LIKE the first Australian art created by the Aboriginal people, the highly distinctive art that has developed in Australia since European settlement in 1788 is rarely mentioned in general histories of art. Why is this so?
There are two important reasons. First, most general histories of art are written by European or North American historians. Most of them are convinced that art produced outside of Europe and North America is either folk art or a second-rate imitation of European art. In either case it can safely be ignored.
The second reason why Australian art is not known abroad is related to the first. The art establishment in Australia is well aware of the Eurocentric values that dominate the world of high art, and when preparing collections of Australian art for exhibition abroad it always sets out to show that Australian art is just as up-to-date as that from anywhere else in its knowledge of the latest European fashion. Australians call this approac"the cultural cringe".
Of course good art possesses both a regional and a universal quality: regional in that it evokes the spirit of a place, a time and a people; universal in its appeal to all humankind, and in its links and associations with other cultures and other times. To recognize this basic but paradoxical fact was the greatest achievement of modernism.
Australian art has become, during the past century, a highly important theatre of activity in which this central paradox of modernism, the connection between the regional and the universal, has been continuously enacted and contested.
Again, there are two main reasons for this. The first is environmental. Australia, with its great deserts, rain forests and wide stretches of open …