Tag Archives: nationalism

The National Gallery & Nationalism

There is a vast unexamined area of the reason for national art galleries along with a lack of coherence in explaining why they exist. This lack of coherence and examination rests on another idea that lacks both coherence and examination, the nation state.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art , Gwacheon, Korea

The idea of nations and geography makes the artist is built into the very structure of most major art galleries, after all they are often called ‘National’ or ‘State’ galleries. The artificial divisions these gallery make between nationalities and even races perpetrates the idea that the nationality or race is important. (The NGV has a separate gallery of artists who identify as aboriginal.) This nationalism is reflected in the hanging of the art although it does not help our understanding of art history nor the appreciation of the art anymore than hanging the art on the basis of the artist’s gender. The underlying assumption is that there is an underlying core aesthetic to a particular nationality or race is absurdly racist and is not supported by any evidence.

John Burrow writes “For Hegel, in the last part of his Philosophy of Right (1852) (324, 325), it was crucial that the State, in war, could call on the citizen to sacrifice his life. War was no longer, as in the eighteenth century, an affair merely for mercenaries. The State’s right to individual’s life was not just an instrument for his protection (the contract theory), or for the production of welfare (Enlightened Despotism), but a higher spiritual entity than the individual. The requirement of his life was not tyranny but self-sacrifice, submission to one’s own higher will and participation in the life of a higher entity.” (John Burrow, A History of Histories, Penguin Books, 2007, p.459)

The nation state is a religion, a belief in a higher entity. God might be dead and buried but the nation state is very much alive. Several assumptions are made about the sacred nation state but given that nation states are a human invention only a few hundred years old it is not necessary that any nation state exists.

The claim that the state has a right not to be divided and that protecting that state, in the words of Radovan Karadzic before the UN tribunal in the Hague, “holy and just.” (The Independent 20/3/10)  The assumption that a nation state has a right to exist implies that it is a higher entity. This higher entity, the god of the nation, has a unique history, a unique culture, if not a unique language and national identity, is legislated, paid for and demanded by the nation state. Where there is no evidence of this unique culture it must be invented, developed and manufactured. It is assumed that there is such a thing as Australian art but nobody assumes that there will be Australian philosophy (philosophy in Australia is predominately Anglo-American philosophy with a little bit of continental European philosophy).


National galleries are must have items for countries as if they were playing some giant game of Sid Meier’s Civilization but what are the benefits of having a national gallery, like the NGV: “the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”? (The National Gallery of Victoria is a wonderful example because it is now a “national gallery” without a nation since the independent colony of Victoria federated with other Australian states.)

Is the nation state to coil up like old Smaug around its treasure, exuding power and basking in the envy of others? To have a national collection that to use in soft diplomacy to representing the state? As an educational tool to train future artist and designers to better the nation’s productivity? As infotainment, a tourist attraction to bring customers to the city’s restaurants and hotels and improve the tax revenue? Or is it to be sold off when the city goes bankrupt as was suggested for the Detroit Art Gallery?



Naeem Rana is exhibiting at the Eisenberg Gallery, again. Rana last exhibited there late last year during the election campaign. Again it is an exhibition with political content, not surprising really for an artist making poster-size digital prints. The exhibition is a questioning “Rejoice” in Australian nationality, the ‘rejoice’ taken from the first line of the national anthem.

Along with the powerful patterns and colors of the kind of Pop Art digital prints that Naeem Rana usually exhibits; there is also a series of photographs in the exhibition. I always enjoy seeing artist’s work that is different from their usual work because it is either an indication of a new direction or a revelation of another aspect of their art.

The photographs illustrate the story of refugees coming to Australia and being put in a detention camp using toys. Three birds are in a paper boat made of immigration forms. It looks like Naeem Rana’s young son is having a good influence on his father in getting him to tell the story with toys clearly and effectively.

The exhibition touched me; the idea that one can change of identity at a nations border is something that has haunted me most of my life. I have two nationalities: Canadian and Australian. I still feel like asking my father what I should put down to questions about nationality: if it is South Africa in the 1970s then I must be Canadian and if it is Australia then I’m Australian, if anyone asks. It really depends on who is asking and for what reason – my nationality is an uncertainty principle (very apt for the Eisenberg Gallery).

In the artist’s statement accompanying the exhibition Naeem Rana writes: “We promote individuality and respect individuals’ way of life as long as they are not of ethnic origin.” Australian national identity has long been the subject of serious discussion and art, like the bombastic composition by Scotsman, Peter Dodds McCormick (Advance Australia Fair, 1878).  I prefer the less serious discourse of artists, like Rana, on the subject for in contemporary art there is less certainty and a greater nuance of ideas and emotions.

Across the road a way there is a rare piece of nationalist stencil graffiti: “Be Proud” it proclaims with a Southern Cross and map of Australia. Underneath someone has written in pen: “Of what?”

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