I waited - I had to. To enter this art library one has now to check one’s belongings into a locker by first obtaining a locker key from the front desk. I formed a queue, of one. No one, however, was at the desk to attend to me. The impossibility of writing this article loomed. A stranger was at the photocopier nearby—struggling, bothered, annoyed—and awkwardly ignoring me, it seemed. I suspected they might be the new librarian. In reply the stranger barely looked my way before returning to the inexplicable complexity of photocopying something. They mustn’t be the librarian, I concluded. Then, as the anxious prattle running through my thoughts was about to burst—can’t anyone see me?... I’m in a queue ... am I invisible? .... I’m in a queue (I thought again and again)—the tension broke: the stranger kindly turned and said, ‘I won’t be a moment’. Relief: my presence was recognised; I now had the right of reply. I said, ‘no worries’. What! After all that? Yes, the right of reply works its own wonders. It is, in itself, empowerment. I entered the art library.
This is an example of an intersubjective relation: a person’s presence is acknowledged by another (‘I won’t be a moment’, is equivalent to, ‘I see you, you are there’); one then has the right of reply—an engagement that gives access to knowledge. This regularly takes place in everyday conversation; most often missing the mark (when, for example, a person yells at a stranger they mistake to be a librarian ignoring them), rarely, but most dynamically, meeting it.
And yet, what might the right of reply within an intersubjective encounter have to do with current contemporary art criticism in Australia—the supposed subject of this article? Very little, I regret to say, to the detriment of much art criticism; which is the argument this article will endeavour to make.
Though this is not to say that a work of art can speak and that it, therefore, has been denied a deserved right of reply. For the undeniable fact is that a work of art does not speak. Sure, anthropomorphism runs riot in every art class where a teacher stands in front of a work of art and asks, ‘what is this work telling us?’. And yet the whole class would no doubt drop from fright if this lifeless object put up its hand, called the teacher by name and said, ‘well Jill or Jack, I for one can tell you that I am most definitely telling you this’. Asked of a teacup, the students would more likely exchange an awkward silence than answer—for surely the teacher must know that a teacup does not speak.(1) Yet behind every work of art we imagine an artist telling us something, while behind every teacup there is just an industrial process (even if the cup is handcrafted). If a work of art does not speak—whether treated as a ventriloquist’s doll or not—what, then, are the subject positions in an intersubjective relation when one writes art criticism; and whose right of reply are we concerned with? To answer, let us first look at the other subject positions involved in art criticism.
In the brief encounter with which I commenced this article, although it appears to be an interaction between two subject positions only, the new librarian and myself, what is important to recognise is that it revolves around a third albeit invisible position—a definite although often illusory position—that keeps the other two in place to the extent that each behaves reasonably to the other in relation to it. In this scenario, for instance, the third position for the new librarian may be that of their boss who, although not there in person, nonetheless sets the standards and oversees all that goes on in the library.(2)
For the sake of this argument, the third position within art criticism could be said to be whatever authorising notion of art history a critic might carry with them; under the imagined overseeing view and accompanying set of standards of which, they evaluate a work of art. In one of four published papers in 1986 on art criticism in Australia, we see this position at work when Chris McAuliffe writes that a, ‘critic acts as a kind of doorkeeper to the ante-room of history, mediating between the broad field of artistic practice and the narrower confines of so-called quality, substance and truth that mark out the domain of historical significance.’(3) If, however, as Chris McAuliffe argues, this relation failed in much of the art criticism in Australia in the 1970s—where did this failure take place: the subject position of the art critic as doorkeeper, or the third position of art history?
While an overarching ‘authority’ of historical significance is in part contested by this doorkeeper analogy, no argument is angled at any particular governing authority residing beyond the ante-room of history. It is as though history, itself, is an absent boss on permanent holiday who has left the poor feckless doorkeeper with the terrible task of pretending to know what they are not in the position to know (otherwise they would not be the bouncer but the Chief Executive Officer, on permanent holiday). The onus of failure, then, is on the doorkeeper who decides to fudge it rather than face redundancy if the art authority is found missing. So the doorkeeper unwittingly makes ‘art-historical truisms’, as McAuliffe calls them—judgements they imagine their boss might make—rather than present a substantiated argument. An argument, that is, either for or against the work of art where an aesthetic investigation is imparted through description and comparison that discloses ‘how’ the work of art perceptually works, in reference to its specific elements. Instead, the doorkeeper bluffs it; where, ‘the absence of actual analysis is typical in art criticism’. (4) A failure, I might add, now epidemic.
If we are to find an alternative to this, let’s be clear. What we see in this doorkeeper analogy are shortcomings that concern the subject position of the critic, the second position of art criticism, not art history. Which is interesting, for it contravenes the more general perception by the 1980s of the doorkeeper found snoozing on the job who, rather than keep the so-called ‘bad’ art from getting into art history, accidentally let the secret of art history out. When the doorkeeper finally awoke they were astonished to read splashed across the ‘Postmodern Daily’ that ‘art history is dead’ on the same day, perhaps, the sun failed to rise given their reaction. Feeling terribly dejected and a little lost in the dark, many seem to have picked up their doorkeeper stools to walk off somewhat dazed into the horizon—a painted horizon mind you, a mere illusion—to seek the next best position of proximity to authority: the artist.(5) They walked through the painted horizon without having realised and disappeared behind the scenes to take up a non-existent position (that imaginary place from which the artist is meant to speak) to file insider scoops on what the work of art is supposedly ‘about’, ‘saying’ or ‘means’.(6) The writer appeared once more ‘informed’: an expert, no doubt.(7)
Nonetheless a writer who takes up this non-position tends to treat works of art as unique big bangs that rule as lonesome stars in their own, incomparable universes. Only to implode down their own black holes of history, without trace, once the spotlight passes. Prompting the question: Does the star dust briefly strewn by such writing offer any glint of meaning—or is its momentary bedazzlement little excuse for the darkness that follows? In other words, if a writer abandons a relation to the third position of criticism—through which relative comparisons can be made to demonstrate one’s view ‘of’ the work of art, rather than assertions made behind the scenes based on a view ‘from’ the work of art—is the reader provided access to meaning or thinly veiled promotion?(8)
Might we renovate criticism’s supposedly defunct third position and thereby revive a writer’s relation to it, by replacing it with a combination of fields other than art history? A similar possibility is put forward by Donald Brook in 1986 when he suggests that art might be better appraised from an transinstitutional view (that of inclusiveness) rather than a singular one (of art historical exclusiveness). Yet, ‘An implication following from this is that the proper range of art-appreciative remarks will be so radically expanded that we shall scarcely know what is worth saying or how we should pursue disputes about worthwhileness, in the absence of a criteria of relevance’.(9)
This implication, however, is today’s predicament: a referential multiplicity that has radically expanded the scope of art-appreciative remarks. Yet rather than democratise an engagement with visual art as intended, this plurality seems only to have camouflaged it. For although more art magazines are published now than ever before, just about everyone complains there is nothing to read about art. Unable to yield a discerning enough discourse on art, ‘winners’, nonetheless, are nominated all the time. After describing art as that which ‘lies exactly between what can’t yet be said and what now can be said’, Donald Brook concludes that, ‘Most of our optimistic raids on the inarticulate are failures. ... No wonder that we cling to a conception of art criticism as applied morality, applied ideology, applied ‘art history’, or some other institutional antic in which progress is visible and the winners collect their prizes according to the standards of the relevant craft guild’.(10)
And this is what is most alarming today. For although an art-historical criteria of relevance has been eliminated, value systems of various sorts continue to single out certain works of art as more worthy of comment than others. The third position in art criticism is not dead, just denied. It continues to operate but, most disturbingly, in a manner that is autocratic rather than democratic; that is, in a manner that cannot be called into question. To call art history into question is to present a stirring aesthetic argument that gives a reader the right of reply. To do otherwise, is to present a preemptive conclusion based on the supposed authority of art history that leaves nothing for the reader to decide, but powerlessly abide. But how might one question art history when it has fallen so infamously fowl amidst the museum’s ruins. Take out an advertisement in the ‘Post-postmodern Daily’ that reads: ‘Art history is alive. Doorkeeper positions vacant. Apply within (stools supplied)’? Perhaps not. Denouncing the denial is just double denial.
For Douglas Crimp in ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’ (1985), the museum is a coherent universe of displayed fragments held together by a fiction—art history. He quotes Eugenio Donato who writes, ‘Should the fiction disappear, there is nothing left of the Museum but “bric-a-brac”, a heap of meaningless and valueless fragments …’.(11) What has alarmed conservative art critics, writes Douglas Crimp, ‘is that the criterion for determining the order of aesthetic objects in the museum throughout the era of modernism—the “self-evident” quality of masterpieces—has been abandoned, and as a result “anything goes.” Nothing could testify more eloquently to the fragility of the museum’s claims to represent anything coherent at all.’(12)
Yet now the ruins’ dust has settled, we see it was perhaps art history that tumbled, only, not the Museum; their supposedly inextricable link having fallen asunder. Let us look, then, at how this link was once forged if we take, for instance, the Louvre Museum, Paris. Considered to be the first modern art museum, it opened in 1793 to commemorate the French Revolution.(13) We learn from Carol Duncan in, ‘Civilizing Rituals: inside public art museums’ (1995), that at first a ‘connoisseur’s or gentlemanly hang’ was used to arrange its collection, a mode by which ‘men of taste and breeding’ might show off their aristocratic acumen. Then, a little later in the eighteenth century, this gentlemanly form of installation was replaced by ‘newer art-historical arrangements’, in which ‘more was made of the progress demonstrated by each school and its principal masters. … As the administrators of the Louvre Museum put it in 1794’, writes Carol Duncan, ‘the new museum’s goal was to show visitors “the progress of art and the degrees of perfection to which it was brought by all those people who have successively cultivated it”.’ Carol Duncan also makes the point that, ‘Historians of museums often see the new art-historical hanging as the triumph of an advanced, Enlightenment thinking that sought to replace earlier systems of classification with a more rational one’. (14)
But if post-modernism is post-history, need it be post-reasoning as well? Have we not, perhaps, inadvertently returned to the connoisseur’s or gentlemanly hang where even the learned are now excluded from the clandestine value systems administratively determined, more tyrannically than ever before, through a newly legitimated free reign of irrational judgements? For this is the unwitting contradiction of it all. Rather than enabling acknowledgement of aesthetic arguments excluded from modernism’s ‘master narrative’ to provide greater understanding, we are now bewildered by an art bureaucracy that operates without demonstrable reason.(15) This is the antithesis of the antiauthoritarian motive that declared a classificatory art history, as we had known it, invalid in the first place.
Whether one has faith in ordering the Museum’s “bric-a-brac” (modernism), or one recognises the inherent prejudices in doing so (postmodernism), certain facts remain: bric-a-brac occurs; it is collected by museums based on someone’s definition of ‘worthiness’; it is put into some sort of order. The only difference, it seems, is whether this order is based on an aesthetic argument or not and, if so, that it is professed to be an aesthetic argument—not gospel.
The Museum’s ruins, then, rather than a fairer playing field, has given license to unhindered autocratic favour. This is not meaning made accessible to all. It is a wasteland without memory, quicksand where positions are swallowed, without word. A question persists: did the wonder of unexplored and yet to be understood territory suddenly cease; or only our ability to recognise it given the ‘fiction’ of art history’s classificatory system? Either way it leaves us, today, in the quicksand of repeats.
Much to my annoyance I found myself in this quicksand with a wild blush of embarrassment on the eve of having just posted my last note on art criticism—‘Take Your Time’— when I came across a text that mine was too close in the neighbourhood not to have mentioned. It reads, in part:
‘The total lack of originality and uncompromising mediocrity displayed by 95% of Australian artists as they blunder along the unoriginal paths they have chosen to copy has here found its critical equal!
The basis of my criticism is that no exhibition of work by Australians could possibly tell you about the important issues in serious art at the present time, quite simply because practically no Australian artists really understand what they are. Same for critics. What passes for art in Australia is nothing but a series of non-art formulisations of stylistic mannerisms lifted from the work of various overseas artists. (An example is the work illustrated in the column, which unlike, unlike Clive Murray-White’s interesting early work, is nothing more than a copy of a steam work by Robert Morris.) Australian art criticism is generally even worse. Terry Smith, aided and abetted by Tony McGillick, has misunderstood overseas art, misunderstood the criticisms of that art, and then applied his newly adopted mistaken critical notions to the equally mistaken cover versions of that art turned out by Australian artists at a safe distance of some several years later.
Two very obvious and related examples of his inability to handle the facts before him are (a) his contention that ‘abstraction is basic’ to recent art. It isn’t. Abstraction and the whole tradition of ‘modernism’, were made redundant by the art which, no matter what exact form it took, investigated the problems of physicality raised by the work of Jackson Pollock; it is very concrete art and on the whole a very literal one, far from abstract. (B) his presentation of the show in terms of an object v non-object dichotomy. ...
Finally it should be obvious that if and when truly important overseas art comes to be done in Australia, the issues of overseas art will be totally irrelevant to the understanding of it. Only the terms which it itself imposes will be relevant for although it will have grown out of a concern with the present issues in foreign art it will be radically to it.’(16)
If it were not for the names mentioned, one would be excused for thinking this text was written just yesterday given its startling relevancy. But it was not. It was written and published more than thirty years ago, in 1971, by the artist Ian Milliss in the Contemporary Art Society (NSW) Broadsheet. The return of its relevancy is either a product of the cultural amnesia particular to Australia, or it contains a linchpin once ignored only to return. No matter, I resolved to write this second note to admit this historical blip immediately. But something is missing. Do you see it? A word. After ‘radically’ shouldn’t there be—dare I say it—‘different’ (as Freudian slips go, one could not hope for one better).
Presumed typographical, I decided to correct this mistake by inserting ‘[different]’. But, I hesitated. Is ‘different’ missing, or not? This question lead me to the art library on the occasion described above to compare the copy I have to the printed original. ‘Different’, however, is missing in it, too. Yet my quest was not wasted. The following issue of the CAS Broadsheet contains a number of responses to Ian Milliss’ article in the right of reply section at the front. Here, Clive Murray-White counters Milliss’ claim by explaining that he made his first smoke work in 1965, four years before Robert Morris. And Terry Smith replies that, ‘This tradition of jealousy, imagined conspiracies, ego-trips, interest in anything but the making of art, arose to a probably unprecedented degree around the exhibition “The Situation Now”. Ian Milliss’ letter (Broadsheet, Aug/Sept) reflects this to an obsessive degree’.(17)
Does this dismiss Ian Milliss’ text as misguided? Not entirely, for something unaddressed has returned, nonetheless. This concerns two potential traits in contemporary art that Milliss raises: Australian work that is ‘nothing but a series of non-art formulisations of stylistic mannerisms lifted from the work of various overseas artists’; and a missing art that follows ‘the problems of physicality raised by the work of Jackson Pollock; it is very concrete art and on the whole a very literal one...’.
Now recognised as ‘appropriation’’—where overseas ‘originals’ are ‘repeated’ here—the first of these traits has been well and truly addressed starting with the artist Ian Burn in ‘Provincialism’ (1973) and the art theorist Terry Smith in ‘The Provincialism Problem’ (1974). Yet its more contemporary twist, according to art theorist Rex Butler, occurred through Paul Taylor’s treatment of it in ‘Popism’ (1983). Though this is not to say that Ian Milliss’ question of our ‘mistaken cover versions’ in 1971 was new. In his essay, ‘Two Books by Bernard Smith’ (2000), Rex Butler contends that ‘Place, Taste and Tradition’ (1945) and ‘European Vision and the South Pacific 1768-1850’ (1960) ‘lie at the “origin” of contemporary Australian art’, where ‘all that has happened since is only a repetition of these books’ (italics mine).(18) For the art historian Bernard Smith, Rex Butler explains, ‘Our culture was only the recapitulation of something that had already occurred elsewhere’. To become, twenty years after ‘European Vision’ was published, ‘our very distance from overseas originals, our indebtedness to and mimicry of others, that is valued’. Rex Butler commends Paul Taylor for having been ‘the first to produce this new understanding of Australian art’, who pointed out that, ‘Our art and criticism have recently sought to reverse the shame of earlier generations concerning cultural alienation and instead exploit that alienation as part of a multinational strategy ...’. (19) For Rex Butler, ‘Whether we agree with [Bernard] Smith or dispute with him, see him as admitting the second-hand nature of Australian art or arguing that by playing on this we might produce something original, we are still within the discursive universe he bequeaths us’.
But are we? I was reminded that we are not with a little shock of my own when, while at the art library, I came across another Paul Taylor text from twenty years ago where he writes, ‘No more Shock Of The New; the art of today was the Shock Of Recognition. We remember that we forgot. History ended on the dance-floor. We were all there.’ (20) Why my shock? Not long ago I wrote an article entitled, ‘The Shock of the Repeat’,(21) and therefore felt the pang of having not only unwittingly repeated a previous re-phrasing of ‘The Shock of The New’, but worse, one much better. Then I wondered: is a repeat different to recognition; has something changed between Paul Taylor’s assessment and my own? Do we still ‘remember that we forgot’ or, instead, have we forgot that we never remembered?(22)
Yesterday’s ‘recognition’ is not today’s ‘repeat’. What we previously ‘recognised’ was from elsewhere. What we currently ‘repeat’ is unrecognised, and from here. This is contrary to the tenets that substantiate the appropriation argument; that which is influential from overseas. Yesterday’s ‘provincialism problem’ is a problem, today, of our own acknowledgement. ‘Cover-culture’ has become an anaesthetic to the historical struggles of our own aesthetic.(23) Its lullaby of repeats allow us not only to forget that our works of art will most likely never be remembered by others elsewhere but, more importantly, that they will never be remembered by ourselves here.
Schooled in ‘appropriation’ to dissociate aesthetic arguments from overseas ‘genetic contexts’(24)—that is, to dissociate a work of art from its specific situation, its connections to other works of art and events, its cultural container so to speak—it is now our own contemporary visual art culture that we dissociate works of art from. As a result, not only do we not recognise the culture of connections between aesthetic arguments made here, we effectively annihilate it every time an artist appropriates the aesthetic argument of their fellow’s work, without acknowledgement. Part and parcel, no doubt, of our inability to recognise the art described by Ian Milliss in 1971 that, ‘no matter what exact form it took, investigated the problems of physicality raised by the work of Jackson Pollock; it is very concrete art and on the whole a very literal one …’.(25) For due to its concrete literalness, this art contains what it is contained by—its ‘genetic context’. In other words, it is nothing but its ‘genetic context’. To dissociate it from this context then, as is our practice through appropriation, is to annihilate it, to leave nothing of it to be recognised. When one realises that this art’s ‘genetic context’ is the intersubjective relations in modern art that it brought into focus—that is, a viewer’s engagement with a work of art—only then might we appreciate the extent to which we actively negate intersubjective mechanisms in art and criticism here.(26) Most disturbingly and to our detriment.
An alternative is to empower a reader to engage with works of art through their right of reply. For which reason a potential viewer has the first position in art criticism, from which the other two follow: the writer, who is firstly a viewer; and art history, the third position, which is determined by our viewing of art.
Whether pronounced dead and buried or alive and kicking (anthropomorphism does run riot), this third position exists, whether denied or not. It is, however, a vacant position, without authority. For which reason it is blind—it has no eyes. If you are an artist, art history will never see your work; it is pointless to make it, then, for art history (no matter the amount of stardust this generates). Yet by being vacant art history acts not unlike a potent magnet that compels our various aesthetic endeavours, a force divined by our own free will and governed by our own engagement. We are art history’s back seat drivers, each of us contending differently with its blindness. For no one, remember, is in the front seat driving. And perhaps this is what is most extraordinary about it. Art history is a passageway through which unprogrammed concurrences and conflicts eventually pass as collective intersubjective agreements that get somewhere. ‘Where’ is the thing for us to see and to tell.
A place might one day be that which I was unable to find during my earlier art library visit but know exists: where radically ‘different’ is spelt out, rather than accidentally left out as a doubtful ellipsis. This, however, depends on a reader’s right of reply, the empowerment of which our contemporary visual art culture now rests. And as this reply depends, I have argued, on a position taken by the writer in art criticism, there is perhaps only one remaining thing to be said: please, take your place.
1 The extraordinary form of communication that takes place when one looks at a work of art, and which is peculiar to visual art, is overlooked if one too easily assigns an ability to speak to the work of art.
2 I have based these three positions on the intersubjective relations as discussed by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan in, ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1954-55), ‘The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book Two’, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, WW Norton & Company, New York, London, p. 191. The fourth position—that of the stolen letter—is where a something placed in full view but cannot be seen given the power of its secret within the three-sided game of intersubjective relations. This fourth position is that of the work of art, but that story is not told here (See my ‘The blind spots we sometimes see’, in ‘Primavera 10’ exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2001, p. 4; for a re-phrasing of these intersubjective relations in terms of a work of art).
3 Chris McAuliffe, ‘”Is ‘New-art’ Non-art?”: Critical Responses To Conceptual Art In Australia’, in ‘Practices of criticism in Australia’, Papers of the Art Association of Australia, vol. 1, May 1986, p. 1. Chris McAuliffe writes that the ‘common understanding of art criticism is one of exegetic practice based on description, interpretation and evaluation’. Within the practice of criticism in the 70s, ‘[g]enerally all three conflated, with interpretation rarely going beyond allusion to critical intuition, authorial intention or art-historical truisms’. As a result, ‘[t]he unargued, assertive rhetoric of criticism foregrounds description and evaluation’.
4 Chris McAuliffe, p. 6. The full quote reads: ‘Recuperation through concentration on the creative ability of the artist is a common strategy, particularly as it permits the critic to ignore the exhibited material almost entirely. The absence of actual analysis is typical in art criticism: in refusing the existence of the work such an approach serves the recuperation of Conceptual art very well.’
5 This approach, however, may not be all that contemporary. The art historian Bernard Smith comments on his introduction to ‘Place, Taste and Tradition: A study of Australian Art since 1788’, first published by Ure Smith Pty Ltd 1945, Second edition, Oxford University Press, 1979, p.25: ‘The lack of an historical approach has led to apologetic criticism. In most cases the critic has been an artist-associate of those about whom he has written. Such comment is not without value, for it has helped to bring the Australian artist before a wider public than his less fortunate literary brother. But the comment has been neither objective nor dispassionate. In the Australian art world, always numerically small, fear of offending friends has led to critical debility, fear of praising opponents to uncritical fanaticism.’
6 I perhaps differ with Chris McAuliffe on this by seeing Conceptual art as having unwittingly promoted this non-position of writers where a ‘conception’ of what the work is ‘about’, ‘saying’ or ‘means’ is valued more than a ‘perception’ of the work of art (although Chris McAuliffe does commend two art critics—Donald Brook and Terry Smith—for addressing the material actuality of the work).
7 See Graham Coulter-Smith, ‘Criticizing Peter Tyndall: Politics versus play in postmodern criticism’ , ibid, p. 19. Graham Coulter-Smith describes what I have called a ‘non-position’ as ‘the curious absorption of the critic into the role of the artist’; a phenomenon, he believes that began here, ‘with the advent of ‘Art & Text’ at the beginning of the ‘80s’. ‘Art & Text’ , he writes, ‘provided a forum where contemporary artists could give critical evaluations of other artists’ work in the absence of any interest in contemporary Australian art among professional critics here’ (p. 19). It can only be hoped that this most insightful article is debated at art colleges. I say this for although writing by artists is criticised—and I am an artist writing this— the points raised are nonetheless valid and very worthy of debate.
8 Art criticism is not the same as representative writing of works of art in exhibition catalogues. The first is from a position of independence. The second is not. It is by a representative of the work, whether written by the curator or another writer. It therefore entails another set of intersubjective relations given what is read is presumed to be in agreement with the artist/owner (why else would the artist/owner lend their work to it) unless expressed in a manner that indicates otherwise within the actual text or preface (that is, either before or while the statement is read such as, for instance, observations made in the form of an argument)—which is fair enough. It is highly irresponsible, goes against a duty of care and is culpable for a curator or writer not to respect this. Although, as I have experienced recently, this happens. An example to the contrary would be, for instance, a comparison of one of Ian Burn’s work to one of mine by the art theorist Andrew McNamara in ‘Hall of mirrors: where to the artwork? (‘In Conversation’ exhibition catalogue, ed. David Pestorius, University Art Museum, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, 2003, p. 38). After moping inconsolably for a number of moments upon reading it—wondering why intersubjectivity is negatively rather than positively seen as nothing, as ‘0’—I then realised that Andrew McNamara’s wittily expressed and astute engagement is presented as an argument—not authoritative gospel—and thereby engages a reader’s right of reply. Although I disagree with its conclusion, the valid information brought to account through his argument is perceptually engaging and more than constructive.
9 Donald Brook, ‘Institutionality, Transinstitutionality and Criticism’, in ‘Practices of criticism in Australia’, Papers of the Art Association of Australia, vol. 1, May 1986, p. 17.
10 Ibid. Where I disagree with Donald brook, however, is on the distinction he makes between ‘experience-directed’ and ‘object-directed’ critical strategies (see, Donald Brook, ‘Art Criticism: Experiences and Objects’, in Contemporary Art Society of Australia (NSW) Broadsheet, September 1972, p. 4.). Certain points are instructive, such as: ‘If, on the other hand, a critic directs his attention outward, upon public objects, and if he interests himself in what is admirable about them, he will make two significant advances. First, he will have no problem of identifying a common object for discussion …. And secondly, he will become involved in the giving of reasons, the elucidation of grounds, the drawing of relevant comparisons, and in general the exercise of far more subtly articulated forms of persuasion than mere assertion. A critic whose polemic amounts to nothing more than ‘I find X pleasurable, but I can’t show it to you’ is entitled at best to an indifferent shrug; while a critic who says ‘X is here for your inspection, and deserves to be admired’ is entitled to assent, or to argument’ (ibid, p. 7). This is said in opposition to ‘experience-directed’ criticism which, I think, is to misunderstand ‘intersubjective’ relations (not to be confused with the ‘gestalt’ theories of Phenomenology referred to by Fried). The North American art critic Michael Fried inadvertently addressed these relations (so as to debunk, mind you) in what he preferred to call ‘literalist art’ (minimalism) in his essay ‘ Art and Objecthood’ (‘Artforum’ 5, June 1967). Donald Brook refers directly to this in his article, ‘Flight from the object’ (in ‘Concerning contemporary art: the Power lectures, 1968-1973’, ed. Bernard Smith, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975, pp. 16-34), where he writes: ‘ …On this point, if on no other, the formalists and minimalists are agreed: minimal objects are not to be appraised in terms of the ‘internal’ or formal relations (because they allegedly have none), but somehow in terms of their ‘external’ relations—their contexts, settings, and viewers.
The formalists insist, of course, that this is aesthetically improper; but I am concerned at the moment only to bring out the point that these things represent a retreat—if not a flight—from the art-object that is conceived of as hermetic, isolated, and aesthetically self-sufficient.’
Intersubjective relations, however, are not the antithesis of an ‘object’ orientated engagement. They are not a flight from the art-object into ‘private experiences’ (eg. a re-called conversation with your Aunt when seven that has irked since, a conversation no-one else will have had), but perceptions that the mechanisms of which are common, and therefore as public as the visible object. To substantiate these relations, it is important to ensure that any tendency discussed is specific to certain features of the work of art and can be seen to occur a number of times in different ways; each time passing through the same point—a nodal point (used by Sigmund Freud in his analyses of dreams). This point will most likely be a common, not a private, one to make. And can be substantiated if observed this way. This is, I think, demonstrated in Michael Fried’s 1967 essay, whether one agrees with his argument or not. This is not, however, to negate the spatial conundrums involved in Minimalism.
11 Douglas Crimp, ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1993, p. 53. Eugenio Donato based his observations on an analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s novel ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’ (printed posthumously, 1881).
12 The New York art critic named here by Douglas Crimp is Hilton Kramer. On this point, and on the occasion of the new MoMA, New York, of 2005 (architect: Yoshio Taniguchi), it is perhaps worthwhile to note the difference between Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s criticism of ‘pluralism’ compared to Hilton Kramer’s criticism of the ‘sprawling miscellany’ of ‘anything goes’ twenty years earlier on the occasion of the new MOMA of 1984, the Museum Of Modern Art’s reopening after a major expansion (architect: Cesar Pelli). Although certain critical points are similar— their concern could not be more different. Kramer’s, as indicated by Douglas Crimp, is to preserve the ‘Master narrative’. While Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s, it could be said, is to be able to discern the ‘subject’s emancipation’ through object relations where ‘perceptual and social transformation are fused together’; as with seeing Constantin Brancusi's ‘Endless Column’, version I (1918).
Let us first consider Hilton Kramer when he writes (in 1984): ‘'“The Louvre,” wrote Cezanne, “is the book in which we learn to read.” For a great many artists, as for a great many art critics, scholars, collectors, curators, and dealers, and for its ever-expanding public, too, MOMA has long been the principal “book” in which we have learned to “read” the history of modern art. It has in this sense come closer than any other institution in the world to serving as the Louvre of modernism. … Yet in dealings with the contemporary art scene it is no solution to this problem for the museum to adopt an “anything goes” policy. But that is more or less the policy that the new MOMA has settled for in mounting “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,”.... All we can be certain of is that the show itself is the most incredible mess the museum has ever given us… For it is an exhibition that seems to be based on no discernible standard. … If the exhibition bears a resemblance to anything, it is to the old Salon surveys of the nineteenth century in which discrimination was suspended in favor of a sprawling miscellany. ... ‘ (Hilton Kramer, ‘MOMA Reopened’, in ‘The New Criterion’, a special summer issue to mark the occasion, 1984) Whereas for Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (in 2005): 'One response to these new historical conditions governing the art world--and this applies to its artistic authors as much as its administrators--has been to embrace the principle of a totally noncommitted pluralism. It is not even clear whether that principle originated in political conviction or whether this default position simply resulted from both indifference and de-differentiation (of criteria, of judgment, of a commitment to history or anything whatsoever). However, it was bound to become increasingly difficult to maintain aesthetic judgment on the grounds of a principled indifference toward all criteria. Nothing could be more pernicious to the task of the historian and curator than a socially enforced attitude of pluralism, confounding the institutional requirement of political neutrality with the comfort to forfeit judgment altogether. ... This catastrophic loss of criteria plays itself out manifestly in MOMA's curatorial choices when it comes to the acquisitions of contemporary work. The new installation of these acquisitions makes it painfully evident how difficult a task it must be to judge without discerning, to discern without criteria, to love art without a larger comprehension of cultural practice—to name but a few of the inevitable contradictions of the liberalist-pluralist model. … The total lack of any cohesion in the Contemporary Galleries—from the abject banalities of Chris Ofili to those of Charles LeDray, from Josiah McElheny to Luc Tuymans, from Elizabeth Murray to Rachel Whiteread—proves not only that pluralism fails miserably when it comes to the judgment of artistic production, but also makes it clear that a culture without commitment to any criteria other than those of the rapid increase in exchange value cannot generate a sense of communication between artwork and audience.’ (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Our Own Private Modernism’, in ‘The new MoMA’, ‘Artforum International’, Feb 2005, p. 141.)
13 Carol Duncan, Civilizing rituals: inside public art museums, Routledge, London, New York, 1995, p. 22: ‘The Louvre was not the first royal collection to be turned into a public art museum, but its transformation was the most politically significant and influential. In 1793 the French revolutionary government, seizing an opportunity to dramatize the creation of the new republican state, nationalized the king’s art collection and declared the Louvre a public institution. The Louvre, once the palace of Kings, was now reorganized as a museum for the people, to be open to everyone free of charge. It thus became a lucid symbol of the fall of the Old Regime and the rise of the new order. The new meaning that the Revolution gave to the old palace was literally inscribed in the heart of the seventeenth-century palace, the Apollo Gallery, built by Louis XIV as a princely gallery and reception hall. Over its entrance is the revolutionary decree that called into existence the museum of the French Republic and ordered its opening on 10 August, to commemorate “the anniversary of the fall of tyranny”.’
14 Ibid., p. 26.
15 Thankfully at museums such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, a lecture series forms part of its public programme that is independent of its collection and therefore discusses not only what the Museum has included in its collection but, more importantly, what it has excluded. In this way the Art Gallery of NSW does not act as a censor by limiting its discourse to the fallibility of its own collection. This is of crucial importance when it comes to Australian contemporary art. Self-analysis of this sort is fundamental to meaning—to act otherwise is to prohibit a viewer’s right of reply.
16 Ian Milliss, ‘Ian Milliss’, in ‘Before Utopia: A Non-official Prehistory of the Present’, edited by Helen Grace, CD-ROM. (It is here that I first came across Ian Milliss’ text.) Originally published in ‘Contemporary Art Society (NSW) Broadsheet, Aug-Sept 1971, p. 7.
Ian Milliss’ text begins: ‘As an artist who rejected an invitation to show in the inaugural exhibition organized for the new Contemporary Art Society Gallery by Terry Smith and Tony McGillick [‘The Situation Now: Object or Post-Object Art?’, Sydney, July 16–August 6 1971], I feel I must comment on Terry Smith’s review of that exhibition …’. And ends ‘…Terry Smith, in his mad scramble to present himself as Australia’s greatest art critic, will doubtless miss the point ... once again.’
17 Terry Smith, ‘The C.A.S. and the Situation Now’, Contemporary Art Society (NSW) Broadsheet, Oct-Nov 1971, p. 8.
18 Rex Butler, ‘Two Books by Bernard Smith’, in ‘Rent’, a special issue of ‘øjeblikket’ (#3), guest editor Stuart Koop, vol. 10, Copenhagen, 2000, p. 12.
19 Rex Butler adds detail to this, however, in his introduction to, ‘’What is appropriation?: An anthology of writings on Australian art in the 1980s and 1990s’, (ed. Rex Butler, first edition 1996, second edition 2004, IMA, Brisbane). For here he explains that although Paul Taylor’s ‘Popism’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (16 June – 25 July 1982), is generally understood to ‘mark the inauguration of appropriation in Australia’, a number of preceding events also saw the argument established in these terms. These include a series of exhibitions and performances organised by the musician David Chesworth and the group Tsk-Tsk-Tsk during 1979-80 at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne; an exhibition curated by Judy Annear in 1982 at the George Paton Gallery, Melbourne, entitled, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’; and a text by Paul Foss, ‘Theatrum Nondum Cognitorum’, published in 1981. It is curious to observe—and I imagine I am not the first— that although its subject matter is ‘appropriation’, this anthology seems very much to be a book of ‘origins’; who said what, where and when first (as this detail perhaps illustrates). This much needed history of contemporary art history is interesting given Rex Butler writes that appropriation ‘is not only a moment in art history, but a moment in art history after which art history is over …’. And yet Rex Butler has most worthily endeavoured to make visible what we have been schooled—through appropriation—not to see, the occurrences surrounding an aesthetic argument, its history. And more curious still is the plotting of Bernard Smith’s historical accounts as an ‘origin’ continually ‘repeated’ since; the two interdependent terms of appropriation (Rex Butler’s article in ‘Rent’). For this operates outside the tenets Rex Butler persuasively sets given this art historical ‘influence’—Bernard Smith’s work—is this time an agent within Australia, not outside, unlike appropriation. This is, instead, acknowledgement. Though admittedly, one within the practice of art history, not the making art. Yet will it, perhaps, act as the sunset clause of appropriation? Rex Butler’s skilful arguments have given the reader what we are in great need of—a right of reply—with which we might regain our bearings.
20 Paul Taylor, ‘Editorial: Tonight a D.J. Saved My Life’, in ‘Double Trouble’, a joint edition of Art & Text and ZG Magazine, no. 11. Summer 1984, p. 3. Thanks to the new librarian for finding it for me.
21 Gail Hastings, ‘The Shock Of The Repeat’, in ‘5P: Pen Pal Postulations of a Prevaricating Patience’, Sydney Art Seen Society, Sydney, no. 1, 15.09.2004 .
22 Douglas Crimp mentions in his article ‘Pictures’ (1977), ‘In this doubling by means of the mnemonic experience, the paradoxical mechanism by which memory functions is made apparent: the image is forgotten, replaced. (‘Roget’s Thesaurus’ give a child’s definition of memory as “the thing I forget with.”)’. Paul Taylor may, or may not, have been referring to this in ‘Double Trouble’. See Douglas Crimp, ‘Picture’, in ‘October’ 8, 1979, p. 78.
23 ‘The archetype against all archetypes’, writes Paul Taylor, ‘the original sin, the vicious celebration of the present’s encircling repetition – if the cover-version did not exist, we would have to re-invent it … The world is a completed object... Boatpeople all, we traverse the amusement, round and round. … ”Cover Culture” knows no time, only an eternal present suspended in inverted commas. Historical struggle is replaced by Double Trouble….’
24 ‘Genetic context’ is an aptly evocative term used by Terry Smith in ‘The Provincialism Problem’ (1974), where he writes: ‘In short, models and prototypes arrive in the provinces devoid of their genetic contexts. … Isolation gives these cultural exports a connotation perhaps unsuspected by their makers—they can hardly fail to reinforce a vicious circle of conservatism. Ian Milliss makes the point succinctly: ‘In Australia where the cultural roots of the dominant white society are geographically on the other side of the world, ‘official culture’ with its distortions of history is accepted almost universally because the physical evidence that would contradict it is lacking’ (Ian Milliss, Catalogue Essay, ‘Object and Idea’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1973). Terry Smith, ‘The Provincialism Problem’, in ‘What does appropriation mean?’, ed. Rex Butler, 2nd edition, IMA, Brisbane, 2004, p. 132.
And yet, with disappointment, I observe that Terry Smith did miss the point—yet again—by combining Minimalism and Conceptual art as a ‘nexus’ in his article ‘Generation X: The impacts of the 1980s’ (1996) (‘What is appropriation?: An anthology of writings on Australian art in the 1980s and 1990s’, ed. Rex Butler, second edition 2004, IMA, Brisbane, p. 249).
25 I am presuming here that the art Ian Milliss is referring to is what is commonly called Minimalism today, a term hotly contested by its main practitioners at the time; a point perhaps respected Ian Milliss. ‘Literalist art’ is what Michael Fried used to refer to Minimalism in “Art and Objecthood’ (1967). A point I presume also recognised by Ian Milliss. For interests sake, Donald Judd (a minimalist) discusses Jackson Pollock’s work in ‘Arts Magazine’ (1967), where he writes: ‘A thorough discussion of Pollock’s work or anyone’s should be something of a construction. It’s necessary to build ways of talking about the work and of course to define all of the important words. ... The primary information should be the nature of his work. Almost all other information should be based on what is there. This doesn’t mean that the discussion should only be ‘formalistic.’ Almost any kind of statement can be derived from the work: philosophical, psychological, sociological, political. Such statements, usually nonsense, should refer to specific elements in the work ... Certainly the discussion should go beyond formal considerations to the qualities and attitudes involved in the work. Arguments leading from the elements of the work to its general implications are difficult to form and should be formed very carefully …I want to make it clear, even as just an assertion, how good I think Pollock’s paintings are … I think it’s clear that Pollock created the large scale, wholeness and simplicity that have become common to almost all good work…’ (Donald Judd, ‘Complete Writings 1959-1975’, ‘The Nova Scotia Series’, ed. Kasper Koenig, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, 1975, p. 195)
26 While works of art such as mine are invisible in Australia because their very medium is intersubjective space (having stemmed from Minimalism), the ramifications are much broader and undermine the general engagement with contemporary art in Australia.
© Gail Hastings http://sydneyartseen.blog-city.com/