Modern art has come so far

David Haines and Joyce Hinterding's Monocline: White Cube, part of the "Sound Full" exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Photo supplied.
David Haines and Joyce Hinterding's Monocline: White Cube, part of the "Sound Full" exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Photo supplied.
What a long way art has travelled, even in just a part of my lifetime. I was thinking this strolling around "Sound Full: Sound in Contemporary Australian and New Zealand Art" which has been showing at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery since July 7.

It wasn't my first visit but because I had recently been writing about art in Dunedin, New Zealand and elsewhere in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the sense of change since those days was particularly strong.

"Sound Full" was curated by Caleb Kelly and Aaron Kreisler and includes works by 16 artists. It is a tour de force as visual spectacle and its integral audio element is impressive too.

This is not a review but I congratulate the artists and curators and also the gallery's installation team who, as so often, have made a fine, no, a stunning job of its presentation. It runs to November 11, and even if you hate contemporary art you'd get something from looking at this - an idea of what some artists are up to and an exemplary demonstration of their power to impress.

Art has been changing throughout its existence but a big change happened in the late 19th century, giving rise to what is called "modern art". About 1970 another watershed was passed but you still don't read much about it in the history books.

It's apparent in the scale and the media employed and was visible 40 years ago, though not many on the ground then discerned it. I don't think the late Robert Hughes really did in his influential 1980 television series and book The Shock of the New, or even in its 2004 update.

Colin McCahon's 1958 Northland Panels paintings were very big, much larger than anything usually seen in galleries here. (He'd recently visited America.) "Sound Full's" projected images are a good deal bigger again.

Also many of them are what are called "moving images" meaning like the ones you see on television, or at the cinema which are no longer strictly speaking photography. They produce a result like old-fashioned cine film but don't use the same photo-chemical process pioneered in the early 19th century.

The larger scale of contemporary work shows it is able to command resources, which implies audiences and a level of support which artists like McCahon struggled for and even his famous overseas contemporaries found hard to command in the 1950s. But the change in media implies something else and not just that they've been invented.

If we look at the thing we call "art", which in fact is specifically visual art outside the huge field of architecture, it is illuminating to view it in the wider context of technological history. What the Impressionists did can be seen as an effort by the practitioners of the ancient handcraft of picture-making to come to terms with the invention of photography.

That meant people without their hard-won skills and techniques could make pictures - illusions of three-dimensional things on a flat surface - more or less at the press of a button. The Impressionists learned and borrowed from photography but their successors resorted to moving the goal posts.

You can see a lot of early Modernism, the Fauves and the Cubists for instance, as shifting the handcraft's focus from making pictures to making images of a different sort. The arrival at pure abstraction represented the culmination of the transition.

There is more to the story of modern art but this was a telling sign.

Another was the refusal of the keepers of the tradition to allow photography to enter their realm. Although machine-made images can be quite as effective as art, the keepers of the handcraft tradition successfully excluded them until about 1970. But then they stopped bothering to try.

They started welcoming the works of Cindy Sherman (b.1954), celebrating those of Richard Avedon (1923-2004), to mention only two of many art photographers. What had happened?

The keepers of the old tradition, which might now be renamed the "high Art tradition", had found new ways of attracting attention and support. This happened through the efforts - some would say antics - of people like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Andy Warhol (1928-87) and involved not a little mockery of the high art tradition itself.

Mr Hughes, whom I greatly admire, never felt comfortable about it. Like other commentators he was deadly serious about art and felt uneasy about things sending it up. And he hated its bid for celebrity glamour, feeling this was a sellout to big bucks, Hollywood and trivia.

Art has long courted the rich and powerful, princes and popes in the past.

Contemporary art found a modern equivalent and doesn't need to pretend hand-made is mysteriously superior.

Old-fashioned painting is alive and well, but became happy to share its pedestal.

 Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.