Book Reviews

Rex Butler, An Uncertain smile: Australian Art in the '90s (Artspace, Sydney, 1996); Rex Butler (ed.), What is Appropriation? An anthology of critical writings on Australian art in the '80s and '90s (IMA/Power Publications, Brisbane and Sydney, 1996)

Appropriation yesterday, banality today? There's a popular line doing the rounds in art rhetoric and it's all about demarcating mini-epochs. lt runs like this: eighties' art was marked by conceptual and rhetorical overload; it was the decade of art and theory. Today's artists, by contrast, are 'just doing it'. Their art is more direct and engaging, more concerned with the art object. Compared with art of the previous decade, today's art remains largely unencumbered by that heavy baggage of appropriation, parody, irony, pastiche.

As with all such cliched summaries, there is something to this assertion. Yet the current rhetoric does not stop there. It goes on to suggest that contemporary artists somehow manage to circumvent all institutional compromises (whether it be with theory, museums, criticism, art managers, the art market or capitalist commodification in general) and yet nonetheless they are happily incorporated in it all. The result is a wondrous transgression-it is deft, thoroughly complicit and yet undiluted all the same. Not since Santa Claus has so much, so magically, been offered.

In An Uncertain Smile (hereafter AUS)-a series of lectures delivered at and published by Artspace in Sydney-Rex Butler labels this 'constant rhetorical structure' our contemporary camp. This condition becomes evident when 'the contemporary critic decides he (sic) cannot decide, and does not even try to'. (AUS, p. 30) How can one decide when so much art is inevitably critical and complicit? For Butler, this is a kind of saturation point, a point when 'undecidability has become too decidable, ...unknowability too knowable'. (AUS, p. 29)

Far from signalling a break from 1980's appropriation art, Butler contends that the current rhetoric reveals the enduring legacy of that art. And this legacy is explored in detail in What is Appropriation? (hereafter WiA) , an anthology edited by Butler and jointly published by Power Publications and Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art. This collection of essays gives a critical insight into the phenomenon of appropriation-'the quotation and use of the work of other artists'-and it attempts to indicate why the practice became so important in the 1980s and why it was 'so uniquely popular in Australia'. So what is the peculiar relevance of appropriation to Australian art?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Australian art and criticism began to rethink the curse of provincialism and its motifs of marginality, the regional and the peripheral. The provincialist debate may be traced back as far as Bernard Smith's Antipodean Manifesto of 1959 (or his ideas concerning the 'belatedness' of Australian art). But it finds its consummate expression in Terry Smith's essay, 'The Provincialism Problem' (originally published in Artforum, 197 4 ).1 Provincialism explained cultural processes that were aligned along a centre-periphery axis in which the art of the peripheries was condemned to be forever considered second rate or a mute copy of the 'real' thing-which could only be produced where the historical weight of cultural developments was most acute, that is, in the metropolitan· centre (which was then New York, at the time the undisputed cultural centre).

By the early 1980s, a series of pivotal essays turned what had been regarded as a failing into a virtue (that is, a second-degree culture 'born in mediation'). These essays by Paul Foss ('Theatrum Nondum Cognitorum', 1981). Paul Taylor ('Australian "New Wave" and the "Second Degree"', 1982), Imants Tillers ('Locality Fails', 1982), as well as some essays by Meaghan Morris, Philip Brophy and Ross Gibson from around that time, sought to transform this provincialist failing into a mark of distinction (a mark of distinctive indistinctness). Taylor found a model for antipodean inversion in the camera 'where things are naturally upside down' and which expressed itself 'in a carnivalesque array of copies, inversions and negatives'. (WiA, p. 86) Here, in this inversion of an inversion, an original unoriginality was happily endorsed and celebrated.2

If Paul Taylor did not quite discover an Australian appropriation art, then, according to Butler, he was the first to make 'the crucial connection between appropriation and the question of Australian identity'. Yet it was Foss's essay, he contends, that touched upon its true structure-the 'inexhaustible, unfathomable, profound' logic of representation. (WiA, p. 20) And it was with the Popism exhibition of 1982 (curated by Taylor and held at the National Gallery of Victoria) that brought this logic of representation to the fore. 'What the Popist artists do, however, by appropriating models taken from overseas without materially altering them', Butler suggests, 'is make it impossible thereafter to distinguish the original from the copy, the territory from the map'. Hence, it becomes possible to contend that ' ... the original itself is only an effect of the copy'. (WiA, p. 23)

The quotational strategy of Popism, or New Wave, was labelled "anything goes"-in fact, Terry Smith called it 'anything goes silliness', as Adrian Martin readily reports. (WiA, p.1 07) Martin is at pains to point out that the New Wave sensibility was highly provisional, but disruptive in a critically effective way. To give one example not offered by Martin, critique in the 1970s generally amounted to marshalling a privileged, hopefully unscathed, position or representation which could secure a critique of all other contaminated positions. It sought an untainted position above and beyond ideology, commodification or exploitation. "Second degree" thematics, by contrast, always seem complicit. If one takes the example Nelly Richard gives of Juan Davila's strategy of appropriation, it is evident that his critical position remains immersed in the murky field of representation. To quote Richard: 'he proceeds to reformulate the system of conventions, the institutional and codified character of the signs he treats'. (WiA, p. 158) What Davila strives for, Richard suggests, is the offensive or obscene, which may not be sexual, but which reveals 'a gap in the body of syntax'- it 'exaggerates reality, it is always "too much"'. (WiA, p. 156)

Yet this sense of a gap, or limit, within the ambit of appropriation was too seldom felt. According to Martin, the New Wave sensibility presupposed 'a kind of total environment, a fabulous array of surfaces to be worn, of moveable units, constellating in an eternal present'. lt 'revelled in the definition of popular culture as consisting of flat, artificial, plastic "units" easily lifted and combined ... '. ( WiA, p. 111) It took this ravenous approach to art. And the reaction-so Butler contends-came in the form of Edward Colless 's exhibition, Design for Living, of 1985. Colless valued iconicity-the icon that could 'freeze the itinerary of its citation'. (WiA, p. 33) He didn't dismiss the Popist gambit, nor could he hope to overturn it by simply ignoring or reversing it (a common but redundant strategy). Instead he argued for, as Butler insists, 'a certain effect of originality within the copy'. At issue was the indiscriminate levelling by quotation, this freewheeling perpetual recontextualization, which made every image a cipher-'something to be "seen through", disillusioned, decoded, translated. '(WiA, p. 32) In short, repetition without difference.

For all Martin's efforts to show what is truly vital and critically challenging in these Popist/New Wave formulations, its flaws have led to its dubious legacy. In its "dreamforce" of pulling 'Art back into Life'(WiA, p. 108). Chiefly through the vehicle of popular culture, the "New Wave" simply reworked the most implausible feature of 1960's and '70's utopianism, which otherwise it wasted no chance in disparaging. Furthermore, in Taylor's 'appeal to an un pre-charted reading of signs' ( WiA, p. 101 ), a curious libertarian frenzy of unencumbered reading was invoked that still has not worked its way out of our cultural reckoning. The associated claim that the image is only an effect of context allows Butler to point out that its implication is to negate all difference between contexts, thus eliding all means of making any such contextual claims. (WiA, p. 33)

 

Butler's introduction to What is Appropriation? Provides a thorough and incisive examination of some of the most intricate and arcane debates in Australian art history. It delineates three key phases of appropriation: the iconoclastic phase of Popism; the iconic stage in Colless's attempt to speak of originality within the copy; our current ambivalence- 'the appropriated copy is always both a destabilising recontextualization of the original and a testament to its lasting power'. (WiA, p. 37) For Butler, there is a kind of fatal doubling bound up in this last phase- neither 'an aesthetics or a politics of appropriation', only an 'unavoidable, irrefutable, final' logic. (WiA, p. 38) lt is the logic of an endgame-one can only play it out in 'exhaustion and sterility'.

In drawing out such implications to their fatal conclusion, Butler proves himself to be a master contextualizer of such complex conceptual matrixes. He tends to formulate the account that takes account of all other accounts. He is very effective in revealing how various positions are confounded by the issue of representation, especially so in the case of appropriation. As Butler asks right from the outset: how does one 'speak of appropriation when the very thing we are trying to define is implied in the terms we bring to bear upon it?' ( WiA, p. 13) There is a certain inescapable generality to the question of appropriation and it is this feature Butler draws out. It is that feature which makes specific contextual demarcations appear absurd-for example, when we talk of an '80's history or of a '90's way of doing things. Yet this generality of appropriation is only worth considering in light of the particularity of its occurrence. But how would that particularity occur except by way of the leveling impact of appropriation?

Yet, in producing such a seamless depiction of the undecidable grasp of appropriation, do we not find ourselves in a position akin to that third phase of appropriation- a kind of critical implosion into banality? If this is where Butler concludes his introduction to What is Appropriation?, then An Uncertain Smile takes up the challenge of identifying the patterns of this impasse and of seeking a way through it. This endeavour alone makes An Uncertain Smile a most provocative and crucial contribution to contemporary art. The issue of how critical discriminations are possible is the critical issue of the moment. For we are experiencing a moment of critical and curatorial malaise where anything still goes and no one can tell the difference. To favour kitsch in art or kitsch art, for example, makes no difference because there seems to be no possible position from which to begin to differentiate various uses of kitsch- at least, none is currently offered by its proponents. 11 seems kitsch is kitsch, thus all such art is bundled into one category-good, bad or indifferent. To take another example, if Gordon Bennett can pillory artists appropriating Aboriginal work, then what legitimatizes Bennett's undergraduate travesties of de Stijl and Mondrian? As these works of his display no understanding of what they are supposedly debunking, doesn 't this approach merely perpetuate the crude levelling of everything to the same that is the forte of all banal appropriation?

Of particular value are the chapters in An Uncertain Smile that identify the critical/complicit ambivalence which has become pervasive in art practice and criticism (especially, Butler notes, in the pages of the later Art & Text). Whether one is willing to concur with Butler's proposed alternative to our current impasse will depend upon what one makes of his distinction between the 'na'lve cunning of the Popists and cunning na'lvete of artists such as A.D.S. Donaldson, Hany Armanious and Anne Wallace. (AUS, p. 105) What he has in mind is work which affirms a possibility in its practice rather than being about its condition and possibility as a practice. It is art that is not so rhetorically convoluted; it is a non-ironic art that is nonetheless not na'lve.3 He provides the example of Donaldson's practice as one that engages directly with-rather than with the signs of materials, tradition and authorship; and yet it does so with a knowledge that 'these qualities are never to be got at directly, that there is always a passing away or dematerialization of them'. (AUS, p. 93)

At this point, one has an unsettling feeling that there is a very fine line between the way Butler describes these strategies and what he calls the exhausted third phase of appropriation. Yet contemporary art (of any form) cannot help but involve itself with questions "about" its practice. This is definitely the case with Donaldson, as it is with the recent work of Wallace. While she does not explore representational art with the theatricality of Gerhard Richter, nonetheless the cinemagraphic mood, the cutting of frame and, in Satin Lining (1996), the blue shadowing of skin along the contours of a female figure all suggest a figuration inhabited by the register of mechanical media. What is different in both cases is that the appropriated source is not emptied of significance-this is not a belligerent, indiscriminate appropriation-but it becomes the possibility for an affirmation of a practice, a condition of ongoing possibility. What may ultimately well prove to be at stake is the task of thinking about representation in terms that are not appropriative. For Butler, following the guide of Lacan and Michael Fried, the appeal to the Real-'the gap between the work and the world'-is one resort to this impasse, though the explanations provided seem most applicable to Armanious's work. (AUS, p. 1 07)

There is far too much good contemporary art for it all to be swept into the melting pot of banality-which would only confirm the worst suspicions of it. There is where An uncertain Smile has much to offer in exposing the dead ends of current thinking on art. Lt presents an intriguing companion volume to What is Appropriation? as it both takes up its premises and emphatically departs from them. The enduring value of What is Appropriation?, in turn, is that it provides a substantial and authoritative account of the debates and practices that helped shape contemporary Australian art in the past decade or so. As a sourcebook, I would suggest that it may prove to be a more thorough and comprehensive guide than Paul Taylor's version for the preceding period, Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970-1980.

notes: 

1 . This is no doubt the reason why Smith's essay reappears in What is Appropriation?, even though it was also reprinted in Paul Taylor's Anything Goes- a 1980s look at the 1970s as compared to Butler's '90's look at the '80s. See Paul Taylor (ed.), Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970-1980, Art & Text, Melbourne, 1984.

2. Developing the 'Papist' challenge, Butler asserts that Terry Smith's account of provincialism adheres to the distinction between the original and the copy. Smit h's rider to this model is significant here. He argues that everyone is provincialist within such a system, even those at its centre (WiA, p. I 31 ), which suggests that no one possesses or controls such a centre. Following on from this logic, Butler throws in a qualification of this qual ification: 'The point is not that particular artists shape the system, but that it is the system which gives a privileged place to a certain number of artists .... We can never locate or name this metropolitan avant-garde because, by the time we do so, it is already over, it has already moved on'. (WiA, pp. 25-6) Yet. without disputing th is assertion, but stil l qualifying it slightly nonetheless, it is possible to suggest that we are dealing with the effect of an amalgam of peripheries without a locatable (ie. empirical) centre, but with the effect of a centre nevertheless being exerted.

3. At least, these artists could never be considered na:tve in Schiller's sense of the term for this implies a harmonious, objective relation between life and ideas, sensibility and reason. This is not what Butler ascribes to, which, in fact. Has more to do with the sentimental (or modern art).