Long ago in the mid 1970’s I landed a job in the Fine Arts department of an Australian university. The excitement of the great student upheavals of the late sixties had pretty well faded away by then, and it was a few years before Theory started to settle like a noxious cloud on the humanities in general, but there was nevertheless a legacy of politicisation that permeated university life. The professor who took me on as a tutor for the Modern Art course was a leftie of an old fashioned sort who once came to a student demonstration wearing plus-fours, but my direct superior was a young man who had been my tutor when I was an undergraduate and had then gone off to the US for a number of years. He’d had a political awakening there and made a triumphant return to his new job of senior lecturer as a firebrand radical. Memorable his opening lecture to the assembled students, principally middle class girls from private schools: “I believe in the revolutionary deconstruction of society and its socialist reconstruction!”
My future career in the department depended on my doing a postgraduate thesis and this lecturer was to be my supervisor. Initially our rapport was a good one and he no doubt made assumptions based on my youth and appearance that I was a natural ally in his struggle to overthrow the ancien regime. He wasn’t altogether wrong, either, but as his course unfolded it became increasingly clear to me that I just didn’t share what I saw as his simplistic Marxism, and was unwilling to “interpret” his views in a positive way to the students. This led naturally to my alienation, and after two years of this I abandoned work on my thesis, resigned the job and went off to do other things in life.
I include these biographical and political details because the argument I want to develop here involves seeing Modernism in the visual arts as an ideology, rather like a political one, and these were the circumstances surrounding the development of the idea. My abandoned thesis had been on Post-Object art, developments in (initially American) art since the 1960’s which in a variety of ways denied that art was, or should be, a physical object. I have to confess that very little of the work I came in contact with seemed to me to have much merit. But the more I studied it, the more it seemed all taken together to have a shape, or a logic, which caused it to flow naturally from the various art movements that preceded it. I became fascinated by this “overall” aspect and my thesis began to take on a kind of topological character as I analysed the variety of ways in which art seemed to be abandoning the idea of the object. In particular I saw in the avant-garde the engine of these developments, and a part of my thesis was to be a critical analysis of this concept.
My supervisor was less than impressed. He couldn’t see why I would want to do a thesis on work I didn’t much like and he was hostile to the prediction that I was making that because in my view the various forms of Post-Object art exhausted the possibilities of where art could now “go”, we were faced with a future of increasingly self-referential reruns, or de-facto moves into other art forms. He was also unreceptive to the doubts I was beginning to entertain about whether art necessarily had to be progressive (political or otherwise), and just what progress meant in art anyway. It became clear that the direction my thinking was going involved a kind of assault on the platform we were all standing on and that if I persisted I would encounter a great deal of resistance.