Monday, October 29, 2012

Aesthetic Re-creation & Outsider Art.

"Archaeological research is blind and empty without aesthetic re-creation and aesthetic re-creation is irrational and often misguided without archaeological research. But, 'leaning against one another' these two can support the 'system that makes sense,' that is, an historical synopsis." - Erwin Panofsky

Leslie Dawn's National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s examines the history of the Group of Seven's reception in Europe and the ensuing quest, by Eric Brown and Marius Barbeau, to reterritorialize Canada. The process necessitated the need to either erase the Native presence or frame it within a narrative of decomposition that would pave the way for the settler races to claim the country as their own. Dawn takes the resistance of the Gitxsan in British Columbia as a further test case of the failure of the strategy.

The unmentionable problem with peoples such as the Gitxsan in the first decades of the twentieth century lay in the fact that they were still in possession of precisely those things that Canada lacked and thus needed if it was to proclaim its nationhood - that is, ancient traditions and deep ties to their territories, a common language, ceremonies, and social structures as well as dance, costumes, literature, mythology, monumental sculpture, a separate and unique economy, and so on. The Gitxsan lacked only landscape painting, which became for Canada the sole measure of national unity. (Dawn, 316)

The two parent countries of Canada – England and France – were in a period of attempted cultural homogenization. With both of their empires crumbling, they had to salvage what was left (they're still trying). As Dawn observes, Canada was out to solidify its existence and the arts, for that brief period, played a significant role in the attempt to articulate the public nature of what the country was or would be. Eric Brown of the National Gallery of Canada regarded this as his sworn duty. An Englishman of dubious talent and knowledge, but marked by an evangelical Christian vigour, he "attempted to solidify a new national image but, in the end, disrupted it." (4) Working with the anthropologist and folklorist Marius Barbeau, they created (often in conflict with one another) a series of shows, books and initiatives that would set out the narrative for Canadian art.

The wilderness gave off the glow of the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

In the attempt to prove that Canada actually was more than a trading post for slaughtered animals and cleared forests, Brown finagled his way into two shows in Europe, hoping for recognition of the value of the allegedly unique Canadian art he was cultivating.

Picturesque Canada

One of the fundamental claims made on behalf of the Group by their advocates was that they were autochthonous. Their specific modernity lay in their intimacy with the territory and their separation from European art. In the Wembley Exhibition in England that announced them to Europe, this was precisely how they were marketed and largely how they were read. However, this incident also pointed to the fact that, for what was supposedly a brand new aesthetic, they were already 'fully legible in England' (33) and this, Dawn points out, was because their work was built on formal recapitulations that were in keeping with imperial style. Dawn rehearses the history of (Anglo) landscape art in Canada since the eighteenth century to point out the continuity. In England, the picturesque developed with the dispossession by the peasantry of the land and its reterritorialization as tourist space by the new urban classes. In Canada, because the economic and class structure of the country was substantially different (far more than Dawn drives home), this led to a kind of 'hybridity'. While this obviously complicates the continuity of the picturesque, Dawn still insists on its continuity, with or without apparently minor differentiation, and avoids facing the many problems that arose in the deployment of the form over the previous century.[1] Since the Group were cast, quite explicitly by their proponents, as a counter to the picturesque (read: Euro-aesthetics), Dawn suggests that what they did wound up being a 'caricature' (42) of the genre's cliches which led to 'complex and entangled hybrids, cobbled together' (47). He suggests that this sense of parody resulted in excessive, often violent colouration that had more in common with advertising and move toward a 'fracture' (48) within the picturesque. He could have pushed the formal considerations this raises further, but then stops himself and reverts to analyze all of their works from the norms of the picturesque. Arguably, many members of the Group themselves remained on the genre's margins and didn't get any further. Dawn even states, "Harris limited his innovations to those that highlight what the picturesque rejected rather than moving on to something else entirely. In this sense, he paradoxically stayed within its bounds." (48) Strangely, he never goes into the many things this violence done to imperial aesthetics could signify, but insists again on continuity.

Canadian West Coast Art exhibition at NGC (1927)

While the English had no problem taking the Canadian painting in precisely the way they'd been prompted to by the exhibition essays, the show that went to Paris was complicated by the inclusion of a quotient of paintings by James Wilson Morrice (at the insistence of the show's reluctant French hosts) and a contingent of small work by Native artists. To the horror of Eric Brown, and numerous members of the Group, the French essentially ignored all of the Anglo-art on display and concentrated on the others, which had been curated as a kind of frame for them. The indifference and rejection which they received was a 'traumatic failure' (58) whose deliberate erasure from art history Dawn goes to some lengths to document. Without a picturesque prejudice to guide them, Dawn argues, French critics couldn't see much in the Group. They basically looked like a bunch of folk artists from the sticks. Indeed, they were described as 'naif', 'brut' and 'primitive'. These terms had numerous connotations, none of which were part of what the Canadian state wanted its official art to be tangled with. One of the show's catalogue essays, by Thiebault-Sisson, incorporated Morrice completely into European Modernist art (which the NGC had rigorously marginalized in its purchasing policies (see 72)) and excluded the Group of Seven from Modernist art tout court. Instead, he argued that they were a seed for a future art that had not yet come into fruition.

Being official outsider artists.

Hearing that the new Canadian art was essentially so infantile that it was 'unborn' wasn't the kind of recognition that was sought, if 'recognition' is the right word. However, this reaction does go some way to suggest that there was something new or, at the very least, abnormal at play. Other critics were less generous. The lengthy publicity campaign launched back in Canada by the Group's supporters to make them look like 'outcasts' had come back to haunt them. Not only did mainstream Modernism in Europe reject them as Modernists, they essentially saw them as what would become known, in the derisive sense, as 'outsider art'. (84-85) While art of the mentally ill and isolated peasants would have some cachet for the avant-garde, it didn't go over well with the establishment. "Even as naifs, then, the Canadian artists failed." (86) However, the kind of 'primitivism' on display with the Native art in the exhibition had the complete opposite impact. It was readily accepted, made easily legible by Continental Modernist prejudices and cleanly delineated enough to have a sense of sophisticated aesthetic appeal and exotic charm. The Natives seemed cosmopolitan, the Anglos like backwoods hicks. Strangely, I would suggest, it is this failure on the international scene that marks the Group's most impressive success. For while most primitivism (from Picasso to the aesthetic misapprehension of anthropological artifacts) was readily institutionalized and sucked into the narrative of the triumph of Western progress, the Group stood out as an abortion.


What the show in France did, more than anything, was to demonstrate that Native art had a viable place within Modernist art, as art rather than simply as artifacts. It had ready market cachet. The use of Native artwork and styles derived from them had already been advocated for some time by Harlan Smith, who had insisted that it could be readily appropriated as a means for corporations to brand themselves as authentically Canadian. Dawn doesn't pay much attention to the irony in this. He does point to the fact that the Canadian government, unlike the Americans, were seemingly unwilling to exploit Native culture in the same way. There was a great deal of money that could have been made by using Native works, and the Natives themselves, as tourist attractions for festivities like "Indian Days" and at the Calgary Stampede. In fact, many local governments and businesses turned their back on the law for a chance to do just this. However, Dawn goes to lengths to demonstrate how much this persistence of Native culture in the midst of expansive capitalism was actively suppressed and, through potlach bans and other means, part of a systematic attempt at erasure. The issue of why Canada was so intent on domination by exclusion rather than through inclusion, as was to a larger degree the case to the south, is broached in a way that causes further problems. Likewise, the fact that some Native groups actively took part in the capitalist reterritorialization of their culture remains largely unexamined.

Gitxan pole raising

Where the book succeeds most is in re-characterizing the nature of the Group and the National Gallery (all in line with much recent writing on the subject, from Scott Watson to Lynda Jessup etc). But where it fails is to push this to its logical end. Instead, it hedges its bets too much, backs off with a sense of moral superiority and then never completes the arguments it opened with. In other words, it's a very Canadian kind of intellectual abortion.

Duck and Rabbit.

This is one of the stranger things that emerges in Dawn's narrative. There is a general opposition set up, in unsubtle moral terms, between the empty landscape (sometimes glossed as a 'background', but one which rarely has figures) and the figure, whether it is a portrait or a totem pole (in any case, the 'background' is essentially removed or completely diffused). This isn't a problem unique to Dawn. Going back at least until W.T.J. Mitchell's Landscape And Power, the insistence on the colonial significance of the landscape has become a dogma for many art historians. This in spite of the fact that portraiture (and even abstraction), to a far greater and less genuinely ambiguous extent than landscape, is really the ultimate imperial genre. The face is the space of domination. However, the problem which it introduces about the nature and limits of subjectivity and empathic relations has the capacity to cause severe problems for the ethical critique which is presupposed in the imperial landscape hypothesis.


The primary formal crux of his arguments hinges on the notion that the picturesque landscape, as Dawn understands it, needs to be distinguished from the portrait. He goes furthest in this direction by contrasting W. Langdon Kihn and A.Y. Jackson. (Notably, he marginalizes Edwin Holgate whose work was an uncomfortable middle-ground between the two but which is actually the dominant visual presence in "The Downfall Of Temlaham.") While it is quite blatant that Kihn's work transforms his subjects into the image of bourgeois exoticism, this doesn't receive approbation. In Kihn, they are levelled into fashion icons; in Jackson, they just become elements of the landscape. Dawn refers to the latter strategy as exploiting them as a 'natural resource', but, on the face of it, that's exactly what the American and Kihn's project were doing as well.


Kihn, working for the railroads and their urbanizing and tourist agenda, was "drawn into the program to create a critical, aesthetic, and commercial framework that would validate the current and future contributions of ongoing Native arts and tradition, to an American identity." (127) But what does this mean? For Dawn it translates as continuity and this he reads in Kihn's ambiguous, decontextualized portraits, which allow the Native to be historically mobile and individualized. However, as he doesn't say, this also reduces them to the kind of figuration you would have found in advertising (which is where Kihn did much of his work) and that this is less of a 'dislocation' than a way of reterritorializing them within the flux of capital. It is a space without background: just a figure and their fashions. And it is this space which Dawn identifies as 'the modern' (137), the threshold of which the Group couldn't pass.


One of the other problems for the imperialist landscape hypothesis is that it didn't float so well in two of the three imperial centres Dawn discusses. Neither France nor America relied entirely on the picturesque and didn't have much of an issue with assimilating primitive works into their aesthetics as mediators for colonial expansion. In fact, their retention was crucial. Though this would change in coming decades when the American schematic was more or less embraced, Canada was unique in choking on it. Then again, the art elites of the country were choking on everything, in particular the Modernist art which showed, to use a much debated term, 'an affinity' to primitivism. The aversion in Canada was as much to the French and American as to the Native (and institutionally so into the 1960s) and was predicated less on the sense of any of them as an Other, than on the (sometimes fearful) sense that there was no such thing. Brown and the boys in Ottawa wanted the Natives to disappear precisely because it was unclear whether or not Canada had ever appeared at all. Strangely enough, in light of this, Dawn seems to counter Canadian Modernism precisely with a privileging of the problematic dialectic of generic imperial Modernism. Things get murky. And so they should, because it's entirely unclear whether the ontological framework that could make such an argument valid really existed here.
Boccioni and Carr

The problem in Canada, unlike in Europe, was not an issue of the primitive and its coalescence with the modern. Rather, it was clearly demonstrated in Paris that these things were indifferent to one another. Brown et al promptly assimilated them to one another. Couldn't it have been that they, on some level, felt that the Natives were too modern, or to use one of Brown's favored epithets, 'Futurists'? Such a possibility is testified to by Emily Carr's quite explicit borrowings from Futurist aesthetics and her transposition of many of their notions of volume and space onto Native territories in a way which was uncannily appropriate (that is, it was harmonic, it didn't crack and leak the way the more hybrid landscapes from the 19th and early 20th century did). In this respect, Carr, unlike the Group but much like Barbeau, really was a Modernist, at least in the terms that her work realized that "...the final contradiction or aporia is this: no anthropological remorse, aesthetic elevation, or redemptive exhibition can correct or compensate this loss because they are all implicated in it." (Foster, 61)


The history as Dawn lays it out quite neatly fits into René Girard's model of mimetic rivalry (both between the white artists and their parent nations and between the whites and the Natives), but he mysteriously resists all attempts at implying much psychological content. Instead, there is something eerily empty in his bloodless portrayal of bureaucratic manoeuvring. Even Brown's never subtle Christian Science utopianism is scarcely mentioned. Things are tidied up in a tight, reductive and utilitarian ontological schema that constantly truncates everything. However, what he manages to do with this rhetoric is to invert the more generic account of events. The Group are rendered as exotic, alien and in the midst of producing a dissolving culture while the Natives come across as utterly banal and acutely conservative.

One of the oddest things about the book is the lack of any critical symmetry. Dawn scarcely explains or analyzes the significance or function of the totem poles or any other Native art. And although he writes constantly of 'continuity', he never articulates what that actually means in terms of their own culture or to the 'art world' to which they belonged. Nor does he speak to the way they changed with contact, the significance of Barbeau's misinterpretation of their post-contact reality as economic emblems or genocidal markers and to the gross ambiguity of what 'disappearance' was actually used to signify, both in terms of Native culture and the settler culture which interpenetrated it. And in this he, quite unintentionally, repeats the exclusion of their perspective which the book so bemoans. Nor does it offer a tangible picture of the state of Native resistance in Canada at the time and the degree to which the Gitxsan diverged from it. Delineated with extraordinary vagueness, they take on the symbolic quality of a 'living culture' in distinction to the apparently aborted one that the Group were attempting to launch. It is predominately in this sense of 'living' that Dawn most takes umbrage with Barbeau's obsession with culture as a kind of morbidity. Although it seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that this is, if only on an unintentional level, Barbeau's strength: the insistence on Canada as a territory of divergent cultures, each of which exists as a kind of singularity which is sterilized by the others and preserved as a fossil. While Barbeau quite bluntly flirts with this, he would never be willing to articulate it in such a manner.


It's not a dialectic that was at play in these cultural skirmishes, but a metamorphoses in almost Ovidian terms. Space against duration. In effect, there was all ground. The foregrounding never came about. The paintings of the Group scarcely registered in Europe because they lacked the easy empathic markers. Instead, they were a kind of botched reterritorialization. Denying both their European past and their part as settlers, the whites (Anglo and Franco) had dissolved themselves. It wasn't otherness that they were experiencing in contact with the Natives, but the violence of elemental life where any force of disequilibrium to the barely articulated organism was experienced as a kind of potential dissolution. The self, or the figure as such, hadn't actually come into play. That pole of the schema didn't exist. It isn't just that placing them and their work in a dialectical position mistakes the real complexity of the situation, fitting them into an easy readymade narrative which takes for a given precisely what is absent, it's that it makes the whole thing seem far less psychotic than it was. Brown's obsessive Christian Scientism, Harris' intense Theosophy and Carr's Christian mysticism all testify on the personal level to a desperate attempt to create solidity and escape from a sense of imminent dissolution. Although the pragmatic value of an empty, therefore exploitable, landscape has been endless reiterated, it's almost always overlooked that this was a profoundly misanthropic gesture, disavowed and moralized. The deathly quality of the landscape – where Thompson quite literally did die – wasn't lost on anyone, but it was carefully sacralized. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Brown was so horrified when the brutality of a 'depopulated' landscape would be illustrated by Nash during the war. The obsession with founding "The Good" that was so essential to Brown and others was predicated on the insistence that the Modern was almost fundamentally evil, while what was "Good" was not only Absolute but absolutely impersonal.

On a purely formal level (by which I mean functionally if not in terms of topographic redundancy), and what's more, an ideological one, they shared at least as much in common with the Flemish Weltlandschaft tradition as the picturesque, only now minus a people. They were, as some critics at the time observed, essentially apocalyptic images. This is would be made even more explicit in the marginal, and therefore necessarily excluded, in the semi-populated landscapes of Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn. But this attempt at death and rebirth, like most aspects of cultural production in Canada, was aborted.


Settler Canadians (whatever their ethnicity) have a problem with possession. When they come to make the nation, they are faced with the fact that as citizens of this nation, who bind their identity to the land, they are simultaneously alien. With no stream of ancestors and no ancient volk to call upon, a different myth had to be created. The substantive difference between early and late twentieth century Canadian art was a shift from a kind of tourism of the land to a tourism of subjectivities.

Monkman, Miss America

Institutional multiculturalism has recast everyone as native. With everyone welcomed in equally, the history of the territory is flattened and the entire population is aboriginalized while negating actual history and overcoating it in a series of readily commodifiable 'identities'. While this had a more idealistic bent in the time of Barbeau, by the Trudeau and Mulroney eras it had become either more cynical or simply more naked. An ethno-fetishistic consumerism, or to use Jonaitis and Glass' term 'ethnokitsch'. This line of development, though hinted at in the opening of Dawn's book as the outcome of what he discusses (though he avoids the downside), is never followed through. However, something approximating it was also introduced in a recent exhibition by Kent Monkman.
"Miss America" shown at Centre Space and Pierre-François Ouellette is Monkman's re-imagining (read: reterritorialization) of the America section of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's "The Four Continents." A Mayan temple (recalling the much marketed apocalypse promised for the year) sits beside the remains of the World Trade Centre. One the edge of the emptied landscape surrounding them, people of various and mingled ethnicities group together. They are all types, some of them archetypes, some stereotypes, some just the type of people who are captured in newspaper articles everyday. A railroad runs past them with toxic waste spilling behind it and a great turtle emerges from the edge of the land. The tree at the centre has become anthropomorphized and pulls away from the land, literally deterritorializing. This whole fantasy of colonialism, rife with deliberate ambiguity and contradiction, mocks the capacity for interpretation. After all, how soberly can you speak of an image with a beaver holding an AK at the centre? This is a dissolving of colonial history into myth, one which excludes the negative and sets itself up as an absolute positivity.

What's surprising about it is how much it plays into the myth of Canada (and perhaps not quite as perversely or subversively as the exhibition essay suggests). After all, the empty landscape fantasy that is so often alluded to in Canadian art history was only a stage for an apocalyptic fantasy intended to lead precisely to a generalized 'indiginization' or the rise of an autochthonous life form (although not, suffice it to say, the way that Monkman imagines it). His aesthetics – the parody of European styles, the use of advertising imagery and colouration, the hybridizing of forms and the mythical re-imagining of history – are all completely in keeping with what Dawn persuasively argued that the Group were doing (consciously or not). There are differences of course, but they're no greater than those between nineteenth century picturesque painting and the Group of Seven. The difference is a question of humour, of farce as revenge. One an apocalyptic fantasy about rebirth, the other of the apocalyptic dimension of excessive overproduction. The use of the parody in Monkman has the same uncanny function, and as Freud suggested, the dividing line between the uncanny and the humourous is almost impossible to delineate.

Monkman, Descent Into Amnesia

The current quasi-Hegelian model holding sway in cultural studies tends to ground Canadian art in its global or multicultural quality, mirroring that of international capitalism and enslaving itself in a dialectic it pretends to take a radical or critical position in. In this regard, Monkman's counterpart to "Miss America" was a painting called "Descent Into Amnesia." In it, Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase" appears on the edge of a cliff, spotted by a group of Natives in a generically picturesque setting. The amnesia presumably is the colonial past which Monkman skewers, right to the conflation of the modern and the primitive. But the work itself, which takes Duchamp's superimposing of different perspectives and crystallizations of time in a fundamentally different direction, is less a criticism than a functional continuance of the Dada tradition. But unlike the utopian kind of nonsense (I don't intend the term derisively) in "Miss America," there's something far more sardonic here. Or is there? Isn't the collapsing of historical singularities in his work recouping more than it's criticizing?

What the Canadian Modernism of the early twentieth century sought was the escape from history. What Monkman, like so many of his contemporaries, does is history as farce. "If colonialism takes power in the name of history, it repeatedly exercises its authority through the figures of farce." (Bhaba, 129) And while it is generic, as exemplified in the press the Monkman show received and its catalogue essays, to play this out in terms of a revamping of historical dialectic, privileging the subversive or transgressive 'interruption', it needs to be reiterated that this actually perpetuates the functioning of the thing being ridiculed.

The Brown era National Gallery sought to define Canada along an essentially turn of the century nationalist model with a relatively hostile relationship to internationalism and its art world (market). It was, in a real and strategic (if certainly not doctrinaire or intentional) way, basically Schopenhauerian. Barbeau, the Group and their associates, it can well be argued, were as much fantasizing about the death of European culture as anything else. The extremity of this was necessarily transposed on different matters for more pragmatic goals. In the failure of this rose a systematic, state and corporate sponsored reproduction of the supposedly dead (Native culture), and the perpetual reiteration of an abortion that still seems to haunt Canadian art.

Leslie Dawn's National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s is available from UBC Press.

[1]One of the other notable absences in the work is a detailed look at the substantial body of painting of Native subjects previous to the twentieth century, as well as the intimate relationship between these works and the history of landscape art in the country.  

Selected Bibliography 

Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass. The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre ; Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2010.

Barbeau, Marius. The Downfall of Temlaham. Edmonton Alta.: Hurtig, 1973.

Bhaba, Homi. Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse. October, Vol. 28, Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring, 1984).

Foster, Hal. The "Primitive" Unconscious of Modern Art. October, Vol. 34 (Autumn, 1985).

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Jessup, Lynda. Antimodernism and Artistic Experience: Policing the Boundaries of Modernity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

O'Brian, John, and Peter White. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.

Ord, Douglas. The National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.

McKay, Marylin J. Picturing the land: Narrating Territories in Canadian Landscape Art, 1500-1950. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011.

Mitchell, W J. T. Landscape and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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