Was Australian art ever provincial? A RESPONSE TO TERRY SMITH’S “THE PROVINCIALISM PROBLEM: THEN AND NOW” (ARTmargins 6, no. 1, February 2017, pp. 6-32)

The historical discourse is never ‘born’. It keeps starting anew. And art history also keeps starting anew. This always seems to happen when its purpose is deemed dead–while experiencing a rebirth at the same time.
–Georges Didi-Huberman(Georges Didi-Huberman, L’image survivante: Histoire de l’artet temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, originally published in French in 2002. It was translated into English in 2016 as The Surviving Image; Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms: Aby Warburg’s History of Art. Our quote is from the German Das Nachleben der Bilder: Kunstgeschicte und Phantomzeit nach Aby Warburg (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), 11.)

Who would deny the importance of Terry Smith’s “The Provincialism Problem,” originally published in the September 1974 issue of Artforum? Certainly, not Smith himself, who provided an account of its writing and intellectual background to mark the 40th anniversary of its publication, first in a lecture delivered at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and then on the pages of Artmargins.(Terry Smith, “World Art Now, The Provincialism Problem Then: 40 Years of Contemporary Art”, lectured delivered at the National Gallery of Victoria, 3 September 2014. Available at: http://www.discipline.net.au/terry-smithworld-art-now-the-provincialism-problem-then-40-years-of-contemporary-art/. This lecture is the basis of Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem: Then and Now”, Artmargins 6, no. 1 (February 2017): 6-32.) And it is true: “The ‘Provincialism Problem” did influence the thinking about Australian–and other “provincial” cultures”–art for a considerable period of time. We would say, to be generous, for almost thirty years. It’s an extraordinary achievement. But it does so no longer. As Georges Didi-Huberman reminds us, things change, and when they do they change from the beginning. What once seemed obvious now no longer appears to have been the case at all. A new history has to be written that takes account of the facts. Of course, it’s a complex question whether it is new facts that come to light or a new paradigm that allows these facts to be seen. Whether in effect the change happens slowly or quickly. But it does happen. Today in Australia the “provincialism problem” is either dying or already dead. And this means not only that it no longer applies, but that it can be seen as having never applied. We can recapture its time, we can outline its assumptions historically, but all of this, as they say, is of “academic” interest only. A matter merely of how people in the past saw the past, not of how we see the past, or, indeed–-at least for us here in the present–-of how it actually was.

The “provincialism problem,” to recap briefly, is the argument that cultures like Australia’s are defined by their relationship to other, more central cultures. At the time Smith wrote his original article, it was New York. Australian artists, he claims, can only adopt an “attitude of subservience” to “externally imposed” metropolitan models.(Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” Artforum 12, no. 1 (September 1974): 54.) Having never been in on the “early innovative struggles” that led to something like the New York School, they can only ever have a distanced, mediated and belated relationship to it.(“The Provincialism Problem”: 55.) They can only, as it were, imitate the “style” and not the original impulse of the work. Australian artists can briefly go overseas in an attempt to join those “early innovative struggles,” but when they return home they again fall out of the immediate circle of practice and lose contact with this moment. Their work once again becomes derivative or imitative, defined by its effective non-relationship to a distantsource. The precedent for what Smith wrote was a number of Australian Color-Field painters, principally in Sydney, whose work, according to him, was simply imitative of New York School prototypes.(Terry Smith, “Color-Form Painting: Sydney 1965-1970,” Other Voices 1, no. 1 (June-July 1970): 6-17.) Of course, according to this model, much of American art was also provincial, defined by its exclusion from what was going on inside a select circle in New York–the artists Smith suggests are Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Alan Kaprow, and Robert Morris, or later Stella, Judd, LeWitt, Robert Smithson, and Mark di Suvero–and therefore itself of little or no great interest. In fact, every few years someone from the provinces does break the bind and is allowed to join the metropolitan circle–Smith in his Artforum article points to Clement Greenberg’s invitation to the Canadian Jack Bush to show in New York–but this apparent exception is said only to confirm the rule. As Smith writes, we may resent the situation, but it will not change unless, in his words, “by some miracle, the local art world becomes a metropolitan center.”(“The Provincialism Problem”: 57.) Indeed, to argue against provincialism at all is merely to confirm it, insofar as it operates as a kind of “projection” that is evidenced all the more by the attempt to overcome it.(“The Provincialism Problem”: 55.)

Needless to say, “The Provincialism Problem” is consistent with the art-historical model of modernism. Lying behind it, in an almost Greenbergian way, is the idea of an inexorable forward march of artistic styles, each coming after the other, in a linear and identifiable progression. So that we can say that one thing comes first and another comes after, and that is all we need say about them. Of course, the first irony here is that this model of art history was over in New York by the time Smith wrote his essay. Already there we were seeing the end of modernism with the rise of Pop Art, Minimal Art, Land Art, and Conceptual Art. (Ironically, this is to suggest, perhaps, that Smith’s essay itself is an example of the provincialism he writes about.)(In fact, in Australia the great art historian Bernard Smith had already declared that Australia’s “provincial situation” was being “transformed” by the time of the second edition of his Australian Painting (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1971), 334.) We might even say that in New York a kind of post-modernism was emerging that, art-historically at least, questioned this linearity and began to think that a kind of “unoriginality”–we might say provincialism–was making this originality–the metropolitan–possible. And, of course, following the period of post-modernism, we are now in what is called the contemporary, which Smith as much as anyone has helped define, and which would “treat the art that originates from all over the world, in its local settings and in its international circulation, acknowledging that it is, perhaps for the first time, the world’s art.”(Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 264.)

Nevertheless, in Smith’s own specific formulation of the contemporary–almost as though he is reluctant to let go of what came before and that by which he is best known–he holds on to a residual form of modernism.(As Robert Sliifkin notes in a review of Smith’s What is Contemporary Art?, “Despite the author’s interest in the heterogeneity of art practices, it becomes increasingly evident throughout the book that Smith holds these various approaches in inverse order of esteem [from the way they are set out in the book], in many ways basing his evaluations upon the long-standing avant-garde criteria of resistance to convention through new and emerging modes of production”, “Is Contemporary Art History?,” Oxford Art Journal 35, no. 1 (March 2012): 111-2.) It is almost as though the contemporary is not the coming together of all times and places in a simultaneous present, but the persistence of all pasts and all art-historical periods in a mutual co-existence. But here we would want to argue, against Smith but also with him, that what properly is at stake in the contemporary is the abandonment of all previous or residual pasts and modernisms. As he himself suggests, art is “contemporary with the art of the past, which is now present to us in all of its original contemporaneity.”(Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2011), 316.) And this contemporary will “have always been there.”(What is Contemporary Art?, 6.)

Certainly, today not only the present but also the past of Australian art (after all, the original subject of Smith’s “The Provincialism Problem”) is being rewritten in terms of the contemporary. For a long time, as Smith implies in “The Provincialism Problem: Then and Now” with his notion of “central” Australian artists, to whom he compares the “UnAustralian” ones of “middling and low accomplishment,” Australian art was constructed in terms of its nationhood.(“The Provincialism Problem: Then and Now”: 29.) Historians who wrote histories of Australian art did so with regard to some presumed quality of “Australianness” that defined that art, and which it was presumed all Australian artists had in common. This narrative is the other side of the provincialism problem because the assertion of the particularity of the Australian can only be understood as opposed to the supposed “universality” of something like the New York School. National art histories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are merely the other side of, the unacknowledged proof of, the same modernism that has also been understood to run through the period in their very exception to them.

However, we argue that today an understanding of Australian art in terms of the national, and hence in terms of its provincialism, can no longer stand. Instead of Australia’s separateness from and belatedness with regard to the rest of the world, what instead is being emphasised–what is being seen as demonstrated by the historical record–is its connectedness and simultaneity with it. It is not yet perhaps entirely the case, but it is increasingly so. For example, as against the recent Royal Academy of the Arts exhibition in London, Australia (2013), which once again sought to “exoticize” Australian art by seeing it in terms of a landscape tradition (as if in a time warp, the cover of the catalogue featured a Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly), we can point to the exhibition Australian Impressionists in France the same year at the National Gallery of Victoria, which revealed the previously unnoted presence of many Australian artists working and training in France at the turn of the 20th century; or the more recent show Australian Impressionists (2017) at the National Gallery in London, which similarly speaks of the presence of numerous Australia artists working in their colonial home in much the same way as British artists did in their own.

Indeed, today virtually every academic working in Australian art is seeking to write this hitherto lost history of Australian art, including all of those expatriate figures who have been left out of the nationalist histories because they belong neither exclusively to Australian art nor to the reciprocal national histories of those places where they lived and worked (and including equally those figures from other nations who came to work in Australia, but are now forgotten by their own national histories). We might think here, for example, of Ambrose Patterson, who was a founding member of the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1903, as well as the founding head of the Seattle School of Art, and in that capacity setting the stage for the emergence of the so-called North-West School; J.W. Power, who in the 1930s exhibited with and supported the French Abstraction-Création group and held numerous exhibitions at Léonce Rosenberg’s and Jeanne Bucher’s galleries in Paris during the 1930s; and Mary Webb, who in the 1950s showed with the Salon Réalities Nouvelles during their so-called années décisives and exhibited regularly at Galerie Colette Allendy in Paris. These are those artists of “middling and low accomplishment” that Smith compares slightingly to those presumably better-known artists he speaks of in his “Provincialism Problem” essay–William Dobell, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams–as though this disparity were an incontestable piece of evidence, evidently true forever. But this is not the case.

It is exactly what is being challenged by the present generation of Australian art historians, who ask: who is the more “Australian”? Who contributes more to the history of our present, how we got to where we are today? If Smith is able to assert that this new history consists merely of “long lists”, we would want to assert against him a kind of prophecy, yet a prophecy that is increasingly coming true, that one day these artists will not be minor names but at least of equal significance as the “Australians.” It might even be that one day it is Dobell, Nolan, Boyd and Williams who will be minor; already it is difficult to assert that they are truly a significant presence in or influence on any present practice or thinking about Australian art. Again, however, our real point, following Didi-Huberman, is not merely that it is contemporary Australian artists who are global, no longer provincial, but that the whole history of Australian art is contemporary, and has been so at least since the end of the 19th century. In other words, it is not only that Australian art is no longer provincial, but that Australian art has never been provincial.

For a long time, we have been writing a history of what we call “UnAustralian” art, which is the attempt to record the pre-history of our current global situation. We do not claim any great precedence for this, for one of our points is that Australian artists, critics and curators have always thought of themselves in this way. That is, we can see throughout the history of Australian art that art historians have consistently passed over evidence that Australian artists of all kinds have always thought of themselves as–and actually were– not provincials existing in a mediated relationship to a faraway metropolitan center, but contemporary with and immediately connected to what was happening elsewhere, to other artistic centers and locations. And they certainly thought of themselves as being in a relation not only with America, but with places all around the world.

Undoubtedly, one of our inspirations in seeking to write this other, non-national history has been the presence of Aboriginal art in contemporary Australian culture. For in what meaningful sense could we ever think that Aboriginal art was “provincial”? Indeed, on the contrary, we would assert that Aboriginal art was contemporary by being the immediate response to its own particular conditions. Take, for instance, the work of Ian McLean, one of the writers Smith acknowledges as rethinking “The Provincialism Problem” in contemporary terms.(“The Provincialism Problem: Then and Now”: 29.) In fact, McLean does more than this. For he too is implicitly suggesting that provincialism never existed. In an essay entitled “Mysterious Correspondences between Charles Baudelaire and Tommy McRae: Reimagining Modernism in Australia as a Contact Zone,” he makes the seemingly implausible claim that the Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae, who worked in between black and white cultures in mid-19th-century rural Victoria, was a sketcher of a “new world of modernity” in exactly the way Baudelaire meant when he described the artists of Paris around the same time.(Ian McLean, “Mysterious Correspondences between Charles Baudelaire and Tommy McRae: Reimagining Modernism in Australia as a Contact Zone,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 13 (2013): 75.) Both existed in conditions of rapid social change and both made art that could be seen as a response to this. Both existed absolutely in their own time and in their own culture. McRae is in no dependent or subservient relation to the supposed centrality of either British or French cultures. McRae and, say, Constantine Guys, are simply contemporaries of each other, “separately and at once, with others and without them.”(What is Contemporary Art?, 6.) They both occupy, to quote the title of an exhibition of Indigenous art recently shown at the Harvard Art Museums, an “everywhen.”(Stephen Gilchrist, Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Art Museums, 2016).)

In fact, as part of this general tendency, art historians in the US have also retrospectively begun to rewrite the history of American art. Histories of mid-to-late 20th-century American art are no longer routinely those of the centrality of the New York School or even “American-type” painting, which as Smith suggests necessarily provincializes everywhere else. The story of New York art is now set within a much wider context both of intersection with the West Coast (for example, Pacific Standard Time, exhibited at more than 60 venues throughout Los Angeles and California throughout 2012-13, and again this year) and the dialogue between North and South American art (for example, Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in North and South America at the New Museum in 2010). Precisely the effect of this is to reveal New York not as a self-contained, self-sufficient and self-referential art center that is cut off from other cultures and therefore, in a supreme paradox, the most metropolitan because the most provincial; but instead to show that the city is contemporary in its relationships with other kinds of places and that it can be understood only with reference to these places. It is to demonstrate further that many different stories can be told of New York art from the 1950s onward, and that many of them–the cosmopolitan globalist ones, not necessarily the metropolitan modernist ones–still continue through to the present day and are in effect the histories of our present.

Alongside these new American histories, we are able to write a proper history of Australian art in America, and of American art in Australia, which will be not the old provincial story of “one-way cultural transmission” or of Australian expatriates “leaving for the metropolitan center” before their “eventual return,”(“The Provincialism Problem”: 57.) but rather of Australians simply working and becoming part of American artistic life. However, these artists have until now been overlooked because in 20th-century art histories there can be no such hybrid figures: artists are either Australian or American. Thus the Australians who do enter American art history effectively lose their nationality; they are seen as American and not Australian in American art history, and they do not figure at all in Australian art history because they neither live in Australia nor make work in an identifiably “Australian” style.

We have elsewhere made the point that when Smith, like other Australians, goes to New York and writes an essay about the exclusion of Australian artists from American culture–for Smith is not the first(See Ian Burn, “Art is What We Do, Culture is What We Do to Other Artists,” in Dialogue: Writings in Art History (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991), 131-139. Originally published as“Provincialism,” Art Dialogue 1, no. 1 (October 1973): 3-11.) –he necessarily overlooks the Australian in the very building through which he must first have arrived: the Perth-born Charles Basing’s famous mural on the ceiling of Grand Central Station.(Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson, “Against Provincialism: Australian-American Connections 1900-2000,” Journal of Australian Studies 36, no. 3 (2012): 291-307.) Indeed, so well known is this painting, so much a part of shared American cultural life, that it features not only in the novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit but also in the animated feature Madagascar, for when the giraffe Melman gets hit on the head trying to escape by train from the zoo, the joke is that we are unable to tell whether the stars he sees are from his concussion or from Basing’s celestial mural.

Smith also overlooks (as has all of Australian art history) the fact that there were no fewer than four Australians in perhaps the most famous art show in America in the 20th century, the Armory Exhibition of 1913, which was the product of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, one of whose founding signatories was the Melbourne-born artist Frank Nankivell. Nankivell in fact also participated in the show alongside Charles Conder, who had died not long before; the Tasmanian-born representative of “Californian” art Francis McComas; and the Tasmanian-born London resident and then fast-rising star of English art, Derwent Lees. And in 1917, it was the Castlemaine-born Martin Lewis who introduced Edward Hopper to etching, thus allowing the latter’s move into his mature style. In the catalogue for Hopper’s 1933 MoMA retrospective, Director Alfred H. Barr speaks of Hopper making his etchings “under the direction of Martin Lewis.”(Alfred H. Barr, Edward Hopper: Retrospective Exhibition (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1933), 19.) Then there is the Sydney-born artist Pat Sullivan, about whose famous cartoon creation Charlie Chaplin was reported to have said: “I have only one rival, Felix the Cat!”

There is also the Melbourne arts philanthropist and America’s first self-made female millionaire Helena Rubinstein, whose business supported her extensive collection of modern art; Horace Brodzky, who in 1912 was the first Australian to show at the Venice Biennale and who managed the second and final Vorticist exhibition held in 1917 in New York, where he also held exhibitions and designed book covers for Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Ezra Pound’s Instigations; the Adelaide-born Richard Hayley Lever, who presented his painting of the Presidential yacht to Calvin Coolidge in the Rose Garden of the White House in 1925; and finally Mary Cecil Allen, who published two widely acclaimed books, The Mirror of the Passing World and Painters of the Modern Mind in the late 1920s and organized the first exhibition of Australian art to tour the United States in 1932, before there was even an Australian Ambassador in Washington. Indeed, Allen was one of three Australians running their own art schools in New York in the 1940s. The others were Percy Leason and Wallace Harrison. Harrison, in fact, helped modernize the Cooper Union Art School in the 1930s and is one of the hidden roots of the post-War New York School, being the esteemed teacher of, amongst others, Beauford Delaney, James Brooks, Charlotte Park, and Helen Frankenthaler. Then there was Robert Hughes, who was appointed art critic at Time in 1970, from where he went on to become the “most famous art critic in the world.”(Robert Boynton, “The Lives of Robert Hughes,” The New Yorker, 12 May 1997 (http://www.robertboynton.com/articleDisplay.php?article_id=1532).) Finally, there was Smith’s contemporary Ian Burn, who had curated the first exhibition of Conceptual Art, Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, at the New York Cultural Center in 1970; and Melbourne artist Robert Hunter, who participated in Eight Contemporary Artists at MoMA at the same time as Smith published his essay. (In something of an implicit rebuke to Smith, and demonstrating himself as more contemporary than him, two months after Smith’s “The Provincialism Problem” appeared in Artforum, Hughes reviewed the show in Time magazine, mentioning Hunter’s nationality explicitly.(Robert Hughes, “Eight Cool Contemporaries,” Time, November 11 1974 (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,911512,00.html).))

We still haven’t mentioned Miles and Philip Evergood, Constance Macky, Margaret Cilento, Eleanor Harrison, John Vickery, Robert Klippel, Alison McMaugh, Denise Green, Virginia Cuppaidge…Nor have we mentioned the influence of Australia on American art: David Smith’s Australia (1951), often said to mark the artist’s passage into large-scale sculpture, is based on a bark painting of a kangaroo from Goulburn Island in the Northern Territory that Smith saw in the 1946 MoMA show Art of the South Seas; or the Texan painter Forrest Bess, brought to attention by Robert Gober when he curated him into the 2012 Whitney Biennale, whose imagery drew on Aboriginal art and who even attempted, through self-mutilation, to make himself Aboriginal…Or all of those Americans who lived and worked in Australia as part of a globalized contemporaneity: the cartoonist Livingstone Hopkins, the architects Walter and Marion Griffin, the abstract expressionist Charles Reddington, the geometric abstract painter James Doolin…We do not say that these are all great artists, but neither are they simply unknown. We merely argue that they have been invisible to Smith and many of those who came before and after him who were not fundamentally interested in the reality of Australian art.

Of course in Smith’s terms one would call the above a “long list” (yet we could have added many more). But this kind of aggregation, too, is part of our contemporaneity. In contemporary art, there is no longer any distinction between first- and second-order artists. We follow quantitative rather than qualitative ways of doing art history: the survey, the sample, the scene, the multitude. This is the methodology employed in contemporary art exhibitions such as biennials, triennials, documentas. There is always too many, too much. So that when Smith adduces the criterion of quality against us, this is merely to beg the question. Indeed, his own contemporaneity is already about all this. And our point is that it has never been otherwise. One of the things we discovered when we wrote our “UnAustralian” history, which was also one of the assumptions with which it started, was that figures in the past already thought of themselves the way we do today: not in terms of a school, movement or nation, but rather as part of a “scene.” Their art comes out of particular places and connections, and they understand themselves as colleagues of artists in other places. They carry the artistic materials and influences of where they have been with them intact and work with their sources not provincially or anti-provincially–ironically, quotationally, post-colonially–but directly. Or, to recall the first sentences of Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”(E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 15.) Artists are never the mere pretexts for the art historian’s art history. That was merely the old dispensation we worked under. A new art history, that is, might better follow the suggestion of Smith’s ex-colleague Ian Burn, who once wrote an essay entitled “Is Art History Any Use to Artists?” where he argues for an alternative art history based on anecdote and hidden connection, pointing out that “neither the authenticity of the anecdote nor empirical veracity is an issue, for a story without any factual basis may serve to reveal greater “cultural truths” than any other account.”(Ian Burn, “Is Art History Any Use to Artists?,” in Dialogue: Writings in Art History, 3.)

We conclude by returning to our opening question: how does art history change, slowly or suddenly? By weight of empirical evidence, or by a hypothesis that allows us to see this evidence for the first time? A while ago we came up with the designation “UnAustralian” for the new kind of Australian art history we wanted to write. It began almost as a jest between us, a simple–perhaps too simple–inversion of the then-dominant national histories, but immediately both of us could see all of the already-existing things that suddenly became clear. Or we could say that this history began with the observation of the uncanny similarity between the work of Claude Monet and the Sydney painter John Russell who was staying on the island of Belle-Île off the coast of France at the time Monet was painting there. Working beside him one day, it was Monet who showed Russell the technique of using unmixed paints and applying them directly onto the canvas. Some nine years later Henri Matisse, stuck in a silvery academic post-Chardinesque palette, met Russell on Belle-Île where Russell now lived and took lessons from the Australian friend of Van Gogh and Rodin. It was this encounter with Russell that made Matisse Matisse, as Matisse’s biographer Hilary Spurling makes clear.(Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse (New York: Penguin, 1998), 126-9. See also Spurling, “Matisse on Belle-Île,” Burlington Magazine 137, no. 1111 (October 1995): 661-671.) Is Russell provincial? Hardly. Indeed, if anything, it is his paintings of Belle-Île around 1900, if we want to use this criterion, that look more “modern,” more abstract, more gestural, more colourful, more expressionistic, than Monet’s or Matisse’s. So it is Russell who connects Monet to Matisse, who is the missing link in the “French” chain. But, more than this, all three artists were in fact contemporaries, and we cannot understand one–or at least crucial aspects of their work–without understanding the scene that connects them.

During the question time after his public presentation of “World Art Now” at the National Gallery of Victoria, Smith concluded by saying that he would like nothing more than to read a history of Australian art without the “assumption” of provincialism. But what he refuses to recognize is that we have always had this history, and not only in the present, after him, but also in the past, before him. It is understandable why Smith would do this. After all, he would in some way disappear from art history with this assumption. But is that not always the fate of the good revolutionaries? To be done away with by the very revolution that they themselves made possible?


Upon receipt of our reply to Smith’s “The Provincialism Problem: Then and Now”, the editors of Artmargins agreed to publish it, but put to us a number of questions to which they wanted our response. They are undoubtedly good questions, ones that occurred to us too while writing the text, and we would like to answer them here rather than amending our initial reaction, which (like Smith’s original “The Provincialism Problem”) has a certain validity as the reflection of a particular time and place.

The questions put to us were: (1) “Does the (unacknowledged or unknown) presence of Australian painters in Paris really compromise or refute Smith’s claim for Australian art’s provincialism? Or does this argument, factual and in a way positivist as it is, miss the point about provincialism’s ideological and, perhaps, economic implications (which may remain unchanged, no matter how large the number of Australian painters in Paris)?”

And (2): “Do we have to understand the ‘contemporary’ really as a form ofall-out presentism in which art history, including older constructions of that history such as ‘provincialism,’ simply dissolves? Or, can there be an understanding of the contemporary capacious enough to include provincialism, albeit as a historical category that, although ‘contemporary,’ nevertheless always bears the mark of its own historicity?”

In response to the first question, we can point to the growing irrelevance of “provincialism” as a way of explaining Australian art, not only for artists in the present but even for curators and historians writing histories of Australian art. We can point to increasing numbers of Australian expatriate artists making their way around the world (“minor” perhaps, but then the “multitude” is the new mode of art today and arguably always has been). We can point to exhibitions revealing the presence of immigrants and international movements in Australian art, where again our relations to these are not simply provincial (as we write an exhibition on Constructivism in twentieth-century Australian art has just opened in Melbourne, with not a mention of provincialism in its catalogue). But crucially, beyond this, more than the gradual realization, today, of the irrelevance of provincialism–as though what is occurring is only a certain revision of the past from the perspective of the present–what increasingly is being understood is that provincialism did not exist for artists in the past either. That is to say, the historical research undertaken today from a non-provincialist perspective has allowed us to discover that artists in the past were already like us. At a certain point, the historically changing situation crosses a threshold and we can see for the first time that provincialism never actually existed in the first place.

And the second question tied to this is, why is it that Smith’s influential account of the contemporary, insofar as it is a description of the present, has to be of the present? Why should the “contemporary” not validly include those three “streams” Smith lists–retro-sensationalism/remodernism/spectacle art; post-colonialism/anti-globalism; and “specific, small-scale and modest offerings”(See What is Contemporary Art?, 7-8.) – thereby preserving aspects of the past that he wants to argue still persist, although changed in character and even diminished? Others have already charged Smith for his refusal or inability to think the contemporary as an entirely new disposition, and in fact ultimately wanting it to resemble a form of post-colonialism, consistent with his early career as a Marxist-oriented art historian (see our footnote 9 above on this). But we want to assert that, if the contemporary is anything, it is the idea that the past must now be seen from the point of view of the present. In other words, one of the definitions of the contemporary should be that the past was always the present, that we have always been contemporary. The fact is that not only is the present contemporary, but the past is or should also be what we understand as “contemporary.” We can see this in other theories of the contemporary, for example, in Giorgio Agamben and Peter Osborne,(See Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary/”, in What is an Apparatus? (Redwood City, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2009); and Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: The Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso, 2103).) and it certainly is the case also at moments in Smith’s own work (see our footnotes 11 and 12). We want to assert in its full paradoxicality (or perhaps anachronism) that once the contemporary arrives all previous historical periods have always been the contemporary.

None of this is to say that provincialism was never thought about and did not influence artists in the past; Smith’s very essay is proof of this (and here we return to the idea of it having validity as the record of a certain moment).But from now on it can be seen as not applying, and not merely no longer applying but not applying from the very beginning. Indeed, it is something like this argument that is put in the work of Fredric Jameson, a thinker who is close to Smith as someone who seeks to uphold the relevance of Marxism in contemporary conditions. In his 2013 A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present, which is an attempt to think the “contemporary,” or (even more like Smith) the possibility of a “critical” attitude towards the contemporary, Jameson writes:

[The distinction between the typological and the cyclical] involves a kind of Gestalt alternation between two forms of perception of the same object, the same moment in historical time… A shift of attention must be registered in passing from one perception to the other, however complementary they may seem to be: to feel our own moment as a whole new period in its own right is not exactly the same as focussing on the dramatic way in which its originality is set off against the immediate past.(Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso, 2013), 21.)

What is crucial here is that Jameson is not making the same old historicist point that we must try to see the past in its own terms and not through the lens of the present, but the much more interesting and challenging one that, against the way it saw itself, we must attempt to make the past continuous with our present.

Above all, with our response to Smith’s article in ARTMargins we wanted to start a debate. Or, more exactly, we wanted to make possible the conditions for a debate. It seems to us that the contemporary, the very contemporary theorized by Smith, opens up the possibility of a new kind of art history in such “marginal” cultures as Australia’s, which had previously always understood their art history in terms of “nation,” which is only another word for “provinciality.” Now it is possible to think that Australian art was never actually provincial; that it was only an assumption and a certain trace on the historical record. On this basis, an entirely new history can be written that is at the same time the history of what always was: the history of the contemporary. Of course, against this it can always be objected that this “contemporary” is merely a phenomenon of the last thirty years and that before that came provincialism, which in many ways is still with us. But what is the effect of new art moments in the present? Perhaps they are not only true now but have always been true. They apply not merely to the present but also to the past. We know very well that there are two sides to this debate, but we have chosen one side, and we believe that time is on our side.

With thanks to the editors of ARTMargins,
Rex Butler (Monash University, Melbourne) and A.D.S. Donaldson (National Art School, Sydney)