Review ofThe Uses of Art: Constructing Australian Identities, by Lisanne Gibson.

Eras Journal – Crawford, R: Review of “The Uses of Art”, Lisanne Gibson

Lisanne Gibson,The Uses of Art: Constructing Australian IdentitiesUniversity of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001.Isbn 0-7022-3204-1.

‘Culture’, states Lisanne Gibson, ‘is about, and has been used to shape and to govern, identity’ (p. 4). As this and the book’s subheading suggest, the conceptualisation of identity is a constructive and an inherently political process.The Uses of Art illustrates this process by examining the institution of various programs designed to make art accessible to more Australians. Gibson seeks to identify the ideological assumptions underpinning these programs and to demonstrate how they attempt to influence notions of identity. As the study moves from the mid-nineteenth century through to the present, Gibson demonstrates this to be an increasingly complicated process.

That The Uses of Art manages to sustain its argument amidst this mounting complexity is testament to the clarity and conciseness of Gibson’s writing. The introduction to each chapter clearly outlines its intended direction, while the conclusions ensure that the reader does not lose track of the overall argument. Such signposting certainly helps clarify the later chapters. At times, however, this style comes across as a little too rigid and formulaic, particularly in the earlier chapters. This feeling is compounded by the conciseness of supporting evidence, which at times borders on brevity. Described as having ‘really affected the construction of art as relevant to the ‘people” (p. 45), the scant analysis of the First World War, for example, scarcely qualifies such a claim. While Gibson admittedly notes at the beginning of this chapter that she does not seek ‘to provide a close analysis of the changes in form and content of the national culture’ (p. 38), greater analysis nevertheless seems warranted. The inclusion of visual imagery would have helped overcome this shortcoming while adding a further dimension to the overall argument. The lack of alternative voices is another problem arising from this conciseness. With the exception of the correspondence concerning the New South Wales gallery (pp. 41-2), the voices of those whose identities are being shaped remain curiously silent. Comments from a participant at Livid, an ex-serviceman, or even a working-class member of a Mechanics’ Institute would offer an interesting perspective on the issues being raised.

Fortunately, such brevity does not impinge the overall study. Chapter 4, for example, strikes a balance. Covering the Second World War and the immediate postwar era, it presents an argument that is both illuminating and highly convincing. The first half of the chapter traverses a broad range of issues and questions – from strategies of economic management to military indoctrination. While fascinating within themselves, such issues also establish a neat framework upon which the examples cited in the second half of the chapter can be clearly located and understood. In Chapters 5 and 6, the study becomes more concentrated. Both examine the years between 1968 and the late 1990s. While Chapter 5 takes an economic perspective of the ‘arts industry’, Chapter 6 examines the accessibility of the arts and how they have been established as a fundamental ‘right’ of Australian citizenship. The decision to divide this period into two does not simply illustrate the growing complexity of the debates concerning cultural policy, it cleverly signifies the increasing plurality of Australian society. However, it seems that the two chapters are out of order. Chapter 7′s discussion of youth culture and the lessons the Government can take from it appear to stem more from the ‘economic’ issues outlined in Chapter 5 than the question of access raised in Chapter 6.

Such shortcomings, however, are overcome by the cogency of the argument presented. As Harold Cazneaux’s photograph of ‘The Arch in the Sky’ on the cover suggests, The Uses of Art links art and governance, and culture and identity in a clearly structured and accessible way. By linking the past to the present, Gibson provides a unique contribution to our understanding of contemporary Australia as well as the possibilities that stand before it.

Robert Crawford.
Department of History, School of Historical Studies, Monash University.