Another Look at the Social Dimension of Indexing
by Michael Corris
During the mid-1960s, a number of artists and exhibition organizers pioneered a form of production and distribution of art that cut against the grain of established market practices; generally, those identified with the works of painters and sculptors then being championed by critics such as Michael Fried and, to a lesser extent, his mentor Clement Greenberg.
American artists associated with this trend, such as Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Douglas Huebler, enjoyed considerable exposure and market success, especially in Europe. By the late-1960s, a growing number of critics and curators - notably Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub and Charles Harrison - had committed themselves to the facilitation and dissemination of this type of artistic practice by organizing unconventional exhibitions and writing highly supportive critical commentary. In his catalogue introduction to the British version of the exhibition "When Attitudes Become Form," Harrison enthused that "it is no longer necessary for the artist to make his work finite in terms of area or form; it need be neither tangible nor visible so long as his particular intention will carry into 'mental space' without an object to remember it by." ("Against precedents," Studio International, September 1969.)
Dubbed variously "Idea Art" or "Conceptual Art," exhibitions of this new type of artistic practice existed effectively only in the form of printed catalogues or in the pages of internationally-circulated art magazines, such as Studio International. This new mode of art production and distribution was considered liberatory to the extent that it shared a number of assumptions linked to Marshall McLuhan's notion of a Global Village. In fact, such forms of artistic practice did little to alter the dominant position of New York as the post-war center of the art market. However, the view from the periphery of North American economic and political supremacy was quite different, as the recent exhibition "Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s" (Queens Museum of Art, New York 1999) aimed to demonstrate. Throughout South America, Eastern Europe, East Asia and Australia, artistic practices which have been perhaps too readily assimilated to so-called "Conceptual Art" - as though local artists where bound, even in their gestures of liberation, to pay hommage to a model of artistic practice whose concerns where only superficially relevant or in solidarity with those of "local" artists - were taking advantage of the relative mobility and adaptability of these new forms of production and distribution in a strategic way undreamt of by the majority of artists of North America. For those outside the "center" - and the opposition "center-margin" was one of the hallmarks of the "anti-imperialist" thinking of the time - Conceptual Art was believed to be the means to side-step oppressive cultural structures, defeat US-imposed values of consumerism, and even evade political censorship. Such interpretations, while meaning to defeat a Eurocentric view of artistic innovation and development, do as much to strengthen such a picture of cultural relationships on a global scale as to shatter and disperse them. The very term "global conceptualism" seems to me to disclose a basic error in thinking about the role and status of the "marginal" to the "center" in the world as it has been developing since the 1960s. We are still in danger of reconciling all those regional expressions, inflected as they may be with local political and cultural significance, with the very model of art they aim to displace. Unless, of course, those calling into question the supremacy of North American or European "Conceptualism" - to use an unfortunate expression - are in reality modernizers looking to give the locals their "due." In either case, Conceptual art risks being transformed from a field of heterogenous practices into a style or attitude capable of an impressive cultural reach and possessing something of its own logic of development.
What I am trying to sketch here is the place of culture in relation to the shift in the global reach of a world-system of capitalism. One in which the commodity status of culture is immeasurably more entrenched, so that it may no longer be a question of "center" versus "margin" as though those two polar opposites were somehow equivalent in scope and purpose and power, but a situation where the commodification of culture has become so intensified as to pose real problems of resistance and denial through the work of art itself. It is perhaps symptomatic of this darker notion that art, no matter what form it may take, is already too infected with a viral system that seeks "sheltered environments" (this is Fredric Jameson's figure) which somehow turn the entire project on its head. At the moment when claims about the political and critical potential of Conceptual Art were least convincing to younger artists, and the entire period of the 1960s - 1970s was on the verge of becoming unrecoverable as an historical or imaginative resource for artistic practice, Ian Burn noted the interrelatedness of that art in terms of "aesthetic questions" colliding with social and political ones. ("The Sixties: Crisis and Aftermath," Art+Text 1, 1981.)
This issue was theorized and discussed in Marxist terms by the Conceptual art group Art & Language. But even so, for those living and working in New York, Marxism entered the discussion fairly late and in rather eccentric circumstances and eclectic formulations. (Perhaps that is a good definition of the marginal in this context: the triumph of the slightly strange.) Art & Language in New York drew upon an ongoing discourse of "cultural imperialism" which emerged amongst artists during the decade of the 1970s. It is a discourse that was bounded, on the one hand, by the arguments of Max Kozloff ("American Painting During The Cold War", Artforum, May 1973) and the late Eva Cockcroft ("Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of The Cold War", Artforum, June 1974) on the presumed use of US avant-garde art in support of Cold War aims, and, on the other hand, by Ian Burn's notion of regionalism. It was also strongly informed by various contemporary analyses of economic underdevelopment, which were then mobilized as a model for un derstanding cultural underdevelopment. Lastly, the numerous studies on the use of US mass-media to propagate the consumer culture throughout Latin America were seen to be useful methodological and ideology models. This last category has been somewhat overlooked, but its importance is unquestionable: here we find the work of the late-Herbert I. Schiller on resistance to what he called the asymmetrical "free flow" of information and values from the North to the South; the fruits of empirical research undertaken by study groups of Latin American intellectuals - principally located in Chile during the early-1970s - and attempts by left intellectuals like Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart ("Para Leer al Pato Donald", Valpariso 1971/"How to Read Donald Duck: imperialist ideology in the Disney comic", New York 1975) to expose the ideological purpose of that most widespread of mass cultural forms, the Disney comic and cartoon film.
In a recent review of a survey of work and texts produced by Art & Language between 1972 and 1981 (P.S.1/The Institute of Contemporary Art, Long Island City, New York 1999), the group was described as a "Marxist collective." It was not meant to be a compliment. Despite its inaccuracy, one can appreciate how such a remark would seem entirely credible in the face of Art & Language 's artistic practices of the 1970s. These works stand as a virtual catalogue of the ways and means of formidably sectarian leftist confrontational politics that emerged from the ruins of 1968. Here one finds images excoriating bourgeois values of culture, founded upon class analysis and dialectical materialism, yet appropriating political forms (the poster, the polemic) which were marginal even by the confrontational standards of the mid-1970s.
From thinkers as diverse as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton one senses that Marxism used as an intellectual resource means the possibility of a type of intellectual analysis that constantly supplies us with moments of interruption in the smooth flow of dialectical mediation. Thus, Eagleton, speaking on the relationship between nationalism, colonialism and literature in the Irish context, remarks that "[t]he paradox or aporia of any transformative policy is that it demands, to be successful, a 'centered,' resolute, self-confident agent, but would not be necessary in the first place if such self-confidence were genuinely possible. Radical change is thus rendered highly vulnerable by what makes it necessary in the first place." ("Nationalism: irony and commitment," 1988.)
Jameson reveals the limits of theory unstructured by history and historical change when he notes that "in the U.S. itself, we have come to think and to speak of the emergence of an internal Third World and of internal Third World voices, as in Black women's literature or chicano literature for example. When the other speaks, he or she becomes another subject: which must be consciously registered as a problem by the imperial or metropolitan subject - whence the turn of what are still largely Western theories of imperialism in a new direction, towards that other, and towards the structures of underdevelopment and dependency for which we are responsible." ("Modernism and imperialism," 1988.)
From the position of the subject residing in the metropolitan center, anti-imperialist work during the 1970s meant the articulation of two separate moments in a singular trajectory of self-understanding: the realization of the demands placed on one's practice through the critical renegotiation, and eventual rejection, of Modernism's claims for the self-contained work of art. These rather abstract moments were made real in terms of the application of a widespread and stereotypical model of the Maoist "struggle session" held over from the Cultural Revolution; that is, the public enactment of the "dialectic" process of "criticism, self-criticism, criticism." It was also a convenient polemical style; writing in 1974, Andrew Menard, Preston Heller and myself noted that: "[F]or most of us in New York, confident of our social power as well as our audience, accepting our ideology presupposes nothing more difficult than understanding (learning about) our ideology. We rarely admit that there might be valid reasons for doubting modernism, that the "hick" from Ohio may find little or no resonance between his/her social experience, except as one more example of Cultural hegemony. We find it hard to believe that someone could understand (learn about) our Cultural values and still find them unacceptable. And who's to disagree? . . . With the gradual encroachment of modernism any doubts we may have about modernism are usually converted to doubts about ourselves, and our own scepticism becomes self-alienating rather than liberating."
This theme of the psychosocial binds of modernism was explored by Mel Ramsden in a contribution ("On Practice") to the first issue of The Fox (Art & Language Press, 1975). Ramsden felt it necessary to deal with what he termed the "hydra-headed art-bureaucracy" and to do so by adopting as a heuristic a propagandizing mode of exposition. Ramsden attacked the "adventuristic art of the Seventies" as "insular", a "boring spectacle of fads, intoxications, diversions, [and] infatuations" under the "platitudinous guise of massive evidence of 'creativity' and 'artistic freedom.'" But none of this could become a reality without "the astonishing increase in art-world assessors: entrepreneurs, critics, curators, gallery staff, etc." In short, without a real challenge to the bureaucrats, who are "closer to the sources of control, are higher in the market hierarchy" than us, the artists. (By art world bureaucracy Ramsden means: the fact that "major cultural decisions (which for example determine fundamental things like the way we learn, the practical relations between people) lie out of our control and are now all basically directed through the impersonal operation of market institutions (e.g., commercial galleries) and private administrative control (e.g., here Artforum , the Museum of Modern Art, etc.)") Our mode of existence is one where we have internalized "what the market defines as your talents." I am tempted to summarize the remainder of Ramsden's lengthy and wide-ranging article by revisiting Eagleton's discussion of the revolutionary subject; that is, one who has "broken with an imposed political identity into a kind of nameless, subversive negativity, yet has a sense of his or her own autonomous powers and capacities which far outstrips that hazy, indeterminate awareness of ourselves as agents which we derive from routine social life." All of Ramsden's examples, then, are taken from attempts to clarify and solidify a new role for the "self-enlightened" anti-imperialist, critical artist. It goes without saying that Ramsden finds these various solutions to the problem of a search for a new political, artistic identity self-deluding and misguided. They are doomed to fail, principally because the standards of market intelligibility, that "tawdry substitute for reality," are never sufficiently challenged. With respect to Conceptual Art, Ramsden argues that its marketing as "international art" is precisely what prevents any sort of realism from entering into one's practice. In contrast, Ramsden advocated a "search" outside the art-bureaucracy, to "magnify certain difficulties in making our work public." This theme is reminiscent of the analysis adopted by T. J. Clark in "The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-1851". Indeed, Ramsden signals this by using as his epigraph the following quote from Clark: "That was the problem, in fact: to discover the point at which public and private intersect, and thus be able to attack one by depicting the other."
At least two projects initiated by Art & Language New York during the mid-1970s attempted to address the issue of cultural imperialism through these means. This meant that it was not merely acceptable to volunteer a solution for our comrades in the Third World; rather, it was the task of artists, critics and historians of art (and in this case, we enjoyed the representation and participation of all three professional roles) to address first the terms of complicity of Conceptual Artists - insofar as they unwittingly advanced the cause of modernism - and then invent ways to undermine the role that culture was assumed to play as an adjunct to a deeper form of underdevelopment. Both projects were conceived as public projects, insofar as they took place in museums or state-supported galleries. Both demanded that we engage the audience in a dialogue, and that for us the topics of these conversations would be grounded in our own experiences as artists living and working in New York and the sorts of problems - existential, political, economic, etc. - this fact seemed to raise. We would not necessarily apologize for the deeply embedded nature of our talk, but recognize such indexicality as part of our reality and, therefore, as part of the problem to address. We did not believe we could "transcend" the situation of unequal cultural exchange or "translate" world-views that were essentially incommensurable. To do so seemed to be to opt for moral bankruptcy and side with the bureaucrats of art and culture. There would be no standard of intelligibility save the will and energy to continue the conversation in good faith; to "go-on" as we would say. Conceptual Art notwithstanding, these public dialogues aimed to destabilize the role of the artist as yet another professional, specialist, autonomous and quaintly harmless individual. Insofar as Conceptual Art partakes of the "far-out" and "outlandish," it is, argues Ramsden, "deeply rooted in the U.S. as evidence of freedom and of the truly moral." The ideological field of Art & Language's "anti-cultural imperialism" was defined in terms of specific geographical oppositions: New York - Australia, New York - Yugoslavia, and so on. The geographical markers are intentionally disparate in status; their use points out the perceived asymmetry of "New York" as a proper name for the center of modernist art with respect to a host of "world" cultures. The group's critique of "international" modernism was a negative version of the international travelling exhibition, which gave rise to a number of possible MODELS for practice. Art & Language argued that artistic practice should be located strategically in the space revealed by the contradictions between a culturally dependent situation and that of the dominating cultural power. It was reasoned that attitudes surrounding travelling exhibitions, as well as the international art magazines, reveal these contradictions the most pointedly, since these cultural institutions already presuppose circumstances in which it is impossible to demythify any art production.
In 1974, Burn and Ramsden were invited to participate in an exhibition titled "Homage to Salvador Allende" to be mounted in September of that year by the Center for Art and Culture (CAYC) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A poster was produced in response to this invitation. It suggested that artists ought to examine "what kinds of cultural relations [modernist art] forces onto other artists; what sorts of responses it elicits from them [and] what kinds of cultural-organizational production is presupposed." The text sketched out a number of issues, all of which would be explored over the next two years in the context of dialogical encounters staged between Art & Language and artists and other members of the public living and working in Sydney, NSW, Melbourne/Victoria, Auckland, NZ, Belgrade and Zagreb. Among these is the notion that artists "must assist people in freeing themselves from the overwhelming yoke of bureaucracy - both Capitalist and Communist, bourgeois and proletariat - in order for them to free their own subjectivity and hence to better determine the material world for themselves."
I would like to discuss in some detail the Art & Language project developed in Australia in 1975. There was a sense that these contradictions did not demand resolution as much as an intensification. Since 1971, Art & Language in Great Britain (and later, the group in New York) had been working on how to index and therefore make explicit to themselves the sum total of the group's output, which at the time consisted largely of transcripts of conversations, notes and essays. This body of texts was thought of as a collection of highly-inflected dialects, thus stressing their indexical nature in another sense: as evidence of culturally situated utterances. The Documenta Index (http://mitglied.lycos.de/ThomasDreher/3_Konzeptkunst_ArtLang_B2.html) of 1972 aimed to construct something like a user-interface, where the cultural situatedness of Art & Language could be mapped onto the cultural position of the spectator, and vice-versa. This was the first of several projects designed to function both as an information retrieval system (http://container.zkm.de/blurting/l_at/at_180.html) as well as an interface to facilitate public participation in the group's discourse. Another project - the Annotations - was quite clearly modelled after a dictionary or thesaurus. Here, key words or indexing terms and "blurts" - a reference to the fragments of text extracted from papers circulated at weekly meetings which took place over the course of about 6 months - were compiled to construct a handbook ["Blurting in A & L" (http://container.zkm.de/blurting/annotations.html), New York 1973] that would enable a reader, presumably guided by their own idiosyncratic interests, to develop their own pathway through the group's material. In all these projects there was an implicit acknowledgement of the fact that the status of the spectator as a disinterested observer was under revision. Art & Language idealized this new spectator relationship as one of collaboration; there was no WORK to speak of, outside the frame of discursive interaction between individuals in and around the group. In 1974, Art & Language (New York) was invited by three Australian museums - the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney), the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), and the Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide) - to mount an exhibition of work. More or less at the same time, a request was made by the Australian members of the Museum of Modern Art's International Council for an exhibition of Impressionist paintings. Under the direction of William S. Lieberman, Curator of Prints and Drawings at MOMA, a travelling exhibition titled "Modern Masters: From Manet to Matisse" was assembled. It contained 114 works by 58 artists, including Matisse (10 works), Picasso (7 works), Braque (6 works), Cézanne (5 works), Vuillard and Derain (4 works each), as well as Renior, Balla, Modigliani, Mirò, Klee, Dalì, etc. As Terry Smith noted at the time, " 'Modern Masters' epitomizes, enshrines and celebrates that very nearly 'official' version of the history of the art of the past century which takes painting to be the highest art, and avantgardism - especially the School of Paris period - as its essential expression." ("Review: Fighting Modern Masters", The Fox 2 (1975))
Coincidentally, the scheduling of Art & Language's exhibition at two of the three proposed venues overlapped with that of the touring schedule for the "Modern Masters" exhibition. With this situation in mind, Art & Language decided to set the issues of cultural provincialism and dependency before the Australian public by organizing a series of public discussions at the museums. These discussions were to be led by Terry Smith and an invited guest, who "would attempt to embed the telex message in dialogue with each other and the audience." Among the invited guests were Humphrey McQueen, an art history from the Australian National University, Canberra; Lucy Lippard, the well-known New York-based art critic; Henry Kripps, philosopher of science, Melbourne University; and students from the art departments of the Preston Institute of Technology, Melbourne University and other art schools. Only by "explosively" mapping Art & Language's life-world onto the "reality" of an international cultural exchange, so the theory went, could the issues of cultural imperialism be brought to light in a non-patronizing way. The fact that these "blurts" were being telexed from New York was supposed to raise the question of the problems associated with the importation of art.
This was not to be yet another "trans-oceanic lecture, but a dialogue, our [ Art & Language's] fragments of conversation" read the exhibition poster. "These fragments (the cabled "blurts") are anticipated to pick up a lot of (your) socio-cultural 'noise,' as well as reflect a lot of ours . . . there isn't, between you and me, a clear channel. Making the 'noise' explicit or accessible is making ordinarily habitual processes self-conscious, transformations can be projected from surface to depth, and hence - and here is the point - we have some potential for revisability of our languaging/cultural situations . . ." One telex summed this up rather bluntly, asserting that "the only reaction you can have to Modern Masters in Australia is to consume it . . . there is no learning situation. It exemplifies a notion of culture that is essentially abstract, that is apart from what people do." The Art & Language discussions were planned to take place in the midst of the museums' galleries. The first museum cancelled the group's exhibition scheduled for April 1975 on the grounds that it would detract from the MOMA show. After becoming aware of the details of Art & Language's project, museum officials in Sydney claimed that a "lecture" was not an art exhibit and therefore belonged in an auditorium not a museum. Curator Lieberman of MOMA threatened the director of the National Gallery of Victoria with a law suit if Art & Language's project was allowed to go forward. Under intense pressure, MOMA backed down from that position, stating that they didn't care where the Art & Language exhibition was, as long as it isn't in the midst of the "Modern Masters." The project was subsequently shifted to the adjacent art school, part of the Victoria College of the Arts; an institution which had no connection with the museum. Despite petty harassment by museum officials and a refusal to advertise the project, a considerable number of the hundreds of people who daily attended "Modern Masters" also visited the Art & Language discussion room. Transcripts of the proceedings at each of the venues edited by Terry Smith and additional documentary material was published in 1976 as Art & Language: Australia 1975 . A case can be made for nominating Ian Burn - a key participant in Art & Language in New York between 1970 and 1977 - as the instigator of questions on cultural imperialism and underdevelopment; a discussion most insistently framed in terms of the Australian experience of North American modernism. Conversations took place between Burn and Mel Ramsden and other members of Art & Language in New York on these and related issues beginning in early-1973. Burn's article "Provincialism" which appeared in Art Dialogue in October 1973 was followed by Terry Smith's text "The Provincialism Problem" (Artforum, February 1974). An expanded discussion by Burn, Ramsden and Smith appeared in Draft for an Anti-Textbook, published by Art & Language Press in the autumn of 1974 (Art-Language, Vol.3/No.1, September 1974).
The Australian conversations were an attempt to illuminate, in a totally different cultural setting, the effects of self-alienation induced by modernism. It may be claimed that some issues - such as cultural imperialism - encouraged a reconsideration of the Art & Language's situation and led to a partial revision of the group's practice. Consequently, the relation between essay-writing and object-making which had characterized the group's practice since the early-1970s became less fluid; less, perhaps, a matter of "theory testing" and more a question of generating polemical texts and puzzling out the problem of their strategic placement. This sense of political certainty, coupled as it was with a relative lack of ironical purchase on what were presumably political moves, was not shared by all those in the group. Towards the end of 1976, Art & Language found itself in an untenable condition, riven by internal conflict over the dilemma of whether to literalize the political dimension of art or remain situated within the social limit proscribed by avant-garde practice. Ranged against each other were those who considered themselves to be artists caught in the paradoxical web of cultural politics with no clear way out and artists who believed the way forward to be a direct engagement with radical politics for the purpose of the creation of "effective" visual propaganda.
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"The cultures of globalization" is the title of a recently-published collection of essays edited by Jameson and Masao Miyoshi. The title seems to me to be a fitting coda to this essay, pointing as it does, the way towards the future and the problems with which artists and intellectuals must face, whether they be concerned with the destruction of local cultures or are simply interested to puzzle the relationship in high art between market dominance and regional influence.
In 1974, Art & Language questioned why Latin American artists, or European artists, or Asian artists should look to New York when it came to their own existence. Why, it was asked, do artists outside New York remain intent upon "mastering" the precepts of a modernism that is essentially alien to their life-world? If those in Art & Language were "artists out of work" who felt strongly about artistic practice being less about making objects and more a matter of trying to live the impossibility of the situation, then what part could art play in this situation? What sort of work is possible when one believes that the dialectic between certain (historically determined) needs and desires should never be considered to be open to resolution?
This problematic was contextualized by an artistic practice that bore many similarities to Conceptual art, but was not Conceptual art. A great deal of it was motivated by the demand that we talk about ourselves in the art world without necessarily telling others about the artworld. There was a mindfulness about cultural hegemony, but little interest to take up Antonio Gramsci's challenge to fight for what he called the "high ground" of culture. These quixotic postures were not resistance to change, either; they are probably as unconvincing for today's practitioners as Donald Judd's claim that art in the U.S. is not "cultural decoration for American imperialism" had been for Art & Language and others during the 1970s. (Don Judd, Letter to Irving Sandler in reference to the panel at the College Art Association 1973. See also Judd's "Imperialism, Nationalism and Regionalism," October 1975.) Jameson has proposed to define globalization as "an untotalizable totality which intensified binary relations between its parts - mostly nations, but also regions and groups, which, however, continue to articulate themselves on the model of 'national identities' (rather than in terms of social classes, for example)." (Jameson, Preface to "The Cultures of Globalization.") He goes on to suggest that we ask other questions of this particular state of affairs. For instance, is globalization a "matter of transnational domination and uniformity or, on the other hand, the source of the liberation of local culture from hidebound state and national forms?" This was certainly the dilemma that faced Art & Language during a series of discussions initiated at the Student Cultural Center, Belgrade, in late-1975. There, young Yugoslav artists felt strongly that the State's conservative definition of art as easel painting, sculpture and printmaking, coupled with the Yugoslav Artists' Union unwillingness to recognize as art what we now benignly term "new genres" (e.g., Conceptual art, performance art, etc.) amounted to a policy of exclusion. But the official policy could best be countered, argued the Yugoslav artists, by reference to the example of the success of the very same "avantgardist" practices of the West that Art & Language was determined to undermine. At the same time, these young artists had a real antipathy towards the promotion of a national, Serbian culture, whose expression in the visual arts amounted to the State's promotion of native painting on glass. Within the international exchanges, therefore, one finds the inscription of class relations and struggles within the nation-state. This sort of theoretical analysis would certainly add a new dimension to our understanding of the phenomenon we have been perhaps too quick to call "cultural imperialism." (During the early-1970s, there were undoubtedly good reasons and a clear sense of political urgency attached to such judgements; I am thinking particularly of the case of solidarity with the Chilean socialists.) The situation with regard to Australia, however, is less straightforward, since the major cultural export of that continent is today unequally represented, on the one hand, by a State-supported and marketed Aboriginal painting and, on the other, a more or less typical corpus of postmodern art. Representative of the best of the latter, Tracey Moffatt, herself of Aboriginal descent, negotiates the well-worn terrain between identity and difference which has become the mainstay of artistic otherness. Neither of these two trends could have been predicted during the 1970s by a staunch cultural nationalist such as Burn, although there is a clear interest in the way in which Australian aboriginal artists had historically intersected with White European aesthetic conventions. During the 1980s and early-1990s Burn, along with Ann Stephen, wrote convincingly on this issue, mainly in the context of a revaluation of the work of Albert Namatjira, an artist of the Western Aranda people in a region near to Alice Springs ("The transfiguration of Albert Namatjira", [Age Monthly Review, November] 1986, and "Namatjira's white mask," in The Heritage of Namatjira, Melbourne, 1992.)
The issue for the mid-1970s, however, was more sharply focused by the Museum of Modern Art's "Modern Masters," the fact that Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952)" had been recently purchased by a major Australian national museum (Australian National Gallery, Canberra) for the unprecedented price of US$2 million and, finally, the undeniable devastation of Southeast Asia by the US military and its allies. The political aim was not at all a bid for a confident regionalism predicated upon "primitivism"; rather, a claim for autonomy and decentralization.
Burn was not one to overestimate the ability of art to overcome its own condition of commodification. Nor did he endorse the wish for art to become politics. Ultimately, Burn came to the understanding that class politics must always and everywhere supervene cultural politics. Thus, his turn to cultural activism during the 1980s in the context of the Australian labor movement, and his apparent "return" to art making during the 1990s represent two sides of the same coin. Looking back on Art & Language's Marxist-inspired analyses of culture and art of the 1970s, one might say that there were moments when the idealized institutional critique of Conceptual art was actualized. Insofar as such moments had no secure identity as "works of art" and were not firmly linked to political formations external to the world of art, that moment passed into oblivion. Which is to say, it became an example of how not to get ahead in the world of art.