In writing the first national history of Australian art Bernard Smith was instrumental in inventing the idea of an Australian national culture. In this respect his histories should be understood in the context of a wider postcolonial – or at least post-empire – discourse that shaped the idea of Australia after the world wars. Galvanizing the many threads of this discourse was the idea of an independent nation state. What role did Aboriginal art have in this discourse? As a committed Marxist Smith had a great deal of sympathy for the downtrodden, including Aborigines. However the idea of the nation state is inimical to that of Indigenous nations. This paper analyses the role of these contradictory forces in shaping Smith’s conceptions of Aboriginal art and its place in Australian art.