Interview December 5, 2012

Philip Monk telephone interview with Peter Joch, December 5, 2012, published as part of Representations: YYZ in the 80s on website.

In the context of the artist-run gallery YYZ’s role in the return to representational practices in the early 1980s, I was interviewed about my critical role then.

Philip Monk Interview

By Peter Joch

Peter Joch: First, as a backdrop for the interview, I’d like to get a sense of the Toronto art scene in the 1980s, which is classified as the return to representation, and certainly YYZ showed photo or photo-mediated work that interrogated representation. Your contribution was criticism on the theme of representation and, as Andy Patton stated, the Toronto avant-garde heavily read your criticism to clarify their position on that issue. In “Axes of Difference,” you stated that Toronto received and repeated what centres like New York and Germany originated and legitimated. That the return to painting in the 1980s was due to a lack of a national painting history so we repeat one from elsewhere. Can you talk a little bit about the return to content in Toronto in the 1980s, and perhaps, how it was different from New York and other big art centres?

Philip Monk: It was a very interesting period. Artists were arriving from across Canada, and a real art community was forming. In the late 1970s, with A Space changing, and Mercer Union and YYZ starting up around the same time (1979), there was a lot happening, each space defining different aspects of contemporary interest, but with overlap. A generational change seemed to be taking place. There was a breakdown of the minimalist and conceptual traditions (the breakdown of a dominant progression of contemporary art represented by American art), and in a younger generation a new spirit akin to the broader cultural manifestation known as new wave. So, I think there were a lot of things happening. Nothing was dominant-though in retrospect, maybe video and performance were pre-eminent. I think in the mid 1980s the scenes began to separate from each other, but in the early 1980s the situation was very much mixed. Or maybe it was only that I was crossing over between the various scenes—certainly, I was the only critic to do so. The situation was fluid, but I think it changed in 1982, although you might want to argue the opposite, when those big shows took place, like YYZ’s Monumenta, ChromaZone’s productions, as well as a couple years later YYZ and Mercer Union’s The New City of Sculpture.

I dispute the terminology return to content, as if it was synonymous with return to representation. There wasn’t so much a return to representation, in the way I was using the term at the time, as a return to subject matter or traditional forms of meaning in painting and sculpture. Obviously, photo-mediated work and painting have to be discussed differently, content not meaning the same for both.

As I was trying to examine the term in my articles in the late 1970s, content had to do with enunciation as an excess in relation to formal structures, as well as being a response to a political need of expression that these structures would traditionally preclude. In the early 1980s, with my 1981 catalogue Language and Representation, representation replaced content, but was itself conceived differently. My earlier use of the term content had nothing to do with a return to figuration, which people might call representation. Likewise, this return to representation had nothing to do with the way I was using the term representation. I was never really concerned with painting, so my discourse, in my mind, never applied to it. For me, the idea of representation is a broader construct that refers to how contemporary art was evolving under the broader influence of photography in relation to linguistics, semiotics, Marxist ideological analyses, deconstruction, feminist discourse, and psychoanalysis.

Also, “Axes of Difference” was concerned with other issues, not with the fact that the return to painting was due to the lack of a national painting history. I never tried to justify having a new tradition of painting based on a Canadian context. I certainly wasn’t interested in developing this discourse because I wasn’t particularly interested in painting. Certainly, our problem in Canada had to do with a lack, the lack of a history for instance, the lack of a modernist moment from which art could progress-at least in Toronto. This is not necessarily a problem, since it opened up other avenues. What I was concerned with, documented in part in my collection of essays, Struggles with the Image, was figuring out a situation or context that had some meaning for us as Canadians, and that did not just repeat one from elsewhere in a colonial fashion: i.e., copying movements from elsewhere—neo-expressionism, neo-figurative painting, etc.—inflected however much by our own national myths. This is an ongoing problem of reception we suffer in this country.

When you talked about photo work becoming more relevant, you meant figuration in photo work?

No-photography in general, as a medium and a construction. Mainly at this point the use of photography in art had its roots in conceptual art, but then became inflected differently—for instance, here in Toronto, through General Idea; here and elsewhere, it became more narratively or performatively disposed. It became more of a constructed artifact. Think of someone like Victor Burgin, for example, constructing those quasi-narrative series of photographs; or Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge. Also, this was a moment when the discourse around photography was changing: becoming, influentially, an object of an ahistorical, phenomenological fascination for Barthes in his Camera Lucida, displacing earlier semiological analyses (and published at the moment, moreover, of transition between the analogue and digital image); but also as a historical medium/discipline being interrogated for its new archival, museological, and market status, its market invention seen as legitimating its new museological presence. Really, the discourses around photography and the moving image influenced writing on issues of representation rather than the so-called return to figuration in painting. The latter mimicked painting practices elsewhere, like neo-expressionism in Germany or New Figuration in New York, the latter starting earlier in the mid 1970s. Every nationality had its neo-expressionist movement, and Canada tried to leap on that bandwagon-unsuccessfully, because no one else paid attention to it.

Right, no one else, as in . . .

. . . The world. This has to do something with the whole notion of national histories. If you don’t have a national history to build on, how can you have a figurative return, the history being its form of validation? German contemporary artists had the national tradition of expressionism so neo-expressionism made sense for them even though it didn’t make sense for a lot of other people. The trans-avant-garde in Italy, Clemente, Cucchi, and all those painters, had various traditions to return to. Toronto or Canada didn’t really have a painting tradition to draw on and feed this new work in order to allow it to be part of a discourse. So, why should the rest of the world be interested?

Andy Patton shared with me Janice Gurney’s observation that Toronto was more influenced by Barthes’ Mythologies while New York by “The Death of the Author.” What are your thoughts on that?

I completely disagree. I read Mythologies, along with Elements of Semiology, in 1973, in a library in London when I was travelling around Europe. I didn’t necessarily know who Roland Barthes was, just as when I was reading Lévi-Strauss or Foucault a couple years before, I didn’t know that they were part of this larger circle of so-called French philosophy, which would have such a dominant influence later on critical thinking, and the writing of post-modernism. I don’t know if a lot of people in Toronto were reading Mythologies. Obviously, General Idea had and it informed their work-but when they read it sometime in 1974 it only offered another language for what was already in their work. I think that the essay “Myth Today,” the conclusion to Mythologies, was applicable as an analytical tool to a lot of the semiological work that was developing out of conceptual art: General Idea, for example. In retrospect, it is a critical tool of understanding not necessarily one having influenced production in Toronto.

So, when Barthes became really glamourous and influential in the late 1970s, when “The Death of the Author” and “From Work to Text” were being read, these essays were highly influential everywhere on postmodernist discourses on art in general; in Toronto, too. They were certainly influential for me, but they were more readily applied rhetorically to writing. They didn’t really provide an analytical tool in the way that Barthes’ Myth Today did. Perhaps they provided an ideological tool that was then allied to a Marxist discourse. At this point, Mythologies was not read or referred to at all. So, I disagree with Janice and Andy. “The Death of the Author” was highly significant in Toronto, even though I think it was misunderstood in many respects.

Early 1980s was the context in which I asked the previous question.

The influence was probably in the 1980s, yes; I was reading these works in the 1970s. I had to read a lot of books in French before they were translated. Things only really started to roll in terms of translation around 1979-1981. This is an interesting problem in the reception of these texts in North America because they were received completely out of order of their writing in France, for instance. When Barthes’ books were translated into English, he had already moved on in another direction years ago. For instance, when Mythologies was translated into English in 1972, he had already passed from semiology to the theory of the text, and had published “The Death of the Author,” in 1968, and “From Work to Text,” in 1971. Translations eventually sped up, but there was always this out of sync publication.

Andy said that “The Death of the Author” was influential in American appropriation as it tended to be more focused on the death of the author by an original image being unoriginal, like Sherry Levine’s work, and Mythologies was more influential in Canadian appropriation because it focused more on Canada’s history of colonization and immigration.

Sure . . . I mean, I’d have to go into his argument and can’t. But, I’m not sure I agree at all. I don’t think Mythologies was consciously applied here. It explains a lot of work, but explanation and application are two different things. As I said, I think “The Death of the Author” was used rhetorically to position oneself through discourse-by writers especially, not necessarily by artists, many of whom, artists that is, misunderstood what that “death” meant. I don’t know whether one can say that Toronto was any different from New York in terms of postmodernism, which was a discourse sweeping the Western world. Toronto looked to New York to see what was done there, seeing what was done here as complementary. Not necessarily derivative, but complementary.

In your opinion, what is the role of an artist run centre, and what role did YYZ play in the 1980s return to representation?

Artist run centres have had a huge influence as places where an actual Canadian art history has been played out. I’m not sure they had a specific role in the return to representation, if this phenomenon was widespread. To believe so you would have to say that YYZ had a particular agenda to deal with issues of representation. But, this was the zeitgeist, and it just happened that these were the interests of the artists that were showing at YYZ or, more particularly, those who were on the board selecting which artists to exhibit.

According to the YYZ archive, the first involvement you had with YYZ was the talk Philip Monk and Benjamin Buchloh-Theory in 1982. Was this, in fact, your first association with YYZ, and can you talk about that talk?

I had been going regularly to YYZ ever since it was at 567 Queen Street, its first location, but the talk was the first time I was involved in a program there. I think Jennifer Oille organized the lecture series. The idea was to pair a Toronto writer with someone from elsewhere, so I was paired with Benjamin Buchloh for an event at the Rivoli. He couldn’t make it, so the talks were split; I can’t remember, but I guess I talked on the original date, and he talked later. I presented a lecture on General Idea called “Sentences on Art.” It was published in Parachute the next year, and then re-published in my Struggles with the Image book. I don’t know how long the lecture was but it turned into a 20,000-word article. The lecture was a severe critique of General Idea, which pleased many, but not General Idea. The whole art community attended, and many interpreted the lecture as serving a generational struggle, Oedipal one could say, since younger artists, but many others too, felt, at the time, that General Idea had too much power in Toronto. That, however, was not my intention-that is, supporting one generation over another-as the art community would find out just over a year later.

You have to remember that this was a very political period, in an economic recession, too, I believe, with the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the imposition of their neo-conservative, anti-social agenda; the struggle against American-led, anti-gay and anti-abortion movements; the threat of new nuclear proliferation; the fight against Apartheid in South Africa; the riots in Brixton were taking place, with the rise of the National Front, skinheads, and white supremacy movements; and, there was worry of a flirtation with fascism in the arts. As we know, it was a highly combative moment for capitalism, which led to its victory over communism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union by the end of the decade. My argument was that General Idea’s work was not a critique of capitalism but that their system, in turn, was capitalist itself; that, moreover, their flirtation with fascism was a real problem. In retrospect, I think that my worry was extreme, exacerbated perhaps by my long-time fascination with Marxist analysis, evident there. Nevertheless, in spite of some misdirected critique, the lecture and article probably were the most thorough analysis GI had yet to receive, still today, even. I’ve tried to make up for that maladroit misdirection in my recent book on General Idea: Glamour is Theft, which is more than compensation. I should mention that the lecture and article were just as much my then disaffection for linguistics, semiotics, and French theory, and a reaction against what I had been intensely working through intellectually in my writing for about seven years.

Note at this time that reference had become a transitional term to representation, having supplanted the earlier content. Not linguistic, reference was seen to have a political implication.

In 1984, you gave a lecture at “The Practice of Pictures: Representation in Toronto Art,” where you presented the infamous “Axes of Difference,” which was “expression, passivity, and a retreat to the art world for men,” and “representation and activity in the real world for women.” Can you talk a little about that lecture, your intention behind it, and the effect it had?

This is a difficult issue, since I don’t like to read my writing from thirty years ago, but, as well, there were many hard feelings about this lecture that this question dredges up. As it was thirty years ago, I remember more the effects than the intentions behind the lecture. (The whole day of talks, however, was my program, so I created the set up, so to speak.) The lecture was traumatic for the art community. (When I participated on a panel in 1993, an artist in the audience accused me of single-handedly having destroyed the art community with that lecture; another earlier, accused me of destroying his career!) As a consequence of the lecture, I was shunned; my girlfriend was shunned. But then, things died down. However, once I published the lecture almost verbatim as an article a few months later in the May issue of Vanguard, passions were inflamed again, worse this time, since being in print was a whole other thing. People had the summer to vent their hostility in a series of letters to the editor that were printed in the September issue of Vanguard, to which I responded. The hostility was so great that I considered leaving Toronto, but then I “accidentally” became a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and stayed around. The rest is history, as they say; but for the hostile response to the lecture, I may never have applied for the job.

I don’t think that the lecture and article were ever really understood. My intention was to make a critical survey of the current situation in Toronto. I don’t think I necessarily would have given this lecture if it were not for the manifestations taking place in Toronto in 1982 with the appearance of large, sprawling, inclusive exhibitions, the influence of ChromaZone, and the return to painting and rhetoric around it. The lecture was really a response to this situation, but it seemed to come out of the blue for the art community. I don’t think people should have been surprised: Benjamin Buchloh had already written about some of these issues in his 1981 October article “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return to Representation in European Painting,” and I was probably somewhat influenced by this article. But, that was a historical essay, with a coda on the current situation, and I wanted to make an intervention into the current situation in Toronto. That was the problem. You see, it was all right a year earlier for me to critique General Idea, because that was seen as clearing the way for the younger generation of artists. But, to actually critique the art community from within was forbidden. This is what was implied by the outrage; more than implied, I was told so. My obligation, however, was to being a critic, and this was what I felt, as a critic, was necessary to move the discourse along in Toronto. People would have to learn that I didn’t belong to any group.

The lecture and article have always been characterized as an attack on men in the support of women, and dividing the art community on gender lines. This was not my intention. As I said, I intended to make a survey of the current situation in Toronto. It was almost empirical in approach, and sociological in application, however small the statistical sample was. Firstly, it implied that there were two broad categories or directions of work: on the one hand, a return to figuration in painting and sculpture; on the other hand, work that was photo-based or influenced by photography, and that was concerned with various issues of representation. Secondly, and this was the important point that was lost in the controversy, it suggested that there were consequences to artistic form; one had to choose between expression and representation, to use shorthand terms. (The characterizations you made in your question followed from this.) Thirdly, it seemed that men were producing one category of work, and women the other. This was the least important point, but something to ponder. However, people fixated on this last point only.

Later, in 1984, you curated Subjects in Pictures, where the women artists you mentioned in “Axes of Difference” showed. It was a show of women artists dealing with representation as subjectivity. Can you talk about appropriation in regards to this show, and in regards to the 1980s Toronto art world?

In a sense, Subjects in Pictures was a continuation of “Axes of Difference,” but it really wasn’t talking about the exhibited work in the same way, and it certainly wasn’t talking about appropriation. It was concerned with issues of subjectivity, and subject positions inflected more by psychoanalytic and feminist film discourses. I don’t believe the artists were dealing with issues of appropriation. I have my General Idea essay in front of me, so let me quote the distinction made there between appropriation and inhabitation:

“Appropriation quotes or parodies other cultural or popular discourses, codes, styles, or production techniques within a high discourse and institutionality”; “Inhabitation parasitically assumes cultural forms or codes, empties them of their ‘content,’ and by inserting its own effects a critical disruption.”

At the time, the terms were used somewhat interchangeably, but there is a difference: appropriation maintains a distance; inhabitation surreptitiously is engaged. They are two different types of “criticism.” I would say General Idea’s work, for instance, parasitic as it was, was about inhabitation not appropriation. Appropriation generally used semiotic strategies; inhabitation used deconstructive strategies. The works gathered in Subjects in Pictures weren’t either.

Appropriation wasn’t even a minor theme? I mean, I look at Joanne Tod’s work from that show . . .

Appropriation takes over ready-made images that already exist as cultural icons. We all recognize a reference to 1950s cultural settings, with their implied subject positions for women, in Joanne Tod’s paintings, but she has invented the scene from loaded cultural signifiers, not ironically reproduced from an actual period image. I think that there is a difference.

In 1988, your collection of criticism Struggles with the Image was published by YYZ. In the introduction, you describe a “crisis” in 1980 of “problematic play between art and criticism: the exit from art.” Can you elaborate on this comment?

I had been publishing since 1977, but the book collects only writing from 1980-1984, ending when I became a curator, and necessarily another type of writer. The book displays a double trajectory: on the one hand, this so-called “exit from art,” and, on the other hand, an attempt to chart a history of contemporary art for ourselves in Canada. The first represents my concerns from about 1979-1982, and the second those from 1983-1984.

You have to remember that I was the first in English Canada writing art criticism that was influenced by French theory and the Frankfurt School, and I had the field to myself for several years. It was a completely open situation for me in the second half of the 1970s. I had the freedom to invent a whole new way of writing, and a range of new subject matter for criticism, before the situation closed down later in the 1980s with a standard repertoire of quotational strategies dependent on these very same post-structuralist texts. The results were very boring-which meant that one had to move on from the pack. This was very much a crisis for criticism, but criticism’s crisis was enacted later in the 1980s, and does not reflect what I meant at the beginning of the decade, in 1980, when my writing invoked this other crisis.

This other crisis had to do with the relation of writing, and hence spectatorship, to the artwork. It was a strategy to reinvest criticism with a concern for reception, allying writing to the excluded viewer as an excess to the work of art, both writing, and the viewer traditionally having been considered subservient to the artwork. I now call this performative writing, but back then, I thought of it as theoretical fiction, and it was reflected in texts such as “Exits,” and “Breach of Promise,” which led to other articles that dealt in an analogous way with issues of iconoclasm, such as “Violence and Representation,” “Notes on the Sumptuary Destruction of Leaders,” and “Image of the leader, Function of the Widow,” some of which also are collected in Struggles with the Image. These articles began to look at the effective excess found in photographs of violence, crowds, etc., which were in excess to the image’s constraining representational structures. These are issues that writers and artists only now are beginning to deal with.

There seemed to be an efflorescence of critical writing in the early 1980s under the impact of post-structuralism, but it wore itself out by the end of the decade. (You can place this conclusion at occurring about the same time as the market crash and recession of 1988 or 1989, which impacted the New York art community; the Toronto art community had already fallen apart before that time.) Criticism eventually lost touch with both its object and its audience. The problem was brought on by criticism itself as it detached itself from the role of addressing artworks themselves, figuring out their functionality, of how they come to mean. Rather, writing was seen to be a platform to make judgments by ascribing a fault within the art or artist—sometimes political, sometimes for not following the post-structuralist dogma. These judgments were derived from another discourse, whether post-structuralism or Marxism, not those from the art itself. Eventually people lost interest.

In the same introduction, you describe criticism as displacement, and the position of the viewer coming to speech, while curating as “the practice of the (re)constitution of the event. Boris Groys stated that art criticism is dead as it deals with aesthetic judgment, which is determined by culture, and not the critic. How would you comment on this “death of criticism”?

I’ve never read any of Boris Groys’ writing, but I don’t think art criticism is about aesthetic judgment at all. Aesthetics is a philosophical discipline, and criticism is a genre of art writing. I think they’re two very different things—and Ranciere’s writing of the last ten or fifteen years has been a critique of this very comment by Groys. This notion of coming to speech reflected a particular strand of my own writing practice, which was a metaphor, so to speak, through writing, for the situation of facing the work of art, reacting against the condition of both writing and viewing being considered secondary, and, therefore, degraded, as I mentioned earlier. Both writing and viewer were to be considered in excess to the work of art, which was another type of coming to speech, a speech enacted performatively.

The exit from art and criticism was not at all a response to the “death of criticism”; it was still a form of art writing. Criticism seemed alive and well at the time. Criticism, though, now is certainly dead. It brought on its death itself through its desire to be theoretical. It lost relevancy a long time ago when it wanted only to make judgments on works of art that solely linked its statements to other textual sources (post-structuralism) without being, in any way, an analysis of the artworks before it. Many people have written about how the market for years has bypassed criticism, making it irrelevant. Perhaps with the intellectual ambitions of the new brand of curatorial graduates, curatorial writing will lead to a renewed attention to writing, which won’t be criticism but will make up for it disappearance, hopefully, if it goes beyond being merely an announcement in e-flux.

You started as an art critic, and shifted into the role of a curator, keeping a discourse with theory in both positions. Would you call yourself a theorist?

No, I wouldn’t. I have a problem with this term as applied to art writing, and even in the introduction to Struggles with the Image I bring this up when I say, “What we used to call theory.” To take a mix of Barthes’, Derrida’s, Deleuze’s, or Foucault’s ideas, and apply it to contemporary art is not theory in my mind, whatever interpretative value it might have. Rather, it usually is a rhetorical strategy of linking what one says by means of quotations referentially to a discourse coherent in itself but detached from actual works of art. It lends the writer authority supposedly to make judgments on artworks without actually engaging in analyzing how they function, which I think is fraudulent. I’m more interested in discovering the concepts by which an artwork functions-its operational concepts, which one can only learn by attention to the artwork itself in relation to the workings of one’s own writing practice, not another’s. So, I don’t think there have been any original theorists of contemporary art, only applied discourses from other disciplines that are useful for talking about art.

I’m merely a writer who writes on art. If I had been vain enough to call myself a theorist in the early 1980s—I’m not sure I did—I really was only a critic, and by the time I became a curator, only a writer on art. Yet, writing has always led my curatorial activity, and even now as a director, I think of my role at the Art Gallery of York University as a writer’s project.

When I interviewed Mark Lewis, he noted that during the 1980s, he, and artists around him were iconoclasts very suspicious of the image, which they mediated and deconstructed due to this suspicion. Certainly your 1981 essay “Violence and Representation,” which appears in Struggles with the Image echoes this. Mark went on to say that now, he, and younger artists, are comfortable with the image standing on its own as its ambiguity is its power. Do you think that the stance toward the image has shifted in this way nowadays?

It shifted a long time ago. Mark was very much influenced by what was happening in London-with Victor Burgin, and Mary Kelly, etc., whose work was much more theoretically-derived, and ideologically-driven, and that had a psychoanalytic bent to it. London had a more highly-attuned, critical context than ever existed here in Toronto. It was also Marxist oriented. Generally, the image was under suspicion as an emblem, through its advertising appearance or Hollywood product, of the commodity form. Perhaps this is why this work had a serially constructed, narrative structure, which, however, opened the door to fiction. Fiction allied to fascination with the image . . . well, that would be the way of the future: a movement from suspicion of to fascination with the image taken as a fictional construct. Taking an image, and making it otherwise your own, that is, rather than distancing yourself from it through an ironical appropriation, believed in itself to be critical. Contrary to what you say, “Violence and Representation” was very much about this falling into fascination with the image.

December 5, 2012


Philip Monk, telephone interview with author, December 5, 2012.

Published as part of Representations: YYZ in the 80s on website.