Historicity and Aboriginal art: how long will it take for Aboriginal art to become modern?



Publication Details

McLean, I. A. (2009). Historicity and Aboriginal art: how long will it take for Aboriginal art to become modern?. In J. Anderson (Eds.), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence: The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress in the History of Art (pp. 922-925). Melbourne: Miegunyah Press.


Words are generally malleable, ambivalent symbols. Sometimes they stretch so much as to upturn their original meaning. Take the example of 'contemporary', which in recent times has been applied to Australian Aboriginal art-a type of art that for most of the twentieth century had been considered archaic, anachronistic, the very opposite of contemporary. However, not all words are so supple. A few select terms congeal into hard instruments of ideology, their symbolic power being wielded like a sword. These words are usually very important to the ideology of the day, and are easily recognised by the censorial antinomies they rigorously enforce. 'Modern' is such a term: it sets the new against the old. To be modern is not just to be contemporary but also to reject the old. For example, it distinguished 'modern' Europeans from the rest of the world that, it was said, still clung to primitive superstitions. In this way it served European power and imperialism.

Seven hundred art historians from fifty countries participated. The concept of the congress elicited a more global response than any other previous art history congress since these quadrennial events began, in Vienna in 1873. The stimulus to which so many responded was the question of what happens in art when one culture encounters another, expressed in the title: 'Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence'. I invented the theme as a metaphor for the lives of many Australians, for in our genetics we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants, even Indigenous people who arrived in Australia some 50000 years ago. The concept proved to be of equal relevance to the international world and of political significance in diverse countries , but especially for art history south of the equator. A substantive change in the history of art took place in Melbourne , and it opened up the discipline to the rest of the world.

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