Impasse: Art in Australia from Colonization to Postmodernism

Book review Impasse: Art in Australia from Colonization to Postmodernism by Christopher Allen Thames and Hudson 1997 RRP $19.95

Christopher Allen's Art in Australia is the first all-new history of Australian art to appear since the 1960s. Much has happened since then - not only have thirty years of art slipped under the bridge, so have thirty years of art history. It is those recent developments in art history as an academic discipline which give Allen's book its shape, structure and method. It is, in a word, postmodern art history. That last sentence may well bring a groan of exasperation from its author. He has already penned a splenetic response to a less than favourable review in The Australian (a Giles Auty hatchet job), disowning (amongst other things) any postmodern inclinations. And it is true, Allen is very unpostmodern on some points. For instance, he hoes into a good number of established postmodern reputations. Appropriators in general get short shrift. Juan Davila is singled out for a drubbing, and Imants Tillers escapes with a caution. Allen occasionally comes out with opinions so conservative they might make Giles Auty blush. For instance, bemoaning Brett Whiteley's wasted ability, he suggests young Brett "would have benefited from the discipline of an academic apprenticeship and the imposed subjects of traditional commissions". His language is thankfully free of postmodern jargon. He only once invokes the authority of a French theorist (Pierre Bourdieu), and even here, presents the relevant theoretical aspects quite clearly (!). Moreover, Allen's opinions are rarely 'politically correct'. Although he makes the odd polite gesture, his position tends toward the 'courageous' in our current political climate. A timeline, for instance, (an "essential reference" the blurb on the back assures us) lists fourteen "influential artists" since 1950. Somehow, none them are women. Similarly, Allen does not mince his words in rejecting the 'invasion' theory of European colonization: [T]erra nullius, only recently revoked, has been the occasion of great indignation and derision. In an historical perspective, however, it must also be seen as a genuine misapprehension arising out of a massive cultural disparity.

Presumably, Art in Australia will sit very comfortably on the Prime Ministerial bookshelf! Yet despite this broad rejection of postmodern taste, language and politics, Art in Australia still seems to me essentially postmodern in approach. Let me explain: Allen points out that Australia seems always to have received its styles from elsewhere; we have had Australian impressionists, post-impressionists, cubists, surrealists, abstractionists, pop artists, ... and now, Australian postmodernists. But for Allen, no style is simply received: the history of Australian art, so far as it merits a history of its own, is the history of our adaptation of these foreign styles to our own unique purposes. Accordingly, this grounds Australian art deep in the broader currents of Australian history. Art becomes part and parcel of the history of our coming to terms with our unique physical, social and political environment. It is the uniqueness of this environment and our changing relation with it that gives Australian art meaning beyond being "a series of colonial footnotes to developments in the West over the last two centuries." Put so generally, this position may sound innocuous. Yet Allen's art history is militantly revisionist. His evaluation of the achievement of the Heidelberg school is a case in point: For the first time the dry land, the harsh glare, the scrawny trees appear beautiful, not because painters had finally solved the technical problems of representing them, but because they had discovered the historical and political vision which made it possible to build a home among them. This approach to art history (often called the 'new' art history) is characteristic of postmodernism. As physicists reduce everything to talk of atoms and quarks, so the postmodern art historian reduces everything to talk of ideology and social identity. In the above account of the Heidelberg school, Allen's focus on the group's role in shaping national identity goes hand in hand with a denigration of the group's other values, such as the imitation of nature and the pursuit of 'beauty'. In my eyes, Allen's reductivist explanation of this 'beauty' in terms of an "historical and political vision" grossly misrepresents what is generally meant by the term, pointedly ignoring issues of naturalism and formal values. If Allen is to give a plausible account of the value of the art of this period, he must be prepared to admit a broader range of art-historical explanation. Still, if you can stomach his over-zealous revisionism, Allen's approach also affords moments of stimulation and genuine insight. Isolated pieces of analysis are indispensable. The comparison of Streeton and Conder is particularly ingenious and a running analysis of Aboriginal presence in Australian art is, despite the earlier quote, sensitive and illuminating The new art history tends to encourage other errors in thinking. Some of the worst stem from the widespread habit of using artworks to 'illustrate' history as the art historian sees it, or thinks it ought to be seen. Possessed by a visionary fervour, art historians can overlook the simple facts of a situation, bending reality until it conforms with their own preconceptions. Allen too cannot quite restrain himself. His bizarre treatment of Hans Heysen seems driven by a desire to interpret his paintings as a melancholic paean to the loss of 'the bush'. Of Red Gold, he writes, The cattle pass - like a symbol of man's inexorable herding and exploitation of nature. It is sunset, as so often in Heysen's paintings, and the mood is one of silent melancholy. Allen bends his facts in order to secure his interpretation. Heysen painted few sunsets and Red Gold is unusual in this respect. Presumably, Red Gold's roseate glow, being most amenable to Allen's preconceived ideas, has come to permeate Heysen's whole oeuvre in Allen's memory. It is all but impossible to describe Heysen's paintings as "melancholic", let alone as symbolic of man's "exploitation of nature" when faced with his typical watercolours of sunny countryside. There is a more sophisticated trick new art historians can use to explain away art work that does not fit (i.e. illustrate) their view of history. They claim that the recalcitrant artwork 'represses', 'sublimates' or in some other way reacts against the real facts of the historical situation. As a reaction against its historical situation, an artwork can be just as much an expression of its place and time as those works which more obviously embody these concerns. This should be sobering - any theory which can explain everything so easily is bound to have some drawbacks. Yet some art historians find this intoxicating - being able to explain everything (however spuriously) perhaps gives them a sense of art-historical omnipotence.

Allen treads this difficult territory in his account of the post World War II rise of abstraction. He begins by observing that, the 'international' avant-garde itself originally appeared to offer an escape from Australian provincialism, an attempt to shrug off the burden of a specifically Australian art history. From here, one might naturally assume that the problems of Australian identity figure less prominently in Australian 'internationalist'art than in earlier overtly 'Australian' art. But using the aforementioned trick, Allen proceeds to deduce the exact opposite of what you might reasonably expect: "'internationalist' artists...", Allen reasons, "are once again implicated in a specifically Australian set of concerns."
'Internationalists', it seems, are just as provincial as the rest of us. There is no escape from Allen's analysis: Whatever you do, be it paint half-caste brides, or post-painterly abstractions, you inevitably "implicate" yourself in "a specifically Australian set of concerns". And to deny these implications is simply to implicate yourself further. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. Consider Tony Tuckson. According to Allen, his 'internationalist' abstract expressionist work is a prime example of the reaction against provincialism - an instance of "escapism", as Allen calls it. But this tells us little or nothing about the value of his art. Most importantly it fails to distinguish Tuckson from the raft of inferior 'escapee' gestural abstractionists - each of whom would have made an equally good example of 'escapist' tendencies of the time. For an art history to be illuminating it has to make and explain these distinctions - it has to tell us why Tuckson is worth looking at and, say, Stanislaus Rapotec is not. Fortunately, at certain isolated points, Allen seems to perceive the deficiency of his approach. Obliged to say something about Tuckson in order to justify his inclusion, Allen summarily reintroduces the formal analyses he had all but abandoned earlier: Tuckson was "a painter who had taken the logic of gestural abstraction almost to the very limit, to that point of reduction and concentration at which a few lines brushed in seconds can either mean everything or nothing." Yet once this is acknowledged it tends to undermine the 'escape from provincialism' thesis. It suggests that Tuckson's move was less an 'escape' - a negative reaction against provincialism - and more a positive response to the possibilities immanent within gestural abstraction. The problem with Art in Australia is that it does not give us the whole picture. The history of art is not amenable to reductivist analyses - socio-political or otherwise. As such, Art in Australia is likely to mislead more than it will enlighten. In no sense does it replace the earlier histories of Bernard Smith and Robert Hughes. Yet if only Allen had been less overweening in his ambitions it could have formed a fine supplement to these earlier works.