LetterFrames on the Land A 'Deconstruction'
Of all the attacks Mr Keith has made on my book Frames on the Land, the most plausible of which I propose here to 'deconstruct' or to refute in the order in which they appear, only that first phrase of his first sentence has some kind of substance in fact. The book is indeed a 'slim, pink book' (that is, it is not a thick book, and the paper surrounding O'Brien's pink-clouded cover painting is responsively pink).
With the second claim of his first sentence, Keith has already begun what is to be a prolonged misrepresentation of Frames on the Land. He says: 'Francis Pound sets out to restore to early landscape painting in New Zealand what he believes to be its only legitimate context: the aesthetic philosophies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European landscape painting.' Surely those are at least appropriate contexts for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European painting in New Zealand, for the paintings of painters who had just come out from Europe? But actually, it is said in my book's introduction that it 'offers an argument', and, later in the introductory essay, that its argument is offered as 'a supplement and a stimulus to our looking at pictures': to speak of an argument, a supplement, a stimulus, is hardly to claim that one's way of looking is the only way of looking, the 'only legitimate context'. The introduction also states: `there is no last word in art history'.
Yet, despite these and the many other explicit reminders that a number of approaches to pictures are possible, and despite the number of approaches actually used in the book, Keith claims I offer my theses as 'dogma, designed to drive out what he sees as earlier art historical and critical heresies.' In fact, if I had intended to 'drive out' anything, it would have been to drive out a New Zealand critical orthodoxy — that nationalist regional realism of the 1930s, '40s and '50s to which Mr Keith still subscribes, and which he and others have imposed on the whole history of New Zealand painting.
Such critical philosophy as Keith has is surely unexamined by him. But in all of his writings he behaves as if he believes that certain (favoured) artists are uncorrupted by the influence of other artists, and especially by that sinister figure for regionalist critics, the 'foreign' artist; that is, Keith seems to believe that artists may create in an aesthetic vacuum. Similarly, he seems to believe that a writer may have an innocent pen or mind; that is, that he or she may be untouched by the language of others.
I believe, on the other hand, in the words of Vincent B. Leitch, `that a text (or a painting) is unavoidably the production of a language, which is always conditioned by a chain of forerunners. Even were a text somehow magically produced in a vacuum, the language of this uncontaminated text would necessarily bear within it the marks of countless ancestors.'
Keith suggests that 'the American historian Barbara Novak played a largish part in forming his [my] theories', and finds her missing from my 'effusive acknowledgements', though listed in the book's extensive bibliography; a bibliography which I intended more as a list of acknowledgements than as a reading list. One cannot, it seems, win — where one explicitly cites a source of an idea, one is 'effusive', where one does not, it is implied that one is 'dishonest', another word Keith favours for those who might dare to disagree with him. While Novak, in fact, did not much influence my theoretical approach (hers seems to me somewhat conservative), she did indeed influence my treatment of such ideas as the stock nineteenth century idea that God may be found in nature. That idea, of course, is a constant of English and American writing, whether eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth century, though it might seem 'original' here: it is hardly an idea new to Novak, or to me.
The example Keith claims as displaying my debt to Novak is ineptly chosen, and yet its very ineptness is significant, for not only does it suggest an ignorance of current critical work, but it is typical of Keith's persistent misunderstanding of how language whether verbal or visual, actually functions. He says: 'Novak, for instance writes of nineteenth century American landscapists "framing" the landscape—a notion surely echoed in Pound's rather clumsy title'. Clumsiness aside, I need hardly have turned here to Novak, for 'framing', 'frames of mind', 'frames of seeing', `framework', are stock metaphors given (imposed on us) by our language, are current in disciplines as diverse as reading theory and biology (ironically enough, Keith himself uses the word 'framework' in his review); and they are echoes of an old metaphor in art theory, stretching back at least to Alberti and the Renaissance.
Perhaps my thesis is, as Keith says, 'basically simple and familiar' (though, because it is not that of the old critical orthodoxy here, it is not familiar to most New Zealanders): it is (in blunt summary) that language, whether verbal or visual, determines what we say and see. However, Keith claims that thesis 'has its foundation in E.H. Gombrich . . . ' There, again, he is wrong: its main foundation is in Barthes' semiology, in the new critical approaches of the structuralist and deconstructionist critics. Gombrich, from this point of view, is rather a reactionary, whose understanding of conventions in art does not go far enough, who sees perspective, for instance, not just as a convention peculiar to a specific time and place, but as true, just as Keith too sees certain artistic conventions as true; and Gombrich's published doubts about abstract art, for another instance, are not dissimilar to what apparently are Keith's own.
The claim that my thesis is `basically simple and familiar', is, of course, in the words of J. Hillis Miller, 'a good example of the way an established institution seeks to reduce something alien which it finds in its midst. On the one hand, it may say the new is not really new but something which has been known and done all along . . . On the other hand, the alien method may be anathematised as entirely beyond the pale . . . both are ways of reduction or neutralisation which convey the same message: it is not necessary or good to take the new method seriously.'
Keith next says Pound 'will allow no other influence on style other than genre'. Actually, my text acknowledges that 'the genres do not determine the painter's form in any absolute sense: they offer, as Baxandall has said of all historical circumstance, a ‘repertory of alternative stimulations and suggestions’. (p.29) It goes on to say, quoting Baxandall again, that: 'the individual painter may in turn be seen to respond to some, to deny others, draw yet others out of some quite different subjective resource, and combine all in a sum and order peculiar to himself.'
Oddly enough, nowhere do I conclude otherwise than that quote from Gombrich which Keith for some reason thinks will refute me: ‘The form of a representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency.' Hence my chapter, Markets and briefs, which concerns society's requirements. Keith's quote of Gombrich comes, so he claims, from 'a work Pound seems to have missed', entitled Truth and Stereotype. I could not help missing it, of course, because there is no such book! The alleged title is, in fact, a section heading of an actual book by Gombrich, Art and Illusion. It is ironic that Keith, despite being such an advocate of fact against mere ideas, should fail so patently and so often to get his own facts right!
Keith next quotes Novak, with whose relative emphases on 'reality' versus conventionality I would disagree: but, since Keith labours under the misapprehension that I take all of Novak as gospel, he mistakenly thinks that by showing her in a moment of differing emphasis from mine, he has caught my text out in a contradiction. I see no need at all, of course, to echo Novak. Yet, once again, one cannot win. If one's ideas do anywhere coincide with hers, one is derivative: If one's ideas do not coincide with hers, apparently they ought to.
Keith says I have 'genre defined for their own sake, rather than as a set of visual conventions we are obliged to decode’. Strange as it may seem, those very words he would wish me rather to use of the genre, are those I do use in my book, where I speak of `solving a cipher or code — a perfect definition of the genre, for every landscape is a coded system of signs and every genre is a key to help us decode it.'
`To follow that path' [the path of the genres], says Keith, 'will not lead to any understanding of a culture or of the ideas which might inform it at any given moment .. . ' However, the ideas of the genres are those of the culture which is my subject, are among the ideas which informed it. The theory of the genre comes not from me, but from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture which is the subject of my book. Hence, I speak of the genres as 'the 19th century equipage this book has reissued.
Previously, of course, in the critical literature, including Keith's own, all New Zealand landscape paintings were stuffed into but two pigeonholes: the true and the untrue to New Zealand. My text's more elaborate 'frame-work' has at least the advantage of offering concepts used at the time of the paintings, rather than those which merely answer the nationalist, regionalist concerns of critics a century later. As my text says: 'Nineteenth century artistic intentions occurred in nineteenth century terms — not ours.'
According to Keith, it is 'when he comes to deal with each painter individually . .. Pound finds his own thesis difficult to sustain.' That, however, is one of the sub-texts of Frames on the Land itself, a sub-text which goes against the grain of genre categories, that it may serve to some degree to soften, or even to undermine them, with further complication and interest.
And so, for instance, under the heading Individual painters, I speak of 'drawing nearer to a few painters, to regard them more closely, and with a more prolonged attention, allowing an intimacy which will serve both to soften the schematic rigidity of what has gone before, and to grant the sight of a few individual painters using the genres in their own fashion.'
In other words, what Keith finds as a mistake, or a fault of the book, is one of its stated and achieved intentions.<p>Keith claims 'No sooner has he arrived at "B" for Buchanan than he finds himself obliged to invent a new genre to cope with "works we call landscapes . . . intended to function somewhat like maps: as visual aids to geologist, surveyor or explorer, settler.”’ This is the product of extraordinarily inattentive reading. This kind of painting, as is clearly stated in my text, is simply the genre of topography, in its most map-making aspect. In the very first definition of topography in my book (p. 13) I had said 'a topographical landscape might appear within the sites of explorers', surveyors' or geologists' charts . . . '
Because Keith believes only one approach is permissable, he claims my book's occasional in-terest in politics is somehow in contradiction to my essay on the genres. He thinks that 'By F for Fox' I am 'obliged to admit to painting an implication beyond art'. As if I had anywhere stated that there is no such implication! Of course, an interest in the imposition of European artistic conventions on a new land may well be combined with an interest in the political uses to which they are put. And those are precisely the combined interests of my Fox biography.
Keith calls my selection 'selective'. Is that not so of all selection? He accuses me, for instance, of so truncating a quote that I hide George Forster finding a New Zealand scene 'one of the most beautiful which nature, unassisted by art, could produce.' Yet, what Keith's quote of Forster shows is that nature did remind its spectators of art, just as my quote from Forster had shown; and, of course, what is called beautiful in nature is determined by art, is that which reminds one of art. That unused piece of a passage, then, could only have helped my argument.
`Consistent with this kind of special pleading', says Keith, 'is the representation of William Hodges in the book with two vast and sublime Royal Academy works.' However, those were the kinds of works by which Hodges chose to represent himself in public exhibition, rather than by the small topographical sketches which Keith would prefer. It is Keith, then, who, quite ahistorically, misrepresents Hodges to serve his own ends.
What Keith calls my 'curious argument that there is no English word for a piece of land perceived visually but not pictorially' is hardly unusual; it comes, of course, from its best known exemplar, John Barrell's Landscape and the Sense of Place; that argument, then, is hardly peculiar to me. Nor does Keith's suggested scenery in any way refute me: it is a theatrical term connoting landscape seen like a painted stage set, which is itself based on pictorial conventions, with side wings, background, mid-ground, with overlapping planes parallel to the proscenium arch (or picture plane).
Finally, Keith proposes to `pass by' my 'cavalier' treatment of `modern sources', 'being a protagonist in that debate' himself. As if Keith was not a protagonist in the whole debate! It is precisely because he is a protagonist in the current and growing debate between two theories that his review of my book is, to quote his own words of me, 'more concerned with scoring points than explaining ideas', and 'seems to relate more to the streetfighting of contemporary politics than it does to scholarship.'