The Tyranny of Myopia

Professor Ted Snell
The Undiscovered Media Panellist

The tyranny of myopia distorts and fragments our understanding of the breadth, diversity and scope of Australian cultural life.  Despite our interconnectedness through radio, television and the Internet the coverage of arts and cultural activities in this country is viewed from a very close focus which corrupts our understanding of the terms ‘Australian’ or ‘National’ when used in the context of contemporary art in Australia. 
There are an embarrassingly large number of books, newspaper articles, television and radio programs and curated exhibitions produced over the past century that have egregiously used the prefix ‘Australian’ to describe some aspect of visual arts practice on this continent when they exclude any reference to Western Australian artists, galleries or institutions or at best provide a desultory footnote. In the past the excuse for such carelessness was time, distance and expense, but in a period in which we have access to a plethora of rapid communication options these justifications will no longer suffice.  Retrospectively curators and critics have often acknowledged they were remiss in omitting artists, events or works held in public collections in Western Australia from their so-called ‘national surveys’, but the documented record remains and it impacts significantly on artists who choose to live and work here.
Many of our media agencies with a national remit such as the broadcast media ABC & SBS and print media newspapers, journals and magazines (The Australian, The Monthly, Art & Australia, and to a lesser extent Art Monthly, Eyeline and Artlink) have only a cursory interest in activities outside the Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and — more recently Brisbane — axis.  Admittedly the ABC have just produced the excellent series of short doco’s on Western Australian artists and their radio coverage has always been excellent, and The Australian cover activities in WA through published reviews by Vicki Laurie and a small group of reviewers (including myself), but in terms of the activity across all areas of engagement within the arts we would have to agree the coverage is cursory and hard won. For example in 2013 we paid the airfare and accommodation for a reporter to cover our centenary and PIAF events because without that funding a national provider such as SBS was unable to cover these activities
Even when competing against South Australia in the weekend review of arts activity in The Australian, the reporting is embarrassingly out of kilter.  Look at these sample pages from the Weekend Australian over the past six months where the red is Western Australia and the blue is South Australia.  Frequently less than a quarter of the coverage of arts events and never any that are illustrated. And this weekend it's the worst of all - how is this acceptable?
So where does this dismissive mindset originate? Positioning Western Australian art practice within the larger narrative of Australian and international art is a complex activity.  It negotiates a pathway through national and international issues of cultural dependency that have constructed a centre-periphery model of cultural influence. 
Since the 1970s, there has been a great deal of debate about the nature of Australia's relationship to world culture and the perceived ‘provincialism problem’ described by Terry Smith.[1]   (Hello Terry!) As a result Australia has often been positioned at the periphery as a marginalised community defined by its relationship to the centres of world art. 
This dependency theory of cultural activity is exemplified in the adoption of the invidious ‘cultural cringe’ that has haunted Australian artists since it was first enunciated in the 1950s by Arthur Angel Phillips.[2] Although Phillips thought this a positive influence that would enable Australian artists to measure their achievements against universal standards, thus protecting them from the evils of parochialism, its popularity as a form of denigration caused him to write a rebuttal in the 1980s.[3]
It is within this dependency model of cultural production that non-indigenous Australian visual culture has been previously defined as either a pale imitation of imported models or as a series of unique variations inflected with an 'Australian accent'.[4]  Seen within this model, Western Australian arts practice is further marginalised — peripheral to the periphery — and dislocated from both Australian and world centres of art production. 
Over twenty years ago Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether and Ann Stephen challenged this view in their important book, The Necessity of Australian Art in which they stated that:
An alternate interpretation of Australian art should be able to reveal the interdependent (not dependent) character of the relations between centre and periphery, in such a way that it is possible to glimpse through Australian art an alternative interpretation of twentieth century art.[5]
In their extrapolation of how this might be ac
hieved, they proposed an alternative model for examining the contribution of Australian artists working outside the centres of international culture.  Central to this model was the examination of the ‘relation between the national forms or traditions and the 'international' form of the art market’[6] and a revaluation of local traditions and practices.  They argued that within this framework of uneven exchange the cultural value of regional practice is denied.  In response Burn and his colleagues called for a

    “… revaluation of local traditions and practices, in particular a revaluation of the distortions and different understandings overlaid upon a historically-specific social environment”.[7]

Indeed, the visual culture of Western Australia documents a local response to international and national issues that, by its very presence, not only contributes to the larger history of Australian visual culture, but also offers a distinctive perspective to that larger narrative. For Aboriginal artists, it is often a process of strengthening culture through reflection and re-imagination, for non-Indigenous artists it can be a mechanism for establishing a sense of belonging.  Out West has a deserved reputation as a hedonistic environment, but it is also harsh, unique and bio-diverse.  The extraordinary landscape and ecology demands a response and artists find ways to inflect received knowledge with their experiences of living here.  Yet, while a great deal of Australian art was bought for public and private collections in Western Australia and many exhibitions of Sydney and Melbourne based artists were brought to Perth, with few exceptions only a very limited number of works by Western Australian artists was purchased for major national collections or included in major survey exhibitions.
The exception are Aboriginal artists, many of whom have been acknowledged nationally and internationally, for example Rover Thomas who represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990. 
Distance, freight costs and invisibility are the obvious reasons but there have been other exhibitions and critical evaluations where this hasn’t inhibited inclusion of Western Australian artists.  In 1961 in the Recent Australian Painting, held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London from June-July, included works by Western Australian artists John Lunghi, Robert Juniper, Guy Grey-Smith, and Elisabeth Durack.  Over the intervening half century this model of curatorial rigour has not been replicated.   In large part this was because the Federal Government provided funding support to bring Bryan Robertson, Director of the Whitechapel, to Australia, including Western Australia, to visit artists, see their works and make the selection at first hand. 
Six years later John Stringer, co-curator of the famous Field exhibition with Brian Finemore, held to mark the opening of the new National Gallery of Victoria building on St Kilda Road in 1968, acknowledged than had he known of the work of Howard Taylor he would most definitely have included him, but travel budgets precluded a visit to Perth, Adelaide, Hobart or Brisbane.
The exclusion of Western Australian artists from publications surveying national trends or activity was another consequence that have further exacerbated the situation. All history, as Raymond Williams suggests, involves a 'selective tradition'[8] that requires acknowledgement of the process of selection to determine how those decisions are made. Whether in the wider sphere of Australian art in its relation with international practice or seen solely within Australia, the selective tradition, if not constantly examined, can skew interpretation, mystifying and obscuring the complexities of these relationships and the contributions of those on the periphery.

The writing of Ian Burn and his colleagues was driven by the belief that the need for a new understanding of regional values in Australia and of their historical basis in Australian culture was not simply a question of historical accuracy or of elucidating the role of influential regional practices on the development of Australia art, but it was a necessary condition of contemporary understanding and practice. 
The recent television series The Art of Australia presented by Edmund Capon and it’s complement Hannah Gadsby’s OZ offered a blinkered view of Australian art practice that seemed to end at the 129th meridian east longitude.  Capon included one artist from Western Australia — Rover Thomas — but Gadsby failed to acknowledge any creative activity beyond the State’s border.  Unfortunately this recorded history is what remains.  These videos will be shown to students in high school over coming decades and this myth will be cemented in the mindsets of generations of gallery goers, critics, curators and art historians who will, due to this erroneous rewriting of history, perpetuate the myth by regularly replicating Capon and Gadsby’s oversights. Once again the exception is the work of Aboriginal artists from Western Australia who were reasonably well represented in Hetti Perkins Art & Soul programs.
A brief scan of the major publications over the past half-century claiming to be a history of Australian highlight the slippages, omissions and exclusions. Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting[9] published in 1962 lists just three Western Australian artists (Guy Grey-Smith, Robert Juniper and John Lunghi) who were he claimed “actively at work today seeking to forge a personal style for themselves relevant to time and place”. 
Four years later Robert Hughes in The Art of Australia[10] also listed three, though Herbert McClintock and his alter ego Max Ebert replaced John Lunghi.

In 1997 Christopher Allen’s Art in Australia[11] listed only two artists from Western Australia (Brian Blanchflower and Carol Rudyard), while Andrew Sayers included three Western Australian artists, (Axel Poignant, Kate O’Connor and Howard Taylor) in his Australian Art[12] published in 2001. 

Most recently Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art: A History[13] has done better with 15 artists based in Western Australia included in his index (Brian Blanchflower, Julie Dowling, Florence Fuller, Robert Juniper, Paddy Jaminji, Rover Thomas, Herbert McClintock, Kathleen O’Connor, Chris Pease, Shane Pickett, Guy Grey-Smith, Howard Taylor, Henri Van Raalte, Harald Vike and George Pitt Morison), and also four comments on local practice or experience.
With the exception of Grishin, this lack of rigour has skewed the interpretation of our cultural history and generates a displaced consciousness, while also mystifying and obscuring the complexities of these relationships and the contributions of those on the periphery.
The same is true of media specific surveys or thematic studies of Australian Art. The recent Mid-Century Modern: Australian furniture design exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, omits any reference to the work of David Foulkes Taylor, or his contribution to creating an appetite for modern design in Western Australia.  While this exhibition and its substantial catalogue present a comprehensive survey of modern furniture design in Sydney and Melbourne from the Second World War till the 1970s, it is disappointing that such a misleading tagline was appended. If it were a national survey you would expect to see some coverage of David Foulkes Taylor.
What can we do?  There is no point moaning, the woe is me, back of hand to brow routine has not worked, the only way to redress this imbalance is to confront it head on.  I would like to propose a few suggestions that might impact on this invisibility.  Firstly, to ensure those writing, selecting, filming and purchasing are made aware of what is being made here we should look at establishing a local arts production unit.  Through the Department of Culture and the Arts and ScreenWest, in a consortium with the State’s universities and major cultural agencies, we should initiate a Digital Media Unit to generate short, broadcast quality, sound and video programs that cover arts events, exhibitions, performances, interviews etc. to promote the work of Western Australian artists across all arts disciplines. These could then be posted on existing distribution networks such as UTube, blogs etc. and provided to the ABC, SBS, Fairfax, Seven and other companies.
Publications are another vital part of the ecology of our sector, yet so few Australian artists — let alone Western Australian artists — have a monograph on their work or a substantial catalogue that situates their practice and provides curators, collectors, scholars and television and radio documentary makers with the information they require.  One of the key areas that would make a significant difference in building the national and international profile of artists living here is to support the publication of substantial catalogues, books and monographs.  Artsource are working on this project, the major galleries have done work in this area but there is still a great deal more that could and should be achieved.
In addition we should encourage all cultural agencies, universities and the DCA to create the programs like a reverse ArtFlight to bring critics, journalists, academics or promoters who are proposing a project that might include a local artist to Western Australian.  For example visiting curators for major exhibitions at State or Private Galleries could apply, music promoters, television programmers, international curators and magazine journalists, in fact anyone who can assist in building the profile of locally based artists and performers.   An important adjunct to that initiative would be to provide seed funding to support local artists once invited to participate.  Freight and travel remain the major inhibiting factor for those wishing to show or perform nationally and internationally and a quick response program[14] to ensure local artists are included in books, exhibitions, television programs, newspaper reports etc. would go a long way to enhancing profile and developing viable and sustainable careers.
Finally, the responsibility lies with us all.  Western Australian artists, curators, collectors, directors, performers and musicians should be pro-active in keeping curators, journalists and promoters aware of their activities by sending them updates, catalogues, links to websites etc.  With the Internet there is no reason projects should remain hidden from consciousness any longer.  Blogs, email distribution networks, websites and other platforms can keep a wider audience informed of activities that happen outside Fitzroy or Surry Hills.
In the twenty-first century when we say ‘Australian’ or invoke the epithet ‘national’ it must be used with accuracy to embrace what is happening in all States and Territories, in major cities and remote communities.   

Thank you.
Winthrop Professor Ted Snell AM CitWA
University of Western Australia

Professor Ted Snell was a media panellist at The Undiscovered: A National Focus on Western Australian Art, a symposium co-presented by Artsource and The Cultural Precinct of the University of Western Australia.

For  more information about this event you can read :

  • Keynote Speaker, Ian McLean – The Newly Discovered
  • Media Panellist, Ted Snell – The Tyranny of Myopia
  • - See more at:

[1] Terry Smith, 'The Provincialism Problem', Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970-1980, (ed.) Paul Taylor, Art & Text (Melbourne, 1984), 46-53.

[2] A. A. Phillips, 'The Cultural Cringe', quoted in Burn, Ian, Lendon, Nigel, Merewether Charles, Stephen, Ann, The Necessity of Australian Art: An Essay about Interpretation (Sydney: University of Sydney Printing Service, 1988), 77.

[3] Ibid, 132.

[4] The title of John Kaldor’s 8th Art Project that showed the works of Imants Tillers, Mike Parr and Ken Unsworth at PS1 in New York in 1984).

[5] Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether and Ann Stephen, The Necessity of Australian Art: An essay about interpretation (Sydney: University of Sydney Printing Service, 1988), 132.

[6] Ibid,132.

[7] Ibid, 132-133.

[8] Raymond Williams, 'Base And Superstructure In Marxist Cultural Theory', in R. Dale et al. (eds.) Schooling And Capitalism: A Sociological Reader (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976), 202-10.

[9] Bernard Smith, Australian Painting, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962, p332

[10] Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Penguin Books, UK, 1966, p218 (“Grey-Smith from de StaĆ«l”)

[11] Christopher Allen’s Art in Australia, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997

[12] Andrew Sayers Australian Art, Oxford University Press, 2001

[13] Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art: A History, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2014

[14] Eg. Deutsche Kultur International