Article: Battle of the bowties: Artinfo quizzes Robert Nelson on Patrick McCaughey and Ronald Millar over Fred Williams

Robert, you wrote a critical review of the Fred Williams retrospective at the NGV (The Age, 9 May 2012).  Angry letters appeared in response; and on 17 May, a long piece dominated the Opinion page by the critic Ronald Millar which raises doubts about your practice as a critic.  Then, just yesterday, Patrick McCaughey weighed in (see article), denouncing you as “ignorant”, setting “out to crush a reputation rather than review an exhibition”.  You’re accused of “a mendacious tone”.  To some, the reaction may be dismissed as damage-control by the establishment; but to others, there would be much to believe.  Once such trenchant slurs on your sense and integrity have been voiced, they are not easily dispelled unless confronted.  Would you agree?


Yes, but if you set aside all the hot air about my integrity, it’s good that various voices express diverse ideas on artistic judgement.  There’s special heat around the Williams review, as you suggest, maybe because he is such a national icon, one of the heroes of local modernism whose fortunes seem to be aligned with the very earth of Australia.


Well, Millar and McCaughey make some quite damning statements about your handling of this figure.  Would you mind if we face each in turn?




Let’s begin with something general and fundamental.  Millar says that people of mature sensibilities can handle art “from any time or place”.  He suggests that you underestimate the public in what you call contemporary sensibilities.  Is your view of the contemporary too restrictive and does it exclude older art?


It’s a funny idea, that one.  I’m quite devoted to old art, trained as an art historian with a fondness for all epochs.  I love handling baroque art, say, even though from a contemporary point of view, the period was cruel, racist, sexist and anti-scientific.  If I looked at art according to how contemporary its values are, that would prevent me from seeing the poetic beauties of so many masterpieces.  I’ve never had that problem and adore the art that belongs to some quite repressive times.  I think that Millar confuses the issue.  You need to be able to reconcile art with contemporary consciousness.  It doesn’t mean that art has to manifest contemporary consciousness.


Nevertheless, Millar indicates that you depreciate the conceptual basis of Williams because, as he writes, “it just happens to be an earlier one, to do with the romantic individual mark, the object, the feelings and the power of an individual vision of the world”.


Oh, yes, he suggests that Williams fails by my criteria because not guided by Derrida or Foucault, as if I had suggested that this bibliography might be a prerequisite for contemporaneity.  That kind of argument is what you call a straw man.  Of course, I’ve never even implied such a thing.  The part of Williams that I described as lacking a conceptual basis was specifically the abstraction of his pictures.  Meanwhile, I think it would be generous to call “the romantic individual mark” and “an individual vision” a conceptual basis.  Those words can be applied to any picture with a visible gesture that you want to valorize, whether it has conceptual probity or not.  That’s hardly rigorous critical thinking.


Mmm, the romantic individual mark as individual vision is quite a period piece, and I sense that you consider the emphasis conservative.  But let me probe one last point about this issue of contemporaneity.  Millar is scathing about your references to the pictures not reflecting Indigenous consciousness.  He says “of course not”, suggesting:  what do you expect?  Wouldn’t you concede that it’s a bit unfair to reproach a man of that vintage for not identifying with Aboriginal culture?


Well, I don’t.  I wouldn’t say that of Tom Roberts or Fred McCubbin either.  Those earlier painters don’t reflect Aboriginal consciousness, in the same way that Aboriginal elders may not have read Derrida.  No one demands that anyone share anybody else’s consciousness.  But when a painter promulgates a view of landscape that flies in the face of Indigenous awareness, it seems to be obtuse not to ask the question:  which of these views is more rewarding for us to contemplate?  The one that is curious for the richness which is out there and has been understood for many millennia or the one which considers Australian landscape to be a dotty spatial blancmange to be exploited for aesthetic novelty?


Okay, then that brings us to the nub of Millar’s case.  He says that these disparaging remarks cannot be made of Williams on the strength of what the artist himself said.  Millar thinks that you are mischievous to quote Williams saying that “all Australia is pretty much the same country” and other statements to the effect that he had no fondness for the bush.  Millar says that you’re committing a cardinal mistake—highlighted by the newspaper editor in heavy black—in judging an artist’s words rather than his pictures.


Yes.  That’s pretty much what he says.  I found that most disappointing, especially given that my judgement is unequivocally visual, as in the phrase of dull spotty things that Millar (and then McCaughey) so resents.  Meanwhile, the credibility of what artists say—which Millar casts in doubt—is of great consequence to Artinfo, which gathers the voices of so many artists.  Are we to dismiss what artists say as somehow untrustworthy and worthless?  Poor artists!  Evidently, you cannot rely on them, because they say things that they don’t mean.  What they say is apparently not even telling, because it may be laconic or ironic or misleading.  Then what about critics, I wonder?  Are they also incorrigibly capricious in saying things that they don’t mean?


Yeah okay, but I think that what Millar is saying is that you shouldn’t put their ineloquent words before their eloquent pictures.


Granted!  But then who’s calling them eloquent pictures and on what basis?  My method absolutely put the pictures first.  I went to the gallery and eyeballed the paintings and came away with all the feelings that I later recorded in the review.  I then read the catalogue essays which revealed Williams’ own utterances:  the two manifestations were in perfect alignment and I can see no reason to devalue the one artificially to support the other.  I thought that this was one of the more redemptive parts of the review, that Williams was disarmingly candid and knew full well what his limitations were, which no one else, it appears, has been able to recognize since.


How do you respond to Millar’s view that you simply don’t see the poetry in Williams’ work, that you don’t have eyes for it, that you miss the point of it?  Is it just Millar’s word against yours?


Good question!  Millar is short on details.  He talks vaguely about “relationships, texture, space, constructive satisfaction, the way paint just is”.  Those things can be said of any painting, good or bad, poetic or clichéd.  They don’t illuminate.  And because they are trotted out as the unique and necessary support of a valorization, they have a mystifying effect.  You are disempowered if you don’t share the subjective position, because it means that you don’t understand much about “relationships, texture, space, constructive satisfaction, the way paint just is”, whatever that means.  Like, are they good relationships, necessary textures, revealing spaces…?  And how?  What on earth is he saying by these incantations?


So Robert, at what point does the subjective become mystification rather than a natural right in thinking or talking about anything?  In other contexts, I seem to remember that you have been an apologist for subjective method.


I am.  It’s true.  I’ve defended subjectivity in academic method in a couple of papers, like “Toward a history of subjectivity” and the book The jealousy of ideas, both of which are accessible online.  I think that subjectivity tips into mystification when it narrows—rather than widens—someone else’s experience.  The critic’s subjective position becomes mystifying when it negates your skepticism by sounding authoritative in the absence of substance or detail within it that would let you triangulate or deconstruct or criticize the view.


Is that like if I say: you don’t see, you have no deeper poetic sense, no visual understanding; you think through words not images or paint…?


…and meanwhile never feel under any obligation to explain or instance any of these lofty qualities!  Exactly!  It’s the one aspect of the term “visual language” that I remain suspicious of, when critics use it, first, as a mantra to authorize whatever they feel like praising and, second, to exonerate themselves from any explanation of visual phenomena.  I thought that’s why we have critics, to put words to visual qualities worth talking about.


But isn’t that a deeper problem in your relations with the generation of Millar?  In fact hasn’t Millar in the past criticized you for not even understanding that there is such a thing as visual language?


Oh, I know what you mean.  Millar wrote a piece criticizing my review of ROAR Studios.  In this piece (The Age, 7 December 2011), which was also quite confusing, Millar suggests that I work through words rather than visual sense.  In the same article, he goes on to say that discursive comment and rich visuality are not mutually exclusive, which pretty much describes my position.


Aren’t you actually quite a champion of visual language?  I mean you’ve written a scholarly book about it, haven’t you.


Yes, that’s also true.  It’s called The visual language of painting: an aesthetic analysis of representational technique.  It investigates the nitty-gritty of painting method and effect.  It reflects my experience as a scrutineer of painting for 30 years and also as a painter.  So yes, I’m passionately visual, think of visual language all the time, almost compulsively.


So do you think that Millar has read that book and understands your philosophy?


Err… or Patrick McCaughey?


…that’s okay: we don’t have to answer.  I won’t invite any sarcasm.  But talking of such (and we’ll get back to McCaughey in a minute), Millar does a line in sarcasm, commiserating with you on how hard it must be for a critic to be dragged along to something so boring.  What did you make of that?


It fascinated me to read those derisive lines, because I’m never bored and at no stage indicated boredom in the review.  Certainly I found the pictures mediocre and lacklustre.  And I went on to express the sadness of their cultural implications.  But that’s very different to being bored.  One thing I hate in art criticism is “ho-hum” and I’m not guilty of that.  Oddly, Millar seems to agree with the pictorial judgement that the pictures are sultry.


Well, Patrick McCaughey makes no concessions to you.  He goes for the jugular.  McCaughey says that your tone is mendacious, that you’re ignorant and deliberately went out to crush a reputation.  Further, you only understand landscape if it’s a photographic likeness to nature, “or why else the absurd complaint that Williams’ trees do not cast shadows?”


So here is a case where concrete visual evidence is rejected as absurd because it supports a conclusion that you don’t agree with.  I observed that the trees lack shadows not as a “complaint” in itself but in support of a broader contention that nothing in Williams is rooted in its place, that there’s no authenticity to country or feeling for atmosphere or space.  As to McCaughey’s argument, it makes no sense.  Most of western landscape has produced images where trees are rooted in space with shadows and yet they aren’t at all “a photographic likeness to nature”:  Claude, for example!  McCaughey shows no logic in his intemperate invective.


Just personally, how do you react to being called ignorant, with a deceitful or lying tone and having bad motives?


The implication that I lack integrity may well be defamatory but I just read it as angry hyperbole and a sign of zeal.  It has occurred to me that sometimes we’re most zealous when most insecure.  I’m reluctant to say more because I work within strict parameters of reason, observation, poetic and logical argument, informed by history and the discourses of my time.


Let me ask a final question and come back to the beginning.  How do you see this episode in cultural terms?  Do you think that McCaughey and Millar simply represent the old romantic-formalist guard—yesterday’s men—protecting old investments and using an accusation of insensibility to trump up a charge of incompetence against you?


Well, all critics have to roll with the punches.  But I think that debate is at a low level when we effectively say:  you don’t have eyes because you don’t agree with me and you don’t agree with the national majority.  Or if we say that you’re ignorant and dishonest (or mendacious) because you don’t agree with me.  At an inner-city book launch recently, my review was described as “a disgrace”.  It’s as if I’d spat in the chalice, when all that I’ve done is voice an honest negative opinion, backed up with visual and textual evidence.  There is no doubt that a certain anti-intellectual reactionary parochialism is out there in the arts; and it’s mostly created by people of whatever age-group who seldom feel obliged to analyse anything but feel that established reputations have a right to compel belief in perpetuity.


Robert, thanks for talking to Artinfo!


A pleasure!


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