The quandaries of criticism: Edward Colless, The error of my ways: Selected writings 1981-1994

Book review

Questions of guilt loom large in Edward Colless's The Error of My Ways. The guilty are often a decrepit lot – sterile practitioners, glib reciters of various didactic agendas, hype-merchants, insipid art radicals, but the most decrepit of all are art and film theorists. This makes Colless guilty by association because he earns his living teaching such theory. Yet guilt isn't always a bad thing. It's a matter of quality. A feature of this publication is the way Colless differentiates between the rather banal guilt of theoretical ineptitude and a rather flamboyant guilt that proves to be far more critically vigorous and enticing.

Don Anderson notes on the back cover of the book that these writings are fearless, that Colless is "the antipodean Karl Kraus" because he casts an "unrelenting eye on contemporary cant". This "fearless" tag is no doubt due to the fact that Colless's attacks necessarily implicate colleagues or former colleagues. And his denunciations do cut close to the bone – as is evident in his assaults upon visual arts theory ("Vengeance ", pp. 72-78) or film theory ("The Imaginary Hypermannerist", pp. 57-71 ). While it brings a degree of spark and notoriety to his work, this polemical aspect is ultimately the least satisfying feature of Colless's writing.

The combative role of the fearless polemicist possesses an inordinate appeal in art criticism. In fact, one of the weaknesses of Australian art criticism in the past decade or so is that too many art critics have jockeyed to become the 'antipodean Karl Kraus'. Polemic is undoubtedly often necessary and useful, sometimes even quite funny (if, of course, you're not on the receiving end), but it is usually of transitory value. When it becomes an end in itself, it quickly degenerates into pompous grandstanding because all it ever sees is impurity and contamination .1 An example of this is a certain Australian brand of neo-Ruskinian polemical criticism which assumes the role of a belligerent terrier snapping at the heels of a corrupt and decadent contemporary art system. Unfortunately, this hostile polemical style fosters the equally banal response of unqualified promotion which lacks all critical ambition.

Colless does not always escape the pitfalls of this limited critical horizon but when he does so he is one of the most interesting critics around. Despite his admiration for the perpetually scandalized Robert Hughes and the rancorous tone of essays such as "Vengeance", his polemic is of a different order. He is at ease with the very art that the more contemptuous polemicists might dismiss as symptomatic of cultural decline, sheer artifice or arid conceptual contrivance. Looking at his art criticism, one finds quite a pluralist palette: it ranges over the 'classicist' post-minimalism of Janet Burchill, the (often histrionic) neo-expressionist flurries of Adam Cullen, as well as the baroque reveries of cultural longing that one finds in the work of Lindy Lee.

The acerbic tone to these writings emerges when Colless turns his attention to contemporary theoretical excursions into criticism.2 He seems particularly irritated by the type of cultural critique that makes "all modes, genres and degrees of art equally 'interesting"'. To his mind, everything becomes equally interesting in a way that is deadly because this form of theory levels everything into an ideological or discursive equivalence. Mediocre art theory is a form of "self-congratulatory pacifism" that eschews critical opinion and, worst of all, it produces an inessential art. This is just as true of the "pseudoaesthetic theories of marxist-feminist sociology" as it is true of that dandy of the 1980s, the semiotic rodent Colless labels a "militant dilettante". (pp. 77-8) The "militant dilettante" was a cultural nomad conjured up by 1980s' postmodernism with its sense of historical free-fall, its feeling of being cut loose, drifting off into the void, giddy with complete (critical) weightlessness.

Worse still, for Colless, is the intellectual and moral earnestness of the sociological critique of culture. His chief example is that perennial favourite, the critique of the institution, which seeks to uncover "the processes which constitute... theoretical determination". Anyone who declined to expose these processes of determination would remain "guilty of repeating the 'closures' enacted by the discourses that make up that institution". (p. 73) Complicity with these "closures" marks one's guilt and, like an exorcist, the debunking critique endeavours to purge one of this complicity – and thus one's guilt – by exposing the insidious grip of institutional processes.

Colless retorts that it is far better to plead guilty. Complicity with the guilt of one's art is vital. He much prefers Christian Metz's idea that the "perversion" of voyeurism is an essential feature of cinema. In Colless's view, Metz shows that a certain complicity with the corrupting nature of that institutional apparatus is necessary and this is vital to acknowledge if one wishes to aim higher than those "blandly laboured exercises in recodification" that seek to purge the cinematic of its voyeurism. Hitchcock's acknowledgement of his own complicity with the voyeuristic traits of the cinematic is the reason why his films are far more interesting than the didactic critiques of spectatorship performed by Laura Mulvey or Victor Burgin. (pp.74-6) Thus, by contrast, Colless states his preference for "genuine eccentrically fashioned sensibilities" over "a decentred milieu of fashionable dilettantes."(p.78)

For all its incisiveness, this critique falls back on one of the oldest oppositions in the book – the contrast between a marvellous, unpredictable individualism and a plodding conformism wrought by methodical routine (as represented by the institutional critique). This opposition is itself laboured, and it doesn't provide much by way of critical insight. Is Colless simply saying he is a more critically discerning dandy than the postmodern version of the 1980s?

In a sense, this may well be what he is saying. The new dandy, like the old version, is attuned to a beauty that derives from the incidental or circumstantial: "a distant hallucinatory beauty of mere incidents ... ". (p. 24) In response to these encounters, Colless heralds a kind of boundless, pre-conceptual grace: "But reason can't dispel the sly menace that comes with that inducement of meaning from a mere circumstance in the world." (p. 230) No doubt some recycling of romantic motifs is occurring in these speculative ruminations, particularly the fascination for the fragment and the spectre of the aesthetic recreation of the world.

Yet there is a profound critical commitment embedded in Colless's poetic flourishes. It can be found in his effort to escape the bland critical relativity that is so easy to fall into in the wake of Pop Art, appropriation, serialization, the found object, conceptual and post-conceptual art, semiotics, subcultural theory, and certain textual theorisation. To add complexity to this effort, Colless does not reject these challenges.3 Nostalgic fantasies about a pre-industrial wonderland when art was pure and innocent play no part here. Neither does the old Left critical model that revolves around alienation and transgression.

Colless seems to be striving to reinvigorate norms of critical discrimination in the wake of developments of the past two or three decades which have been diagnosed as evading, or consciously undermining, traditional norms of aesthetic judgement. Surprisingly, for a writer of Colless's seemingly wayward sensibility, his critical focus is very specific. It takes up the critical challenge where Paul Taylor left off with his explorations of Roland Barthes's notion of the second degree: that which testifies "however frivolously, to a power of dislocation: parody, amphibology, surreptitious quotation".4

Colless takes this trajectory elsewhere. He is intrigued by the vivid, fin de siècle or transitional artistic manifestations, such as mannerism and the rococo, and it is interesting to note how he also picks up on early modernist explorations of the figure of the flaneur, of allegory and the fragment by Baudelaire, and later Benjamin, in order to begin to evaluate the contemporary situation. This new dandyism takes its cue from two figures of display: the simulated effects of the actor and of subcultural style. The actor is someone who convincingly does what they do not do. For Diderot, a certain doubling of the performance of the actor is essential - their distance from the act helps to maximise the performance. Subcultural performing is of a slightly different order. Its style does not represent anything (politically), it does not affirm anything other than the subculture's look – the look of difference which is at the same time an affirmation of identity.

Performing is important at this critical juncture – or, at least, in the one Colless describes. He invokes a mannerist mannerism, a hypermannerism. One could dismiss this as standard theoretical inflation, an unnecessary exaggeration of the already exaggerated. And, for Colless, this is apt. Hypermannerism works, like the actor, to convey a convincing performance, but it does so at the level of 'phoney taste' or 'nihilistic insignificance': it contrives the artful appearance of critical depth or of artistic or aesthetic commitment.

Yet, as Diderot asserts, a certain distance from one's own conceit is also necessary to good performance: it enables one to maximise one's performance within a scene.5 There is a powerfully productive dimension to the ability to conjure something from nothing. Contemporary mannerism inflates these stakes. For Colless, it does have critical possibilities, although these can only be understood within its secularized symbolic universe. It is an incoherent world devoid of an ordering God. It is a constructed world of texts artfully put together.6 This is a scenic realm that is not governed by formalist verities of artistic essentialism and self-knowledge. All that is left is to make a move amidst "limitless partial approaches and diversions". (p.83)

There is always a fine line to be walked here because, as Colless suggests, it is so easy to fall from this position into the mediocre pastiche witnessed in the jumble of artspeak. It would seem that finesse ultimately distinguishes one mannerism from another. So it may be that within the orbit of mannerist mannerism, there are good and bad dandies. One is fluent and effortless, the other is contrived and affected. Where Colless stands apart is in his ability to read the "big picture" from the minutia of the artwork. He reverses a tradition of reading art from the viewpoint of an exterior, philosophical proposition of truth. The way of the contemporary world is read by Colless from tea leaves of philosophical reflection provided by the errant ways of contemporary art and culture.

Reading these varied writings, one discovers an uneasy critical sensibility: a writer at once perplexed, astute, disillusioned, invigorated, energetic and deflated. It is a sensibility played out in many roles and guises: art critic, essayist, the arch-stylist and latter-day aesthete, the fearless polemicist. It is a writing that feels precariously perched: somewhere between groping in the dark and a willingness to remain open to the incidental and unforeseen, as well as to the shifting sands of aesthetic evaluation and of contemporary cultural distinction. This is the risk to Colless's work, but it is also where one discovers its greatest challenge to contemporary criticism.

notes: 

1 . For a lucid assessment of how Kart Kraus himself fell into this trap, see Elias Canetti, "Kart Kraus: The School of Resistance", The Conscience of Words & Earvvitness, London, 1987, pp.28-38.

2. lt is interesting to recall that before the Futur*Fall conference of 1984 Colless was quoted in the press as a spokesman for the hip new postmodern theory. Way back then. Colless was quoted as saying that: "There's another response to the 1970s, neither modem nor anti-modern .. lt sees the 1970s as a period of the fragmentation of culture. We get these bizarre hybrid forms of art being produced. This other response is becoming known as postmodernism"; refer Susan Hely, "When modern just isn't modem enough some resort to an eve of distraction", Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1984. What The Error of My Ways could be said to chronicle is Colless's continuing sympathy and subsequent refinements, and even disagreements, with this proposition.

3. This point is made in a slightly different way by Rex Butler in his introduction to the book, pp. 7-11 .

4. Barthes quoted in Paul Taylor, "Australian 'New Wave' and the 'Second Degree"', Art & Text, 1, Autumn 1981, p. 24.

5. Note Gebauer and Wulf on Diderot: " ... for the perfornnance to be successful [the actor] must possess it (se possooer): he is able to make his feelings seem plausible, keep his eye on the other actors, the scene, and the audience, manage the effects he produces, and enjoy his own performance. He has a doubled perspective ... The doubling of the actor, his distance from the character he is representing, allows him to maximise the persuasive force of his performance'; Gunter Gebauer & Christoph Wulf, Mimesis: Culture-Art-Society, trans. Don Reneau, University of California Press, 1995. On these issues, see Colless's essay, "The Possessed", pp. 85-95.

6. Perhaps his most systematic expression of this position can be found in "An End to the 1980s", in Rex Butler (ed.), What is Appropriation?, IMNPower Publications, Brisbane and Sydney, forthcoming.