Richard Bell: Psychoanalysis - Art Collector

Issue 38, October - December 2006

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The love affair between white and black Australia is over. Richard Bell is no longer taking calls. Story by Rex Butler.

It is 1938, and the murderous progression of anti-Semitic Nazism is under way in Austria. One of its victims is the great Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whose books are first burnt and then banned, and who at the age of 82 is forced to flee his native Vienna, where he has lived virtually all of his life, leaving behind his medical practice, friends, relatives and the treasure trove of objects he has painstakingly collected. And it is at just this time, before and after his move to London to live the last two years of his life, that he writes an extraordinary text, whose exact motivations are still being debated today, Moses and Monotheism.

In Moses and Monotheism, Freud makes the startling claim, based on as he admits merely speculative anthropology, that Moses – the great liberator and lawgiver of the Jews – was in fact an Egyptian prince. In doing so, as Freud well knew, he was contesting what we might call one of the founding “myths” of the Jewish religion, the very thing that was keeping its adherents together in a time of division and persecution. It is the idea that the Jews are somehow a special or chosen people, with some particular quality that distinguishes them from others. Freud does not entirely disagree with this, but makes the point that this quality is not innate to Jews but was given to them by another. As he writes: “The great religious idea for which the man Moses stood was, on our view, not his own property: he had taken it over from King Akhenaten.”

As the Freud scholar Peter Gay argues, this statement by Freud is one of the highest ethical moments in all of psychoanalysis, risking alienating Freud from the very people with whom he identified and to whom he wished to belong. And in a way it could only appear – this is what it was accused of for a long time afterwards – to contribute to the very cause of Nazi anti-Semitism. And yet Freud’s profound insight is that it is just this idea that Jews are somehow different from the rest of us that leads to anti-Semitism, or that is indistinguishable from the anti-Semitic point of view. For, after all, it is this “last wishful phantasy” of some “precious possession” that the Jews can be accused of stealing from others; it is just this “special stuff” that leads at first to admiration and then to the murderous desire to acquire it for ourselves.

It is paradoxically for Freud just those Jews who insist on their own specialness who are the true anti-Semites. And the only way to break with this cycle of envy and revenge is to argue that the Jews never actually owned this “precious possession”, that it was originally given to them by another (this is to say, that their Jewish identity is inseparable from the way they appear in the eyes of others, that their supposedly unique and special characteristics mean nothing except insofar as they are desired by another). It is only by a kind of pre-emptive “strike against themselves”, a going beyond the fantasy that they are distinctive, that Jews might finally escape their anti-Semitic persecutors and the internalisation of the envy and hatred of others.

Is it not something similar – without over-stating the parallels between Nazi Austria and contemporary Australia – that the Queensland artist Richard Bell has sought to do in a long series of works from the mid-1990s on? It is what might be called the psychoanalysis of Aboriginalism. In the well-known aphorism “Aboriginal Art It’s A White Thing” of Bell’s Theorem (2002), Bell seeks to make the point that “Aboriginality” is not innate and natural to indigenous Australians, but a kind of projection on to them by white Australians, is only to see themselves through white eyes. In Desperately Seeking Emily (2000), he attacks and makes ugly arguably the most “sublime” Aborigine of all, Emily Kngwarreye, suggesting that even the beauty of her work is only a projection of her white interpreters. In a number of recent public performances in which Bell wears a black T-shirt with the words “Ooga Booga” to openings of Aboriginal art, he is proposing – and here the fine line he treads between criticising the “primitivism” of the artists or the “primitivising” of them by their white supporters – that it is urban artists like himself and not Desert-based artists who are the “true” Aborigines.

It is fascinating appearing with Bell in any public forum on Aboriginal art. An immensely charismatic man, Bell following his inevitably desultory and offhand presentation soon ends up listening to a series of “confessions” by his white audience concerning the racist incidents they have witnessed in their everyday life (which, like all good souls, they witness without directly being involved in). As with any proper analyst, Bell lets them talk, interrupting only when they realise they have said the wrong thing. In truth, he has to do almost nothing – the situation is not really meant for him and he is not naïve enough not to realise why he has been invited. It is a kind of love affair between Bell and his audience, in which he needs us just as much as we need him, and in which each side appears attractive to themselves when viewed through the eyes of the other.

Indeed, it is this love affair that is the subject of Bell’s most recent series of works, Made Men (2003) and Colour (2004). In these remakes of Roy Lichtenstein’s early Pop paintings, a number of love stories are played out between a variety of white women and a character called Richie. The intertitles and speech bubbles in the cartoons record such deathless platitudes as “I Don’t Care! At Last We Can Be Together For Ever!’, “My, Richard Darling, This Painting Is A Masterpiece… Soon Even Australians Will Be Clamouring For Your Work!” and “We Rose Up Slowly… Oh, Why Aren’t I Allowed To Enjoy My Lusty Black Lover? Why Must I Deny My Love For Him, Stealing Precious Moments Like A Thief In The Night?” The paintings are done – although remade in a deliberately clumsy style, defacing the original sentiment – in a style that is already parodic in Lichtenstein: romanticised, idealised, unreal. We have square-jawed black-skinned heroes with chiselled features and booming artistic careers. We have blue-eyed, flaxen-haired heroines with all the time in the world to lie on their beds and dream endlessly of their man. Both sexes look good to each other and to themselves lit in the glow of their “mutual” love.

What is being played out here, first of all, is the love of contemporary Australians for Aborigines – a love in which we are all Bell’s generically white women. And yet it is this love – for all of the narcissistic benefits it confers on Bell, who can appear so desirable in it – that he rejects. On closer inspection, all the affairs are doomed; there is no “sexual relationship”. Or to repeat one of Bell’s more controversial aphorisms, “White Girls Can’t Hump”, whose very expression itself has the effect of making Bell appear less attractive, misogynistic, even racist. It is a statement whose ultimate meaning and consequences are unclear even to Bell himself, that breaks with any subjective mastery, forces him to see himself from an unfamiliar perspective.

It is for this reason that, if Bell has recently begun to think that “Australian Art It’s An Aboriginal Thing”, this is not a mere inversion of or complement to his previous “Aboriginal Art It’s A White Thing”. The two are not to be added up to form a whole, do not imply some ultimate encounter with or recognition of the other. Rather, it means that both white Australian and Aboriginal art are cut off, alone in their dreams, their thought bubbles, with no-one on the other end of their telephones. It is the same ambiguity that is to be seen when Bell writes the words “I Am Sorry” or “I Am Humiliated” in his paintings, for it is finally impossible to know who is speaking there. It is easy and in the end even comforting to think that Bell is suggesting that it is Aborigines who are humiliated and white Australians who should be sorry. But it is perhaps more confronting to think that Bell is suggesting that it is he who is sorry, insofar as he would not exist as an “Aborigine” outside of this white gaze which grants him his identity. However, to the extent this is so, it is we whites who would then be humiliated, insofar as without Aborigines we would no longer have anyone to tell us what it means to be Australian, what we are doing here alone, waiting for someone to call us, in this faraway land.

Richard Bell’s, Positivity, will be exhibited at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane until 14 October 2006.

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