Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

The Australian View of Art

Graeme Turner and Brian Copping

In a recent edition of the television quiz show 'Family Feud', the audience was asked to name a famous artist. Names traditionally associated with the high points of art history dominated, with Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci among the first four names. More modern, but still well established traditional names followed—Renoir, for example. Numbers two and three were Rolf Harris and Larry Pickering. In a country where the argument between populism and high art is inextricably intertwined with the history of the arts' attempts to justify a role for themselves, this has some typicality; it highlights the problematic ways in which the Australian public sees art, the artist, and the ideological space reserved for both within the culture.

The Australian ideology of art is composed of a number of apparently contradictory myths. Our 'Family Feud' audience has provided us with access to one exemplary contradiction; in a second, the pomp and ceremony of the opening of the new National Gallery in Canberra, coupled with the millions spent on its contents, under mine James Mollison's claim that it is a 'gallery for the people'. In both cases, the contradiction is caused by the collision between authentic and inauthentic class positions—resulting in the phoney populism of Mollison's remarks and the affected deference to elitist notions of art in the 'Family Feud' example. Such class implications are smoothed over in the 'official' perception of art, operating as Althusser suggests as an ideological apparatus within the state. This 'official' perception of art reveals itself in the dominant patterns of collecting and display—patterns which attempt to serve the con fused but dominant ideology in asserting Australian nationalism while accepting European cultural hegemony in the existing State galleries.

State galleries do tend to adopt a particular stance toward their own region. However, until recently, the sum total of the State galleries has provided our 'national' collection and in this collection reside the component myths in the orthodox construction of art in Australia. While the establishment of a single national gallery does not completely displace the collective role of the galleries (note the almost simultaneous opening of the new Queensland State Gallery), the National Gallery does offer itself as a revisionary hegemonic instrument working on the orthodox view of art embodied in the State collections. Its existence underscores the centrality of the State galleries to this orthodoxy and, by extension, the value of reading such a gallery as a text before the Canberra project influences even minor changes in regional policy. Before doing this, it is necessary to examine a number of general factors which shape the myths underlying an Australian ideology of art.

The TV audience's choice of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci reflects a conservatism in the culture at large, and the comprehensiveness with which bourgeois notions of art are established as natural. In Australia, we respect only 'established' artistic traditions, the elitist myth that art is that which has 'stood the test of time' relegating art to the processes of history, and thus nature. A further component of an Australian construction of art is the residue of a tradition of anti-modernism (cf. McQueen 1979) which discloses itself in a suspicion of any work that is non-representational or non-realist (and therefore anti-bourgeois) in its procedures and assumptions; any modern work that defies the validity of the test of time by costing a lot of money now, and work that carries its elitist assumptions within its form—that is, it is difficult for the uninitiated to understand. Modernist art is not naturalized as are the works of the Renaissance, so with modern work the acceptance of the elitist myth of art only goes so far; art that is seen as 'difficult' is seen to be anti-egalitarian and consequently there is a political preference for works of art that do not depend upon specialist knowledge for their effects to be comprehensible. As Bourdieu points out, of all objects offered for consumer's choice, there are none more classifying than legitimate works of art which, while distinctive in general, enable the production of distinctions ad infinitum (1980:228). The connection between the ability to 'appreciate' such distinctions and one's education, and thus class, is clearly established in Bourdieu's work. So the choice of Rolf Harris and Larry Pickering is a clear and assertive response to the bourgeois myth of art at the same time as it is evidence of aesthetic incompetence.

There is a nationalist element in this which is also important. It surfaces in Norman Lindsay's debunking of Modernist painting in Europe, the dismissal of it as the work of 'morons' and 'buffoons'. Although one might like to see in his remarks a proletarian suspicion of the art world's colonization of Australian art, the nationalist motive seems dominant. No doubt, the Australian's pride in an innate ability to detect pretension and 'sophistication', and the Arcadian insistence on resisting such citified ways, responded gratefully to this reassurance that such a difficult movement need not be taken seriously.

While Australian galleries continually 'buy into' the tradition of European art in an attempt to enrich the indigenous culture, this cannot be seen as expressive of a genuine interest in art or the artist. Reaction against contemporary abstract art denies such an interest, as the movement away from the mimetic ideal is seen as misuse of the medium, exacerbating its regrettable but intrinsic tendency towards privacy of vision, self-indulgence, and elitism. Notwithstanding the ideological relationship between individualism and egalitarianism, our version of egalitarianism is one that rejects the abstract painting because it is the 'ultimate expression of personality. The spectator says of a contemporary painting not what one would have said in the anonymous Middle Ages: 'There's a 'Tree of Jesse' or a 'Crucifixion'!' or not even what is said of Renaissance art, 'There's a Michelangelo 'Last Supper' or a Raphael 'Madonna'!' but quite simply, 'There's a Mondrian or a Jackson Pollock'(Fiedler, 1968:397).

The purchase of Jackson Pollock's 'Blue Poles' by the Whitlam government is pertinent here, and raises the paradox that Australians while understanding that a high price confirms the value of a pain ting, could not in this particular case reconcile themselves to the 'blind, gratuitous spectacle of surplus income displaying itself' (Hughes 1980:384) in the purchase of such an obviously abstract and thus private work. Robert Hughes rightly points to the radical nature of the painting, maintaining that it was itself socially unacceptable because it was 'opposed to the status quo' (1980:384). It is not in significant that it was a Labor government making the purchase; the reaction against the decision is implicated in the complex of privilege and power associated with the Liberal Party which so often justifies and naturalizes not only their cultural hegemony but also their election. Balanced against this, the Labor Party art buffs looked like serfs raiding the manor.

Breaking with any established or conservative form is subversive and the conflation of Pollock's clear rejection of traditional art forms with his being accorded recognition by a socialist government bent on restructuring society clearly amplified the potential for subversion. Whether we accept, as the traditional Marxist does, that all art is in some way related to the means of production and the class system, or with Marcuse we argue that art contains some 'quality' which transcends its specific social content and form, it is still apparent that art contains revolutionary potential. Its ideological character is not merely a reflection of the dominant ideology, an enslaved false consciousness; in its claims for autonomy within the dominant ideology, Barthes maintains, art 'contains the categorical imperative: things must change' (1973:143). Not to claim too much for Blue Poles, it is now a clear example of the art establishment's 'clawing back' a deviant painting through the mediation of the gallery. 'Blue Poles' is now part of that establishment, with any revolutionary potential diffused and under control.

Although the Art establishment may have assimilated 'Blue Poles' it is unlikely that it will be included within any of the wider myths of Australian art. By asserting its uniqueness in the ways it does, 'Blue Poles'—and any other abstract art—challenges the populist myth that paradoxically lies behind and supports Australia's political conservatism: the acceptance of such class differences as are already naturalised, while savagely resisting those who seek new additions to the agenda of difference. In relation to art and the artist this surfaces as an acceptance of such positions of privilege as are already established (the tradition of European excellence) while rejecting the ideologies upon which such privilege is based—including the assumption that art and the artist are intrinsically valuable in our culture.

A suspicion of the artist and the artistic underlie the 'Family Feud' choice of Pickering and Harris as famous artists. The program's audience seems to be insisting that there is not a vast difference bet ween painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel with the Legend of the Fall, and painting Larry Pickering's boatshed all the colours of the Berger rainbow. From one point of view, this healthy pragmatism demystifies art by denying the myth of the artist. Once this implication is made explicit, however, one wonders whether such a lack of distinction would be accepted—even by the people who failed to make it. The rejection of the myth of the artist operates extremely selectively because of a definitive and unresolved conflict in the myths which make up the Australian ideology of art. This is a conflict bet ween the colonial respect we have inherited from and for European high cultural traditions—exacerbated by the cultural cringe in relation to our own artists—and the persistent, nationalist worry that all art is intrinsically elitist, and alien.

In the nineteenth century this conflict was largely pre-empted by the restricted access Australians had to art of any sort; it was also mediated by the colonialism of the culture, and less radically provoked by the nature of contemporary art. To oversimplify, nineteenth century art was representational, bourgeois and often devoted to landscape. The connection between 'art' and 'craft' had not been broken, so that art could be judged by the skills inherent in its achievement of mimesis rather than by more subtle imaginative coherences. Where our art was nationalist, it was so in ways that mythologized the landscape within the conventions of realist pain ting. So the work of Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton satisfied both the nationalist impulse and a typically colonial need to produce art which looked like the kind of thing found on a European gallery wall.

Today, the dominance of traditional styles and of pre-modernist Australian and European works in our galleries seems designed to perpetuate this simple relationship between art and society. The insistence on purchasing works by the 'great' names of a past European tradition is carried to perverse lengths. Since major works by major artists rarely come on the market, and are expensive when they do, our galleries have to be content with minor works and sketches, works which derive their significance from their relation to the major works. As resources for the serious student of art, such acquisitions are of minimal value. Their function is to satisfy our cultural pretensions without ever challenging our egalitarian sentiments, modestly denying that Australia is a cultural backwater by importing random samples of those elements of civilization that we associate with the cultural richness of Europe.

In Australia, the nexus between the acquisition of the paintings of the 'masters' and an assumption of achieved cultural depth has had certain effects on the cultural manifestations of the Australian view of art. Firstly, it has created a kind of gallery in which is en shrined our limited conception of artistic form and subject; secondly, since these galleries highlight their 'masterworks', we tend to see paintings in terms of their creator in much the same way we might see a popular film in terms of its stars. This reflects standards of judgement which lack discrimination but which still defer to a tradition, actively recreating the kind of conception of art the Colonial gentleman of the nineteenth century might have employed while furnishing his home.

While Australian galleries look to the European tradition to establish their terms of reference the Australian art which is collected tends to be strongly nationalistic in content. Like their counter parts in fiction, drama, and latterly in film, the reputation of Roberts and others have benefited from this, a preference which outweighs even the prejudice against abstract art. A significant number of our key paintings refer directly or indirectly to the myths of the bush that emerged from the nationalism of the 1890s. Drysdale's 'Drover's Wife' refers inevitably to Lawson's story, while 'Sofala' mythologizes the rural past. Nolan's 'Ned Kelly' series not only renovates a national folk he}o as material for high art but explores the documentary and populist potential of his apparently abstract art in order to present it as a kind of cryptic narrative. While appearing to be demanding on the viewer, it isn't, and the representation of Kelly in his black mask becomes a 'logo' for the series and for a new confluence of populism and nationalism in Australian modern art.

There is an Australian ideology of art which is available to us in a wide variety of texts, from the 'Family Feud' quiz show to the trade in Drysdale prints in souvenir shops. At its clearest, however the central ideological conflict between a view of art as bourgeois cultural capital to be imported from Europe, and the construction of art as an area of egalitarian propaganda for an Australian nationalist ethic—between art which justifies itself by way of its rarity and art which is seen to enhance the environment of the common man—can be seen in the ways in which it is housed and displayed in galleries.

Given the ideological character of art, collecting and placing it in galleries is certainly not an innocent activity, and its connection with class-based notions of culture and education make it an important ideological apparatus. (We have in mind Althusser's choice of education as the most important ISA: Althusser, 1971). If we 'read' an art gallery as a text—as a building which contains and mediates a motivated arrangement of paintings—the view of art which is signified is available to a more specific and objective analysis, revealing broader ideological implications. It was to these ends that we made a series of visits to the Art Gallery of Western Australia during the first half of 1982.

In 1935, in an article published in The Age, the then Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne, Professor Cowling, attacked Australian life and literature for its lack of tradition. Australia had to recognize, he said, that literary culture was not indigenous but was 'from a European source'. Further, since there are no 'ancient churches, castles, ruins—the memorials of generations departed', Australian life was too lacking in depth to make first class art (quoted in Stephenson, 1969:209-10). Although specific to literature, such comments reflect the attitude which still insists upon the reliance on European art and traditions in our galleries and in our wider view of art. Even the manner and style of our public buildings seems to aim at communicating an immediate sense of history in their self-conscious monumentalism, thereby supplying the lack of 'ancient churches, castles and ruins'. Both the Art Gallery and the Conservatorium of NSW respond to this by openly imitating castles. Whilst the Art Gallery of WA is aggressively modern, it, too, has announcements to make about its role in our history, carrying messages to the observer which will place the gallery, its contents, and their cultural significance within specific paradigms. As we shall see, however, these paradigms eventually contradict each other ideologically.

The building is imposing—set in its own grounds rather like a small country estate; in reality, its parkland is predominantly brick paving (see plate 1). An artificial pond and fountain announce its oasis-like civilizing influence within the midst of a grimy and run down cityscape. The building has been deliberately set apart from the rest of its urban surroundings, elevated above those approaching it who must do so by way of a long brick walk which maximises their opportunities to receive the building's scale and substance, The 'softening' natural influences of the fountain and the grass patches only serve to reinforce an eighteenth century notion of an improvement on nature without reducing the formality of the display or the sense of its being beyond the scale available to any one person. Clearly, as the 'house of art', it is a stately home, not an informal domestic structure signifying egalitarianism or implying casual access. While the grounds might fit within the paradigm of the aristocratic estate other aspects of the building announce its difference from any kind of home by emphasising its institutionalism. The lack of windows the discreet entrance, present us with a partially interrupted but almost featureless brick wall. The suggestion is that this wall has been erected to protect something from us rather than to offer us a display of its contents. The confusion of messages characteristic of such an institution, however, is graphically illustrated by the meanings generated by the sculpture which dominates the approach to the building. Gerhard Marcks' 'The Caller' (presented to the Gallery by C.S.R.) looks like an antique 'barker', calling custom into the gallery without distinction or favour.

The 'come all ye' pose offers an open invitation which is in direct opposition to the effect created by the rest of the construction. This is not unlike that of the temple or church, meant to be used by the faithful and approached with respect by the more curious visitor. While not explicitly religious in its exterior detail, the gallery is not in any way a frivolous building either, being a clean modern structure which leans towards cubism in style and evinces a minimum of the 'featurism' which Robin Boyd (1963) suggests often covers Australian public buildings.

If the exterior gives the impression that the gallery is a place of serious reflection, if not of worship, then the small admonitory handout provided for the visitors by the gallery increases this impression. 'A gallery is a serious place', it says, 'for study, contemplation and pleasure ... it is not a playground'. The ordering of 'study, contemplation and pleasure' is itself revealing, and highlights again the confusion between the myth of the open 'people's Gallery' and the myth of art itself. Art does discriminate between classes; Bourdieu's work establishes that 'educated people are at home with scholarly culture', while the 'least sophisticated' find themselves in a position, when confronted with such culture, 'identical with that of the ethnologist who finds himself in a foreign society and is present ... at a ritual to which he does not hold the key' (1968:591).To provide the opportunity for 'study and contemplation' is immediately to impose assumptions about education and other cultural capital upon the gallery's visitors, and thus to discriminate in favour of an elite class. This class elite becomes, by architectural transformation, the cultural 'elect' as we move inside the gallery and into the paradigm of the 'church of art'. The open area downstairs has a high, steepled ceiling, and its sense of silence and space recall the effect of entering a cathedral. This is not in itself unusual; Robert Hughes has remarked on this trend in galleries and museums in America, with the museum supplanting the Church as the 'main focus of civic pride in American cities', while appropriating some of 'the functions associated with a religious gathering place' (1980:391).

Although exacerbated in colonial cultures by the need for importing tradition, this view of the gallery and the museum is by no means confined to these cultures. Bourdieu and Darbel cite statistics in L'Amour de l'Art which show that a maximum of 66% of working class respondents to the question, 'what does an art gallery remind you of most?', replied, 'a church' (Berger, 1972:24). John Berger has argued that this connotation of art, what he calls its 'bogus religiosity', is peculiar to the twentieth century (1972:24). He connects it with the fact that in the 'age of mechanical reproduction' the gallery houses not copies but originals, whose value tends to be defined as a reflection of their 'spiritual value' as well as their status as 'rare objects' with grossly inflated market values. The transition from the spiritual to the material occurs as the objects become capital: Twenty five years ago, one could spend time in a museum without even thinking about what art might cost. The price was not relevant to the experience of the work. Price and value were completely distinct questions; the latter interesting, the former not. But in the middle sixties there was a stir of change, caused by dealers, and especially, by auction houses who—led by Sotheby's—started to take a more aggressive role in merchandising. First there was a trickle, then a stream, and finally a brown roaring flood of propaganda about art investment. The price of a work of art became part of its function. It redefined the work—whose new task was simply to sit on the wall and get more expensive (Hughes, 1980:383). This slippage between the work's aesthetic, spiritual status and its market value suggests perhaps that the contemporary art gallery has a cultural function lying somewhere between that of a church and that of a bank. While the interior offers an austere and puritanical version of the church, the exterior is that of a large financial institution, the gallery's function partly that of banking the State's cultural capital. Instead of bullion we have paintings to be protected, even guarded, by attendants whose function is not so much to provide us with introductions to the paintings as to prevent us from touching them, or worse.

From one perspective, the paintings displayed in this vault of cultural capital demonstrate the pertinence of Cowling's remark that Europe is the source of culture. A feature of the Gallery on one of our visits was the 'masterworks' section which housed the works of European painters. The small enclosed area was rather like a shrine or chapel within the main church of art. The light was dim and the atmosphere hushed as you came into the presence of work by some of the masters of the great tradition. Nevertheless, having establish ed this sort of expectation, we should point out that we found not paintings by Michelangelo or Da Vinci, but minor works by, for example, Boudin and Jongkind, or 'works on paper' by Gainsborough. Nowhere is the art world's cultural cringe more evident than in this colonial tribute to a few relatively unknown European paintings. Meanwhile, a few yards away, important works by major Australian painters—arguably deserving of the term 'masterworks'—were hanging in the relative anonymity of the permanent collection. Clearly, 'masterwork' signifies 'work by European masters', rather than 'works which reveal mastery'. Here, the gallery offers more than another version of the Australian sense of cultural inferiority. Its display implies that the Australian custodians of art, perhaps unwittingly, actively perpetuate an hegemonic system which still psychologically extends back to the mother country and its neighbours, and which therefore threatens the development of the Australian art which they are committed to nurturing.

Fortunately, the Australian collection is displayed historically in one of the examples of the gallery organising its materials conceptually rather then apparently arbitrarily. There are 'important' paintings on display: McCubbin's 'Down on his Luck', and Streeton's 'Barron Gorge, Kuranda, 1924', for instance. However, they are largely paintings by the Heidelberg School, which reflect the Arcadian vision of Australian landscape which marked the paintings of our nationalist period at the turn of the century. They are resolutely representational and documentary, and clearly aim at depicting beauty in the landscape, or at enshrining the virtues of the Australian proletariat—as in Longstaff's 'Breaking the News'. The growth of a specifically Australian painting can be seen in the display as it discloses the artists' gradual penetration of the Australian land scape and the relaxation of the use of European conventions of nineteenth century landscape painting. The collection, however, ceases to articulate a history of the development of Australian painting once it passes the 1920s. Modernist experiments and Modernism's emergence after World War II seem to be given scant attention, with a token Nolan and Drysdale occupying much less prominent positions than the works of McCubbin, Roberts and Streeton. The im age of Australia created through this display of art is essentially pastoral and nationalistic. This, perhaps, is not surprising in a gallery supported by the State where the dependence on primary industry is most extreme, where the problems of distance and space still dominate the experience of those who live there, and where the isolation of Australia from Europe is less problematic than the isolation of Western Australia from the Eastern States. What emerges is a slight exaggeration, then, of a general case: the view of art is more nationalist, more firmly committed to an Arcadian vision of Australia, is more radically divided by an aggressive parochialism in conflict with a deep sense of cultural inferiority, than is the case in most other States. For this reason, the gallery is a particularly revealing example of the way in which the ideology of art is institutionalised in Australia.

The confusion and uncertainty at the heart of this institution however, is most clearly exemplified in the gallery's restaurant. The egalitarian demystification of art which is so antithetical to the institution, the art gallery, is actually promoted by the gallery in the enlarged reproductions of three Australian 'star' nationalist pain tings ('Down on His Luck', 'Droving into the Light' and 'Barron Gorge, Kuranda, 1924') decorating the restaurant's walls. Brashly advertising the quality of the holdings while paradoxically under mining the rarity of the 'exemplary objects' (for galleries never hang reproductions, although they do sell them to the punters to take home) the display of these reproductions seems typical of the gallery's generally ambivalent representation of itself.

This characteristic also marks decisions that appear to have been made about the gallery's operational policy. It is, like the national collection as a whole, a relatively modest concern when Compared to equivalents in Europe or America. Given its location, its relative youth, and the funds available, it is unlikely to become a major gallery. In principle, then, it seems to have the following option: it could honestly acknowledge its regional character and try to highlight the work of local artists while documenting the State's cultural history; it could slowly develop and relocate its permanent collection, supplementing this with frequent exhibitions so that each visit to the gallery would be in some way 'different'; or it could specialise in a minor field, where a collection of important works might be developed at a realistic cost. In the event, it is the regionalism of the gallery which is its least important characteristic. Instead, it goes for the second option, and rotates its collection regularly while hosting frequent exhibitions. This 'dynamic' strategy, as it is call ed, in a sense evades or deflects the role of the gallery itself as mediator between the artwork and the public. Berger (1972) has pointed out that taking paintings from their original settings and collecting them together in galleries, while destroying the uniqueness of the original setting, transfers some of the paintings' authority to their new setting in the gallery. The gallery both imposes status on, and receives authority from, what it hangs, in the act of display the gallery symbolically claims the artwork as its own.

There is little evidence that the Art Gallery of Western Australia is attempting to use its cultural role to authenticate the display on its walls. In fact, even though the gallery's collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings is an interesting and coherent one, the manner of its display suggests a lack of confidence in the value of the collection and, more importantly, in the justification of the gallery's own role in a regional culture. It is another articulation of the official view of art which sends such conflicting messages from the building's exterior.

This treatment of the Art Gallery of WA is not meant to provide a 'critique' so much as to explore its metonymic relation to the duality which is definitive of the ideological position of art in Australia. If the gallery simply reflects the compromise at the centre of an Australian conception of art rather than challenging or confronting it, there is little else it can be expected to do. Overdetermined by its highly specific cultural function, the Art Gallery of WA inevitably records the opposition between the nationalist, egalitarian preferences for representational form and traditional subject in our national art, and the deep felt need to import high cultural masterpieces from older civilizations in order to substantiate our claim to nationhood by admitting the value of an educated, cultural elite. If its policies of col lection and display record this opposition, the physical features of the gallery also record the inevitable contradiction between the institution itself and any populist intentions. If we were to see Larry Pickering and Michelangelo as representatives, not of different avenues of artistic endeavour, but of opposing class positions, the 'Family Feud' example with which we began becomes a clear expression of the Australian ideology of art.



Althusser, L. (1971) Lenin and Philosophy, London: New Left Books.

Barthes, R. (1973) Mythologies, London: Paladin.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing, London: BBC.

Bourdieu, P. (1980) 'The Aristocracy of Culture' (trans. R. Nice) Media, Culture and Society 2.

Boyd, R. (1963) The Australian Ugliness, Melbourne: Penguin.

Fiedler, L. (1968) Perspectives on Poetry, New York: OUP.

Hughes, R. (1980) The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, London: BBC.

MacQueen, H. (1979) The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944, Sydney: Alternative Publishing Co.

Stephenson, P. (1969) 'The foundations of Culture in Australia. An Essay towards National Self-Respect' in Barnes, J. (ed) The Writer in Australia 1856-1964, Melbourne: OUP.

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