The virtues of ambiguity: or, why I'm still not giving up art
Luckily for us, a large new show had just opened at the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery. The gallery's main exhibition space has been given over to a potted history of the Waikato Society of Arts, an organisation which has enriched the culture of cow country for over seventy years. The WSA has always been a determinedly pro-am body, and the exhibition includes work by little-known as well as famous artists. One work has been selected to represent each year of the WSA's existence, so that visitors can travel from the 1930s, when bad imitations of bad Goldies were the order of the day, to the noughties, when the work being produced in the Waikato seems both various and adventurous. There are many delights along the way - Tom Gardiner's massive and very seventies abstract diptych filled with Maddoxian crosses and slabs of brutalist grey is particularly exciting - but the highlight of the show, for me at least, is the emergence of two more Ted Bracey canvases from the gallery vaults.
Bracey's North Island System, No. 1 seems to be one of a series of works he painted near the end of the years he spent in the Waikato in the second half of the sixties. It's a bright painting, full of cold blues and blustery whites, but I neglected it in favour of October No. 4, a large work which has the same unnerving beauty of the two Waikato paintings hanging downstairs.
In October No. 4, the artist has once again stripped his landscape down to essentials: a white line, a black line, a rippling field of deep, darkening green, and a bank of sky the colour of week-old snow. It is difficult to appreciate October No. 4 in reproduction, because the size of the canvas and the nuanced way Bracey uses his limited palette give the work much of its ambiguous power. Like the Waikato paintings downstairs, October No. 4 is capable of conjuring a mood of warmth and security, or a mood of unease. Is Bracey painting a green and pleasant land of dairy farms and scenic reserves, or a landscape which has been left undifferentiated by the ravages of the axe and the fire? Is the line in the foreground a river, running languidly through the landscape, or a road pushed through in an aggressively straight line?
One person who will probably not be visiting the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery to answer these questions is Jared Davidson, a member of the Garage Collective and the author of 'Give up Art and Save the Starving?', a polemic which has attracted criticism on this site and at Christchurch poet and theorist Ross Brighton's blog. In a recent comment on this blog, Jared registered his displeasure with my post about my encounter with Ted Bracey's Waikato paintings:
You saw some landscape in the gallery which spurred you into thought and art talk drivel. You seem to have changed your mind on how you felt about them. You asked some questions about whether this individual knew any colonial history of the area. Did you get a response?
Did Ted answer you back with a defiant yes? Or no? I doubt it. Why? Because as an artist, Ted doesn't have to make those kind of statements. Ted's status as the revered genius allows him to transcend everyday unpleasantries, and allow you to ask such important questions about, say, does this landscape have any meaning whatsoever? Hurrah for art! Hurrah for Ted, and his nothingness!
Jared's comments reflect his belief that artists should end their 'individualist' and 'subjective' ways, and instead dedicate themselves to 'collective' political activity aimed at bringing down the capitalist system. Artists should get out of their studios and galleries, and on to the barricades. If they must continue to produce art, it should reflect their 'social commitment' by clearly communicating an anti-capitalist message.
For all of the radical rhetoric it's wrapped up in, Jared's response to my post about Ted Bracey betrays a very old and very common misapprehension of art. Like the art dealer who is guided by value rather than taste, and the TV viewer who grumps 'what does that mean?' when confronted by Hamish Keith extolling the virtues of a McCahon or Woollaston canvas, Jared is mystified by the recalcitrance of art. He wishes that Ted Bracey would come out with a clear message – that he would shout a 'yes' or 'no', in the manner of a propaganda poster or an ad for detergent.
As EP Thompson was fond of pointing out, though, a poster and a painting are two different things. If we want to engage with an artwork, we often need to put aside the idea that it is supposed to communicate an unambiguous political message to as wide an audience as possible. We must treat a recalcitrant painting or poem not as a failed attempt to communicate simply and clearly, but as an attempt to gets us thinking in a creative, contemplative, dialogic manner - as something that can open our minds to new possibilities, rather than communicate what we already understand.
Ted Bracey's paintings speak powerfully of the connection that he felt with the Waikato landscape - a connection that seems to have been rooted in his rejection of the ugliness of urban American society, and which relied upon his memories of a childhood in the Hampshire Downs. Bracey's vision of an agrarian paradise probably owed a great deal to the Romantic tradition, which has been an important source of social critique in England ever since William Blake wrote poems like 'London'. Bracey's praise for life in the Waikato might remind us of the young Wordsworth's discovery of permanent, non-human values in nature, or of William Morris' counterposition of rural English communities to the ugly chaos of industrial Victorian cities.
Yet Bracey's vision cannot be accepted unproblematically, because it glosses over the fact that the Waikato landscape, like the landscape of post-enclosure England, is an artificial creation, predicated on the dispossession of the people who once lived there. There is an ugliness that aches under the beauty of Bracey's canvases. I have suggested that Bracey is aware of that ugliness - that it lurks at the edge of his vision, and finds its way into his paintings, creating their ambiguity.
I've argued that the condition of being in love with the 'beauty' of a landscape and yet being uneasily aware of the history that lurks under that beauty is very common in the culture of a postcolonial society like New Zealand. I grew up on a dairy farm, and was bombarded by the media, by the tourist industry, and by the backs of wheet bix packets with images that showed the levelled forests and cleared-out highlands of New Zealand as a 'clean green paradise' of sheep and dairy farms. It's not easy to expurgate such images, without expurgating a part of one's own heritage, and one's way of seeing.
I think that many Pakeha feel, today, that they exist in a sort of uneasy twilight zone, caught as they are between a desire to acknowledge the injustices done to Maori and an awareness that they cannot disown their own history. The political right attempts to dispel the Pakeha’s feeling of unease with assimilationist rhetoric about how 'we're all New Zealanders now'; the far left often tries to banish the same unease with simplistic rhetoric about working class unity, and criticism of Maori nationalism as a distraction from 'workers' issues'.
I think that Ted Bracey's paintings are powerful works because they do not dispel the ambiguity of feeling which is the part of the heritage of Pakeha. If Bracey had denied his emotional reaction to the Waikato landscape, and covered his canvases with some politically correct slogan about the theft of Maori land, then he may have created effective posters, but he would have failed to make art. By letting his conflicting feelings into his Waikato paintings, he captured something of the truth of Pakeha experience, and also created a space where viewers can dialogue with him and develop their own thoughts, rather than have a pre-prepared political meaning shoved down their throats.
I don't think the recalcitrance and ambiguity of art like Bracey's renders it politically impotent. In fact, I think that the subtle way artists like Bracey work is just as important to left-wing politics as the work of poster makers and orators. Historically, the New Zealand left has been weak in the areas of theory and analysis, particularly as they pertain to local experience. Too many activists have been dissuaded from thinking about issues like Maori nationalism and the nature of Pakeha experience because they have been supplied with readymade slogans by politicians and poster makers. By encouraging us to think for ourselves, artists like Bracey open a space beyond political rhetoric where creative analysis can be done and new concepts can be coined.
I don't know how Ted Bracey's paintings will affect my political thinking, as I'm still struggling with them, but I want to use another artist to give an example of the way that seemingly recondite canvases can have a palpable political effect on their viewer. Back in 2007 I looked at a series of new works by the Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton. Cotton had placed a series of somewhat cryptic images - the stylised face of the Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika, smoked heads from the period of the Musket Wars, a variety of exotic birds, and several antique planes - on his large, mostly empty canvases. On a number of the canvases, the objects looked as though they were falling off the edge of a cliff, into a vast chasm. Some of Cotton's birds appeared to be floating in the chasm, but other objects looked like they were plummeting.
When they were considered in the context of his earlier work, Cotton's paintings looked to me like allusions to the Maori experience of colonisation and modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found Cotton's portraits of Hongi Hika, a figure who straddled the divide between pre-contact Maori society and modern New Zealand, particularly fascinating, because they eschewed the cliches that many artists and historians have used when depicting the man. Cotton portrayed Hongi Hika as a man of great mana, not a mindless murderer, but he also contextualised the chief, and suggested that he was, for all his power and exploits, a man whose actions were determined by his historical circumstances. Hongi was struggling to guide his people through their encounter with European power, but the methods which he used were often ill-suited to his task. I was very impressed by the way Cotton's paintings seemed to honour Hongi Hika without idealising him or taking him out of his historical context. At the time I encountered Cotton's paintings I was working at the Auckland museum, and I was also involved in the response to the so-called 'anti-terror' raid on Ruatoki and the arrest of the 'Urewera 14'. At work, amongst friends and relatives, and at protest marches and pickets, the air was full of arguments about Maori and Tuhoe nationalism, and about the correct Pakeha response to those phenomena. These arguments were particularly pungent for me, because I was working amongst Maori and Pasifika staff in the Maori Court of the museum, and was often asked by visitors to the museum about my attitude to the arrests and to Maori leaders like Tame Iti, presumably because I would be able to supply an informed 'Pakeha' view of these matters.
I wasn't sure, though, how to relate my support for the right of Maori and Tuhoe to tino rangatiratanga with my attitude toward Pakeha history and culture. On the one hand, I was becoming more and more aware, through discussions with Maori and my own research, of the details of the oppression that Pakeha had visited upon the indigenous people of Aotearoa. On the other hand, I didn't think that simply dismissing Pakeha culture and history as worthless did anything to help educate the public about the past, or to build a movement against contemporary expressions of the oppression of Maori like the police raids that netted the Urewera 14. For obvious reasons, I couldn't agree with the Maori who told me that Pakeha should all get on a boat and head back to Europe.
Shane Cotton's paintings helped me to find a more balanced approach to Pakeha history and culture, because they proved to me that it was possible to show respect for an ancestor without idealising him. Hongi Hika was a man responsible for the invasion of the rohe of half a dozen iwi and the slaughter of thousands of people, yet Cotton was able to show him as an explicable, if not entirely sympathetic figure. Thanks partly to Cotton, I've come to the view that Pakeha culture and history have to be acknowledged and contextualised, rather than merely condemned - that there is no point, in other words, of telling Pakeha that they should live in a permanent state of shame about their past. I now take the view that it is not Pakeha culture per se but the attempts of Pakeha to make their culture the only acceptable one for New Zealanders that must be countered by the left. In an article about the debate over the New Zealand flag, for instance, I argued that it is unrealistic to expect Pakeha New Zealanders to abandon their old flag, and identify with the tino rangatiratanga banner, but that it is unacceptable for them to claim that their banner represents the first people of Aotearoa. I argued, therefore, for the use of both flags, to remind us all of the messy and two-sided history of this country.
Of course, my response the paintings that Shane Cotton exhibited back in 2007 was and is subjective, and the political conclusions that the paintings eventually prompted in me may not be shared by many others. Cotton's paintings do not make straightforward statements about Nga Puhi or Pakeha history, and our relationship to that history. They do not make straightforward statements about anything. They are enigmatic assemblages of images designed to work on parts of the brain that are untouched by prosaic, logical discourse. We bring our own meanings, our own needs and preoccupations, to our encounter with them, and take away an experience which is our own. The popularity of Cotton's art amongst members of his own Nga Puhi iwi - many of whom are the sort of working class New Zealanders without an education in art who, according to Jared Davidson, are not able to appreciate complex, enigmatic, allusive paintings - is a testimony to the power of his methodology. An encounter with an artist like Shane Cotton or Ted Bracey can be an equal, reciprocal one, in the way that an encounter with a poster can never be.