I joined the library at Flinders University of South Australia as an alumni so as to gain access to books that could help with my research for some of my photographic projects, such as the Tasmania Elegies and the Mallee Routes ones. I also wanted to see how photography had been incorporated into the recent histories of the Australia visual arts after the boom in the 1980s and the postmodern revisions of modernism. Was it now on a par with the traditional mediums of the visual arts within their autonomous sphere, and was it accorded the same art-historical tenets in the context of the coexistence of the multiplicity of styles and tendencies?
I started reading Christopher Allen’s book Art in Australia: From Colonisation to Postmodernism that was published in 1997. Allen is currently a national art critic for The Australian, and if he is currently working as a conservative art critic, his 1997 text acknowledges that Australian culture has received its styles from elsewhere. There have been Australian impressionists, post-impressionists, cubists, surrealists, abstractionists, pop artists and postmodernists.
Allen’s argument is that no visual 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. 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. Whatever you do, you inevitably implicate yourself in a specifically Australian set of concerns, and to deny these implications is simply to implicate yourself further.
No photographers are included in the colonial period and Max Dupain, Ponch Hawkes and Sue Ford are mentioned in passing. In his last chapter on postmodernism Allen says that postmodern photographers, such as Anne Zahalka, Fiona Hall and Bill Henson were unlike those photographers:
who work grew out of of the observation and documentation of their social environment –which is after all perhaps photography’s real, though modest vocation–these artists made picture of elaborately, prepared subjects….The most prominent of the photographer’s is, however, without a doubt, Bill Henson, if only because he achieves what is hardest for the photographer–that is to construct an imaginary world: in his case it is a night-world of naked bodies, ruins and disaster.
Fair enough. Yet there are no examples of a photography that is based on observation and documentation in his history. Nor is there any consideration of the changing views of what constitutes observation and documentation in relation to visual composition and the broader currents of Australian history; or to the way that photography represents how Australians have come to terms with their unique physical, social and political environment.
So we can infer that, for Allen, photography has a peripheral presence in terms of the visual arts. Photography is not listed in the index of the text. The core of the visual art in Allen’s aesthetic rationality is painting and photography is not considered to be on a par with the traditional mediums of the visual arts. Continue Reading…