Axes of Difference (1984)

“Axes of Difference,” Vanguard, 13:4 (May 1984), pp. 10-14. Reprinted in Struggles with the Image: Essays in Art Criticism, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1988.

Delivered 12 February 1984 as a lecture at the Rivoli, the lecture divided the Toronto art community. The controversy, and hostility, died down until the lecture was then published as an article.

You can get a sense of the response from the letters to the editor [click here].

Click to read original publication

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Axes of Difference

Toronto is neither New York nor Germany, let alone Italy. Yet there is a desire to institute a discourse in Toronto on the order of elsewhere—on the authority of that production, legitimation and history. Differences immediately arise in that history and culture we share but on our part cannot naturally inhabit, and in the power of legitimation we both command. Theirs is the power to originate and legitimate; ours is the power, really a lack of power, to receive and repeat.

This desire to institute a discourse from elsewhere to support a local practice has to order its form—and thus its content as well—as reception. This form, the form of reception, is the condition of our art here. It is a semiotic strategy on the same order as advertising. That is, it puts itself into place and maintains itself as a manipulation of signs within an already determined system. This system comes from elsewhere, and it is disseminated under the conditions of semiosis itself. The consequences: semiotics replaces history; simulation replaces action. (When I use the term “semiotics” or “semiotic practice”, I use it simply as a descriptive term for a process, the process by which something functions as a sign: that is, in the case of art, the conditions under which images are produced and circulated and meanings constructed.)

The masters of this strategy in Toronto, of course, are General Idea. They introduced and refined it in semiotic terms as a system, as a total package, a campaign in fact, in this city. But this semiotic strategy is never far away in practice when a place receives its information, strategies and desires through images and a text mediated elsewhere: that is the role of art magazines of glossy or academic stock. (And it is the process by which the mimetic triangle of emulation and rivalry institutes itself.) Nevertheless, the influence of General Idea is still direct. Those who want to kill the father and usurp his place only internalize his laws. I think of the actions and statements of Chromazone. The copying of strategies here replaces the formation of the superego as psychoanalysis describes the process. Emulation is masked by hostility. The other side of this fixation is represented by John Bentley Mays’ elevation of General Idea and their strategies to the history of Toronto art, the contemporary history of this city merely being a playing out of an homage to this authority. In this return that painting now makes to the strategies of General Idea, the products are again secondary to the promotion, as an effect of the form of this semiotic system: the form—and that is the form of reception—is more important or determinant than the content or images. But an individual product today, i.e., painting, cannot have the consistency or coherency of General Idea’s system. (The re-materialization of the art object” was realized, after all, in the context of General Idea’s semiotic practice: FILE, 5:2, 1981.) So self-reference, which we find in General Idea, is replaced by reference to a system elsewhere. This reference will take different forms: to another place, another time, another history, another world.

This discourse is taken to be painting. Painting takes itself to be the dominant discourse best able to deal with contemporary issues. While the issue today is representation in general and across media, in a changed economy of art painters have pushed themselves to the fore, and the issues are popularly seen to be those of painting. This is promoted by painters and journalists alike, blinded by the immediate, with the forgetfulness journalism instills and painters desire for their own originality. The whole impact is a tendency to obscure recent history; while at the same time denying the possibility of a local history; of desiring attention for what is here by repeating what gathers attention elsewhere.

A discourse is being instituted by declaration—a discourse that comes from elsewhere and that changes local history. Painting was already latent here as a practice, though not as a necessity, which is why a discourse as distinct from a practice was absent. The return to painting that Toronto is following from other centres has a singular expression here. It is a lack. Elsewhere the return to painting is accompanied, through the very practice of painting, by a national history, a means, as Benjamin Buchloh has pointed out, of product protection. What is the national identity we promote and protect here through a return to painting? It is the lack of a history; and so we repeat one from elsewhere, or from Western art history, but without the grounding of history or context. This is not a postmodern condition: it is our condition. Once again, this practice operates on a semiotic level, but by choice.

What is at stake then, given that this return in Toronto either marks a genuine cultural expression and shift in art practice or on the contrary is a product of market manipulation? The irony here is that we have no market to back the claims of this return, so that divorced from its reality elsewhere this return or reproduction is a pure ideological reflex. In Toronto does this return indicate an historical development or merely a semiotic shift brought about by changing strategies for success?

If we find that it is a question of representation in and across media, and not a painting discourse alone, and not simply figuration, then it is a question of the status of the image—its practices, power and effects, which are issues of representation. I find that for us it is also a question of what is local and progressive; and that only the local can be progressive. By progressive I mean maintaining a contact with the real as that real changes. Does some art develop from a recent history of art here, our history or at least the making of a history, an art and history not transplanted from elsewhere? At the same time, is there some art that deals with issues of the real, whether in representation or not, rather than with that other simulation of history—art history and the formal semiosis and references it offers to a discourse within the security of the art gallery? I believe there is; and these lines of difference must be drawn.

Local and real: these are matters, paradoxically it may seem to some, of representation. And if representation (as distinct from ideology) can lead to an effect, representation can lead to action. So action becomes part of a concern for history—local history and the real. It is a matter of what is real for us. These matters are the real conditions of the art community and the real conditions of representation.

What are the lines of difference that must be drawn? It is not simply a line between formal or representational art and political art, or an art that delegates for itself the voice of politics. Outside of this divisive opposition, I think that there are two axes of difference in current Toronto work on representation. One is between expression and mediation, or appropriation we might call it, If we restricted ourselves to painting alone that opposition would not be completely descriptive of conditions in Toronto: we do not have an overtly expressionistic tendency as in Germany, for instance. Expression, like mediation, crosses over media: it is not restricted to painting alone. It is representation actually that is opposed to expression, not appropriation; these latter both project ideal subjects: an ideal presence; an ideal objectivity. So in fact the opposition is between representation and expression in general. The other axis of difference is between the current work by men and women in Toronto. This seems predominantly to align itself along the former axis—representation for women, expression for men, which does not mean that we will not find examples where the terms are reversed.

If the terms of the discourse have been changed to “representation” from “painting”, then it cannot be a question of the discourse of a single medium. Rather it is a question of what we might simply call content, but in the end is representation. All these works by both men and women accept a frame; but while they share forms or media, the contents are different. If these works share the same forms and conditions, what accounts for the differences? It can only be that the content, its representation and forms of technique are symptomatic; and the work can be read for these symptoms. This symptomatic approach makes the questioning more than content analysis.

Symptomatic of what? The lines of difference are not so much those between expression and mediation, men and women; they are really between a passive resignation and melancholy despair, pessimism, nihilism and decadence on the one hand and the sense of the possibility of action on the other. In other words, it is what the works lead to that is the important question. It is a matter then of how they function rather than what they mean, of what their effects are rather than how their intentions are articulated outside the work. All of this work is not overtly political in its intentions or content; its effects are since they determine what position we wish to take or are assumed to take in that world outside the work.

How do I characterize the differences between the work by men and that by women? Is it fair to create this opposition, or am I generalizing from a few select examples? There are two positions that anyone can assume outside of gender—activity and passivity might be two terms for them; but I do see them currently being filled according to gender: activity by women, passivity by men. Gender difference is not defined essentially, but socially. Women today are best prepared to deal with conditions of representation because of the historical social conditions under which they have been represented and the analyses they have had to produce. At least they have chosen to deal with them.

I would like to characterize the differences here in sets of oppositions. We seem to witness an access to power by women accompanied by a sense of loss of power by men in an inverse proportion, marked by a confidence and a withdrawal respectively. This access and confidence lead women to deal with representational practices, as instituted by modern forms of communication and reproduction; the sense of loss of power and withdrawal by men lead to a retreat to art history and tradition. Thus the referents for subject matter and practice are located in the real for women and the gallery and art world for men. Even though this women’s work partakes of the same frame and context as the work by men, this does not imply that their discourse has changed completely to accommodate that frame. This women’s work seems grounded by a well-thought out structure and concept displaying the formative impact of a working process and method—a concern for the context of the practice in general. This indicates that the work, even though it might have the appearance of painting, follows through from the critical and contextual art of the recent past: conceptual, installation, video, performance, photo-textual. etc. Does this mean that women have gained competency in these forms just when the rules of the game have changed? I think not. The works’ references do not make sense within a changed economy of art alone, a condition which accounts for the immediate appeal and easy “mastery” of men’s work dependent on its semiotic relation to other images only.

These oppositions lead to fundamentally opposing beliefs: that one is able to act in the real (through representation changing representation); or on the contrary, that it is impossible to act in the real, that one is able only to create emblems of that failure. That impossibility, like gender distinction, has been historically and socially determined; it is not an objective, ontological conclusion, but pertains to our present historical, political and economic cycle. This impossibility is not just a symptom expressed in the work; it has been articulated verbally and has come to form in certain artworks as their content. Thus this inactivity has become justified in an accumulation of tokens: pictures adding to a storehouse of images that is called culture and tradition.

This retreat on the part of men does not mean giving up the field. Control of the cultural apparatus and the means of cultural validation does not automatically fall to women. Rather, as we have seen elsewhere, the retreat effects itself within a traditional system—the gallery, art history and recurrent ties to the market—and a return to traditional values and techniques, where there is mastery still. One can act out one’s spectacles of melancholy resignation or heroic affirmation of subjectivity as a complicity with and affirmation of the museum. One’s resignation or subjectivity is rewarded in the institution and marketplace as a maintenance of male cultural values of a traditional nature. Thus we see male artists acting out and parading a range of decadent values alternating between idealist heroism and nihilistic despair. These are schizophrenically articulated between the demands of capitalism for novelty and marketable products and personalities, and the restraints of a repressive political order that does not offer the possibility of active public intervention. Thus in Toronto, where all the same conditions and rewards do not exist of course, we could characterize some of the recent work by men as a romantic idealism, private subjectivism, “sentimental” humanism or nihilistic expressionism.

In David Clarkson’s recent sculpture, a critique of mastery in terms of its ideal technical rationality is made through a demand for unity of senses and emotions fragmented by the rational. The demand for wholeness against loss is a form of mastery expressed within a romantic idealism. Anti-heroism is its own romantic, individualistic heroism, trapped within the ideal and its nostalgia for immortality.

In Andy Patton’s recently exhibited paintings, a retreat from the public is made under the guise of a lament for the public. A fiction of a private self is formed through so-called public images. The content, the pathos of the subjects, the unyielding and withdrawn surfaces, the titles—The Architecture of Privacy, The Struggle for Privacy—the text running under the latter painting—“Each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact, unfound”—all clearly articulate and justify this retreat into a private subjectivity. It is as if this demand for a private subjectivity restores the ultimate form of private property—that of consciousness—to the individual. Its conservatism is the historical opposite to the romantic above.

John Scott’s sentimental humanism is marked by all the good intentions of nineteenth century reformers. Through this sympathy, individuals are generalized into a helpless mass of bunnies. These subjects, individuated only according to the expressions of their helplessness, are juxtaposed, outside of any analysis, to what globally threatens them—a humanized bunny to a jet fighter for instance. Sentiment is given over to remedying the symptoms, as a sympathy for helplessness, rather than attacking or analyzing the conditions and sources of that helplessness.

Marc de Guerre’s paintings are the most violent responses to this condition of sensed helplessness and social impotency. Frustration with a social reality leads to a wholesale condemnation of our social reality through a denial of history. The will to deny this history in favour of an essential and timeless humanism, which is a denial of the human of course, is a will to destruction. And this vengeful will to destruction is really a will to self-destruction which accounts for the apocalyptic fury of the nihilistic expressionism of his work.

For women, the conditions of subjectivity are entirely different; it is not a new strategy to claim a position in art. Subjectivity as a term is not something we necessarily should give value to. What is truly subjective, however, is social: it is not a matter of personality, presence or expression. Subjectivity is a process enacted in the contradictions between the public and private. It is not a withdrawal from or opposition to the public, objective, rational, technical, whatever. Subjectivity is not a freely assumed condition — the personal appropriation or absorption into the unity of a consciousness as compensation for frustration elsewhere. It seems historically that when men can no longer act in the world, they recuperate that mastery subjectively. The conditions and sites of subjectivity are in active, contradictory process— constructed in totality, not consumed as content. One can be complicit in that construction through consumption of that content or act within the constraints of that construction through recognition of its making. Representation seems to me to be a more objective condition and avoids subjectivity, or at least it displays one’s place within it. Expression does not. The work by women to be discussed has a more intimate knowledge of and care for the conditions of representation. To have the conditions of representation inscribed within one, socially, not essentially or biologically, is to be aware of the conditions of representation in every aspect of one’s own representational practice.

We can contrast the static absorption of a so-called public image in Andy Patton’s paintings with the dynamic interplay between interior and exterior, “subjective” and “objective”, public and private of Shirley Wiitasalo’s paintings, whose subjects vacillate uneasily between containment and catastrophe. Patton’s paintings are public insofar as the image is found published and then transformed in a unifying medium with its own history and associations. Wiitasalo’s paintings similarly are framed in one medium, but an interior frame almost always mimes the edge of the canvas as a self-conscious division between inside and outside, and the subject itself is not assuredly unitary. Thus Interview (1980) accounts for the viewer by duplicating our conditions inside: our surrogate watches television as we look at this image. But this is no secure identity: television and figure merge and dissolve, constructing each other in the flickering roll of the image.

When this interior frame is a television or a domestic room, one realizes that the divisions between the inside and outside are socially set, while the social breaks down that division at the same time, penetrating and determining the private: thus the incursion of the public into the domestic in Interior (1980) with the television image of the Reagan assassination attempt filling the living room interior. On the contrary, violence is directed outwards as the domestic, in the form of a spinning “x-rayed” apartment block, seems to break into the social in Expansive Expensive (1980). Thus the breakdown goes two ways, and is active both ways—from the public to the private and the private to the social.

That this subjectivity is a process of construction reinforced at every moment can perhaps best be shown in narrative. While paintings such as Wiitasalo’s show its dynamic and ambivalent structuring, Shelagh Alexander’s recent compilation photographs sustain that process and show its construction in sociality and representation through the mimicking of the devices of film. Thus the temporality of this construction of the subject unfolds in the mythic exaggerations of Hollywood movies aligned to paternal authority. As feminist film theoreticians have shown, film is one of the dominant social places for the construction of the subject of woman in the male gaze. This work of Alexander’s, combining the archives of the personal in the form of family photographs with the mythic, dominating archetypes of popular culture, is not a critique of representation from without, but a complex registering within, where family and film merge in the authority of their images. As in Shirley Wiitasalo’s paintings, its site is the distortions of the imaginary.

At the same time, however, this imaginary does not make the work unreal: the imaginary has real effects. In fact, the medium of photography cannot but help reflect the real or its construction: here there are both real subjects, i.e., family snapshots, and the reality of representation, i.e., film. Even though the two parts of the work, of childhood and adolescence, show the closing off of the universe of possibilities for the female, they at least show its conditions and construction. In contrast, John Scott’s bunnies show neither the conditions nor effects of their helplessness.

One is not only positioned in relation to representation through one’s construction in and through representation, one re-positions oneself in analysis. Aware of these conditions of representation as an artist, one deals with their conditions in application as well. Like Shelagh Alexander, Janice Gurney appropriates images, but also practices—images of her past, and images that are the picture of her practice. But through the second procedure she positions her-self more directly and obviously as a double subject. In Gurney’s work, the identifications and distancings take place both in terms of subject matter and working process. So her activity is a re-marking of what is proper to her in history and artistic practice: her history and history in general, her practice and artistic practice in general. The use of one’s own biological and cultural inheritance—the painted reproduction of an original tintype of the artist’s grandmother as a child in Portrait of Me as My Grandmother’s Faults (1982)—along with images by others, couples the power and authority of making, marking and depicting with a power and authority over others—those depicted. It is only by inserting herself doubly, in terms of being represented oneself in the image of the child and in terms of being in the position of power of the photographer of the famine victims, that representation can be beheld and used in its complexity—positively and negatively.

The inseparability of practice and representation leads to a fragmentation all the same. For Gurney, fragmentation is a condition of representation, of appropriate distance in appropriating images by and of others. These are set in representational practices but not unified by the necessary mediation of the artist. For David Clarkson, fragmentation is only the lack of a desired unity. Instead of the distancing of representation, whereby we enter critically into the conditions of a discourse, the artist is fully present in his expression.

The dialectic of master and mastered is inhabited by women’s position here as artists: that is, as an artist—a mastering subject, but as a woman—a traditionally mastered subject. The ultimate mastery that that dialectic implies, however, is denied by social reality, since it is not a movement of sublimation or overcoming but a contradictory inhabitation of both positions at once. So in Joanne Tod’s Self Portrait (1982), who or what is the objet de luxe, the woman in the painting or the painting, both identified in the figure of the artist since the painting is labelled a self portrait? We find an identification between the representation of women and the social function of painting, both of which cohere in this artist. This ambiguity and identity is heightened further in Self Portrait as Prostitute (1983) with the depiction of the earlier Self Portrait in a domestic bourgeois setting. Now through the surrogate of the painting, the artist is represented as a commodity prostitute, as a purveyor of luxury goods to the bourgeoisie; but a further identity is established in placing the glamourous object of woman/picture in a domestic place: the poles of contradiction—woman as object, woman in her domestic place, artist as woman, artist as object, i.e., the name and value of the work—align. Identification/Defacement (1983) plays on the same contradictions we saw in Janice Gurney’s work, the contradictions of relations of power within representation. With the printing of the artist’s name across the eyes of a black woman in wedding dress in two similar panels, identification and defacement take place within the structure of the Other. This identity in negation is the irony that Tod is able to use to such effect.

While an awareness of the structure and power of representation gives Joanne Tod the ability to use irony for recognition and negation, for Marc de Guerre negation can only be destruction. Without the mediation of representation, negation becomes an absolute presence, in other words, absolute destruction. Without the ability to negate which irony or representation allow, in frustration everything has to be destroyed.

In conclusion, where do I stand in drawing these lines of difference? I start from the position of my interest: what art can account for what is local and real which I think are the authentic conditions of an art community, and which find expression in more than just artworks. These are the conditions of our history or lack of a history as well as the genuine conditions of other’s interest in our art. It seems that the structure of representation in no matter what medium, allows this, because representation has to account for both relations and places—the position and relation of the artist and viewer to each other and to that subject represented—and the context of the practice itself. What leads to the local and real, to the possibility of acting within one’s own history, and what leads away, and why? Action becomes an important concept. What leads to its possibility and what leads away determined the divisions outlined above.

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