become globalised.

Since the 1970s the Biennale of Sydney and many other international exhibitions of new art have connected our practitioners to the international centres of influence. Art-makers no longer feel isolated in dusty, provincial despair at the wrong end of the world. They can make contact right here with the overseas critics, exhibition curators or dealers who pass through. Their dealers and the government cultural agencies push more energetically overseas. There is also the hugely increased ease of international travel, both in terms of cost and in generous grants and scholarships. (Samstags for almost everyone?) It feels possible to take on the world.

The new fearlessness means that many Australian artists of the past decade or so are multi-based, with studios and dealers and exhibitions in California, Cologne, New York or Tokyo as well as in Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide. For them, when young, it was not an urgent need to know about Von Guérard's and Tom Roberts' works when grappling with new media technologies, with what was new in the magazines and exhibitions – and with current cultural theory, a necessity for students once art schools were no longer stand-alone craft-based studios but instead uneasily attached to universities.

Popular culture never needed any knowledge of its regional history or theory. Our rock musicians of the Seventies had always inhabited a globalised world of broadcast, recorded and filmed performance. Long before our visual artists, the music-makers – like birds happily ignorant of ornithology – assumed as a matter of course they could take on America and Europe, and did so.

Today's artists, once their careers are going strong, sometimes make interesting appropriations from Australian art history. But, like Roberts taking up French Naturalism in the 1880s ('French theory' avant la lettre), they usually do it within the overseas cultural-studies templates of, say, gender, ethnicity or post-colonialism.

And of course some mature artists, just like any member of the broad museum-going public, browse randomly and plug into the aesthetic charge from, say, a surprising minimalist geometry in Max Meldrum's gum trees or from a bracing glow of flesh in Bonnard's or Tiepolo's human bodies.

Art consumption is very different from art production. Consumers are greedy, they like profusion, lots of choices. Bossy, tightly-themed exhibitions are at home in small college and university galleries but if they make it to a big state gallery such exhibitions can irritate the general run of gallery-goers. According to museological studies, viewers usually linger upon a single work of art, perhaps take note of a couple of immediately adjacent works, and seldom show much interest in an overarching exhibition structure or thesis; that's for the specialists, it's 'ornithology', not everyday art-consumption.

So yes, Joanna, I think there will always be audiences for big broad-sweeping surveys of Australian art. Not because they might offer strong views on identity politics, as she thinks some of my exhibitions did in the 1980s, but rather because comprehensiveness is a prime attraction; various works can speak differently to various members of the audience, sneak up on them with insights into the viewer's selfhood, or give them a fright.

David Hansen's John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque was, in 2003–04, the most recent big-budget Australian exhibition toured by Art Exhibitions Australia (AEA). Its title was a calculated gesture towards academic art history (the Picturesque was a barely interesting late-eighteenth-century English movement in appreciation of Nature) and towards cultural theory (present-day Postcolonialism). In fact the actual exhibition experience was intensely ecological, an involvement with animals, humans and plants and an immersion in earth, air and water. Audiences loved Glover's environmentalism: Aborigines in and out of waterholes, or dancing in a eucalyptus-scented dusk, or hunting and gathering alongside settlers at fruitful agricultural work with flocks and crops.

Was AEA's The Great Australian Art Exhibition: 200 years of art 1788–1988 (whose exhibition book was titled Creating Australia), the only vast-sweeping show that has toured all six states in living memory? It happened because there was huge money for Bicentennial projects and a prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, who, years in advance, committed himself strongly to the Bicentenary. On accession, in 1975, he had for a short while stopped all National Gallery expenditure on foreign art, not understanding that its role was outside stimulation as well as self-awareness.

For the innocent, unspecialised eyes at which we aimed that 200 years of Australian art, the most-loved work might have been Sydney Long's The Spirit of the Plains, a naked lady dancing with brolgas and art nouveau gum trees. 'Ah', they said, 'the freedom; like a white Aborigine'. Hansen's Glover exhibition did not, in fact, couple the artist's 1838 Natives on the Ouse River, Van Diemen's Land with his same-date immersion of white settlers in the same midsummer waters, his Baptism on the Ouse River, Van Diemen's Land, though other works did convey aesthetic delight coupled with present-day cultural surprise about early-colonial white Aboriginality.

Anniversaries trigger biggest-budget events, but the key Australian anniversaries, of 1788 Colonisation and 2001 Federation, won't come round again for a long while. Smaller full-sweep surveys are sometimes designed for overseas cultural propaganda, say for exchange with China. Since the advent of Crown Princess Mary, Danes are curious about Australia, so maybe we should foist a survey exhibition on Copenhagen as a way of instigating another comprehensive sweep, and then enjoy the local showings back here. Such anthologies assemble works from many collections, so besides their comprehensiveness they contain the secret weapon of greater aesthetic excellence than is found in a single collection-display.

Innocent eyes don't necessarily realise what they're responding to, but they always assume the presence of aesthetic force and they do not respond to lesser works. On the other hand, trained cultural-studies or art-history eyes don't necessarily care whether the art is of high quality, since they are feeding on other aspects of the object. Australia's collection displays should in principle be perfectly good substitutes for big special-event exhibitions, but in fact are not; nearly all of them are still too parochial, and decidedly uneven in quality.

The Art Gallery of NSW, for example, began to acquire paintings by southern-colonies Glover and Von Guérard only in my time, a century late; Piguenit offered the sole aesthetic thrills within acres of colonial painting. Also belatedly, we filled out Sydney's own early modernism by Cossington Smith, Crowley and Balson; Melbourne modernism by Nolan, Boyd and Tucker was even weaker though it's now hugely improved at AGNSW. Highest-quality work from Perth, Adelaide or Brisbane is so seldom given an appropriate presence in the collection displays in Sydney and Melbourne that when Howard Taylor, Hossein Valamanesh or Robert MacPherson reached the MCA recently from interstate the Sydney public was astonished. MacPherson might be the best senior artist working at present in Australia but is inadequately present in the collection displays nationwide.

You can't learn about the range and excellence of Australian art from the aging art-history books. Bernard Smith's and Robert Hughes' were about painting only, and whitefella art only. They fail us by omitting or short-changing several of the best painters from after their time, Tony Tuckson as well as MacPherson. Their narrow terms of reference prevented them introducing Klippel's nervous-energy sculptures, Hanssen Pigott's beautiful ceramics, or Rover Thomas' Aboriginal encounter with outback bitumen – let alone the unnerving content and terrific artistic vitality of Tommy McCrae's sardonic, funny drawings in which a nineteenth-century Aborigine laughed at drunken settlers and marvelled at William Buckley, inserted into a corroboree line-dance, the real-life early-colonial white man who lived for thirty-two years as a black.

The full sweep of Australian art history is intensely stimulating, yet the books most widely available, and the big-city collection displays, fail to make it sufficiently so. That must partly explain why young art students don't demand it when they enrol.

NGV Australia at Federation Square in Melbourne was expected to provide the great big-city collection display, since its colonial and Edwardian art and its decorative arts have always been far better than AGNSW's. It has been a disappointment. After an exciting start, NGVA began to hand over more than half its space to temporary exhibitions, it doesn't always include its decorative arts in the collection displays, scarcely includes drawings and watercolours at all (though photography gets a good go), and sometimes most of the twentieth century seems to have disappeared. Melbourne and Sydney both display their Indigenous art in its own extensive galleries, which is fine provided you also integrate some Indigenous art into the galleries that offer the full chronological sweep.

Until a new generation of books is published, and until AGNSW offers a less parochial and higher-quality collection display and NGVA stops displacing its better collection with too many monster-sized temporary exhibitions, all you can do is visit the smaller cities of Adelaide and Canberra. The state galleries in Perth and Brisbane of course hold many fine works, but a lot of AGWA's early Australian art is hidden in a dispiriting heritage building that government persuaded them to take over, and QAG's recent prosperity still leaves it well short of comprehensiveness.

Only the collection displays at the National Gallery of Australia since it opened in 1982, and at the Art Gallery of South Australia since long before that, have consistently presented the whole story of Australian art, chronologically, geographically and culturally, and in all media, and done so, moreover, with works of sufficiently high quality to engage a broad audience. So at present the collection displays in Canberra and Adelaide are the only available 'texts' in which the history of Australian art looks complicated, surprising, self-revelatory and alarming; in short, interesting.

No wonder young art students throughout most of Australia have seemed uninterested.
As for national identity right now, I think there are three significant pointers: those few innocent, interested responses that I have mentioned to 'white Aboriginal' subject matter; the frequency with which politicians and corporate tycoons get themselves photographed for the press beside the desert dot paintings that decorate their workplaces; and the recent strong demand for Indigenous Australian art history, including demand from foreign students. These are responses, respectively, to a feeling of shared ecological responsibility for a shared homeland; the sheer beauty of contemporary Aboriginal art; and to the fact that it's a living tradition whose extreme, many-thousand-year antiquity drastically alters the onetime perception that Australia was too young a country to be interesting.

One of Margaret Preston's Aphorisms about how to be original and modern in Australia in 1929 was 'Be Aboriginal'. We're beginning to follow her suggestion.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.