Interview with Bernard Smith
Melbourne Saturday 22nd July 2000
For use in feature in Bulletin

Did you get to see the Mertz Exhibition?
BS: No. I don’t get around much these days. I have been so involved working out theoretical position in 20th century I felt I did not have the time to get to many exhibitions The trouble is I want to buy to things I like I cant afford and it get trapped into situations and people see me and they get ideas of things I might like to do and I get diverted from what I want to do and so I have become a bit of a recluse and any rate I feel that you can only have a gut feeling for the worked of your own generation and whilst intellectually you can see what is going on you have this unpleasant feeling that it is déjà vu but it is not actually déjà vu it is just that you are getting older and that another generation has to do the critical bits. In other words, as I have said before, the historian comes when the part is over.

In a way, to leap from that to where you were first connected with art through education in schools Do you have any sense of in the way in which the world the world has changed in the past 60 years, Would the concerns that got you interested, is education through art still something that schools should be concerned with.

BS: Yes without question I still think that Herbert Read who made it world wide in public that the notion of education through art is valid The idea of allowing Children free expression is psychologically sound.. Of course, things have moved on since then but I don’t think that the basic position has altered.

Perhaps the opposite is true with the screen as the page now and the emphasis in the culture that it has become more important and more possible for students learning off computers means that so much of what they know comes from the visual

BS: Yes but one still has to do it oneself and I have been tapping and computers on all my life but I don’t think that helps people who are concerned with the visual but is much more concerned with language so that there is an even greater need to emphasise the use of the hand visually than in the past.

Perhaps the education of the visual is more when bombarded by the visual so that the power of discrimination that comes from making it oneself so that you learn how hard it is

BS: Precisely. I took to criticism and art history in the late 1940s but I had been drawing for four or five years before that and then painting. It was a conscious decision to give up but it taught me a lot about the difficulty. Of actually doing it

Some years ago you remarked that historians were still in the Medieval frame of mind being fixated on the text and fearful of and unable to deal with the visual as evidence Has that improved?

BS: There has been a considerable improvement so far as some historians are concerned. They are beginning to realise that when you face an engraving or painting or any visual object that it is something more than an illustration for a book. The picture also has a history and to use it adequately one has to know where it came from and under what conditions was drawn and what aspects was the originator, the artificer, seeking to do. It has a history as much as a text has a history and historians are taught to analyse texts as they emerge.

The popular notion of Post Mod with its emphasis on the visual has made this easier, more acceptable?

BS: I am not sure whether post modernism has an emphasis on the visual Theoretically it has been the reverse. It has taken place what they call the linguistic turn which means that all the visual arts are reduced in the final analysis to language. In my life I have noticed two major paradigms One is really from Schopenhauer that all art aspires to the condition of music and from the time that I started around 1940 to take a serious interest in art history up to the 1960s  Interpretation wasn’t important. Language wasn’t important. You looked at the shape and the form and that is really what I call the time of the formalesque Now since the 1960s and 1970s there is a move over to the linguistic paradigm, but I prefer to call it the turn to meaning for there was much more than language involved There was iconography, feminism coming in powerfully and Euro-Marxism. They all hit the Anglo-Saxon world during the sixties and seventies. It meant that all art aspired to the condition of meaning, not so much language, but meaning, so that now interpretation and looking at the structure of form virtually nothing, In both cases there has been a distortion. You have to keep a balance. Shape, form, texture, colour and the things that you see in a sense immediately and this gets us into very deep philosophical problems by trespassing on the business of phenomenology. Can we see before we give a meaning to our perceptions and it is in that central problem is the whole theory of visual arts. We should not get too far into that. But it has got so far into meaning now that people like Derrida are trying to argue that when you draw you are virtually blind because what you are doing is making a move on the surface with the pencil and you can’t look at what you are drawing because you are involved with making this movement which seems to me to be absolute nonsense and reminds me of Zeno’s paradox. If the tortoise goes first then the hare will never catch him because the tortoise has got a little bit further. I think that Derrida is trying to say that it is movement of drawing line is an instantaneous instants and the line  So we do keep our eye on both. is made up of instants. But visually we don’t look like that. We have images and after images. When I look at you I don’t see an infinite number of instantaneous images.  Memory comes into the vision.

Despite the supposed democratisation of the visual by the introduction of cinema studies which is associated with the post mod and associated with pop culture you are saying that the visual is being devaluated.

BS: Yes, because they all dissolve it. They are too much entranced by the philosophers and have to get back to looking and looking visually at the object rather than to theorise unduly about it. Philosophers are not normally in the habit of writing history. Not normally and writing in the habit of writing art criticism They are quite rightly in the business of the universal problems of epistemology

Is there room for pleasure? The sheer pleasure of looking and touching, of swooning in front of the work?

BS: Precisely because the work has a presence and good art gives you a sense of pleasure, of fitness. Again it is a great problem to know just why it happens, that is the beauty of it and the mystery of it and it is related to our enjoyment of nature and our enjoyment of things very well put together. I suppose it goes back to the relation of fitness to function but it is not necessarily that.

Feminism and Euro Marxism and post colonialism as sources of meaning have they made it harder for pleasure so that when you look a painting or a woman or a colonised person and what people are now trained to do is to  immediately make a political judgment so that it can’t be right because it was made by a white man and so what you have to do is find what is wrong with it.

BS: There is a kind of eternal paradox here. Perhaps Gombrich was right. There is only one norm and that is the classical norm He did not mean that we all have to draw Greek statues but that when art changed it was deviation from the norm and progress in an aesthetic sense depended on a deviation from the classical norm. and there is only one norm not a lot of other norms. So that you can see in the history of art, the Gothic, Baroque Rococo, Neo-Classicism even are deviation from an original. That said, I also believe that Mathew Arnold that all art is a criticism of society and so we have the problem of art being a critique of society and yet giving us a kind of pleasure What kind of pleasure is this? Is it the pleasure of art or the pleasure of criticism? I think the two things are indubitably linked. All great art has this quality of criticism and Guernica was the great example in the twentieth century. Yet there are other kinds of visual pleasure such as the one we get from a beautifully made pot beautifully formed piece of ceramic art that is not critical at all in that sense yet is just as real and gets us back to phenomenology and the meaning of visual pleasure.

Universities are responsible for most of these ideas and their project of teaching, seminars and conferences and publication. Has the move of the visual into the academic produced more problems than solutions?

BS: I am sure it has. I was always opposed when I was setting up the Power Institute against the idea that we should take the studio arts into the academic courses because I thought, indeed was certain because I had been to the States and I felt that it had destroyed the great schools of art in New York and San Francisco had … The Humanities in the universities are word places and good artists are not  really concerned with the word. They a re concerned with putting the materials together, with techniques. What it did there was to set up the Tin Sheds which was a service place like a tennis court or swimming pool.  This sounds derogatory but it wasn’t that way because it set up a very critical department during the Vietnam years. And it still goes on and is not related to getting marks and you don’t have to get a PhD if you are working in the Tin Sheds. You could work there if you were a professor or a student and that is the best way to handle it in universities.

The importance of the hand in making and was saying earlier that the studio arts require practice and conceptualisation but those you have been trained in connoisseurship and art history, do they not need to learn how to hold a brush and make a mark? So that when they look at someone else’s finished product, as you yourself had?

BS: This is true. Roger Fry was an artist before he became a critic and I have noticed that some of the most committed art historians that I know began that way. Terry Smith and Ian McLean I think they realise how hard it is. One has to admit that art history and kind of history and has a history of its own that emerges in the German universities and some very great art historians who have never been art historians, Panofsky and Gombrich.

If we go back to another early strand of your career in art museums and reflect on their expansion in the past 30 years. Is their contribution in the Blockbusters that start in 1974 and now come at two or three a year, what kind of general education for art and art history has the blockbuster provided? Have Australians become more culturally literate than when you were having to organise art education in the late 1940s?

BS: I think there have been enormous changes and we had to fight to get a small popular audience. There were collectors who were very well to do but the art audience was very small and that has changed for the better. I have nothing against Blockbusters but it is very difficult if you go during the ordinary hours as a member of the public because you join a queue and you look over somebody else’s shoulder before you are pushed on to the next one so there is physical problem with Blockbusters. I am not against the major masterpieces of the world moving around. Curators have concerns about their protection but they were created to be seen and many were created to be mobile which is why they put frames around them. I think it is the business of the museums to let people see things that come from other centuries and other countries.

I am not all that keen on contemporary art museums because it is an oxymoron. I think the place for contemporary art is in the commercial galleries where it is bought and sold and values are established But as soon as you put it into a museum you are saying that it has already been through the business of valuing and is something worthy of presentation. I can go back to the time when the AGNSW put on a joint exhibition of Dobell and Preston and it was first time the Gallery had ever put on an exhibition of living artists and the Art Society complained that the Gallery was taking over the role of the Society.

We were talking about the definition of Modernism and Post-Modernism. What is your definition of Contemporary?

BS: I think modernism is a kite with a long tail and contemporary is a kite with a shorter tail while the present is a kite with no tail. The point about a tail is that it keeps a kite going on a reasonably steady course into the future but the contemporary with its relatively shorter tail is more volatile up and down but serves a useful purpose but the present is extremely volatile, goes up, and up and up and then down to what I might call yesterday and is no longer with us. I think the modern and the contemporary can go on quite well and when I first came the art world we never talked about Modernism but the Modern Movement and we talked about the contemporary and we always assumed that contemporary was a bit more the immediate present than the modern but they worked quite well together.

Modernism is interesting because all -isms are retrospective nouns of action and they come into existence only when the movement they refer to is mature and thus  is likely to have an end. There were Protestants before Protestantism and Catholics before Catholicism. I am talking semantically. When the Modern Movement became Modernism we were moving towards that particular modern movement.

Is that the movement at which contemporary goes from a small-c to a capital-C?

BS: I have never thought about that. No, I think contemporary always has a small-c. That is, it is normative and will never go out of date.

In the fifties we got Contemporary Art Societies, using the Capital C.

BS: Contemporary in that case was in a given time and place. Like Modern.

Back to the Blockbusters, mostly about Impressionism and Monet. If you were to pick a show that Australians most need to see, is there a century or school that you would like to bring in more of?

BS: One thing about Impressionism is that it gives people a great deal of pleasure. To my generation they were pleasurable.  They were designed to give pleasure, though Monet and Renoir had a pretty tough time. and they were not looked at with pleasure at the time of their creation which means that we do have to seek to give new forms of visual pleasure by showing work continuously. The generation of painters who grew up here in the post-war years creating a kind of reputation for themselves here in the dealer’s market and the popular mind and there is no reason why  they should not  be looked at along with the Impressionists until we find something else to give us pleasure. There is another paradox here because the truly creative artists will always seek to create new kinds of pleasure out of their own anguish and anxiety and it takes considerable time before that hits the populace and that is why the immediately popular is always strkes me as a bit of a paradox because it has to be critical to surive to be good.

The other source of pleasure in recent years was the Rembrandt and there is a big section of the art loving public who wants to see the Old Masters which are perhaps harder to organise such as the Golden Age of Spanish and High German masters. Your teaching at Sydney was that people could understand why was happening here recently if they knew the history of art.

BS: I have always tried to be quiet critic of society I have always been a traditionalist and called my first book Place Taste and Tradition. That goes back to my reading. First I read the Bible and then I read Marx and at the same time as I was reading Toynbee who, although he got a lot from Marx indirectly, was a kind of a little Christian. His Utopianism was that we would get he best out of all the religions. True also of Theosophy. Against the influence of Marxism with its emphasis on materialism, which I still take very seriously, there was the influence of the Bible and Toynbee. But all of them gave me a sense of what Braudel called the Longue duree, a long history; this is my disposition and that is related to a sense of value. There is such a thing as a good and bad art. A Rembrandt will always be regarded, by anyone who takes the time to look at a lot of art, as a supreme master, just as anyone who spends years listening to music will always regard Bach as a great master. These things are set virtually in historical concrete. Against that, the new generation has to work like hell because to create the new it is not sufficient to be in the admiration of the past, another paradox.

What are you reading at the moment?
[Very very long pause because he does not want to answer]

BS: I am reading The last of the Mohicans which I find very difficult to get through indeed. I have been asked to talk about it in Wisconsin because it is linked in with my writings about noble and ignoble savages in the Pacific. I find it very very dreary.

A Judith Wright that I should have read some time ago, The cry for the Dead. Her death partly provoked me into that.

Pierre Bordieu on The Rules of Art who is the one of the French who is most likely to last. Much easier than Fennimore Cooper.

For your tour of the US in October you have nine university seminars planned. Are these to lead the wretched heathen to the light?

BS: Partly it is. I am mainly concerned and I want seminars not public lectures to get 25 people to listen, discuss and ask questions. In public lectures you can’t. You are built up as a VIP and people find it embarrassing to ask questions in a big audience.

I shall call them Modernisms and the Formalesque and inviting them to address the issues that I am presenting them with.

European vision became among anthropologists in the US a major text. Yale did a new edition. On Connolly’s basis that a book even mentioned ten years after publication has made its mark. Modernism’s history has disappeared without trace in the US. Why is there no flow on from the standing of European Vision?

BS: Jack Lindsay had a similar problem. If you go from one area to another, people decide that since you are specialist in Eighteenth century European and Pacific history, why should you know anything about twentieth-century art in European and North America? But I am linking it in my book with my notions of cultural imperialism.  I am taking a world view. People could say it is Euro-centric but this is where Modernism began before it was taken up brilliantly in the United States. The only advantage I’ve got, which I made clear in the book, is the advantage of distance. Blainey talked about he tyranny of distance but distancing is also very important in gaining an overview which is one of the advantages I have. I did not come new to the subject because I had been teaching it for the greater part of my life. But I was drawn to write about the art of my country. Not because I am a nationalist, I never have been, but because I felt like A D Hope who said that it is our responsibility to deal with our own art and that is what the rest of the world expects of us. But we must remember that we are part of a larger world and one of the problems with a lot of my stuff is that my critics complain that I have thought of Australian art primarily in terms of its influences from abroad. But this is truth that we have to confront that we are a samll part of a much bigger world. We will never overcome this because we are going into an electronic age. You only have to look at the globe to see that the Southern Hemisphere consists mostly of salt water and that most of population lives in the north and that most of the human pressures are going to go on in the north and we must adjust ourselves to that. It does not mean necessarily that we will be marginalised but we have to make a virtue of distance.

Not a nationalist but also an critic of imperialism?

BS: I am certainly drawn by my generation I would not object to being called

I think that art is not a national thing but an urban thing. It is essentially in cities, that what I call art in the special sense It becomes national when the pollies take it on and sayt hat this is Australian art, two or three represent us in the Biennale. But it is again when the party is over. Most young artists don’t think of themselves as nationalists. It is towards the end of their lives that they like to think that they have made some contribution to their culture. Arthur Boyd is a typical case. He became Australian of the year, but in the best sense he was a universalist, he dealt with universal problems but they were also his personal problems.

You have always lived in the city, never homo suburbiensis.

BS: I started in Burwood but I like to live in lively places where ideas are going on and have never driven a car so I have to live close in.

Your concerns with the urban environment, with preservation, Federation style has been a continuing strand in your work. Now there is urban infill. Do you get any sense that we are creating those human pressures that were a source of artistic creativity. Or is it a new kind of inner city are people who own two cars and insist on owning a jeep to park under their 50-storey block. Is it likely that this urbanism and the artists and st8udents drive them out under the power of real estate.

BS: I don’t know the answer to that question. There are periods in the history of cities when they provide the right kind of environment to support artists. Minister of Culture under de Gaulle Malraux realised that Paris was becoming too expensive and set up Cite des Artes. I don’t know where that was a solution but an admission that Paris in the 1960s was not the Paris of the late 19th century. You could say that similar things might happen here. I do know that young artists tend to live wherever they can find a place and if they survive and make a do of it they then go out into the suburbs and realise they do not need the stimulus of the cities but need isolation to get on with their work.

We may see a combination of suburbs and inner cities is being replaced by country towns? The city is now a conurbation and we may see the smaller town on the edge as the new inner suburbs for the young or outer suburbs for the old.

BS: Lots of examples such as Taos and Fontainbleau but also Hill End out of Bathurst etc

[He then talked about another volume of autobiography, following on from the multiple award winning The Boy Adeodatus, portrait of  a lucky young bastard 1984

Titled The English Connection will be focussed on his wife Kate but including her adoptive father, Cuthbert, a pedophile, who outlived two wives and proposed to Kate just before she left for Australia in 1938.  But I had not changed the tape????

So these from scribbled notes:

Hopes to do justice to Kate and her contribution

She gave him spaced, a life, a sophisticated cultured, was a trained historian, never ambitious, wanted a family and affection more than sex


She said he was one of the few people who could control her

Never worshipped him and so kept vanity in order

Will also cover his years in London with Australian artists such as James Gleeson and Bob Klippel, Noel Counihan and Inge King

Confined to 1940s so that he will have  something to do next by writing about the 1950s

He mentioned a play now on in New York, built around a meeting between Niels Bohr and Heisenberg and the race for the bomb. That afternoon is going to a local play called Crazy Brave with Bohr’s daughter, and taking her a review of the play from the NYRB.]

Later he will see MTC production of The Death of a Salesmen.

One of the lines that struck me is Willy’s ‘attention must be paid’, his plea for dignity, stripped of dignity by their work but that they are entitled to dignity. A line in Kurt Vonnegut about even if there were ever enough material goods to go around there would never be enough dignity. The kind of society that you grew up and came to consciousness in the 1930s, when there was a shortage of material things for most people, followed by relative affluence since the 1940s, are we closer to or further from the idea that attention must be paid, from dignity.

BS: I get the feeling that we are moving away from the sense of community and decency. The obvious answer could be that we all tend to romanticise the past. But I think there is more to it than that. Capitalism with its emphasis on self-interest atomised the individuals and gives us less sense of community, help, and dignity. I have noticed that with the young generation. I think there has been a falling off. I don’t know what the answer to it be. Can a purely secular society maintain a sense of community ethical and moral values or not. Or does it require some kind of religion. With all their excesses and perversion and fanaticism religions at least had kept the sense of community going in society. I am not sure that the values of the enlightenment, in which I grew up, and to which I still belong, can supply that sense of the community. I do not know.

Rise in popularity of Aboriginal art is part of our cannibalism of what we take as their spirituality to supply what the Enlightenment and capitalism cannot provide?

BS: That is an interesting way of looking at it. Many of us from the beginning realised that it was Aboriginal that the northern hemisphere was interested in , not European Australian art. It is only really since the 1970s that the dealers have really dropped to that. I am ambiguous about it because as I see it it has provided many, many aborigines with an economic base and it is the only they can provide an important economic base and give them a sense of dignity and place and helping to survive their own culture. That is the positive side.

Historically, I see what was called traditional Aboriginal art, taking a very long view of the matter, is essentially a mode of twentieth century art. To me, it is the very late phase of the formalesque. If we look at it closely from the bark paintings to the painting by Emily it reminded me immediately of Jackson Pollock. The movement has been towards the strong tradition is towards the values of the formalesque. It is an example of what someone a long time ago called, and I have to do it in quotes, a case of the ‘savage hitting back’. First of all, Picasso, if you like to use the word, ‘cannibalised’ African sculpture and then the indigenous people in turn produced modernism in the terms of modern art.

For me, the more interesting thing is the work of urban aborigines who do their best to relate their art to their contemporary problems as Aborigines. That is why I ‘cannibalised’, if that is the word, Les Murray’s word, ‘convergence’. Both sides of our culture will benefit from a convergence from Aboriginal art of the critical kind and the older kind.  Not that the other is unimportant, as I say, because it makes for a survival of a traditional culture.

You once remarked that what the English liked in Nolan was the primitive.

BS: It is a form a of primitivism.

German tourists, when not hiking through the Schwartzwald, are hunting the primitive in our desert. That is their problem and the Aborigines have different problems. We can’t devalue the latter on the basis of the former.

The exciting moments at those of interaction, when and wherever the crossover takes place. Fringe dwellers are also commenting the present as with the car doors at Euendimu.. points of conflict and contact.

Modern architecture and the kind of house you could now like to live in but we have to stop somewhere. Dorothy Green was amused by a cartoon of a man who had gone up to St Peter who looked through the book of his life to announce’ It appears that you have done all that you ought to have done except to have read The Mill on the Floss. Is there something you ought to have done?

BS: There are lots of books I ought to have read. I ought to have taken more interest in contemporary Aboriginal art. I have the little I can with the Boyer lectures and the RAKA award for aboriginal artists and now with the publication of my wife’s book. I felt it better to stick to my last. I know that I have probably had more influence on anthropologist and sociologists than on art historians, though I think of myself essentially as an art historian. I don’t think that there are all that many art historians in Australians.

You mentioned before about your not writing a book on Courbet. Were there other projects that got left behind?

BS: Courbet was the main one. Tim Clark was working on his book just at the time when I realised that he was doing it much better than I could. I got involved with other things. I can’t think of any other major. I got published most of the stuff I wanted published. Do you think I am finished?

No, I was thinking what an enormously productive retirement you have had since 1977.

BS: I can recommend retiring at sixty.

That is what I meant by saying that you  as long as it is possible and get to the desk for those hours it gives a shape to the day. That is what I meant

BS: I have always been a routine man. Since I saw you last, I was absolutely crippled with arthritis all over me for a couple of months until a specialist put me on cortisone. It cleared it up completely. Reducing me from 5 mg to 1 but if it returns we put it up. I kept on working through that but I would not like to have to. I realise that people who work even worse things, terminal illnesses, Margaret Kiddle, she got it finished.

One of the advantages of being your age is that you can take cortisone and not worry about the long term.

BS: I asked him about long term effects but he said: “Not at your age’  I said to him the other day about the softening of the bones but he said that.

I must confess that I am an addict since my arthritis because I have been taking a sedative, not as I don’t take it until 11.30 at night and then I get four hours perfect sleep. I am awake first thing in the morning.  The doctor said: With people of your age I don’t mind at all if you become addicts’.

An article of his appeared in the special issue of the Tate magazine for the opening of the Tate Modern.

Called ‘Modernism in its place’ it opens:

Art history is facing two dilemmas, local and semantic in character. The international dominance of what we still call Modernism cease during the 1960s.

What does characterise the present is called, lugubriously, Post-Modernism, as if in mourning for what is not longer modern.

What next: the infinite regress of  Post-Post-modernism? 

Worth noting the new Tate is ‘Tate Modern, not Tate Post-Modern’

Art history conceived in terms of visual styles

That called for analysis of the multiplicity and then for some synthesis of those elements

When will art historian take courage and give the Modernism of the first half of the twentieth century a period style name?

Rescue this latest Modernism from its present role as the fall-buy of Post-Modernism.

Will follow this up with a keynote address to the International Congress of Art History in London 3-8 September

When he will be staying in the Chelsea apartment of Jill, the Duchess of Hamilton for whose book on the botanical illustrations commissioned by the Empress Josephine he supplied a preface

His paper is far from sedate

Indeed it is Bernard the belligerent,

Begins with a frontal assault on the brief given by the conference organisers who want to dissolve periodisation

He accuses them of inviting the profession to teach its grandmother to suck eggs’

He defends some traditional position but then takes a turn so ‘radical that no one in the northern hemisphere seems to want to talk about it’

The a US tour in October

Needs to go there to get attention, promoting ideas, not self or sales

On his book on Modernism as the Formalesque, not formalist

Later on the afternoon of the interview he was going to see a new Australian play, Crazy Brave which refers to those who are not just very brave but who are crazy enough to attempt the new as he is doing in his 85th year.