Book review

Ian Burn, Dialogue: Writings in art history

Dialogue, a compilation of Ian Burn's writings, indicates the extent of his contribution to Australian art history. Burn is not only a writer but an important figure in the minimal and conceptual art movements of the 1960s and '70s . Remarkably, in spite of this, his work has gained little attention in Australia until recently. During 1992-93 a large retrospective exhibition of his works will be exhibited in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. Unfortunately this excellent and historically important exhibition will not be coming to Brisbane.

Dialogue shows that not only is Burn one of Australia 's most important contemporary artists, but also a very important art theorist. Both his art practice and his writing exhibit a highly critical stance and in Dialogue it is clear that he understands art first and foremost as a critical discourse which should question its role in society.

There are seventeen essays in the book, written during the 1970s and 1 980s, and through these essays two basic themes recur. The first is the authoritarianism of institutionalised art in the form of art history, the museum, nationalism, corporate capitalism, and the mechanical reproduction of 'international ' styles. Set against this oppressive background of institutional hegemony is Burn's optimistic contention that art still retains within it the capacity for resistance and critique, and the most important contribution of his writings is evident in his descriptions of the ways in which artists can cope with an all-consuming institutionalized context.

His fundamental argument is that art ought to promote difference. According to Burn, the common factor of all the authoritarian systems which make up the world of art is their homogenizing function. For example, in "The Art Museum, more or less" of 1989, he notes how the modernist, white wall design of most of the major art galleries in the Western world serves to homogenise everything that enters its space, to the extent that artists eventually produce art which is custom made for this bureaucratic environment. Burn argues instead for a museum which can cope with difference, the differences of individual practitioners, and the differences of cultural background.

Much of Burn 's writing is concerned with revealing the way in which art can be exploited as an ideological tool, and he is particularly successful in his essays on Australian landscape painting: "Beating about the Bush: The Landscapes of the Heidelberg School ", 1980, and "Popular Landscape Painting between the Wars", 1982. In these essays Burn shows the way in which Australian landscape painting – which would appear to many to be about as ideologically neutral as art could possibly become – functioned in the service of Australian nationalism. In "Beating about the Bush ... " he suggests that Heidelberg landscape painting provided icons of Australia which reflected the interests of the dominant class. The bush is represented as a place for the middle classes to recuperate from the vicissitudes of business, and artists' representations of the bush conform to the social relations of the professional class.

In "Popular Landscape Painting Between the Wars" Burn argues that landscape painting functioned as propaganda for the new national image of Australia based upon the notion of an anti-industrial pastoral Utopia. Burn comments, "Landscape imagery actively participated in the creation of the symbolic value of this 'new order'. It stood as an optimistically moral edifice ..." (45- 46). The ideological importance of this image is underlined by Burn's showing that it was to be preserved at all costs. He cites the censorship of Franklyn Barrett's film The Breaking of the Drought, 1921 , which used actual footage of the drought, and was refused export permission in case it ruined the internationally disseminated image of a pastoral Utopia.

Burn's discussion of the institutionalised, ideological role of art becomes even more discouraging when he discusses modernism. Modernism is seen by Burn as a style which has come to represent the ideological image of corporate capitalism. Modernism was embraced as the corporate style, the institutional style, leading to the establishment of a powerful international industry made up of galleries, museums, art history departments in universities, glossy magazines, etcetera.

In Burn's analysis the leader in corporate modernism is the United States, which has dominated the art world since the 1950s by economic as much as cultural might. The centring of this 'international' style on one nation or even one city (New York) has led, according to Burn , to a homogenisation of style, and a provincialist submission on the part of outsiders to the hegemonic style. For Burn the historicisation of modern art fails to acknowledge the uneven development of modernism. Instead there is a 'centrist' reading of modernism together with the assumption of the universal reference of its conclusions.

In "The Art market: Affluence and Degradation", 1984, Burn suggests that the end result of formalist modernism is the impossibility of content, of saying anything whatsoever:

What can you expect to challenge in the real world with 'colour', 'edge', 'process', systems, modules, etc. as your arguments? Can you be any more than a manipulated puppet if these are your 'professional' arguments? (160)

For Burn corporate modernism (and one might now add corporate postmodernism) leaves him "largely incapable of expressing through 'my art' those very things about which I have the greatest misgivings – and so incapable of changing anything through 'my art'." (160). Every possibility of a socially relevant art practice becomes eradicated in an art form which is only capable of serving – as did Australian landscape painting between the wars – as an ideological icon for the ruling class.

This is the bleak picture painted by Burn, and if his essays ended there they would be valuable, but rather depressing. The true value of his writing comes with his elaboration of alternatives. One of his major arguments is that art produced in different cultural contexts exhibits differences not accounted for by 'centrist' historicising. It becomes evident that:

if work is produced in a context where it is liable to be reproduced and even exhibited 'around the world', then its 'meaning' cannot be simply that which is interpreted through its original context. For example, the impact that a Minimal sculpture has in a place like Australia is as much a part of its 'meaning' as the effect it has in New York. (113)

Burn cites another example in the historicizing of Cubism as an 'international' style: Cubism-in-France, Cubism-in -England, Cubism-in-ltaly, Cubism-in-Russia. But Burn suggests 'Cubism' came to mean something different in each of these places and that this difference should be the starting point for historians rather than the sameness of an international style. (134).

The cover of Burn's book carries a coloured illustration of Sidney Nolan's Railway Guard, Dimboola and in "Sidney Nolan: Landscape and Modern Life", 1984, Burn argues that Railway Guard illustrates the difference which permeates modernism created in contexts other than the point of origin. He notes that the spatial complexity of Nolan's painting is "a mess by most of the standards by which modern art history has been written" (69), but claims this is only because such accounts do not take into consideration individual differences in specific cultural contexts. Burn performs a close reading of Railway Guard, elucidating its specific complexities and the mixture of influences which is the hallmark of Australian art, as opposed to the modernist purity of the centre. Another example cited in "The Reappropriation of Influence", 1988, is of Russell Drysdale's exploitation of a "Tanguy-like surrealist plain as a means of expressing the vastness of the outback land scape". Here, paradoxically, surrealism is used for the purposes of realism.

Burn sees such 'stylistic mixes', 'mutations', 'impurities' and 'compromises', as a valid basis for an art of difference as opposed to an art of sameness. Instead of the provincialist attitude which Burn defines as the acceptance that "significant judgments are being made according to the rules governing behaviour in an ideologically different context" (136), the artist can adopt an attitude of indifference to the authority or centre, "which effectively becomes the means of declaration of difference within modernist culture." (213). One might also add 'postmodernist' culture because although difference is supposed to be an inherent feature of postmodernism, sameness often rules.

In place of corporate international styles Burn advocates an element of "interplay between divergent contexts and ideologies ... Rejuvenation and the genesis of new ideas depend largely on cultural cross-fertilisations." (138). In Burn's alternative even the museum could redefine its role by becoming more connected with the complex world outside its ivory white walls. Burn notes that Australia has one of the world 's largest Greek communities, and asks where are the examples of, say, early Greek modernism in our museums? For Burn more recognition should be given to the idea of Australian art as the "expression of a specific cultural community not bound by a single nation(alism)." (171). The museum could accept broader, alternative practices to the extent that the corporate international styles of modernism (or postmodernism) would be simply one more genre among many.

Burn 's notions of recognising cultural difference, subverting the centre via 'mutation', and allowing cultural cross-fertilisations fits into postmodern philosophy very neatly, but his comments on corporate modernism seem to have frightening relevance to postmodern art, suggesting that the latter might not be putting the philosophy of postmodernism into effect as much as it could. Like modernism before it, so-called postmodern art of the eighties became a corporate style; and as Burn points out artists are left little choice as to what they can express. Perhaps it is only when artists really grasp and take on board the philosophy of postmodernism – the philosophy of difference and mutation – that one can hope for any change.

One observation, or addition, one could offer to Burn's theory would be that although postmodern art, from Pop Art onward, has been as absorbed into corporate capitalism as modernism was, it nevertheless retains a critical, or ironical, aspect which modernism never had. Modernism was and still is the perfect corporate style, or icon, whereas postmodernism with its inherent irony, is in many ways a parody of corporate modernism. The problem is that even this irony is co-opted, it can't do anything and has nothing to say except 'I am trapped in here'. In this sense Burn's argument for an art of mutation, cultural difference, and cultural cross-fertilisations might promise a more positive approach – one that can leave the centre to its own devices.