Reading the image-texts in The Bowden Archives from the perspective of 2021 is to look back on what has been prior to the emergence of digital technology and social media. If reading is interpreting, then these photographs were not part of the modernist dream in the 20th century. That dream, as held by the avant grade, was to produce a new world in and from art through finding ways to subvert, negate or transcend the conditions and conventions of modernity in late twentieth century capitalist society. The minor image-texts here have no such ambition.
The moment of 1968 did not usher in post-capitalist, libertarian or post-patriarchal future. Though the legacy of the radicalism of the 1970s is diverse and contradictory, the specific historical moment of 1968 did not thwart the development of capitalism, even if this radicalism did erode the power of a conservative patriarchal culture for several decades.
This radicalism highlighted that there was there is no univocal modernism with its universal modernist narrative; as was suggested by The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1968 which equated the linear logic of the modernism tradition with what was fashionable in New York. There were many different modernisms. The emergence of aboriginal art with Western Desert painting (Clifford Possum, Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford, Emily Kame Kngwarreye) meant that art historians could not assume that the metropolitan perspective of a Paris or New York defined contemporary art.
The optimism of the 1970s had faded by the end of the 1990s. This was marked by John Howard’s government after 1996, and the emergence of a conservative and affirmative cultural programme that was interweaved with the euphoria of a commodity culture ideology and the cultural wars. This affirmative culture was increasingly wrapped in the commercial logic of the market. Art galleries became immersed in corporatism, dealers imposed themselves on the art world, the art market became a determinant of artistic significance whilst an independent critical discourse about art became beside the point. Artists were recast as celebrities, and celebrity was used to demarcate an art brand and art became part of the cultural industries. Capitalism was everywhere.
An identifiable art world that is clearly separate from the market and mass culture no longer exists. This collapse of the modernist divide presaged a world where no one was interested in aesthetics and there was a rejection of theory following the end of postmodernism. Art critical writing would become the equivalent of a press release, commercially successful art identified as good art and a good investment. The curator becomes the person establishing artist’s reputations through assemblages—group shows and biennales. No one cared about the problem of representation anymore. Art’s autonomy has disappeared in everyday life. In the excessive global flow of images all images are deemed equal.
South Australia was in a state of transformation. What remained the same was an anxious and insecure Adelaide continuing to be derided as drab and backward, and still seen as not a place of cultural vibrancy, innovation or ideas.