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Text / Terry Smith

Art historian Terry Smith revisits "The Provincialism Problem," 40 years after he first addressed it in Artforum magazine (September 1974).

A summer day in midtown Manhattan in 1974, an awkward silence expanded to fill the Madison Avenue office of Artforum's then Editor-in-Chief John Coplans. Associate Editor Max Kozloff sat on the edge of the editor's large desk, saying nothing, but nodding in agreement. We had just been through his comments on the draft of my "The Provincialism Problematic" essay, a process that systematically removed suffixes such as "-atic," and made my mix of academic art historical prose and conceptualist text-making somewhat more accessible. Lawrence Alloway, the contributing editor whose invitation to write about the current state of art in Australia was the kernel of the essay, was away that day. Coplans had just said (words to the effect): "It's a great article, Terry, it tells us about this bloody awful art-world system that entraps us all. Terrific writing, clear as crystal, and powerful politics. But you don't say what provincialism is. You don't tell us how it feels to be provincial. Give it to me in one sentence, and we will begin the article with whatever you say. What is it, exactly?"

Precisely when the idea of interpreting the connections between the local art worlds that make up the international art world within the framework of a theory of provincialism became a conscious project for me is hard to say. Everyone coming to a love of art in a dependent cultural colony experiences the operations of such structures, knows them in an everyday sense, as a pervasive and deep fact about their world, and about how power arrives from the wider world. The panorama itself, and artistic possibility within it, looks very different, depending on where you are—your location, your viewpoint, your sense of agency, and your actual effectiveness. In his presidential address to The English Association, delivered in London in 1962, Sir Kenneth Clark, noted that
In its simplest form, provincialism is easily recognized and defined. The history of European art has been, to a large extent, the history of centres, from each of which has radiated a style. For a shorter or longer period that style dominated the art of the time, became in fact an international style, which was metropolitan at its centre, and became more and more provincial as it reached the periphery. A style does not grow simultaneously over a large area. It is the creation of a centre, a single energizing unit, which may be as small as fifteenth-century Florence, or as large as pre-war Paris, but has the confidence and coherency of a metropolis.1
We might expect the patrician Clark—later Lord Clark, famous as presenter of the BBC series Civilization—to rest satisfied with this definition, one that echoes political and economic imperialism to the point of parody. But he does not. He points out the inevitable operations of a counter-dynamic: "Just as provincial art fails from its lack of style, metropolitan art fails from its excess, and there appear the familiar symptoms of over-refinement and academicism .... Thus the provincial artist is launched on his struggle with the dominant style."2 Admitting that British art, with the obvious exception of Turner, has been, broadly speaking, irredeemably provincial, he identifies certain characteristics of "a positive and independent provincial art," which are these: "It tells a story; it takes pleasure in the facts; it is lyrical, and it achieves a visionary intensity."3 A very British list, although he also cites Caspar David Friedrich as an exemplar, and neatly encapsulates Paul Klee's intensity as "micropolitan."

Clark was aware that, in his own time, provincialism had become problematic for artists in a particular way.
Granted that there are certain things which the provincial artist can do, and others that he had much better leave alone, how deeply should he study the art of the centre? How far should he attempt to master the weapons of an international style, even though he may use them for different ends? This is not an academic question, but a matter of vital importance to painters of the present day; because since the war many of the most talented artists have come not from the old centres of European art, but from China and Japan, Australia and Indonesia, India and Mexico, and of course, above all from the United States of America. It is an unprecedented situation, and the historian, who depends on precedents, must approach it with diffidence.4
Recognizing that "there is no hiding-place," and that "the painter who tries to ignore what is vital in contemporary art will become a provincial in the worst and simplest sense of the word," his hope is that the modern artist can "pass through this dilemma by clearing his mind of complacency, accepting the provincial virtues and relating them to the dominant style."5 A very post-Empire solution: making the best of one's poor lot.

For the next generation, mine, this kind of accommodation—indeed, dependency of any kind—became intolerable. My answer to Coplans was this:
Provincialism appears primarily as an attitude of subservience to a hierarchy of externally imposed cultural values. It is not simply the product of a colonialist history; nor is it merely a function of geographic location. Most New York artists, critics, collectors, dealers, and gallery-goers are provincialist in their outlook, attitudes, and positions within the system. Members of artworlds outside of New York—on every continent, including North America—are likewise provincial, although in different ways. The projection of the New York artworld as the metropolitan center for art by every other artworld is symptomatic of the provincialism of each of them.6
These sentences emerged directly from my experiences during the late 1960s and early 1970s as a young art critic and historian in Australia, where debates about provincialism raged. I was a pupil of Bernard Smith, a better thinker about artists' agency with this system than Kenneth Clark, more aware that the provinces precipitated change in the centers.7 Oddly, I have no recollection of reading Clark's lecture, but doubtless Bernard conveyed its sense to me. The essay as a whole was written from inside my membership of the Art & Language group in New York, a body heterogeneous as to the national origins of its members. We were convinced that seeing this structure for what it was, not a natural state of affairs but as systemically iniquitous, was the first step toward its revolutionary overthrow. The second paragraph (my original opener) read:
Most of us treat this projection as if it were a construction of reality—and it is, in the sense that it is almost universally shared. However, those who are able to live adequately within the framework of the respect for the essential differentness of diverse yet related cultures recognize that this projection does not have the force of 'natural law.' It is, rather, a viewpoint that, while effectively governing majority behavior, is as culturally relative as any other. That is, it is one among many ways of defining the (different) situations we are in.8
The polemic that followed is symptomatic of the anti-institutional sentiment emergent within late modern, critical art practices during the 1970s. It parallels the feminist accounts that were, then, directed against the prevailing view of modernism as an avant-garde formalism, at its core indifferent to the life-world concerns of artists or anyone else.9 Written after the "triumph of American painting," and a decade before a market-driven version of Contemporary Art returned to claim the art-world agendas at the old metropolitan centers, especially London and then eventually New York, the essay was one of the many factors then showing "provincial" artists all over the world that the "centers" were dependent upon them, were houses of cards that could fall with some vigorous pushing, and that a much more equitable world for the making of art could be created in its stead.

Which, as I show in my book Contemporary Art: World Currents, is what happened next.10 And, despite extraordinary pushback from the marketers and the remodernists, this change is still unfolding all over the world, as the strongest current in world contemporary art. Of course, the old hierarchy still exists, grabs most of the publicity, and feeds the 1%. The rest of art, however, is being made by individuals, groups, and collectives working alongside an array of infrastructural supporters, to create multiple worlds-with-the-World, a structure quite different in shape and character from the metropolitan-provincial world system. Look around you.

Terry Smith, FAHA, CIHA, is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Distinguished Visiting Professor, National Institute for Experimental Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. He is the convener of "Defining Contemporaneity, Imagining Planetarity," a four-year workshop, conference, exhibition, and publication project supported by the Humanities Center, University of Pittsburgh, and the Humanities Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, 2011-2014.

1. Kenneth Clark, Provincialism (London: The English Association, 1962), 3.
2. Clark, 34.
3. Clark, 9.
4. Clark, 11.
5. Clark, 12.
6. Terry Smith, "The Provincialism Problem," Artforum XII, no. 1 (September, 1974): 54.
7. Bernard Smith, Modernism's History: A Study in Twentieth-Century Art and Ideas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
8. For parallel thinking in political economy, see Samir Amin and Brian Pearce, Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).
9. In his 1965 "Modernist Painting," Clement Greenberg outlined the most influential, and reductive, formulation. See Art & Literature 4 (Spring 1965): 193201; also in John O'Brian, ed., The Collected Essays and Fiction: Modernism with a Vengeance, 19571969 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). Key feminist texts include Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Art News (January 1971): 2039 and 6771, in her Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), 147158; and Griselda Pollock, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity," Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).
10. Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (London: Laurence King, 2011).

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