Dear Robert
Rex Butler

Dear Robert,

Thank you for offering me the chance to respond to your catalogue essay for the forthcoming Perspecta, ‘The Resistance of Theory’. I don't usually reply to people who comment on my work — though, of course, I'm often tempted to! First of all, what particular right do I have? Second, as part of the "society of critics", I feel that people should pretty much be able to say what they want about other people's stuff. Any response by the author — which is bound to be defensive — only serves to inhibit the legitimate discussion of ideas. "Factual errors only" is a good rule of thumb — ah, but whoever has been in a dispute with an artist, editor or publisher over what constitutes a "factual error"? (All this is something that gave me pause before deciding to sign the infamous petition protesting against John McDonald's appointment to the ANG. Was this an instance of some kind of "right-thinking" censorship of someone whose views were merely unpopular? Or were those views so prejudiced and ill-considered as to prevent the very open-mindedness and tolerance I am arguing for? We shall come back in a moment to this question of consensus and dissension in art.)

On the other hand, I have to admit I was very flattered by the obvious care and attention you devoted to what I had written in your essay. (After all, it doesn't happen that often!) Although you eventually disagree with me, your close and sympathetic reading and your willingness to criticise me in my own terms — that is, in terms I would recognise as pertinent to what I was trying to do — are the highest compliment one can pay to another person's work. I would certainly want to encourage in whatever small way possible this kind of writing in Australian art criticism. It makes such a difference from the usual ad hominem attacks of our newspaper critics and the blatant misrepresentation of people's work one so often encounters elsewhere.

So thank you, Robert. Even though I would ultimately take issue with what you say — or, at least, would like to rephrase it — you really have opened up some intriguing issues for discussion (and, speaking personally, made aspects of what I wrote seem once again relevant and urgent to me). Your paraphrase of me is largely correct, and I'll be very interested to see the new context in which you've placed my work with regard to "politics". (Although I think, as your essay indirectly points out, there are certain difficulties associated with putting on a show devoted to the "theme" of politics in art. If there is such a thing as "politics" in art, it would take place precisely in its inability to be represented or illustrated in this way. There is undoubtedly a danger in imagining politics as something either present or not in a work of art, or as something which some works of art possess and others do not. This is to reproduce — if inversely — the "conservatism" of our newspaper critics, who complain about political art, or the intrusion of politics into art. I would say that politics in art must take unpredictable, undecidable, hitherto unthought of forms. This not only is what art has to offer politics — which I hope is one of the possibilities the organisers of the show take into account — but may also be one of the defining characteristics of politics itself.)

Perhaps for all these reasons, rather than venture a direct response to what you have written in your catalogue essay, I shall tell you about something I am working on at the moment and how it might allow us to take up again some of the issues you raise and allow us to rethink this notion of politics in art. (It is a review I am writing on the well-known Yuendumu Doors, currently on show at the Queensland State Library.) But before we get to this, let me begin by saying what I felt was at stake in what you wrote:

1. You criticise what you see as my "dismissal" of the Popist legacy in Australian art. In arguing for — of being seen to argue for — a second, later moment of appropriation, one which concentrates more on questions of aesthetics, I neglect the kinds of art that might approach such issues as "sexuality, ethnicity and gender".

2. By way of contrast with this, you look at the work of the American critic Dave Hickey, who, though also rejecting a certain programmatic notion of politics in arguing once again for the relevance of aesthetics, nevertheless has a more comprehensive notion of taste and beauty — or, rather, taste and beauty for him, instead of simply remaining within art, are marked by a "vernacular, democratic" appeal.

3. Thus, to take an example, when Hickey reads Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio, it is not a matter of simply seeing it in terms of the problems of artistic expression — or perhaps in terms of aesthetics at all. It can be understood as being as much about "marginal sexuality" as "essays in photographic formalism". In the democracy of image making, all interpretations are "true". Or, we might say, given art's inexhaustible ability to "outperform" whatever critique is made of it, all are equally false.

Two things seem to be at stake here, beyond the specifics of what you say about me. However, I must say I don't quite get your suggestion that I am not interested in the problem of subjectivity, "cannot account for the contingency of interpretation, the fact that there is not one interpretation possible, but many". The first chapter of An Uncertain Smile is all about this question of subjectivity in art — indeed, the birth of subjectivity in Western art in such books as Castiglione's The Courtier and Kant's Critique of Judgement (perhaps even, as someone has recently suggested to me, Machiavell's The Prince). And it is a subjectivity that is always, divided, split between two "interpretive positions". In fact, I even try — admittedly, in a sketchy way — to think why this "contingency" might have arisen, with its origins in aristocratic society and its distinction between initiates and outsiders, which might finally refer not so much to two identifiable classes as to something that occurs within each of us when we look at a work of art. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself here.) These two things are:

1. Aesthetics. The question to be asked here is whether such issues as "sexuality, ethnicity and gender" are to be thought within the over-arching category of aesthetics, or do they occupy two entirely separate realms? Here there is perhaps a slight ambiguity in what you say. On the one hand, you suggest that Mapplethorpe's work is as much about "marginal sexuality" as it is an essay in "photographic formalism", as though one might be thought to exclude the other. On the other hand, you quote Hickey to the effect that Mapplethorpe's work lies at the "intersection" of the discourses of religion, sexuality and formalist aesthetics, as though these have something in common or could be reconciled. Nevertheless, I get the feeling here that you would see these other concerns as somehow widening out or exploding the traditional category of aesthetics, which you see as inadequate to understanding the work of someone like Mapplethorpe.

2. Consensus. Associated with this break-down of the category of the aesthetic is the collapse of the notion of consensus, the — at least ideal — possibility of agreement over the beauty or value of a work of art. This can be seen at two points in your argument. The first is where you quote with seeming approval the following passage from Hickey: "The issue of taste and beauty is not simply an aesthetic category but marked by a vernacular, democratic appeal". If I understand you correctly here, you are suggesting that taste and beauty must be opened up to more popular and pragmatic — sexual, ethnic, gender-based — considerations. The second occurs at the end of your essay where you remark that interpretation is "contingent upon where we are socially, politically, ethnically and sexually in the world", as though this means that there is no way we could ever all agree about the value of a work of art, or at least that we should never feel that we have to. Although your position here is less ambiguous than before, we might again pose a certain question: do the considerations of ethnicity, sexuality and gender take place within an overall consensus, or do these things finally make impossible any such possibility? Do our interpretations become "contingent", with no way of communicating our aesthetic responses (assuming this is what is at stake in our encounter with a work of art) or discriminating between competing interpretations of the work of art?

I myself raise the possibility of a break-down in consensus in An Uncertain Smile (p. 57), but I guess the more I think about it the more convinced I am by certain arguments by Kant — or, at least, the recent revisions of him undertaken by Jean-François Lyotard and Jacob Rogozinski, amongst others. In response to the two sets of questions posed above, I would say this:

1. It is vital not to lose the question of aesthetics in contemporary art. Aesthetics does not exclude issues of sexuality, ethnicity, gender — how could it? — but it is precisely that through which these things are mediated by art. I've always liked Michael Fried's formulation of this in his 'How Modernism Works: A Response to T.J. Clark': "My emphasis on the utterly crucial role played in modernism by conviction or its absence invites inquiry into what might be called the politics of conviction, that is to say, the countless way in which a person's deepest beliefs about art and even about the quality of specific works of art have been influenced, sometimes to the point of having been decisively shaped by, institutional factors that, traced to their limits, merge imperceptibly with the culture at large". The point here is that, though of course one's convictions and taste are shaped by institutional factors, these institutional factors themselves can have no effect in art except insofar as they are mediated through our tastes and convictions.

2. It also seems vital to me that we hold on to a certain possibility of consensus, which in no circumstances is to be mistaken for a simple objectivity or even "democracy" of taste. (One can be "right" about a work of art, even though one is in a minority of one.) This is what Kant says about consensus in his Critique of Judgement: "The assertion is not that everyone will fall in with our judgement, but that everyone ought to agree with it" (p.22). And Lyotard in his essay 'Sensus Communis' writes: "As for the common of this 'sense', the 'community' or communicability which qualifies it, this is certainly not to be observed in experience" (p.10). But even if Lyotard here countenances much more than Kant the possibility of dissension, still this "consensus" remains for him the very horizon within which aesthetics must be thought. (Would politics be without it either?) And contemporary art might be defined as the attempt to bring about consensus in the absence of established criteria or standards. It is this the Belgian aesthetician Thierry de Duve, for example, seeks to address in his Kant after Duchamp.

How might all this allow us to think the question of politics in art? How, indeed, might it allow us to think about sexuality, ethnicity and gender in art, in arguably their most pointed and political forms in Australia today? In order to answer these questions, let me indulge myself by telling you about my current research for the essay on the Yuendumu Doors. Here I think, if I can do it properly, I will be able to show just how "radical" these notions of aesthetics and consensus can still be (as opposed to Hickey's largely gestural politics, which I find in its very lightness and demotic quality largely dilettantish and ineffectual). Although my thinking is still at a very preliminary stage, allow me to outline some of the issues I see at stake in the Doors and some of the texts I am trying to understand them through.

1. I am currently reading the historian Henry Reynolds' long sequence of books on black-white relations in Australia. It is, in fact, very interesting to track their progress just from their titles. First, there was The Other Side of the Frontier; then Frontier, the book based on the ABC series; then This Whispering in Our Hearts, based on the last chapter of Frontier; then finally Why Weren't We Told, an intellectual autobiography. Indeed, a little cheekily, we might even propose two future titles: Why Didn't I Realise? and Why Didn't I Tell You Before? What we notice in this sequence is the "Aboriginal experience" moving from what cannot at all be known (The Other Side of the Frontier) to what is on the edge of our consciousness (Frontier) to what is inside us (This Whispering in Our Hearts; the latter chapters of Why Weren't We Told?; and I even seem to recall Reynolds wondering in interviews whether he is part-Aboriginal).

We can't help thinking that this "whispering in our hearts" is something like the inner voice Kant speaks of with regard to the moral law — and it leads Reynolds to expose racism not only in a real objectifiable Australian history, but also in each of us, and beyond that even in the man who writes this history, Reynolds himself. In other words, we must ask: where does this sense of responsibility come from? To whom is it owed? Where are we to locate it? And at the same time we might wonder: what drives Reynolds on in his interminable task? What might be the strange, perverse, "pathological" pleasure he derives from sacrificing himself to this moral law? That is, we might suspect — as Reynolds does himself in Why Weren't We Told? — that he is never entirely unself-interested in his project of exposing racism, that his motives are never exactly pure. Might it be this that is in fact the more subtle trap of racism: the pleasure we take in denouncing it?

2. I am also reading Eric Michaels' two great essays on the Yuendumu Doors: 'Western Desert Sandpainting and Postmodernism' and 'Bad Aboriginal Art'. The crucial aspect of these is that Michaels insists on the hybrid nature of even these seemingly pure, ethnographic objects. (They were painted on the doors of the Yuendumu school by Warlpiri elders to stop it being vandalised and graffitied upon and so that their children would learn the tribal Law). This is evidenced, to begin with, by the very choice of materials with which they are painted: "Art advisors can deny influencing indigenous art until they are mauve in the face. But even if they never commented on a painting in progress or completed, by word or look or gesture or price, in Central Australia at least one irreducible source of influence persists: materials" (Bad Aboriginal Art, p. 153). Also, in a more daring conceptual move, Michaels seems to suggest that it is not even a question of iconographically deciphering the subject matter of the paintings — or, at least, that this is not what is decisive about them. There is, of course, an element of secrecy about them — things available only to the initiated — but the more important, if paradoxical, aspect is that they are in fact meaningful for us. In terms analogous to the way Kant speaks of both moral law and aesthetic experience, which are defined more by their form than by their content, Michaels writes of Warlpiri paintings: "These are not self-contained texts. In a way reminiscent of Neo-Expressionism, the observer is encouraged to perceive meaningfulness but not the meaning itself" (p.56; my italics). This is perhaps why Michaels is able to conclude "Western Desert Painting and Postmodernism" by raising the extraordinary possibility that — whether on the basis of the paintings or not, he cannot decide — the desert landscape is able to speak directly to him: "Nothing in semiotic theory or contemporary scientific philosophy accounts for any such ability of phenomena to communicate directly, unmediated, their history and meaning" (p.59). And in the final words of the essay, Michaels even proposes that this impossible form of communication might apply to the paintings themselves. He asks rhetorically: "Do these paintings convey some authentic vision beyond the culture and linguistic specificity of the iconic and semiotic codes employed in their construction?" (p.59) And he answers: "The senior men of Yuendumu believe in the truth of these paintings and intend to convey that to Europeans, to whom they believe they have a responsibility to communicate these things of which they know more than anybody. That intention I take to be an artistic one. The reader is invited to determine if the authenticity of their knowledge is demonstrated here" (p.60). It is important to note that Michaels does not simply assert this as a fact, but leaves it up to the individual reader to determine for themselves. It is this peculiar "performative" notion of truth that Aboriginal art in general, and these Doors in particular, would involve.

3. Lastly, I want to think about these Doors in terms of a whole series of other similar "doors" throughout the history of art: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Colin McCahon (in his Gates series), Ghiberti's Baptistery Doors in Florence, Perugino's Giving of the Keys to Saint Peter, and especially — though perhaps surprisingly — Mel Ramsden's Secret Painting and its remake by Imants Tillers, Secret Painting/Red Square. Ramsden's original is just a black monochrome canvas, next to which are printed the words: "The content of this painting is invisible; the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist". Tillers substitutes for Ramsden's black canvas an ochre-coloured enamel tile, which is in part an allusion to the red soil of the Australian desert and the "secret" of Aboriginal art. But, of course, the point of Ramsden's original is that the secret is not a secret until we look at it: that in fact there is no secret or it is the spectator themselves who constitutes the secret. It is the spectator's very belief that there is a secret, something hidden beneath the black canvas, that gives the painting its secret. Its true secret, in other words — it is in this regard that we might hope to compare it to the Yuendumu Doors — is that it is meant only for us. And here we might make our last comparison, this time literary, to Franz Kafka's parable 'Before the Law', with its famous conclusion in which the Gatekeeper says to the petitioner, who has spent his entire life waiting before the Doors hoping to enter: "'No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it'". Slavoj Zizek and others have made the point here that, though the Law only works on the basis that it seems unknowable, eternally beyond us, it in fact requires us and cannot come about without us: "Here we encounter a kind of 'reflexivity' which cannot be reduced to philosophical reflection: the very feature which seems to exclude the subject from the Other (his desire to penetrate the secret of the Other — the secret of the Law, the secret of how Jews [but we might also say Aboriginals: RB]...) is already a 'reflexive determination' of the Other; precisely as excluded from the Other, we are already part of its game" (The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 66).

Well, these are the three set of texts I am working through. And the question is: is there a parallel between "this whispering in our hearts" of Reynolds, Kant's moral law and aesthetic experience and the way the Yuendumu Doors work? For obvious reasons, all this raises profound issues to do with the identity of art and the possibility of consensus. But it might also offer us a way of thinking the old problem of how to talk about Aboriginal art. On the one hand, we can only ever appropriate it, speak of it in terms it would not recognise (to begin with, the words "art", "Aboriginal", "Dreamings", etc.). On the other hand, would any "law" — even an Aboriginal one — be a law unless it was "universalisable"? And the same might apply to "art"? Let us, to conclude here, cite Kant's magnificent conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within me". What has this to say about the at once singular and universal nature of the law, the way it is both contingent, inapplicable to anyone else, and necessary, what each of us have in common insofar as we are human, insofar as we all occupy a place beneath the "starry heavens"? In what sense might the encounter with these Yuendumu Doors open us up to this experience of the Law?

These, anyway, are my initial thoughts. As anyone knows, if what I'm about to write is to "live" at all, I'll end up rejecting or at least rethinking my ideas here, which remain of course on the level of platitudes, what I'd say at a dinner party to sound intelligent and well-read - which is not at all what art history should be.

All the best,


Written 9-13 August, 1999