Australian Art: A history - Art Collector

8 July 2014 | Jane O’Sullivan talks to Sasha Grishin, the author of a new tome on Australian art which begins with the Bradshaws in the Kimberley and travels through to the present day.

To start with a devil’s advocate question, why did you think a history of Australian art was needed? What in particular did you want to add?
SG:
There have been numerous histories of Australian art published including by William Moore in 1934, Robert Hughes in 1966, Christopher Allen in 1997 and John McDonald in 2008 and ongoing. My Australian Art: A history differs from all of the above in a number of fundamental ways. While most adopt an apartheid-like separation between Indigenous art and non-Indigenous art, this one examines the two strands as a form of an ongoing dialectic. While many … present a very short survey text, this one over 300,000 words and 600 pages presents a detailed analysis of the development of Australian art from early rock art through to the present.


As the book’s title makes clear, this is a history of Australian art. With that in mind, how did you approach the task of researching and writing about contemporary practice for the book’s final chapters? How easy is it to know which artists will stand the test of time?
SG: There have been numerous histories of Australian art published including by William Moore in 1934, Robert Hughes in 1966, Christopher Allen in 1997 and John McDonald in 2008 and ongoing. My Australian Art: A history differs from all of the above in a number of fundamental ways. While most adopt an apartheid-like separation between Indigenous art and non-Indigenous art, this one examines the two strands as a form of an ongoing dialectic. While many … present a very short survey text, this one over 300,000 words and 600 pages presents a detailed analysis of the development of Australian art from early rock art through to the present.


How can one write an account of contemporary art, where there is no history, no test of time? The short answer is: with great difficulty and at personal threat to the safety of the writer involved. The more I worked on the project, the more I realised how impossible was the task. Do you know how many professional artists there are presently alive and presently working in the visual arts in Australia today? After considerable research (with the help of the National Association of Visual Artists, Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Bureau of Statistics) the correct figure is between 25,000 and 35,000. This is artists who are represented in public collections and exhibit regularly in professional gallery spaces. In short, in writing on contemporary Australian art you are guaranteed to make at least 20,000 or 30,000 enemies. There is no way out.

How to broaden the consultative process? Although it is my head that is on the chopping block, I did want to get a bit more feedback on what was happening in contemporary art. So after much agonising I came up with a list of 80 names of prominent artists aged between their 30s and 90s, about equal gender, and spread throughout Australia, and invited them in complete confidentiality to write a list, in no particular order, of 50 contemporary living Australian artists who they thought were making a significant contribution to contemporary art practice in this country, in any medium in the visual arts. This was to be the artists’ voice in this book. Fortunately 68 artists agreed to participate (actually 69, but one tripped over his own ego) and I assembled a simple spreadsheet and was struck by a degree of consensus. Sometimes comments appeared like “I hate her work, but I think that she is important” … In the meantime a couple of artists suggested that perhaps it would be useful to make a second list of artists, a list of those whom they thought were over promoted and should be excluded from any discussion of contemporary serious art practice … Colloquially in my work practice, this became known as the hit list and the shit list, and this informed my selection of artists for detailed discussion or noting in the book. Curators, leading arts administrators and a select number of commercial gallery directors were also drawn into my consultative process.

I need to stress that the final decision was taken by me and me alone, but many a wise counsel had been sought. I have not seriously looked at the book since it has been published, but easily realise that in the second edition (which will happen once this one sells out) I will need to add another hundred pages to the contemporary art practice section to restore a greater sense of balance.


One of the themes you draw out is the increasing professionalisation of the art world, linked with the expansion of art schools and formal artistic training. What impact has this had on the kind of art that gets made nowadays?
SG: While it is difficult to generalise, the professionalisation and the bureaucratisation of the art world has often led to a divorce between the art being produced and its possible audiences. Theory driven art, where deskilling is seen as a virtue and arcane systems of thought are promoted, frequently does lead to an art practice which belongs in an institutional sheltered workshop.


It’s something of a truism that understanding the present requires an understanding of the past. What periods of Australian art history do you think are essential for contemporary art collectors to be across?

SG:
This is difficult to answer, in a sense you need to have some knowledge of the whole lot, to understand what is happening in art today.

This is an immense project, spanning the Bradshaws in the Kimberley through the present day. Did you encounter any surprises during your research? Anyone you felt compelled to reshape your views of, or rescue from obscurity?
SG: While I have worked professionally in art in Australia for more than 30 years, the decade which I spent researching this book has involved me on a steep learning curb. Constantly as I examined Australian art, I was constantly involved in a process of discovery and reassessment. Surprises – heaps – and many of them were wearing skirts. There is a very large number of very fine women artists who do not figure highly in many accounts of Australian art and do in this one. Take for example Jessie Traill, Joy Hester and Nora Heysen.


I’m interested in your assessment of the place of art history in today’s art world. On the one hand it seems like universities are shrinking their art history departments (but increasing student intake). On the other, the mechanics of market supply and demand are becoming increasingly influential in determining an artist’s cultural significance. What future is there for scholarship - both in terms of its producers and its audience?

SG:
To answer in a very personal sense, when I started this project I was the Sir William Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, where I have taught for 36 years and where I set up the academic discipline of art history. At the end of last year I left the university when my discipline was merged into the art school despite the unanimous protest from all of my teaching colleagues and all of our PhD candidates. My basic contention is that Australian art, at its best, compares favourably to art anywhere in the world and it is time for us to get behind it and to make the strongest case that we can for it. That was my intention for writing this book.

Jane O'Sullivan

Sasha Grishin was interviewed for the July-September 2014 issue of Art Collector.


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