The following is a paper I presented on the panel "Whose Art Stories? Questioning Professional Practices" chaired by Sarah Parsons and Anna Hudson at the Universities Art Association of Canada Annual Conference, University of Victoria, November 10-12, 2005. The panel proposal read as follows:
"The session invites art historians, critics, artists, curators, art teachers, policy makers, and art educators to reflect on how their professional expertise has encouraged them to tell distinct stories about art. We may share an uncomfortable relationship with the canon of Canadian art, yet our stories often evolve in isolation from one another. There is little opportunity for collective assessment or analysis. What are the underlying assumptions about artistic merit that shape our storytelling? How do we assess the relevancy for our imagined audiences? How do art stories define communities? A cross-disciplinary dialogue about the forces directing art writing and exhibition in Canada should give us a clearer sense of our diversity and the parameters of our professional practices."
The question of "whose art stories" asks us to imagine a dialogue among art professionals and to talk about object choices, desires and the proscriptions of the canon. Among the first of these proscriptions is the objective description of our labour and a cordon sanitaire designed to save us from non-art topics. By way of introduction, art is onto-pologized and our taste for what is outside warned against as pollution. Does this represent from the start a stubborn attachment to our practice itself and our careers as object-choices, preventing us from confronting the problems we face as historians, artists and critics? This panel affords us the opportunity of re-evaluation, but only sadly so, as we mine the underlying assumptions of our pre-texts, the "tristes tropiques" that define the field of art theory and history. The lives and motivations of narratives are thus confronted by the closures of discipline and canon-formation. We oscillate between these two poles uncomfortably, wondering about the relevance of any particular story in the context of the meta-story and its implied audience. Does art discourse, like Hobbes' Leviathan, impose the rights of sovereignty on diverse narratives, without the peoples' consent, and do we then act as appointed judges, living our lives for the good of justice? If not, what are the alternatives outside the edu-factory and the global tourism industry?
The question of new critical priorities arising from new social movements has more or less been accommodated by the standard versions of the new art histories. In the introduction to his undergraduate reader, Art and Its Histories, Steve Edwards argues that the debate on the canon is for the most part a modernist debate and that if critical perspectives are to make a difference, we should expect a corresponding change to the market value for works of art. Edwards argues that "[a]s long as the commodity trade in works of art endures, and it will do so for as long as capitalist society exists, some artists will rise and others fall, but the canon is likely to remain in its place." If art history is to have a future, it will pursue its relevance to political emancipation or it will remain "empowered." One priority for a critical professional inquiry, then, is to consider art history writing as an alienated practice – alienated from popular culture and from the non-knowledge of the commodification that structures the field, compelling it to join popular culture in its orientation toward markets. This alienation, however, rather that a basis for critical praxis, functions as a narcissistic complex that sustains belief in the value of museum collections as public collections, which then sanctions the rights of sovereignty and the appointed judges, which we know very well tends to be a very bourgeois and petty bourgeois affair. Despite this, such collections do represent historical and aesthetic knowledge, and are as such repositories of historical meanings and cultural values, however relative and open to investigation. We can't live with them and we can't live without them, as the saying goes.
I would like to entertain the concept of narration that is emphasized in the panel description. What is our imagined audience, the empty universal that can transcend our moment and redeem our efforts? What is the destiny of nationhood? How do we participate in the curating of force fields that correspond to the protocols of aesthetic ideology and how does this ideology relate to that other, premised on resource extraction, commercialism, exchange values and totalitarian excess. Whether or not we admit to being guilty of its crimes and commonplaces, how do we maintain them in the process of maintaining historicized accounts of "new narratives"? Am I, for example, guilty of having asked my students to purchase a copy of Dennis Reid's Concise History of Canadian Painting? These crimes I confess to as an acknowledgement of the impossibility of a guilt-free new art history, no matter how much I may have contextualized this book and its presuppositions.
What the proliferation of new narratives about Canadian art's histories alerts us to and warns against is the reduction of canonical works to nothing, or worse still, the leveling of Canadian culture to questions of class. Canon formation is a mediated and mediating process that is historically constructed, as we now profess. It is not only that the canon is written in straight, while, male and bourgeois language. The symptomatic trait in this incantation is its law-like repetition, which opts for an art history that is free of the burden of Oedipal guilt, in Kobena Mercer's words, from the "burden of representing," in a sovereign gesture, those same straight, white, bourgeois male colleagues and contemporaries. To borrow from Slavoj Žižek's reading of Hegel through Lacan, we could say that the subject of Canadian art history exists between two deaths: first, at the hands of rare figures like J. Russell Harper and Dennis Reid, who no longer sustain the enjoyment of a particular bourgeois matrix of subjectivity, and a contemporary creative industry, which preserves this same subjective matrix through the proliferation of new narratives, from multiculturalism to native consciousness, from ecological awareness to feminist art history and gay and lesbian art history. Consider the similarity of today's pluralism and J. Russell Harper's satement:
"Younger native-born Canadians and others who had arrived from overseas when children and thus considered themselves truly Canadian went abroad to study; they returned with widely differing ideas about painting depending on whether they admired the French, the English, or American schools. A multiplicity of styles inevitably led to confusion and a distinctive national approach failed to appear."
The rise of an apologetic sense of art theory and history is thus construed as suitable for universal education, suitable for an underclass not yet trained in the methods of the discipline, culminating in the state of an adequate description of artistic and academic contemporaneity.
The name that I have given to this conquest of Canadian art history is the "colonial copy." This particular narrative begins with the story of the two founding nations, both accounts corresponding in our times to the "regime of the non-event," or in other words, "post-political liberal-democratic global capitalism." Its institutional origins lie in the associations of the mid-nineteenth-century and those of the mid-twentieth. As we witness the twilight of both of these moments, the time of the imperialist Royal academies and of the providential welfare state, we become aware of Canada's privileged place among the G8 and G20 nations and within the "Quad" of the World Trade Organization. We witness our dependence on global, transnational trade regimes and with it the gross inequalities that support our productivity. In the contemporary culture industries, in which Canadian art histories proliferate, Canadian cultural stories and identities are made equivalent through their biopolitical – biocapitalist – function. The normalizing aspect of such biopolitics works to prevent the universal function from allowing specificity to become for itself and necessitates a disavowal of the reference to the totality of concrete particulars. The issue for art professionals is how to join cultural politics with meta-narratives, with politics tout court. To do so in a critical way, we must overcome what Frantz Fanon referred to as the "complex of narcissism" of the colonial situation, in which the latest and best representatives of (trans) national culture seek recognition on a national stage. This cannont happen as long as economic definitions are not transvalued into political terms. This would include the desire to speak of language, to speak of power and the colonial character of the canon. The adjective Canadian in Canadian art is a symptomatic excess that bears witness to the gap between truth and reality, between the universal and the particular, the imagined and the repressed. In order to become art at all, Canadian art must deny the colonial character of its place in transnational power relations; the Canadian art professional must deny the ideological circuit which links artworks and texts to dominant social relations of production.
My concept of the colonial copy is modeled on Norman Bryson's theory of the Essential Copy, as discussed in his 1983 text, Vision and Painting. Bryson argues that as an intellectual and humanistic discipline, art history has been conditioned to think of looking as a dehistoricized and timeless activity. Rather than being understood materially as the active production of meaning, the perceptualism of art history conceives of looking as the passive reflection of a prior reality. The foundation to this prior reality is described as "Universal Visual Experience," and the denial of the specificity of the gaze, the "natural attitude." Art historians' belief in the priority of the real world is effectively a belief in the transparency of what he refers to as the gaze, the unmediated ability to see what is in front of one's nose. Fittingly perhaps, Bryson describes the perceptualism of art history by retelling the story by Pliny of how Parrhasius' painted curtain triumphed over Zeuxis' painting of grapes. Whereas the mimetic skill of the latter fooled only birds, Parrhasius' work managed to fool Zeuxis. The story operates incidentally as an allegory of how the domination of nature acts as a justification for human domination. Missing from Bryson's retelling, however, is a consideration of the fact that Zeuxis may have wanted to be fooled and that misperception is a fundamental feature of all perception; as Žižek puts is, humans alone are capable of deceiving by telling the truth.
As Bryson explains, the progressive role of painting becomes the copying of a prior reality and the removal of obstacles between this particular painting and Universal Visual Experience. What Parrhasius and Zeuxis have in common, and what becomes the ground of art history, is painting as the secondary transcription of the world. While the reality we all know is an ever-changing surface of contingencies, codifications, values, symbols and belief systems, it is also marked by an unchanging substrate which reveals those same mediations to be, precisely, changing and contingent. Bryson names the secret language of the natural world the Essential Copy. As art progressively approximates its origin in a world that can be known in advance, it acquires its place in a succession of changes and in a competition which art history works to reconstruct. As this particular painting displaces its predecessors in revealing the codes of the social context, it takes the place of the Essential Copy, justifying its particularity against the abstraction of Universal Visual Experience. The critical question is whether or not this particular painting can tarry with the code of the natural attitude, while not reproducing the relation of Oedipal conflict, but instead become an agent in itself, for itself. "It is in relation to the socially determined body of codes, and not in relation to an immutable, 'universal visual experience,' that the realism of an image should be understood." In short, codes matter, style matters.
What would a theory of the Essential Copy give us to see if we were to transcribe this method to that of the colonial situation? What if Universal Visual Experience was to be historicized into the reality of colonial relations which mark the history of aesthetic record-keeping on what has come to be called Canadian territory? The Universal Gaze could be substituted for the universality of colonial perception, a series of discursive dispositifs that regulate the simultaneous articulation and disarticulation of picturesque reconnaissance. Riding a wave of liberatory and mutilatory flashpoints, Dennis Reid once wrote:
"The topographical views of military officers were in fact simply one manifestation of the romantic inclination of English gentlemen of the later nineteenth century to delight in the splendours of natural scenery or in anything they found in their travels that was charmingly primitive, rough, quaint, or exotic – in a words, picturesque."
Here the language of art history washes away the density of social and symbolic experience to propose yet another cartography for contemporary relations of domination, written according to the logic of the rightness of colonial relations and justified by the pretexts of aesthetic conquest. Neoliberal versions of art history are the latest wave of prospecting for the rightness of what Hardt and Negri have referred to as Empire. What are its standards? In the following I cite Bryson directly but in an altered form.
the absence of the dimension of colonial history
Empire is anterior and unchanging; history does not affect the underlying substrate of the body of the Hobbesian "man"; the self-interest that drives colonial conquest does not affect the underlying substrate of the Universal Colonial Gaze; this is the fixed nature of the prospective perception; the Colonial Gaze is passive and merely transcribes a reality that is anterior and unchanging; Canadian experience and art is made universal rather than specific and is justified against European masters, American and international (and now global) canon-formations.
the dualism of Empire and colony
The belief that the relations of Empire are plenary (free); the Canadian artist witnesses but does not interpret; Canadian art progressively transcribes the wonders of the new world and the youthful nation according to acquired codes; the Canadian self witnesses but is not responsible for changing consciousness.
the centrality of colonial perception
Imagined communities become an alibi for the disinterest in constitution, the disinterest of constitution; colonial perception displaces the notions of Canadian specificity that are manifested in particular works; what is to be seen and the relations of representation exist prior to the work of transmission.
Canadian style as a limitation; can Canadian art pass?
The bar of difference; the codifications of law; if Canadian art does not exist (for itself), can we see the Canadianness of Canadian art and what do we expect to see? According to Bryson's model, Canadian style would figure as a barrier to colonial perception, would represent a lack of destination and a withdrawal into particularity, especially inasmuch as it judged according to European, American and International precursors, codes and directions.
To take issue: a distinctly Canadian or "good Canadian art" needs to be thought of at the same time as transnational conventions. The idea that the colonial condition is inevitable is a damaging self-image. What needs does production serve?
Argument: a post-colonial art may not be art, but we cannot know this in advance. A post-colonial art is a struggle for disalienation. A post-colonial art history is written by unwelcome guests and is quite often overly theoretical.
model of communication
The model of communication assumes a transparency between Canadian art and the artist's notion of successful art; excellence and sovereignty is based on a consideration of ontogenetic differences, based on morphological characters, and phylogentic differences, based on a natural evolutionary process, understood in terms of catching up with pre-established standards; success occurs when this particular Canadian artwork manages to minimize or conceal its dependent material existence, or when it manages to make its particularity relevant to international tribunals of culture and this relevant to Universal Colonial Vision.
The colonial copy is an argument for what it is and what it is not. "Canadian" art is "Canadian" art by virtue of being an echo and a distortion of prior perceptual schema. Canadian art is always untimely and ahead of itself. It becomes itself through a maturation process, an autocolonization, which is defined against global standards. The colonial condition acts a set of material factors that have to be suppressed so that successful work can be regulated according to the condition of colonial secondariness. Our discomfort with the canon is not so much our having to give explanations about its flawed construction, but the fact that in doing so, we may relativize the colonial situation and our relation to it. We resort to a moralism that upholds relations of guilt but without wishing to be accountable to those relations. We speak for and about others when we speak for, as ourselves. If there is a hope in this Victorian hell, it is the fact that sometime soon we will unshackle ourselves from having to serve the canon.
1. The term onto-pology is described by Erin Manning in Ephemeral Territories: Representing Nation, Home, and Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) xvi. The limitation of this concept is its reliance on the idea of being, which leads Manning to posit post-structuralism as the grounds for a new colonial copy.
2. See for example John O'Brian and Peter White, eds. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007).
3. Steve Edwards, ed. Art and Its Histories: A Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) 13.
4. See Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London: Verso, 1999) 146-157.
5. J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966) 172.
6. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 209.
7. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).
8. Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
9. For an uncanny retelling of the Pliny narrative by other means, see Northrop Frye, "Canadian and Colonial Painting," in Douglas Fetherling, ed. Documents in Canadian Art (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1987) 89-92. Symptomatic of Frye's critique of Horatio Walker in this essay is the disavowal of the economic determinations that conditioned the work of Tom Thomson. In doing so, Frye naturalizes his role as a critic and neutralizes the code of colonial vision for the benefit of white male supremacy and the Group of Seven's abstraction.
10. Bryson argues that personal deviations of style interfere with the conquest of the Essential Copy. He considers style to be a kind of interference that is tolerated as the resistance of the medium, or the resistance of the unconscious. I would say in contrast that the natural attitude is highly invested in the production and consumption of historical and personal style.
11. Bryson, Vision and Painting, 13.
12. Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988) 19.
13. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).