Art and photography converged in Australia in the 1970s. This was much latter than in Europe, where they converged in the 1920s in Soviet photomontage practices and in the dada then surrealist integration of photography into the very heart other movements. The postwar convergence was actually a reconvergence by which time photography was a theoretical object as well as an aesthetic medium.
Aesthetic progress in the orthodox art history of photography is has traditionally been interpreted as a linear history of styles—from naturalism to pictorialism, to modernism, to postmodernism, to contemporary photography. The idea is one of an inexorable forward march of artistic styles, each coming after the other, in a linear and identifiable progression. This art history interprets the continual flux of the history of art objects as formal structures without reference to what they represent or express, and its canon of style is concerned with locating fruitful points within the history of photography. This model of stylistic differentiation determining innovation is built on the idea of the movement of a particular style as a narrative of nascence to maturity to decline.
The roots of this orthodox art history are Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, and like Wölfflin’s foundational text, this othodox art history is premised on the autonomy of the work of art whilst offering vague ideas about the historical change of forms. What is often forgotten is that Wölfflin’s instance that the classic and the baroque amount to two world views, two fundamentally ways of seeing, different orientations to the world, different realms of feeling. Wölfflin’s art history is a history of seeing through art in which art can tell us how we see and understand the world. Art history for Wölfflin is about the forms of seeing, and it studies the basic principles (concepts) that govern the development of the visual arts. Different forms were better for expressing different epochs and this resulted in the cycling between classical and baroque, or linear and painterly, which changed each time they came around again.
In Wölfflin’s art history a change in style is the result of a change in eye; albeit one in which the successor of forms is not related to the historical circumstances that give rise to the individual art. It is a cyclical model of recurring modes of seeing with development being understood as an unfolding of hidden, intrinsic possibilities and principles. Every style has its own time and can never return in identical shape. The primary task of art history is to uncover these shifting optical possibilities that transcend all social-historical contexts. Wölfflin latter conceded that form and content are not separate from each other, but are interrelated: every new style of perception crystallises a new aspect of the world.
Clement Greenberg, in appropriating Wölfflin to save modernist high art and culture, held that the art of his time was at the risk of stagnating and perhaps dissipating altogether because so many different ways of seeing were available in the form of prints, decorative art and kitsch. The market and mass production had made art objects and kitsch so readily available that the true work art was at the risk of becoming no different from the decorative, wall paper or a magazine cover. The history of capitalism led in the direction of the swallowing up of art by the culture of the market. The opposition of culture and capitalist economy was fundamental to Greenberg’s modernism.
Greenberg agreed with Wölfflin, that different forms were better for expressing different epochs, and argued that representational art was inappropriate for meeting the demands of the mid-20th century. Non-representational art was the only possible option for the creation of good art at this time, and Greenberg situated his identification of modernism with non-linguistic visuality in a cohesive historical trajectory in which every new important work propelled art towards its end point of essential flatness. Abstract Expressionism, which Greenberg held to be the avant-garde art of its time, was the dominant way of seeing and understanding. in the mid-twentieth century. Abstract Expressionism was an unconscious expression through forms, and not the conscious manipulation of forms as in Pop Art. The avant grade alienated the viewer making the art work more difficult, and this estrangement encouraged prolonged looking. Abstract painting is a model of how we know the world—it engenders a certain type of detached or disembodied vision and it constitutes a certain kind of subject.
The orthodox narrative structure of the developmental history of the visual arts including photography in Australia provides an illusion of coherence and continuity. However, it doesn’t appear obvious that the history the visual arts in Australia is a consistent, self-perpetuating history of styles —- art history as a sequence of waves within a continuous, inevitably unfolding progression. If there is a sequence, then it is one of style and fashion