One of the strangest and yet least remarked upon aspects of Eric Michaels' well-known essay 'Bad Aboriginal Art' is the fact that it seeks to define bad Aboriginal art without defining good . At the beginning of the essay , Michaels admits that commonsensically the two terms are linked, that it is difficult to speak of bad art without knowing what good is, or, more pertinently, of good art without bad. As he says: 'I want to consider the curious fact that almost nothing of this work [Australian Aboriginal art] is ever designated "bad"-a lacuna that would not seem to make it easy to sell anything as especially good either'.1 By the end of the essay, however, this commonsense perspective has shifted. If it is hard to say what good Aboriginal art is, or to set out any determinate criteria by which it might be defined, it is still possible to say what bad Aboriginal art is. Or, at least, if we cannot actually provide determinate criteria for it either, this judgement is nevertheless made all the time. As Michaels explains:
In practice it is probably easier, and more common, to identify a work of art as bad than to explain why another is good . Current criticism certainly does a better job of ruling out possibilities than specifying the 'rules beyond rules ' fantasised by [philosophers like] Lyotard and Rogozinski. In arriving at such a rejection again and again, the critic always risks confronting chaos, staring directly down the maw of the primordial dark. We seek strategies to plug that gap, to obscure that sight with various critical inventions: the Sublime (or divine) , rules beyond rules , Benjamin's 'aura'. In doing so, criticism seeks to supersede art itself (161).
In fact, we might begin to think this distinction between good and bad Aboriginal art another way, one which might explain why every determinate judgement of it can only see it as bad . We might say that, insofar as we judge Aboriginal art at all, it can only be as bad, as an inferior copy of something else; and that it is only in not being judged, in the deferral or postponement of judgement, that it can possibly be good. Or, as we shall see, insofar as it is not so much the art as the one who judges who is judged, we might say that it is the judgement of
Aboriginal art itself that is bad and the deferral or postponement of this judgement-a deferral that cannot last forever; every 'good' judgement is only a bad judgement about to happen-that is good. This certainly appears to be the somewhat surprising lesson to be drawn from the conclusion to Michaels' essay: 'Good Aboriginal art, as well as criticism, must indeed "appeal to the assent of the other" and does not seek to convince. Judgement of the product must always-ultimately-be exposed as fraud ' (162).
Here we might ask, what kind of law is it for we all know that Aboriginal 'aesthetics', if that is the right word for it, always involves a question of the law-according to which every actual judgement means that something is bad or guilty, but which we cannot state in any positive sense? Or, to put this another way, in which we are spared the verdict of guilty only insofar as judgement is deferred? In which good judgement or the deferral of judgement is a matter of passing judgement over to the 'assent of the other', making them in turn responsible? Of course, the truly uncanny thing about that Aboriginal law Michaels begins to discern in 'Bad Aboriginal Art', and undoubtedly the reason it has not been noted by its numerous commentators, is that it resembles nothing more than that concept of the law first given literary expression by Franz Kafka. It defines a universe where we are condemned in advance without knowing why; in which we are never definitively spared but our only hope is a stay of execution ; in which our fate rests in the hands of another. This Kafkaesque conception of the law - another peculiar touch - is arguably given its definitive formulation by Gilles Deleuze in the course of an exposition of lmmanuel Kant's Second Critique , the Critique of Practical Reason. Outlining Kant's notion of the 'categorical imperative' or moral law, Deleuze writes (and the point here would be to compare this to that particular form of Aboriginal law Michaels seeks to elaborate in 'Bad Aboriginal Art'):
The law is no longer regarded as dependent on the Good, but, on the contrary, the Good itself is made to depend on the law. This means that the law no longer has its foundation in some higher principle from which it would derive its authority, but that it is self-grounded and valid solely by virtue of its own form ... Clearly THE LAW, as defined by its pure form , without substance or object or any determination whatsoever, is such that no one knows nor can know what it is. It operates without making itself known. It defines a realm of transgression where one is already guilty, and where one oversteps the bounds without knowing what they are.2
In this essay, we would like to think about this law with regard to those objects Michaels considers in part in 'Bad Aboriginal Art' and in more detail in another essay , 'Western Desert Sandpainting and Postmodernism': the famous Yuendumu Doors, which were recently exhibited at the Queensland State Library as part of a national tour. These Doors, along with developments in nearby Papunya a decade earlier, could be said to constitute one of the 'mystical origins ' of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement. It is perhaps the artists from Papunya and Yuendumu-at least until the arrival of a number of female artists from Utopia- who more than any other have given us our popular image of 'tribal' Aboriginal art. We only have to think of the work of Michael Nelson Jagamara and Clifford Possum Japaljarri from Papunya and Larry Jungarrayi Spencer and Paddy Japaljarri Sims from Yuendumu to realise how much the art from these two places has provided Australia with an identity, not only for those of us living here but also for others overseas. (And all that we are about to say in what follows concerning the connection between Aboriginal art and the law could be thought through very closely in terms of debates which recently took place in Australia over the redrafting of the preamble to the Constitution and the question of how to acknowledge the prior 'occupation' of the land by Aborigines.)
Michaels' essay 'Western Desert Sandpainting and Postmodernism' is an unsurpassable source of information on the Doors. He begins by pointing out that they were in fact painted at the suggestion of a white teacher at the local Yuendumu school, Terry Davis, as a way of making the school look less 'European' and more 'indigenous' (48). This was to stop the school being vandalised and graffitied upon, an endemic problem given the foreignness of the white educational experience in remote Aboriginal communities. For the senior Warlpiri men who actually executed the paintings, however, their motives were considerably different. In the catalogue for which Michaels' essay was originally commissioned, testimony is collected from a number of them. One of the participating artists, Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, makes it clear that for the senior men of the tribe the Doors were painted to keep alive custodial law: 'We painted these Dreamings on the school doors because the children should learn about our law. The children do not know it and they might become like white people, which we do not want to happen' .3 These school doors, then, were painted with a number of designated Dreamings: Crow, Possum and Dawn Dreaming for the Manual Training Room; Woman and Wedge- Tailed Eagle Dreaming for the Language Centre; and Possum and Native Cat and Honey Ant and Mulga Worm Dreamings for the Art Rooms.4 These Dreamings are given a brief iconographic analysis in the exhibition, so that we can say, for instance, of Crow, Possum and Dawn Dreaming that the roundels are desert oaks and the black stick-like marks are crow prints. These are obviously preliminary attempts to decode the designs so that they might offer up their secrets to us.
It is easy to think here - and, remember, they were the first permanent art works made by the Warlpiri-that these Doors are pure ethnographic artefacts, uninfluenced by the fact that they were to be seen by a Western audience. But from the beginning of his essay-and this is precisely its radical aspect - Michaels argues against this. Firstly, he considers the role of the white art advisors, who either initiated or supervised the painting of the designs. (The schoolteacher Davis here plays a role analogous to that of Geoff Bardon in Papunya.) Paradoxically, he says that the influence of these advisors is all the stronger the more they try to recall the artists to their 'traditional' styles. He writes : '[Bardon] denies any justification for imposing his own aesthetics ("I was always conscious that I must not intrude my own opinions about colours, methods or subject matter"); but such contradictory evidence of "traditionalism" is striking' (153). But, secondly and more profoundly, Michaels insists on the hybrid nature of these objects, even in the absence of evidence of intervention on the part of these advisors, on the basis of the materials out of which they are made. The very fact that they are now painted on a stable surface instead of sand, using modern acrylic colours between which the artist can choose, breaks with that properly transubstan tialist notion of the medium (that the red ochre we see in the painting is the same as the object painted) Michaels says characterises primitive art (57, 154). As he argues: '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, at least one irreducible source of influence persists: materials' (153).
This is the 'postmodern' aspect of Western Desert painting. Although ideally - or perhaps as a way of salving our conscience - we would like to believe that these Doors come from a long unbroken cultural tradition , they do not operate like this at all. They are from the beginning caught up in a complex inter-relationship with the West, we might say with the 'other': 'Because these designs claim sources in a religious iconography, a "cult ritual" (satisfying Benjamin's definition of "aura"), it may somehow be imagined that they carry intact from the "primitive" (Dreamtime) some exemption from the modern/postmodern condition ... But such claims require also an exemption from recognizing the relations and conditions of their own historical (and not prehistorical) construction' (161 ). It is for this reason that Michaels is able to claim, against the weight of anthropological and artistic opinion, which would insist on the inaccessibility of these Dreamings to the uninitiated, that these Doors do speak to him, and speak to him in an 'unmediated' way (59). Or this at least appears to be the upshot of the extraordinary conclusion to the essay, where Michaels argues that Aboriginal art manages to convey 'some authentic vision beyond the cultural and linguistic specificity of the iconic and semiotic codes employed in its construction' (59); and where, under the influence of this art, he experiences an epiphany in which he travels through the desert landscape as though at the dawn of time. It is as though here he could somehow go back to that origin from which the law derives, or as though he could discover this origin somewhere inside himself:
I played a game, and told myself that this was a new continent, that these hills were mountains just beginning to grow, that the mulga and spinifex were the first steps toward a forest, that time would build this landscape up, not wear it down (59).
But is this literal re-experiencing or re-imagining of the Dreamtime only a kind of Schwarmerei, an indiscriminate if well-meaning attempt at universalism, as though one could literally become an Aborigine, which would in the end only be to appropriate them, dispossess them once again? Indeed, wouldn't this universalism be precisely to go against that 'postmodernism' Michaels claims for these Doors, the problem of the disappearance of any transcendental origin and the difficulty of obtaining consensus - of ever knowing whether we have convinced the other-raised by Lyotard and Rogozinski? Wouldn’t this, if it is a matter of some original 'authority' in the paintings, be to mistake it for 'authenticity', a literal originality, in the very confusion Michaels elsewhere condemns (161)? In order to try to answer these questions, let us go back to that moment in 'Western Desert Sandpainting and Postmodernism' where Michaels develops this distinction between 'authority' and 'authenticity', which he takes up later in 'Bad Aboriginal Art'. Michaels discusses it there in relation to a passage from Jean Baudrillard's essay 'Gesture and Signature: Semiurgy in Contemporary Art', where Baudrillard speaks of premodern art and the way it is always a copy of some transcendent origin. Baudrillard writes:
In a world that is a reflection of an order (that of God, of Nature, or, more simply, of discourse) in which all things are representative, endowed with meaning and transparent to the language that describes them, artistic 'creation' proposes only to describe ... The oeuvre wishes to be the perpetual commentary of a given text, and all copies that take their inspiration from it are justified as the multiplied reflection of an order whose original is in any case transcendent.
At first sight, this appears to be how Michaels characterises Aboriginal art, where also there is no need for the artist's signature, which modern art requires in the absence of this transcendental instance. Rather, for Aboriginal art, 'authority is determined with reference to the adequacy with which the original text is explicated ' (58), that is , God or Nature as revealed in the Dreamings. In this sense, nothing seems less modern, let alone postmodern, than the way Michaels understands Aboriginal art. He appears to contradict himself. And yet, it is just at this point that things start to get complicated, the distinction between the premodern and the postmodern begins to blur. First of all , as Michaels suggests, Baudrillard in this passage is not so much interested in 'primitive' art as in using it to anticipate a postmodern critique of the modernist notion of originality (145) . In fact, modern art does not really go beyond the primitive', merely substituting the transcendent author's name, as manifested by their signature, for the once-transcendent God or Nature. By contrast, postmodern art seeks to return us to the 'authorless' art of the premodern, only this time the object it wants to describe is neither transcendent nor immanent but 'differential', an originality or subjectivity demonstrated by its serial reproduction, a 'pure gesture marking an absence'.6 Secondly, as Michaels proposes from the opposite direction, it is perhaps true that postmodern art, for all of its attack upon the notion of values, rules, consensus, still does not entirely do away with the possibility of the transcendental or universal. But if there is to be such a transcendental or universal, it must be found another way, one consistent with the 'multiple, tautological and self-referential' (58) nature of the modernist series, which forms the absolute horizon within which art must be conceptualized today.
But how, we might ask, in our first attempt to think this affinity between the premodern and the postmodern, can that object we are seeking to describe be proved by a 'pure gesture marking an absence'? Or, in our second attempt, how is the universal to be captured by the 'multiple, tautological and self-referential'? In what ways, that is, is Aboriginal art postmodern? For it is finally this equivalence that Michaels sees at stake in Aboriginal art in general and the Yuendumu Doors in particular. And, in order to clarify this, we need to look at Michaels' two essays on the topic again in more detail. How is it exactly that Michaels characterises the Aboriginal society that produced these Yuendumu Doors? How are those stories or laws or Dreamings that constitute their subject matter transmitted? As Michaels is quick to point out, the content of these paintings is in fact secret, known only to initiates: 'These meanings are complex, implicit, even restricted. To understand them, one would need to be a full member of a particular Warlpiri kin group, initiated and competent in the stories of these paintings' (50). Attempts simply to decipher them are thus not sufficient: 'Increased aesthetic sophistication or treatises in art criticism provide no substitute. These only reduce the mystery and the terror of the ambiguous so that the European observer is able to construct a readable text. The confrontation with the image is reduced to an exercise in cryptography' (50). Indeed, Michaels goes even further-evidence again of his great intellectual daring-in claiming that perhaps no one, not even Aborigines themselves, is ever entirely able to know these Dreamings, to 'master' them from some neutral, objective, constative point of view. That is, we can never grasp them from the outside, as something we could definitively explain to another. Rather, this knowledge is always caught up in a 'reciprocal relation ' (50), in which, obviously, not only do we not know something until another has told us, but also in a sense we do not know it until we have passed it on to another; or at least part of what it means to know is the obligation to pass it on to another. Knowledge, that is, only exists in the relationship between ourselves and another; or we might even say that in a precise psychoanalytic sense these Dreamings can be known by no one because they are unconscious, which is not at all to be mistaken for something that is simply hidden or repressed within an individual but is always intersubjective.
It is undoubtedly for these reasons that the Aboriginal law underlying something like the Yuendumu Doors is so hard to explain rationally; and it is this that accounts too for what we have called its 'Kafkaesque ' quality. For instance, Michaels notes that the art based on this law cannot be 'plagiarised' or forged , but only stolen or 'thieved ' via the unauthorized reproduction of a design (144). And yet, trying to determine what actually constitutes such thievery or appropriation is very difficult. On the one hand, Michaels admits, following the observations of Bardon at Papunya, that occasionally even senior artists make the 'mistake' (151 ) - a word he uses in inverted commas - of reproducing an unauthorised design. On the other, it seems that a forgery adequately executed, when circulated widely enough, may no longer be a forgery (144)- and Michaels even details an incident where he for practice made up his own 'Dreaming', which was then taken up and completed by Aboriginal artists and subsequently offered for sale (158). Is this just a matter, as with so much contemporary art, of the uncertainty of a work's value being part of that value, in a gesture familiar to us perhaps since Duchamp (143)? Is Aboriginal art trapped in the circular and futile game of camp, in which the viewer is only meant to recognise this as a problem for interpretation and stop there? Might the 'postmodern' quality of the work lie in the fact that it is somehow about these issues of value and interpretation? Is this what Michaels means by speaking of the 'self-referential' qualities of the modernist (let us say, postmodernist) series, that it can reflect upon itself like this?
Let us go back to that particular mode of knowledge Aboriginal art seems to imply. It is a law where to see or hear a certain design or song means that one is in a reciprocal relationship with another, that one is indebted - and indebted first of all to pass it on to another. And it is where we can only know this law by passing it on to another, where there is no distinction between knowing and doing. (it is perhaps for this reason that one of the Aboriginal artists in 'Bad Aboriginal Art' can say: 'Aborigines don't practice' (151 ). In such a system, as Lyotard and Rogozinski put it, knowledge is always in a sense an 'appeal to the assent of the other'. Put simply, we don't know what we know until another knows - and this is why we are able to argue that no single person can know all of the Dreamings; that not only is there no origin for them but also no final authority, no definitive judgement as to the correctness of their application. This is why, with Aboriginal art, not only is all of the art 'bad', but there is always the possibility of a reprieve; we are always able to 'challenge in turn the prerogative of others to make these judgements' (151 ).7 And, notably, in a little observed strategy of Michaels' own text, this uncertainty is played out in his work too. That is, Michaels' own writings, for all their air of intellectual daring and provocation, do not simply assert their arguments nor even resort to empirical evidence (hence his distance from conventional anthropology), but instead rely upon the 'assent of the other'. For instance, in 'Western Desert Sandpainting and Postmodernism', after wondering whether Aboriginal art truly has a secret or not --- whether it constitutes a real mystery or is merely a form of obscurantism Michaels finally leaves this as a 'difficult judgement to assign to the viewer' (56). Or, at the end of the same essay, after relating that vision in which he sees Aboriginal art directly communicating with him, he says: 'The reader is invited to determine if the authenticity of their knowledge is demonstrated here' (60).
But if this origin to knowledge is always lost or deferred, if it lies with the one who tells us or whom we tell, then in a certain sense we can never be sure whether we know or not. Knowledge is always a kind of working assumption. On the one hand, the status of such knowledge is performative, not known until one acts upon it; it is the narrator who takes responsibility for a knowledge that does not exist before them. On the other hand, there is no ultimate source of knowledge; it is always for us to decide. It is this that again accounts for the uncanny status of the Aboriginal Dreamings, why they are so hard for Western societies to comprehend, so easy to denounce as fraudulent. For there is no individual-even the senior man of the tribe -- who is authorised to speak of them all. There is always another who has told him or through whom he speaks. He is only the intermediary for a prior knowledge or is only able to communicate through another. And yet, at the same time, he also appears as the holder of the secret himself; esoteric knowledge exists in him unmediated. He is the very embodiment of the Aboriginal mystery, a sublime figure or fetish himself. And this same ambiguity applies to all those who talk about Aboriginal art. At once, they know nothing, are endlessly distant from the real sources of meaning, which can never be explained to them by any exercise of iconography or decoding. And yet, as Michaels suggests, insofar as Aboriginal art can be seen to be communicating to us -- and he says it can be -- then this knowledge is already in us, also unmediated. To see it at all is to be involved in an 'exchange in which one must reciprocate' (52) -- and perhaps in a way we have already done so. We become the source ourselves-as Michaels now is, insofar as he can ask his readers whether he has authority or not.
What kind of law is this, finally? It is one in which no one can say what it is, and which is at once before us and after us, of which we are the effect and which is only an effect of us. It is one in which no one can be sure whether they are following it or not, which the senior men of a tribe can break and an uninitiated white man like Michaels obey. It is one in which all determinate judgements can only see things as failing, which we can observe only insofar as judgement is deferred, left to the 'assent of the other'. Is this law exclusively Aboriginal, or, as Michaels suggests, for all its singularity (both interms of individuals having to follow it without guidance and it applying only to Warlpiri) is it 'universal'? And, indeed, might not this 'universality' –– the fact that it seeks to convince, to gain the 'assent of the other' –– be the very basis of law, of all laws? In fact, we do have a way of thinking this law in Western terms. It is, of course, that form of the law discussed by Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason -- a form also given memorable expression by Michaels in his description of Aboriginal art and the law embodied within it as a 'meaningfulness without meaning’ (56) . As is well known, for Kant the form such law must take is an empty form .It does not say anything specific or determinate. It does not tell us what to do in any particular situation, for that would always turn out to be self-interested, merely the reflection of our desires, 'pathological', to use Kant's word, too fused with the individual, empirical conditions of the subject, who in a sense is unable to see beyond their own horizon to say what is 'good ' –– or, this 'good ' being the very problem, the 'moral'. Rather, this moral law, if empty of content, is judged by its form, which must be universalisable. The well-known examples of this provided by Kant are the injunctions against telling lies and the keeping of another's property. These must be true because their denial would be self contradictory. Because we would want them to apply to others, they must apply to us as well. And because they can thus be generalised without contradiction, they should be. We have to try to do so because their form implicitly demands it. The moral law always takes the form: 'You can because you must!' ('Du kannst, denn du solst!)
But, of course, we might ask here: what use is this moral law if it does not push us in any particular direction, if it does not offer us any determinate rule by which to judge our own and others' conduct? And, perhaps more to the point, why does this still not fall prey to the accusations Kant made of other moral systems, namely, that we will always end up determining this 'empty' moral law according to our own preexisting prejudices and beliefs, fill it up with our own idiosyncratic content? (This is the criticism Hegel is usually understood to be making of it.) But, indeed, this failure might be just Kant's point. Kant's moral law is not simply some empty universal content –– something like shared human values –– that awaits realisation in any potential circumstance. Nor is it even some abstract moral imperative that tells us we should act against our own self-interest, so that we can excuse ourselves by saying we were only doing our duty. Rather, Kant's point is that this universal is empty and can only be turned into a set of norms or values by an act of deliberate self positing. In this sense, there is no abstract universal law, but such a law is always specifically, pathologically determined. However, its very being empty like this forces us to take responsibility for giving it its determinate content. And it is in this way that the 'universal' moral law does distance us from the particularity of our own situation, prevent us from seeing it as a mere reflection of ourselves. For it forces us to examine the fundamental assumption we have made to become who we are, the way the moral law is essentially grounded in its own act of enunciation. Again, the point to be made here is that we should not confuse this law with some terrorizing superego that tells us from the outside what to do. It is not some 'higher' voice of conscience. As Lacan would say, this is paradoxically to soften its true transcendence by thinking of it as simply other and therefore unknowable. Rather, in its pure tautology, 'Your duty is to do your duty!', we have the emptiness of true transcendence –– which we might paraphrase by saying that the 'big Other does not exist' –– but at the same time this transcendence corresponds to us. As Slavoj Zizek notes, the correct Hegelian point of all of this is that: 'This absolute transcendence coincides with pure immanence. The moral law qua pure transcendence is no longer an entity that exists independently of its relationship to us: it is nothing but its relationship to us (the moral subject) '.10
It is at this point that we return –– after a long detour –– to those two questions we originally put to Michaels' reading of the Yuendumu Doors. What is that strange object in them that is neither transcendent nor immanent but proved only by a 'pure gesture marking an absence'? How is it that the 'multiple, tautological and self-referential' quality of the modernist (we might say postmodernist) series is able to evoke a kind of 'universality'? Put simply, in both cases, how are these culturally specific expressions of Aboriginal culture able to speak to Michaels? How is he able to claim, against all current doxa, that they 'communicate to him directly, unmediated, their history and meaning'? How can he say 'unmediated' when the life experience of those Warlpiri men who painted them is so different from his own, and where even they are only the guardians or intermediaries of the Dreamings depicted there? Wouldn't this Aboriginal law be forever unknowable to us? Wouldn't we look at these paintings and not grasp a thing? To return to that connection we have made before, wouldn't they be something like that 'Door of the Law' we find in Kafka: transcendent, impenetrable, other worldly, that which we could stand in front of our whole lives without anything happening? (This is certainly the way they are presented in the catalogue accompanying their exhibition at the State Library of Queensland: there they are described as doors onto another landscape-doors to which 'others hold the keys' .11) Let us, then, to conclude here, repeat those famous words which end Kafka's 'Before the Law'. They are the words of the Gate-Keeper to the petitioner from the country, who has waited before the Doors all his life, waiting for them to open to allow him entry: 'No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since the door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it' 12
Now, as we say, the usual reading of this passage is that the law is at last denied the petitioner, that he dies without ever finding out what lies behind the Door. Or it is as though, within the labyrinthine set up of the various Law Courts in Kafka's The Trial, that even if we could open this Door there would always be another behind it, and so on ad infinitum. But perhaps we might reverse all this, and suggest that what the Gate-Keeper's final words mean is that there is in fact no secret behind the Door, that the transcendent unknowable law only functions insofar as the petitioner remains in front of it, that the whole apparatus of the Door and its Keeper is only a lure designed to capture his interest. That is, what must be grasped here is how the subject's position exterior to the other is already part of the other, how the very feature that seems to 'exclude the subject from the other is already a 'reflexive determination' of the other; precisely as excluded from the other, we are already part of its game' 13 Or, to put this back into Michaels' terms, it might be in this sense that these paintings want to communicate with us; that we, having seen them, are already in a relationship with them in which we must 'reciprocate' and perhaps already have. But, as Kant makes clear, the fact that this law is now ours is in a way only an effect of our 'assumption' of it and does not at all mean that it is simply a reflection of us and our desires. We still stand in front of the Doors faced with the insoluble question of what they want- Che vuoi? In a manner that eludes any 'philosophical reflection'14, we nevertheless remain responsible for them. We are bound in an unbreakable reciprocal relationship with those who told us, just as they are in turn with those who told them. This perhaps is the Dreaming.15
Perhaps too this is the secret of all paintings, the 'law' behind all of its secret doors. Standing in front of the Yuendumu Doors, we cannot help thinking of all those other doors throughout the history of art, from Ghiberti's doors for the Baptistery of Florence, which commission he won by depicting one of the great 'origins' of Christian law, the Biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son lsaac; the door of the church at the vanishing point of Perugino's Handing over of the Keys to St Peter, through which the spectator would notionally enter the picture; the mystical black squares of Kasimir Malevich; the Judaic zips of Barnett Newman; the 'Gates' series of the great New Zealand religious painter Colin McCahon; even the Duchampian doors of Etant donnes and 11 rue Larrey, the latter of which simultaneously has to close two entrances, always leaving one open ... But the work, strangely enough, that these Yuendumu Doors most remind us of is one by the English Conceptual artist Mel Ramsden, Secret Painting, in which a simple black monochrome is mounted on a wall next to the words: 'The content of this painting is invisible; the exact character and dimensions of this content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist' . In fact, the work we might even more specifically think of is lmants Tillers' remake of this as Secret Painting/Red Square, in which he substitutes for Ramsden's black canvas monochrome an ochre red enamel tile, the emblematic colour of the Australian outback and an undoubted allusion to the 'secret' of Aboriginal painting. What we would say of Secret Painting is that, like Kafka's parable, there is in a way no secret there until we put one there. The true mystery and troubling nature of the work is not that its secret is 'known only to the artist' –– that in the end is comforting, just as it is ultimately to 'gentrify' the other to see it as a tyrannical superego –– but that it is known only to us. It is we who put the secret there –– or, better, as Lacan insists with his notion of the 'gaze', the secret of the painting is us. This is the true 'moral law' of painting, and why we might say that every painting is a painting of the law.16
1. Eric Michaels, 'Bad Aboriginal Art', in Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons, Alien & Unwin, Sydney, 1994, p.142. All further references to this book will be in brackets within the main text.
2. Gilles Deleuze, 'Coldness and Cruelty', in Masochism, George Braziller, New York, pp. 72, 73. See also Gilles Deleuze, Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, The Athlone Press, London, pp. x-xi.
3. Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, in Kuruwarri- Yuendumu Doors, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1987, p. 3.
4. It has been suggested that, at least according to one orientation of the ground plan, the door featuring Dawn Dreaming is at the entrance to the school, thus suggesting a kind of self-conscious awareness of narrative structure. And, indeed, it would be very interesting for somebody with the requisite knowledge to try to determine whether there is any match between specific Dreamings and the various functions of the school rooms.
5. Jean Baudrillard, 'Gesture and Signature : Semiurgy in Contemporary Art', in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Telos Press, St Louis, 1981 , p. 103. Cited Michaels, pp. 58, 145.
6. Baudrillard, ibid, p. 108. Our point here will be how much Baudrillard's postmodern questioning-but not dismissal- of modernism's claims for the subject's originality resembles both that model of 'differential' subjectivity we see in the Yuendumu Doors and that pure, empty 'gesture' that founds the Kantian categorical imperative. The passage from Baudrillard reads in full : 'And here we have the truth of our modern art [a postmodern truth, we might say): if it bears witness to our time, it does so neither by direct allusion nor even in its pure gesture denying a systematised world-it is in testifying to the systematic of this full world by means of the inverse and homologous systematic of its empty gesture, a pure gesture marking an absence'. The whole question of time in Baudrillard's notion of the series, the Aboriginal Dreamtime and Kant's ethics would also be of great interest here.
7. We return at this point to the remarks we made at the beginning of this essay concerning the way that, with regard to Aboriginal art, to judge (let us say, to compare to European art) is bad, and not to judge (not to compare) is good. And yet, of course, as we say, if judgement is deferred, if we are always able to contest any particular judgement, in another way we have already judged; this 'good' judgement is always a bad judgement yet to come. All this might be thought through in terms of Jacques Derrida's essay 'Force of Law: The "Mystical Foundation of Authority"', and the relationship he speaks of there between law and justice. The 'undecidable'- we might say, the deferral or postponement of decision- is the only thing that is just; and yet this justice has no force unless a decision is made on the basis of it, which will always fall short of this justice, is unjust (' Force of Law: The "Mystical Foundation of Authority "', in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, Routledge, New York, 1992, esp. p. 24). Another of Derrida's essays on a similar theme, 'Before the Law', would also be very useful in thinking that paradoxical distance from and proximity to Aboriginal law, the way all of us, even Aborigines, are mediated with regard to this law, and yet this law is already in us ('Before the Law', in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, Routledge, London, t992, esp. 204).
8. We are tempted here to risk the analogy, insofar as both involve the question of form- 'meaningfulness without meaning'- between Kant's Second Critique and his Third, where there too in interpreting a work of art it is at once a matter of making an assumption and then thinking that assumption. This is indeed the analogy Slavoj Zizek makes: 'The concrete formulation of a determinate ethical obligation has the structure of an aesthetic judgement, that is, of a judgement by means of which, instead of simply applying a universal category to a particular object or subsuming this object under an already-given universal determination, I as it were invent its universal-necessary, obligatory dimension, and thereby elevate this particular-contingent object (act) to the dignity of the ethical Thing' (The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters, Verso,
London, 1996, p. 169). And on this question of 'assumption' in aesthetics, see also Samuel Weber, 'Ambivalence: The Humanities and the Study of Literature', in Institution and Interpretation, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p. 150. As Weber's essay makes clear, and as we see in Aboriginal art, it is always a matter of the 'aesthetic' origin of the law and the 'legal/ethical' origin of aesthetics, if this is not also to speak of the loss of origin of each.
9. Zizek, ibid, p. 171 .
10. I bid, pp. 171 ' 172.
11 . The Yuendumu Doors, South Australian Museum, Adelaide, 1999, p. 29.
12. Franz Kafka, 'Before the Law', in Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979, p. 129. Just as it is interesting to read Waiter Benjamin's The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov' (Illuminations, Schocken Books, New York, 1968) in relation to Kafka, it might be just as interesting to read it in terms of the 'oral' economy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime.
13. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, London, 1989, p. 66.
14. Ibid, p. 66.
15. Zizek precedes his analysis of Kafka's 'Before the Law' by relating the well-known joke about the Jew who is asked the secret (which is assumed to be privy to those of his faith) of how to make money. His answer: 'I will, but first give me some money'. He then begins to tell his secret, but stops half way through to ask for some more money. This goes on for some time, before the man realises that he is just making up his story. 'There is no secret at all, you rascal I You just want to take all my money from me!' 'Ah, well, now you see how we Jews ... ' (!bid, 64). All of this, of course, could be applied to Aborigines, who in Australia occupy the discursive position of the 'Jew', the 'sublime object of ideology'. And this is why all the recent scandals concerning the authorship of Aboriginal art, the artists' frank admission that they paint for money, etc., will not destroy confidence in the market for their work but only strengthen it. After all, people will reason, if the 'secret' of Aboriginal art seems not to be given away even in these circumstances ... All of this might be thought of in terms of that 'obscene' supplement to the law- its officially sanctioned transgression- that in fact keeps it going. And particularly interesting in this regard is the Doors' relationship to (illegal) graffiti. As we know, the Doors were originally painted to stop the graffiti-ing and vandalisation of the Yuendumu school, and the Doors themselves have subsequently been graffitied upon. Michaels in 'Bad Aboriginal Art' makes a brilliant connection between the mystical, sublime nature of the Doors and this obscene public graffiti in refusing to distinguish between them (159-60). Put simply, not only is the original statement of the law always unfounded and illegal, but it also relies upon a certain infraction or 'badness' in order to continue. This is why it is a crucial museological decision of the new holders of the Doors, the South Australian Museum, to remove most of the graffiti from the Doors before touring them-although we do find an extremely interesting example, 'Keep Out !', on the back side of Door 3, Two Men Dreaming. In a sense, all we are trying to do here with Michaels is to look at these Doors from this reverse side, to see them coming from an obscene, conflicted present rather than from an ahistorical, mythical past –– or to see the two as inseparable, the front and the back of the Door at the same time.
16. To begin to think the ethical consequences of the fact that it is us who put the secret into the painting or that the secret in the painting is us, we might refer to perhaps the most famous debate concerning non-European, 'ethnographic' art practices: that between William Rubin and Thomas McEvilley over the show 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984 (Artforum, November 1984; February, May, 1985). Briefly, Rubin wanted to trace a series of analogies between European modernism and a number of indigenous tribal traditions (what anthropologists call an etic approach). McEvilley for his part criticised him for doing so, arguing that tribal art is not simply to be translated into Western terms, but must first of all be understood in its own context (the emic approach). The same debates, as we all know, have occurred in Australia over Aboriginal art. Now, of course, there are problems with over-hasty analogies and transpositions from one culture to another. McEvilley is right. But what strikes us as wrong about the other attitude, and ultimately as more offensive than the first? It is that, for all its apparent modesty and taking into account of the other, it is even more authoritarian, as though it can declare itself as that 'empty point' from which the biases of all other cultures, including its own, can be analysed. In fact, there is no neutral position; we are already in a relationship with the other. There is no way of seeing this other in its own terms; any attempt to do so would always be revealed as Western. If the first, etic approach, in which we seek to make the other a form of the same, is what we might call Imaginary, and the second, which attempts to speak of the relationship between the same and the other, is Symbolic, then the Real is the fact that there is no outside position, that when we think we are speaking of the other we are only speaking of ourselves. It is this Real that no one can speak for, that is always left out so that the other always ends up being a reflection of us. But this Real thereby excluded is not some 'reality' out there before our attempt to speak of it. It is only what allows us to say that every attempt to speak of the other fails, reveals itself as Western. In Kantian terms, it is like that empty form of the moral law that means we always fall short of our duty. And we can see these three ethical positions in the work of that great historian of Aboriginal-white relations Henry Reynolds. In his first books, Aborigines are in the position of the Imaginary (The Other Side of the Frontiel); they then occupy the Symbolic (Frontier, The Law of the Land); and finally they are thought of in terms of an ex-timite Real (This Whispering in Our Hearts; the intellectual autobiography Why Weren't We Told?)