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The Evisceration of Theo Schoon

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Theo Schoon in Tony Fomison's Grey Lynn house in Feb 1985. Photo: Martin Rumsby.

Byrt and Simmons prefer, in sporting terms, ‘to play the man rather than the ball.' A simple accusatory noun, such as racist or copyist deployed emotively lacks the rigor we would expect from empirical investigation. Theirs is neither scholarship nor intellectualism, nor is it concerned with the possibilities of art or human life.

EyeContact Essay #30

Desire … suffices to prove that it would make no sense for life to create cowards.

- Jacques Lacan 


Of all his achievements in the arts, Theo Schoon‘s greatest may yet await us. This being the demonstration of the failure of New Zealand cultural commentators in their assessment of the artist. In 2019 alone, both Anthony Byrt and Laurence Simmons have launched lop-sided attacks on Schoon’s character. These do little more than recycle pre-existing commentaries, many of them idle, that demean the achievements of the artist and his work.

Damian Skinner’s recent biography of Theo Schoon (1) seems to have  stimulated their evisceration of Schoon. Where context and insight are called for we get instead flagrant inaccuracy and unsubstantiated allegations. Byrt and Simmons prefer, in sporting terms, ‘to play the man rather than the ball.’ A simple accusatory noun, such as racist or copyist deployed emotively lacks the rigor we would expect from empirical investigation. Theirs is neither scholarship nor intellectualism, nor is it concerned with the possibilities of art or human life.

The comfort of various staff common rooms, sabbaticals, residencies et cetera ad infinitum have so far failed to produce an energetic encounter with art equivalent to that which Schoon‘s work has given us. His achievement has far surpassed the accomplishments of New Zealand arts academia. For them, the jury is still out on Schoon. Yeah, out to a long lunch in the staff common room.

For their privileging of western over non-western cultures Schoon had earlier dismissed his professors of Art History in Rotterdam as abject provincials. In this he was correct. Are our arts academics any better? In most cases, no. As regards Theo Schoon, I recall Tony Fomison’s reply after hearing a local art historian pronounce New Zealand art as no good. “If our artists are no good, then our critics are even worse.”

I will speak here specifically of Laurence Simmons’ recent review of Skinner’s biography of Schoon (2). He raises points that I feel the need to address.

A good place to start with Schoon is to ask whether his criticisms of New Zealand art and society were correct. Based on my experiences of several cultures and their art scenes I feel compelled to affirm Schoon’s critiques. Not only for his time but also for ours. This is because despite the numerous cosmetic and unjust changes in New Zealand society over the past 30 years, our arts sector still exhibits many of the characteristics of the aristocratic nineteenth century colonial art societies it emerged from. It may offer a slicker surface but underneath, at a structural level, the old hierarchies and inequities remain the same. Indeed, today they are exacerbated.

There is a project here for contemporary artists and cultural activists: Uncomfortable art in uncomfortable spaces. Schoon most certainly was a practitioner of such.

To hear Byrt and Simmons tell it, Schoon was one sick puppy. Barely worthy of the designation human being. They make no allowance for the fallout from a life of strife and striving. For them, artistry is something one can buy on an instalment plan, like an MFA. For Schoon, it was about how one redeems such purchase.

Could a psychological assessment of Schoon be called for; an investigation which proceeds along the lines of absence, exile, loss, displacement, neglect, abuse and betrayal? None of these themes lend themselves to sentimentality and, if handled properly, would not lend themselves to the soapish operatics of hearsay and gossip that have so far surrounded Schoon. An unexamined narrative on the level of Coronation or Shortland Street chatter played on endless repeat. Of course, such complacency is easier than the type of direct encounter and insight that Schoon has already given us. (Both Schoon and Fomison informed me that artists are servants of their culture and their fellow artists).

To his profound discredit, Simmons repeats Anthony Byrt’s unfounded and unproven allegation that Schoon was a racist (3). Really? Schoon, who lived in at least four different countries, was enculturated into forms of Javanese and Balinese art and who studied western art in Europe; he who investigated and innovated within forms of Maori art, at a time when there was little interest in it and virtually no articulation of it, in the Pakeha world.

Schoon discerned a correspondence between the universalist abstractions of western modernist art and the Maori design principle. He also travelled to Asia to independently study its jade culture. These are most unusual occupations for a racist. Perhaps he was confused. On the basis of the precision of his artwork I think not. Besides, confusion is an academic occupation and Schoon was not an academic. (Simmons has something to say about this in his piece).

In his quest, Schoon chose not to prioritize the complexity of his cultural identities over his visual thinking. His was a multi-cultural outlook, one which worked from the specifics within a culture—as shown by his articulation of the Maori Koru motif onto gourds and two-dimensional artworks. He also alerted us to the idea that connections can be made between art and anthropology, just as he straddled the then divide between art and craft as well as helping to set the stage for post-colonial thinking. In these and other ways Schoon was selfless, he gave of himself and for the most part he gave his art away.

Although neither philosophically nor religiously inclined his modus operandi suggests an agreement with philosophies that posit the self as illusory. But his sense of self (and service) is something more than a metaphysical emptiness. Schoon’s is a pro-social selflessness, rooted in the pragmatic. And it was in the detachment of striving for excellence in his engagement with artistic materials and process that he could free himself from the mundane and banal of everyday life. The sheer exhilaration he felt in his encounter with rock drawings and geothermal landscapes could be measured, for him, by their distance from the quotidian world.

Theo Schoon was an outsider, someone who spoke English as a second language, a pacifist, an overt homosexual and an abstract artist in a society that was markedly resistant to any manifestation of ‘the other.’ Schoon’s mistake was that he voiced his unhappiness at the shabby way he felt he was treated in New Zealand. This is not a good place to be outspoken in. Even more so if you are a victim. Engage in such and you will not be spoken well of. They are still finding sticks to beat him with today.

Simmons also replays Byrt’s assertion that Schoon was a copyist. Where is the evidence? None whatsoever is offered. Surely, we have come far enough along the road of multi-culturalism to understand at least some of the workings of non-western art. Schoon and Fomison were able to do so, and they both left us long ago. Why is it taking so long for our commentators to catch up? Where are they and what is delaying them? Maybe it is drinks time in the staff common room.

In these two instances Simmons has merely recycled Antony Byrt’s sloppy and cowardly assessment of Schoon. A good time to recall that cowardice and sloppiness are never charges that could be laid at Schoon’s door—even at his most experimental. What Byrt calls copying is, in Schoon’s case, the workings of precise analysis; a skill our commentators would do well to acquire for themselves. Indeed, the lesson that Schoon offers our art critics and commentators is to be honest and exact. You can see this at work in his photography.

Schoon recognized a ‘patterning’ in traditional art forms and nature. To be an able practitioner within such forms one had to practice these ‘patternings.’ (It is the same for anything. Or, ‘same same,’ as they say in Vietnam). From that came the ability to innovate within the form. That was the way to ‘mastery’.

In his photography of geothermal formations, for example, Schoon’s work depicts existent objects as an abstract naturalism. This is based on a sophisticated reading of patterning in the natural world. Or, as Schoon called them, ‘nature’s finest art galleries.’ These along his research and innovation within Maori art forms offer gateways into abstraction, not just for Schoon but also for the viewer. As Tony Fomison once told me, it is more than being about aesthetics and innovation for its own sake. It is not an individual achievement but rather one from within community. In this case, a community of forms.

Pattern thinking’ emphasizes the connectedness between all things and is quite different in orientation from the abstract universalism that has characterized western thought. It is a collective or communal expression that recognizes ways of being specific to a particular time and place. Within such patterning can lie the rituals and practices of a culture. It can be an anonymous art and, in that, is the exact opposite of individualism. Or, more precisely, it is a place where individualism is defined by how an individual stands in relation to others. (I am speaking here in an east Asian sense of relational thinking rather than the western one epitomized by Byrt and Simmons).

For Schoon, the task was to recognize the highest expression of a culture—‘when it was good’—and to preserve and where possible perpetuate that high point. The psychological motivation behind such thinking was to show things at their best. What would Schoon have to sacrifice to reach his goal?

Philosophically, Schoon can be viewed as a realist artist in that he visited and documented places that existed in art and nature. But he did not document these sites in a mundane or literal way. He created signposts to these places as sites of potentiality—to which we may go in our seeing. This is a speculative form of realism; an understanding that, for the most part, transcends that of our arts academics and commentators. Such imaginative and empathetic engagement is beyond them.

What Schoon did in New Zealand was to create the possibility of hitherto unknown possibilities and to resurrect earlier possibilities that had been put into decline by the colonial project. But this threatened the normative consensus of post-war Pakeha society. He turned the page to a new chapter on how we may see the world. But rather than think about this, our commentators would prefer to talk about how he treated his cats. ‘It is not,’ they will say, ‘what Schoon said. But how he said it.’

In short, Schoon’s fidelity to his work has ultimately caused us to see and think differently, and for this he remains unforgiven. Though there is nothing to forgive. His gift cannot be assessed in trivial gossip and hearsay—anything less than a full engagement with his work merely demeans his attainment and our culture. He is unforgiven because to fairly evaluate his achievement is personally and socially disruptive, and it exceeds the perceptive capabilities of his critics. Faced with an oeuvre that eludes them they choose to disapprove of its creator. The commentators provide the public narration for this disapproval. This is closer to fascism than intellectualism.

Ultimately, the subject-points of art are works of art, not the artist. Which is probably why George Orwell insisted that no biography of him be written. It would only create confusion around the subject and devalue his ideas. This is what has happened with Theo Schoon.

Martin Rumsby

(1) Damian Skinner: Theo Schoon. A Biography. Wellington. Massey University Press, Wellington. 2018.

(2) Laurence Simmons: The Apotheosis of Theo School. Landfall: June 1, 2019. Review online.

(3) Anthony Byrt: ‘Book of the Week: That Total Asshole Theo Schoon‘. The Spinoff. February 28, 2019.

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