Book Review: Revisiting Revisionism

Rex Butler’s Radical Revisionism

In 1996, two publications marked Rex Butler as a major new voice in Australian art criticism. The first, An Uncertain Smile, proceeded from an ambitious series of lectures delivered the previous year at Artspace in Sydney, with Butler taking a microscope and, on more than one occasion, a carefully concealed sword to Australia’s most renowned art journal of the 1980s, Art & Text, and its writers past and present. This was generational change with a capital C, precociously delivered in a program that bore more than a passing resemblance to the great Collège de France lecture series in Paris (where figures such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault had set the intellectual world ablaze during the 1970s), and which ultimately championed a brave, perverse mix of neo-modernist art and postmodern discourse as the way out of the long 1980s and its dependence on ‘French Theory’.

The second publication was an anthology of essays penned, for the most part, in the 1980s and edited by Butler to form What is Appropriation?. The book, and particularly Butler’s extraordinary introductory essay, quickly became a staple of contemporary art courses throughout Australia. Its odd, circuitous logic—that artistic appropriations not only transformed copies into originals and originals into copies, but that this strategy of inversion was uniquely Antipodal or quintessentially Australian—played wonderful havoc for quick-witted students at their keyboards, eager to be reminded that writing still mattered despite the gradual demise of Art & Text, and that such vitality could still emerge in, of all places, Australia.

Now, over a decade later, Butler has added yet more feathers to his cap (as an internationally renowned scholar of Jean Baudrillard’s and Slavoj Žižek’s writings), while What is Appropriation? has undergone that rarest of phenomena for texts on Australian art and criticism: renewed life in a second edition. The book’s success has since been pushed even further with the publication in 2005 of Radical Revisionism, a new anthology of writings on Australian art that is, Butler claims, ‘the continuation of and conclusion to… What is Appropriation?’.1 Despite the earlier compendium’s significance for local art history, however, the response to Radical Revisionism has been remarkably quiet, limited to a few passing references in other writers’ work and a withering criticism in Art Monthly Australia by the Sydney-based academic, Susan Best.2 The question to ask, then, is whether Radical Revisionism deserves such relative neglect, or should it more rightly be placed alongside What is Appropriation? in terms of quality as well as chronology.

If my answer to the first question is a resounding ‘no’, my response to the second is a more ambivalent ‘not quite’, due mainly to the rather arch ways that Butler has conceived the effects of appropriation after the 1980s. These, he argues, registered most clearly in the practices of art writers anxious to show off their cross-cultural credentials by re-examining past Australian art through a postcolonial prism. This was ‘the true consequence of appropriation’, Butler says, a discourse that should more accurately be called ‘revisionism’ rather than ‘postcolonialism’ given the ways that writers in the 1990s frequently saw ‘the artists of the past already responding to such matters as the fictionality of national identity, the unjustifiability of the doctrine of terra nullius and the rights of women’ (p.9). What Butler is claiming, in other words, is that Australian art writing from the 1990s can be understood as an appropriation of the appropriative strategies developed by artists such as Imants Tillers, Richard Dunn and other figures from the so-called ‘Popist generation’ of the early 1980s. Where Popist appropriation showed that art’s meaning lay not in artistic intention but in its reception by audiences and in contexts different from the ‘original’ artist’s own, so later writers emphasised the significance of past art according to its reception in the present. And where the Popists believed these conditions of copying and reception to be peculiarly ‘Australian’—due to Australia’s geographical distance from art’s North Atlantic centres, and thus its reliance on photographic reproductions and other forms of hearsay rather than encounters with an ‘original’—so art’s revisionist reception could offer a new understanding of ‘Australia’ as based not only on racism, war and Indigenous dispossession, but on how historical artists potentially responded to those conditions through self-reflexive ethics.

Radical Revisionism is thus more than a mere repetition of the core thesis of What is Appropriation? Appropriation developed a circular logic between originals and copies that focused on geography but had temporal ramifications: once copied, can an original ever be considered in isolation from its copy, as we might have done ‘originally’, or can it now only be seen in terms of its copy, as a copy of its own copy, such that the copy precedes the original and memory inverts chronology? Revisionism’s circularity, by contrast, is predominantly temporal with geo-cultural ramifications: by reviewing the past in light of the postcolonial, and particularly politics of Aboriginality, this ‘logic of history is seen as peculiarly Australian’, Butler argues. ‘For just as Australian appropriation artists were more post-modern than others, so Australian revisionist artists are post-colonial before others’ (p.12). Moreover, this revisionist logic is one that, according to Butler, can be identified—however unexpectedly—in one of the pivotal documents of an Australian art history: Bernard Smith’s remarkable monograph European Vision and the South Pacific, published in 1960. Revisionism is consequently both Butler’s subject of analysis and his modus operandi: if it is something Butler perceives in Australian art writing of the 1990s, it is also something he performs in addressing that writing and its historical foundations.

The collection of essays follows this dual function, presenting abridged (sometimes extremely abridged) versions of other writers’ articles and chapters. The first section of Radical Revisionism, titled ‘Impossible Beginnings’, draws the reader from European Vision, through its subsequent critiques by Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether and Ann Stephen (in their co-authored book The Necessity of Australian Art, 1988) and Peter Beilharz (Imagining the Antipodes, 1997), into a new interview between Butler and Bernard Smith. Here, Butler seeks Smith’s approbation for his revisionist take on European Vision, only to be rebuffed—however unexpectedly—at nearly every turn. Other ‘impossible beginnings’ include Paul Carter’s reframing of local histories through mythopoeia (defined, at pages 80 and 83, as ‘a poetic reconceptualisation of what might constitute historical narrative and its logic… [by] dramatising the ideological foundations of chronologies themselves’), Djon Mundine and Brenda L. Croft’s creation of Aboriginal memorials, and a commissioned (though somewhat misplaced) essay by Anne Gray on art and Anzac legends. Mirroring Carter’s mythopoeic discourse, Butler refuses explicitly to champion one particular way of ‘beginning’ to understand Australian art’s histories. At the same time, however, this performed mythopoeia is clearly supportive of Carter’s drama of deconstruction, such that other kinds of revisionism—and particularly the counter-memories presented by Mundine and Croft—are implicitly critiqued as still too stable a form of revisionism, too ideological or mythical in themselves, and thus not ‘sufficiently’ self-reflexive to be a ‘viable’ account of history. Given Mundine and Croft are the only Indigenous writers included in the book, such implications not only ignore the breadth of Indigenous critiques of Australian art history during and since the 1990s, but risk being as problematic as some of the intellectual histories that the book tries to revise.

The second section (titled ‘History Backwards’) follows What is Appropriation? more closely, in that it presents a selection of presumably key essays from the 1990s, interspersed with commissioned texts that re-evaluate certain movements (such as the Heidelberg School, in Juliette Peers’s review), aesthetic politics (Catriona Moore’s analysis of feminism and Margaret Preston) and writers (Toni Ross’s response to Ian McLean on Gordon Bennett). Some of these essays are superb: Chris McAuliffe’s historicist approach to John Brack’s paintings of 1950s’ suburbia, for example, remains one of the best articles in recent years on Australian art (though its inclusion in a book predominantly about race- or gender-based revisions is, perhaps, unclear). Other essays do not quite attain the same heights as McAuliffe’s, however, suggesting Butler’s selections to be less rigorous or carefully honed here than in the earlier anthology.

This apparent fault with the text can be considered in a different or inverse way, of course, as another example of mythopoeia in action, with the variations in the essays’ quality reflecting (and, indeed, emphasising) the diversity of their narratives. Radical Revisionism is clearly not intended to work as cohesively or snugly as What is Appropriation? Its success instead thrives on the tensions and debates circulating between these many revisionisms—or, in Butler’s own words, on ‘thinking the circularity between them’ (p.15)—for what is properly at stake in this book is less what is written than what lies hidden between the lines, caught in the tensions between arguments rather than expressed in the essays per se. What is therefore significant for Butler is not just the circularity between past and present that is the hallmark of revisionism, but the void around which revisionism circulates and which it cannot possibly grasp. This is quintessential Butler: a difficult mix of Louis Marin and Slavoj Žižek, as well as Paul Carter and Keith Broadfoot, that is full of outrageous potential (readers of his 2002 book, A Secret History of Australian Art, will be particularly familiar with, or discomfited by, this trope). It is also, Butler argues, what ‘Australia’ actually is: ‘not so much anything that can be seen as the very decision to look’ (p.18), as he claims in his (over-) reading of Julia Ciccarone’s painting, Birth of the Australian (1996); an ‘Aboriginality’ that is always disavowed in the very attempt to speak through it; a split and multiple subject that both eludes and irritates thinking. (This last point may also help to explain Butler’s repeated self-reference not as an ‘I’ but through a royal ‘we’ that is multiple, elusive and, yes, ultimately irritating.)

Most importantly, though, this void reveals another circularity at play within revisionism and which is its greatest limitation. For if postcolonial critics sought to rethink art’s histories so as to account for Australia’s violent past—Butler goes much further by saying that Australia’s (generally white) critics were self-serving in ‘seek[ing] to “redeem” their past by speaking of its injustice’ (p.25)—then revisionism and its ethics could only emerge because of this injustice, not in spite of it. In other words, revisionism and injustice, past and continuing, are indissociable, the one requiring the other to survive; or, as Butler argues at page 26, ‘revisionism is part of the very problem it analyses, is possible only because of the injustice that it seeks to remedy’.

This is an exceptionally courageous and compelling argument, and the real strength of this book. Yet it is also a limitation that Butler’s approach, in the end, does little to dispel. If revisionism is indeed a white critics’ conundrum, then what can one (can we, can I) learn by listening to the perspectives of other critics—Hetti Perkins, Marcia Langton, Donna Leslie, to name a few—rather than excluding them? If Butler does indeed seek ‘to “revise” this revisionism by thinking what is left out of this construction of Australia as forever re-inscribable, transformable, empty’ (as he claims at page 27), then is he suggesting that he is in that impossible space somewhere outside this conundrum, above and beyond the critics he critiques? Does he thereby present an injustice of his own, one directed toward the critics in his book, whose essays cannot perhaps be read except in terms of the introduction that precedes them? And what of that other aspect of art criticism in the 1990s that, though voided here, was also crucial to postcolonial discourses and their re-evaluation of the national: namely, the practices of artists and writers who had recently migrated to Australia, such as Ah Xian or Simryn Gill, for whom the questions Butler poses were perhaps never the right questions to ask? As Butler suggests toward his introduction’s close, these may be more appropriate concerns for another kind of art history, an ‘Unaustralian’ art history tethered to local and global concerns rather than bounded by national borders. If this is correct—and I, much like Butler, think it is—then Radical Revisionism may not be the conclusion it was intended to be, but another potential beginning.

notes: 

notes
1. Rex Butler, ‘Introduction’, in Rex Butler (ed.), Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art (Brisbane: IMA Publishing, 2005), p.7. Page references to all further quotations from this introductory essay will be included in parentheses in the text.
2. Susan Best, ‘Relativism and its Discontents’, Art Monthly Australia, 196 (December 2006–February 2007), pp.11–12. I have also considered Radical Revisionism briefly, as a calculated response to the xenophobic, neo-colonial rhetoric prevalent in Australia under former Prime Minister, John Howard: see Anthony Gardner, ‘Art in the Face of Fame: Ricky Swallow’s Reflection of Reputation’, Reading Room, 1 (2007), pp.60-79.

Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art. Editor: Rex Butler
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2005.
308 pp. $45 www.ima.org.au