PRINT Summer 1990


THEORY IS NOT NECESSARILY art, and art not quite theory. But both can be “artistically” critical practices whose function is to upset rooted ideologies, invalidating the established canon of artistic works and modifying the borderlines between theoretical and non-theoretical discourse. You see, that’s why I work like a dog and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. . . . This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting? (Michel Foucault).1

Recast in a critical light, the relation between art and theory does not lead to a simple equation and collapse of the fundamental assumptions of the two. Rather, it maintains the tension between them through a notion of the interval that neither separates nor assimilates. In a world of reification, of fixed disciplines and refined compartmentalizations, to say “I am a critic, not an artist,” or vice versa, is to resort to a classification and a professional standard that ultimately serve to preserve the status quo. It is to reproduce a discourse that states little more than the site it comes from, as it tends to gloss over the field of struggle, the mesh of established relations within which positions and postures are defined (even when the latter are taken up precisely to transform it). Attempts to probe the workings of these games of power (rather than merely to condemn them from an unreflectively judgmental place) will remain futile if one is content to assert one’s position as an expert, whose authority derives from the specialization of knowledge—here, from a certain expertise in “artistic” matters. Similarly, to deny one’s critical responsibility is to entrust these matters to professional experts who are then allowed, via mutual consent between artist and critic, to legalize their control not only over the determination of the way things are, and are to be made, but also over the reasons why their role is indispensible: how criticism should be done and by whom, what will be valued as “art,” for whom this art will be produced, and how it will be administered.

Critical practice is often reduced to a matter of evaluation and judgment, or of declaring what is not right in the state of things. Yet if criticism is indispensible to sociopolitical—in fact any—transformation, it is because of its potential to set into relief the frame of thought within which operate the practices we accept. In showing that what tends to be taken for granted can no longer be so, criticism requires that change be effected on the frame itself. Thought cannot simply be ignored in the name of art and its resistance to theory. Nor can it be merely substituted by the quantified social, as in the conventional rhetoric of militancy. “Bourgeois” anti-intellectualism often hides behind an undifferentiating rejection of academicism and elitism. (The hegemony of institutionalized need and normative judgment notwithstanding, it never seems to be at issue whether every intellectual activity must by definition be “academic.”) Proceeding essentially by reductive classifications and binary oppositions, it works at obscuring the processes of change, hence at denying the fact that, as Antonio Gramsci remarks, “there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man . . . carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher,’ an artist . . . and, therefore, contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.”2 Those who reject thought as a crucial aspect of human relations often do so by sacralizing either the esthetic or the social as the only reality, turning a blind eye on the vital role of intellectual activity in everyday behavior, in every social organization, and even in silent habits.

The resistance to theory, or to forms of theorizing that tend toward universalization and idealism, constantly runs the risk of reinstituting naively naturalized theoretical concepts as alternatives to theory; as if a pure, self-evident, and pre-theoretical state of meaning could be returned to whenever immediate access to language is thwarted. Such concepts are often the result of a nostalgic desire for a return to “normalcy”—a state of validated “common sense” in which polarizing opinions and uncomplicated, familiar forms of analysis, interpretation, and communication can be made possible once again. Ironically enough, accessibility in such a context takes on a universal character: to be “accessible” one can employ neither symbolic, elliptical language, as do Asian, African, or Native American cultures (because Western ears often equate it with obscurantism); nor poetic language (because “objective” literal thinking is likely to identify it with “subjective” estheticism). The use of dialogical analytic language is also discouraged because the dominant world view can hardly accept that in the politics of representing marginality and resistance one might have to speak at least two different things at once. There is a kind of resistance to reading the complexity of black experiences as modern subjectivity. And for me when white people say I don’t understand, I find this difficult. . . . It’s as if there’s a kind of naivety, that they come to a place where we’re all going to talk “sense” anyway (Isaac Julien).3 Accessibility, which is a process, is often taken for a “natural,” self-evident state of language. What is perpetuated in its name is a given form of intolerance and an unacknowledged practice of exclusion.

The solution, however, is not an improved method, a better theoretical model, or an “alternative” view. Instead, critical strategies must be developed within a range of diverse territories where the temptation to grant any single territory transcendent status is continually resisted. The difficulty then becomes speaking from no clearly defined space, from a shifting multiplace of resistance. Let us not reduce the question of difficulty to whether the room is too dark. . . . [The third scenario] is the scene where this new thing is worked out, and the difficulty we are having is the difficulty of that discourse emerging (Stuart Hall).4 The challenge must be taken up over and over again: for just as one must situate oneself (in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, difference), one must also refuse to be confined to that location. If art can be neatly contained in systematic forms of closure, if it can be made an object of knowledge, then it is no longer art. Its very “essence” rests upon its elements of inexplicability and of wonder. Or else why would anyone engage in artistic work, whose value lies precisely in its inability to prove itself worth the price or the attention demanded? Few, probably, would contest this point, although many would reject it when it serves to depoliticize the esthetic experience.

Art is political. But one also has to understand that the uses to which it is put are not its meaning. Its status as object and commodity is not its meaning: there are many objects and commodities. They are not all art. What makes art different? Exactly the ways in which it is not an object, can never in its nature be a commodity (May Stevens).5 The ability to confer esthetic status on objects and representations that are excluded from the dominant esthetic is a way of asserting one’s position in social space. It is a way of defying the ethical censorship of the ruling classes, whose esthetic intolerance and aversion to different life-styles defines them as the possessors of legitimate culture. Problems of exclusion and of commodification in the art world as well as in the milieus of theory have always been intimately linked with sexually and racially discriminatory practices. Women of color, for example, are barely accepted as either “artists” or “theorists” (not to mention “feminist theorists”); when they are (reluctantly) admitted into these owned territories, they are also, depending on the circumstances, either intransigently expected to abide by what the dominant eye sees as their “ethnic heritage” or backhandedly blamed for this very ethnic loyalty (such as choosing ethnicity over gender in the feminist struggle). Assumptions on the role of art in communities of color are naturalized to the extent that Caucasian critics never hesitate to claim that they find it difficult to conceive of African-, Hispanic-, Asian, or Native American women’s experiences, maintaining that they can’t write on their work because of unfamiliarity with the history of such groups, or that they can’t presume to speak for them, thereby patronizing these artists with the latter’s own “you-have-to-be-one-to-know-one” strategy. (Male artists from these groups don’t fare much better.)

This almost uniform silence on the part of the critical media is all the more malign given the nationwide action against censorship recently sparked by the suppression of works by Robert Mapplethorpe and other white male artists. The furor surrounding Mapplethorpe tends to obscure the other censorship—less visible, hence construed as less relevant: that censorship, as Adrian Piper reminds us, “of art made by women artists of color [which] has been, until very recently, an entrenched practice in the art world.”6 Thus, in the name of civil liberties, freedom of expression, and First Amendment rights, the focus in censorship debates has repeatedly been the legal defense and protection of white male artists’ privilege of exhibiting works whose explicit/implicit racist or sexist stance is stridently ignored. The colonialist creed of “Divide and Conquer” will persist as long as issues of censorship, racism, and sexism are treated as unrelated. As Juan Sanchez asks, “Where do we people/artists of color fit in? Do we defend . . . a system that never considered us in the first place or do we wage a battle within a battle and hope that we not only help the same constitution but also advance and improve our racist situation?”7

In a friendship, race is just one more index of singularity. It becomes a symptom of alienation when it demarcates group allegiances. . . . My work is an act of communication that politically catalyzes its viewers into reflecting on their own deep impulses and responses to racism and xenophobia, relative to a target or stance that I depict (Adrian Piper).8 To make a claim for multiculturalism is not, therefore, to suggest the juxtaposition of distinct cultures whose frontiers remain intact; nor is it to subscribe to a bland “melting-pot” attitude that would level all differences. It lies, instead, in the intercultural acceptance of risks, unexpected detours, and complexities of relation. Every artistic excursion and theoretical venture requires that boundaries be ceaselessly called into question, undermined, modified, and reinscribed. By its politics of transformation, critical inquiry is ever compelled to look for different approaches to the esthetic experience, different ways of relating to it without categorizing it. Different inquiry by its very inquiry; different attitudes of self through knowledge; different knowledge of the self through the selves within (without) oneself. To maintain the indeterminacy of art, criticism is bound to test its limits, to confront over and over again the legitimation of its own discourse, hence to bring about its own indeterminacy.

IN CHINESE PHILOSOPHY such an apparently paradoxical stance is pivotal to the Yin-Yang principle, or the Vital Breaths of life. This “third scenario,” as Stuart Hall has called it, the nonbinarist space of reflection and its struggle in the politics of location, are hardly “new”: one does not so much invent the new as provoke new relationships. Indeed, without the intervention of the Void, the realm of the Full governed by the Yin and the Yang are bound to remain static and amorphous. A film I can’t even talk about because I am living it (audience response to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror).9 In the dynamic process of mutual becoming, the Breath of the Median Void dwelling at the heart of all things guides the two Vital Breaths, maintaining them in their relation to no-thingness, thereby allowing them access to separation, to transformation, and to unity. These are said to be the three basic meanings of the Void, whose role is not simply passive, since by its mediation, the nature of any opposition, any antinomic or complementary pair, is bound to change. I simply cannot believe that an artist can ever work only for the sake of “self-expression.” Self-expression is meaningless unless it meets with a response. For the sake of creating a spiritual bond with others it can only be an agonising process, one that involves no practical gain (Andrei Tarkovsky).10 Thus Chinese thought, which is rooted in the crossing double movement of the Void and the Full, and within the Full, that of the Yin and the Yang, remains profoundly ternary rather than dualistic. At the heart of the Yin-Yang system, the Void constitutes the third term, and with it, a binary system becomes ternary (the Void being the interval between the Yin and the Yang), while the ternary system tends ceaselessly toward the unitary (the oneness of the Yin-Yang circle).

The Chinese traditional arts fully understand the vitality of this “third term” in binarist relation. In its physical inscription of the gestural movement, Chinese calligraphy, for example, refuses to be a mere support system for the spoken language. It materializes the tension between a required linearity and an aspired-to spatial freedom (the oneness of brushstrokes, also known as the free origin of painting and “the root of ten thousand forms,” a concept that can easily fall prey to Western mystification as a result of dualist thinking). Similarly, through the action of the Void, large unpainted areas of white paper crucially contribute to the tonality, the composition, and the mood in Chinese painting. The double intersection of the Host-Guest (passive-aggressive, pin-chu) and the Opening-Closing principles (k’ai ho), as well as the simultaneous division of a landscape into three planes (near, middle, far) and two grounds (upper and lower sections), show us other ways to imagine the Middle Ground. Here, no duality is inferred in the Two, no uniformity implied in the One, but above all, no compromise meant by “middle.” Rather, what is involved is a state of alert in-betweenness and “critical” nonknowingness, in which the bringing of reflective and cosmic memory to life—that is, to the formlessness of form—is infinitely more exigent than the attempt to “express,” to judge, or to evaluate.

Critical work requires a difficult mode of attention: one sees and listens to it happening; one plays (with) it as one experiences it in/as an activity of production. One does not really catch it, nor does one speak about it without contingent detours and a demanding patience. It can constitute a uniqueevent (despite antecedents), whose resistance to any single guiding schema is bound to create a handicap for immediate comprehension or immediate gratification. It appears at once limpid and paradoxical, unitary and ternary. And, although spontaneous connection with it is always possible through the force of the message, through the quality and beauty of the material, insightful understanding of it is more likely to be gained by remaking the course of the work itself—the frame, the flow, the fire, whose workings and vitality inspire other frames as they open up to other possibilities.

“Anybody who meets beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor,” says a Yoruba song of divination. “The straight tree is the pride of the forest. / The fast deer is the pride of the bush. / The rainbow is the pride of heaven. . . .” Beauty is the “mediating” breath in art: if blue is a beautiful color, one that many people are fond of, it is because, as a Yoruba schoolboy once said, “it is midway between red and black.”11 Through this mediating activity, one cannot single out or give prejudicial preference to any one element, either of content or of form, without detriment to the whole. Thus the one who will soon be the poorest of all must be the one who can only conceive of beauty in terms of fixed oppositions (objecthood versus nothingness). Art is neither an appropriation nor an approximation of beauty. By indulging in beauty, limiting its access and ownership to connoisseurship, by taking it for granted, or by rejecting it as a form of luxury, declaring thereby that its power is irrevocably dead (since it has served too long as an escapist tool to protect the breed of experts called “esthetes”), one so impoverishes oneself as to be deprived even of that which cannot be possessed and remains formless form. This, arbitrarily concluded, must then be named, in the context of material abundance and overdevelopment, the Other Poverty.

Trinh T. Minh-ha is a filmmaker, writer, and composer whose most recent works include the book Woman, Native, Other, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989; and the film Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989. She is associate professor of cinema at San Francisco State University.



1. Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture. Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984_, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, trans. Alan Sheridan et al., New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 14.
2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quint in Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, New York: International Publishers, 1971, reprint ed. 1987, p. 9.
3. Isaac Julien, “The Afternoon Discussion ,” Framework, London, no. 36, 1989, a special issue entitled “Third Scenario: Theory and the Politics of Location,” p. 60.
4. Stuart Hall, “Introduction to the Afternoon Session,” ibid., p. 59.
5. May Stevens, “Taking Art to the Revolution,” in Visibly Female: Feminism and Art Today, ed. Hilary Robinson, New York: Universe Books, 1988, pp. 182–83.
6. Adrian Piper, in the abstract of her essay “The Triple Negation of Women Artists of Color” circulated in her absence at the College Art Association conference, New York, February 1990.
7. Juan Sanchez, in a speech given at the same CAA meeting as above.
8. Piper, “The Joy of Marginality,” a paper given at the conference “The Ideology of the Margin: Gender, Race and Culture,” organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 11 May 1988.
9. Audience response to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, quoted in his book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 10.
10. Tarkovsky, ibid., p. 40.
11. Both song and statement are quoted in Robert Farris Thompson, “Yoruba Artistic Criticism,” The Traditional Artist in African Societies, ed. W.L. D’Azevedo, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973, reprint ed. 1974, pp. 29, 59.