Andrew Paul Wood – 12 April, 2017
I remain slightly wary of the possible applied, deterministic, therapeutic interpretation of reparative aesthetics and suspect those in the paranoid-critical boat will inevitably react negatively to the categorisation. Be that as it may, Best clearly offers us a new analytical tool for talking about art that attempts to come to terms with the difficult, contested past through a constructive relationship with a fraught and fragile present - and this very much needs to have a role in the New Zealand discourse.
Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography
Softcover, 232 pages, 52 b/w illustrations
ISBN 9781472529862 RRP $41.99
From the outset, let me just say this is a brilliant book. Susan Best‘s Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography starts from the premise that art offers a way of breaking free of the culturalised psychology of shame as described by psychologist Silvan Tomkins - ignominy that is self-reflexive and resulting in evasion and a breaking of contact (unlike guilt, which is self-acknowledged) - and of acknowledging “anti-intentionalism,” the critical stance that emphasises what the artwork means rather than what the artist means. Basically, the involuntary, unconscious message one receives from a work of art may be more important than the conscious one intended.
Shame is a blade with two edges - there is shame as directed at Kyriarchy, as productive or unproductive as that might be, and there’s shame as experienced by those who live with marginalisation (right wing conservatives often unfairly characterise this as a “culture of victimhood”), combining historical trauma, society pressures on the subaltern, and survivor guilt. At its most basic interpretation, both sides are held back from détente by their burdens of unaddressed shame. In many ways this is just building on Marxist “false consciousness“, which on this side of the millennium can come across as a tad condescending.
Putting aside the obvious problems of a middle class, white, Australian academic (as Best is conscious of) involving themselves in the politics of how artists (particularly minorities) should be witness to oppressive hegemony, and noting that the four woman artists discussed, for all that they are from the “global south” (as North Americans are wont to other it), are still successful international art-worlders operating in recognisably Western art practices, Best is taking some creaky old liberal and romantic tropes and refashioning them into something quite radical and new - a genuine avant-garde after the homogenising swarm of postmodernism, and rooted in psychology at a time when Deleuze has made that deeply unfashionable. In its way it’s potentially as game changing as Rosalind Krauss’ expanded field.
The four photographers are Anne Ferran (Australia), Fiona Pardington (New Zealand), Rosângela Rennó (Brazil) and Milagros de la Torre (Peru). The inclusion of Pardington immediately flags Best’s theoretical framework as of interest to New Zealand’s “postcolonial” (“late colonial” might be more accurate) contemporary art context, and it is tempting to play a game of who goes in the paranoid-critical box and who goes in the reparative aesthetics one (or indeed, both). Hic sunt dracones because the ethics of doing so have yet to be fully explored. Best doesn’t really go into this beyond acknowledging that creating conflict or passing judgement isn’t her intention, but even so, that’s quite a hand grenade to lob into this contested field while not addressing this in detail, particularly where someone might treat it as a manifesto.
Best situates her text, “at the juncture of four emerging areas of scholarship: contemporary art practice concerned with traumatic, disturbing and shameful events; the recasting of the viewer as witness in response to this art of real events; debates about the cultural significance of affect, guilt and shame; and the reconsideration of the importance of aesthetics [or a rejection of modernist anti-aesthetics] for political art.”
Witnessing, in this sense, is not a new concept. It exists across cultures, but in the Western context primarily has its origins in Judaism and then Christianity, then spread by Cross and Sword throughout the colonised world, manifesting diversely from Evangelical Christianity to the civil rights movement to Holocaust literature, and Best makes a lot of use of Holocaust theorists, particularly in outlining what she calls “witnessing fever” - the idea that these sources can induce trauma second hand, leading to further self-identification, perpetuating culturalised shame and attendant subjective, hyper-emotive paranoid-critical worldview and passive-aggressive defensiveness of a post-trauma disorder (which, I should stress, is a perfectly understandable response to colonisation, abuse, violence and genocide). I would, though, caution, that one size doesn’t always fit all.
Best’s highlighting of aesthetics is an interesting point: “This book aims to connect the art historical study of political art with a rethinking of aesthetics, and in particular with affect theory, which has revivified the traditional aesthetic category of feeling.” Affect theory is usually attributed to Tomkins, and organises subjectively experienced emotions into categories with involuntary physiological and neuro-deterministic responses that take place before the conscious mind can even process the response.
The idea is that this may therapeutically maximise positive responses and minimise negative responses, and Best sees art having a function in that as it relates to bridge building in cultures under pressure (“social conditioning” in the bogey-parlance of paranoid-critical tighty righties). I was a bit sceptical, especially since Alain de Botton has pimped the whole reductive “art gallery as self-help” thing ad nauseam, but then this was probably a hangover of romantic “art pour art” on my part. Also I would suggest that “feeling”, as defined by aesthetics, has happily wiggled its thorax in art since pop rehabilitated sentimentality as an authentic existential response.
Best sites this emergent approach in the 1990s with reference to Hal Foster’s essay “An Archival Impulse” (2004), which explores the rise of archival art that seeks to retrieve and represent “alternative knowledge” (a variant on James Clifford’s ye olde “salvage paradigm“) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick‘s notion of reparative reading of culture as a counter to a one characterised by “paranoid suspicion is central to critical practice in the humanities and that it is propelled by the desire on the part of theorists and critics to avoid surprise, shame and humiliation.”
It must be emphasised that Best is merely observing what she sees as an emerging trend, rather than advocating for anything. It is her assertion that by and large this paranoia has become synonymous with political art - not that this makes such art “bad” per se - but it asks some really interesting questions about the imagined audience and the effectiveness of the statement. Is it just preaching to the choir? Does it offer a platform for social teleology (admittedly an idea bound up in white liberalism; elsewhere mileage may vary)? If you have in your mind that social progress is a deterministic and dialectical process, you could be forgiven for wondering if such art is a cul-de-sac. There is also the muddy ground of the difference between seeking knowledge, secondary witnessing, and participating in spectacle, an issue at the heart of the recent furore over Dana Schutz‘s painting of murdered black youth Emmett Till at this year’s Whitney Biennial - intention versus affect.
Things become clearer in relation to the exemplar artists themselves, and the main way that seems to be visualised is through addressing the past with an ambiguity where there is clearly a syntax to the image, but the key remains tantalisingly out of reach. Perhaps there is an echo of psychodrama here, with the photograph as the stage.
In the case of Australian Anne Ferran‘s 2008 Lost to Worlds body of work - 36 large digital prints on aluminium, depicting the trace remains of a 19th century House of Correction (slave labour) for female convicts in the small rural Tasmanian town of Ross - is absence. As Best notes, the history of (default male) convict settlement is well documented. There are a few exceptions, but where there isn’t a dramatic story to hang it on, the day-to-day horrors of female convicts are largely unknown and often erased. Ferran’s images are a kind of visual archaeology of anti-sites, cataloguing the geographical locations of sites associated with this forgotten history where there are, perhaps only one or two stones to mark the place.
With Fiona Pardington‘s 2010 The Pressure of Sunlight Falling, I am on more familiar territory. Here the ambiguity is the tendency of photography and the focus is on Pardington’s indigeneity as Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāti Waewae in an officially bicultural “postcolonial” state. The Pressure of Sunlight Falling consists of heroically-scaled photographs of 51 phrenological busts made from casts of the heads of various Pacific peoples during Dumont d’Urville’s 1837-1840 Pacific voyages.
Best writes that this “is not used to shame the western viewer for the racist practices of the past [a bit of a fudge of Pardington’s Scottish Pākehā side, but let that pass]. Instead she reinvigorates the possibilities of identity politics by making deeply moving and arrestingly beautiful photographs that show a path beyond the insular self-expression invoked by the affective turn. In this way, she shows that the anti-aesthetic position that opposes beauty being mixed with political ideas is unequivocally refused by Pardington’s work.”
Yes, but it’s a qualified yes. One might argue that Pardington was rejecting the prevailing social documentary photography as an Elam student in the early 1980s in favour of an intimate romantic pictorialism, largely out of social shyness, well before she consciously began exploring her identity as tangata whenua. Ignorance of context created by recursive layers of aesthetic distance (a white cube-sited photograph of a simulacra) is all that really protects white feelings in the audience. The white part of the audience can choose to ignore the alluded to treatment of non-whites as specimens and curiosities, the problematics of the sanctity of the head in Pacific cultures, and focus on the aesthetics. If you are aware of the context it becomes more poignant or ironic than beautiful in the way I personally experience the work. If a tree falls in the woods…
Rosângela Rennó‘s work comes directly from Brazil’s turbulent relationship with dictatorship and corruption. Many of that country’s regimes have made a habit of disappearing their political enemies. Some of her images catalogue cowlicks and tattoos in a kind of dark parody of police documentation of distinguishing marks. The 1994 Immemorial installation, first shown in that architectural ode to utopia, Brasilia, works around an incomplete grid of 50 found identification portraits, some blacked out, of government workers who killed in the construction of Brasilia, including a massacre at the workers’ barracks - some little more than children.
Milagros de la Torre takes another approach again, one that we also find in Pardington’s work - the cataloguing of otherwise non-descript objects that offer testimony to atrocity and violence.
It’s powerfully moving stuff in the same way that in Argentina the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo would protest silently in black, simply by being present. The uniting thread is the distrust and subversion of the documentary nature of photography as signifier of authority, control, power and force. As images, they are not Baudrillardian simulacra, nor do they lack a Benjaminian aura of authenticity or agency. They are very much anchored in the real, even as they subjectively interpret that reality, producing ideological responses through non-ideological means. At the same time, though, I find myself asking whether narrative ambiguity as a fig leaf doesn’t run the risk of being seen as a kind of pandering self-censoring, or a mutation of existing Kyriarchal mechanisms to muffle dissent the way “all lives matter” tried to hijack/dilute/nullify “black lives matter”.
It’s very difficult to float that out there and not appear to be passing judgement or policing a presumed “false consciousness” in political art as something not authentic. Not, I hasten to stress, that I think Best is doing this, but that criticism needs a far more emphatic heading off at the pass, especially when dealing with the marginalised (who have every right to their anger) and their witnesses. Not without irony, this is an anti-intentionalist concern.
Another minor cavil is, frankly, I would have liked to have seen a lot more artists who were creating and witnessing out of their personal experience of marginalisation rather than as secondary witnesses. Naturally this is going to be difficult given the relatively privileged nature of the art world, but I would imagine that will be the future direction of the research. We need to see how well it works outside the rather safe parameters established in the book.
Best’s thesis is intriguing and can certainly be applied widely in the study of contemporary New Zealand art. I remain slightly wary of the possible applied, deterministic, therapeutic interpretation of reparative aesthetics and suspect those in the paranoid-critical boat will inevitably react negatively to the categorisation. Be that as it may, Best clearly offers us a new analytical tool for talking about art that attempts to come to terms with the difficult, contested past through a constructive relationship with a fraught and fragile present - and this very much needs to have a role in the New Zealand discourse. It is essential reading.
Andrew Paul Wood