I've started reading Jane Hylton's The Painted Coast: Views of the Fleurieu Peninsula in order to gain a sense of the visual history of this part of South Australia from the 1840s to the present. It's a catalogue of an exhibition of 200 images held at the Art Gallery of the South Australia in Adelaide in the 1990s.
The strength of this text is that it is an archive of our cultural memory of this region in a global world. The art gallery is functioning both as a temple and as an educational institution in representing the region to itself and others.
Artists in the text are reduced to painters and there is no exploration of the interrelationship between photography and painting or painting and film. Painting exists in its own universe, even though most of the images produced of the Fleurieu Peninsula in our image based culture would now be digital photographs.
The art historical curator's argument is that the movement of this local landscape tradition comes from genius painters influencing other painters to produce their masterpieces.The art gallery is a refuge of a hermetically sealed art, and the criterion for determining the order of aesthetic objects throughout the modernist era was the "self-evident" quality of masterpieces.
This erasure of photography is ironic given the demise of painting arguments about painting's exhaustion that were circulating through the art institution in the 1980s. Painting as a central mode of modernist practice was also radically displaced in the 1960s by what has come to be called conceptual art, and also by the increasing engagement with lens-based media, photography video, and ultimately digital technologies.One of the things that Conceptual Art in the 1960s attempted was the dismantling of the hierarchy of media according to which painting (sculpture trailing slightly behind) is assumed inherently superior to, most notably, photography.
Even though Hylton was a curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia photography and film play no role in this art history of the Fleurieu Peninsula. It's only the work of the painters that matter, and it is assumed that the other visual media had no influence on what and how they painted. Or if it did it is insignificant.
This is art history narrowly defined and behind it sits the institutional authority of the art gallery.This holds that painting estsblishes the visual and intellectual visual frame and that photography can be respectable only insofar as it repeats or rehearses the pictorial strategies of painting.
This traditional art history of pictures reduces our visual culture to painting, and it rejects the idea that in the late 20th centry painting has become one kind of image amongst many including prints, photography, film, video, and television or televisuality. There is a sense that art history has to keep at bay the new media to defend its traditional terrain and to protect its boundaries. It is defensive because there is no re-thinking of the traditional frame of art history that is being deployed by Hylton.
I appreciate that there was a return to expressionist painting in the 1980s but this post conceptual-period also witnessed the emergence of photographic works of large scale and in colour (eg., Jeff Wall, Andreas Gurskey, Thomas Ruff, Gregory Crewdson) in the art institution. The shift is towards producing big pictures whether in photography or paint and it places the viewer in front of a single large, recognizable picture that is intelligible at first glance. The big picture has visual authority.
Hence there are good grounds to talk in terms of the crisis of the art gallery and to call into question the powerful fiction that presents art as a coherent system and art history as its ideal order. Photography disrupted modernism's discourse on originality and the irreducibility --the aura ---of the unique object, forming a faultline along which the sensibility of postmodernism began to coalesce.
However, the modernist fetsh of art has, to a large extent, transformed photography from a subversive element within modernism to yet another avante-garde strategy in the art institution.