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Heather Dawkins

Paul Kane and the Eye of Power


Vanguard, Vol. 15 #4, September 1986.
[ 3,476 words ]


In response to the challenges generated at the Feminism and Art Symposium last year, Halifax art historian and critic Heather Dawkins has chosen to 'examine an instance of imperialist discourse in Canadian painting.' The images and text of Paul Kane's The Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America (1851) provide Dawkins ample subject matter for such a discussion. She concludes by arguing that Canadian art history of this period must come to grips with the 'articulation of power and knowledge, with technologies of observation, classification, investigation and surveillance, and with the particularities of imperialist discourse' which she sees to be evident in Kane's work.

Although it may have attracted little attention, one of the truly significant conferences in the arts in 1985 was the Feminism and Art Symposium held in Toronto. At this conference an ambitious attempt was made to represent some complex and specialized areas of thought and enquiry in the women's art movement. The speakers in those specialized areas, primarily psychoanalysis and Marxism, presented particular instances of a productive and proliferating literature. The presentations can be read in Parallelogramme Vol. 10 #4, but unfortunately this could not include the fourth event of the symposium, the Sunday session where, in many ways, the most difficult and productive work of the conference was done.

In what was at times a heated exchange, women artists, critics and art historians argued various strategies of anti-racist work in the arts, especially concerning art history. Whether the call was for an art history of black artists along the lines of existing histories, or for an art history that sought to write a radically different art history and in doing so critique and undermine the existing conventions of the discourse, questions were being raised that were outside the usual limits of art history with its universalizing, ahistorical, conflict-free, and object-privileging assumptions. These were questions of the relation of art and art history to colonialism, to imperialism, to racism. (1) 

In Canadian terms, even to ask such questions seems rather optimistic given the sporadic institutional support of, and space for, such an art history — never mind the lack of engagement, in post-secondary art departments, with the methodological texts necessary for such a practice. The conference itself gave some indication of this. It was made possible through the Canada Council and A Space and its organizers and speakers for the most part worked outside post-secondary art departments. At Gallery 940, shortly after the conference, black women talked about their work on exhibit as part of Black History month; they testified to the complete invisibility of questions of race and culture in their art educations. And, nine months later, at the 1985 conference of the Universities Art Association of Canada, it seemed similarly obvious that questions raised by liberatory movements were barely being taken up by the institutions of art education in Canada — by art historians even less than by studio instructors.

One need not wonder long why this is so, given the history and the limits of art history, but a comparison with English universities, which to some extent have been the sites of political practice in the arts, yields some instructive insights.

To begin with, the expansion of English universities in the mid-sixties provided teaching posts to many Master's level students who had begun a critique of their respective disciplines in the student unrest of that decade. These people had both a material and an academic opportunity — to earn a living and to take up a sustained critique of their discipline in both their teaching and their PhD research. Unlike North American research degrees, which require substantial coursework, the English equivalents demand less investment from their candidates and consequently, it seems, produce a less vested interest in protecting that discourse and reproducing it. In addition, the influence of the Frankfurt School on the academic left in North America has to some extent relegated the popular to the dustbin of capitalist regression while retaining various truth producing or critical capabilities. In England, where the Frankfurt School gained much less currency, media studies and cultural studies have lent much to the challenging of art history, both academically and politically.

This is important. Without some recognition that a new art history requires certain conditions to flourish, the old one will continue to be produced in Canada's institutions. With the Canadian university practice of hiring PhD graduates or candidates (candidates entrenched in norms and having vested interests in the continued dissemination of that knowledge), it is doubtful that the debate over how to write a black or women's art history will become more than an optimistic discussion. Art history will not be transformed on an academic whim. The production of new knowledges requires a new curriculum, new methodologies, new social relations of learning and study, new questions, a new politics, and new sites for its production. (2) 

Having said that, I would now like to take up one aspect of the challenge pinpointed at the Feminism and Art Symposium, to examine an instance of imperialist discourse in Canadian painting. This is offered in response to those crucial questions raised at the Sunday session, though my remarks do not deal with black artists or cultures specifically. (3) 

In the author's preface to Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (1851) (4)  Paul Kane lays out the acknowledged limits of his project to illustrate in visual and written texts the manners and customs of the aborigines in their original state, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country. (5)  Comparing his travels to those of the gold rush taking place at the time of publication, Kane establishes precedence for his trip, both chronologically and for its relative isolation in 'those wild scenes amongst which I strayed almost alone, and scarcely meeting a white man or hearing the sound of my own language.' (6)  Kane's account of this solitary adventure, accompanied as it is by anywhere from one to 70 Indian or Metis guides, is but one example of the literature of manners and customs that negotiated and codified the difference of indigenous people during the imperialist expansion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (7)  Much of this travel and exploration writing represents the native people in a kind of timeless suspension, even while the protagonist's adventure is narrated temporally. Kane's representations of beliefs, customs, and habits are no exception and take two basic forms. One is the explanation of some otherwise inexplicable behaviour as the product of a ridiculous and superstitious belief. The other is the account of habits as they relate to mundane activities — how a fish was cooked or caught, how utensils or canoes were made, and so on. In these accounts the experiencing and perceiving author is completely suppressed, the information appears to have no social and historical condition of production, and the activity is often described in a suspended tense.

During the season the Chinooks are engaged in gathering camas and fishing, they live in lodges constructed by means of a few poles covered with mats made of rushes, which can be easily moved from place to place, but in the villages they build permanent huts of split cedar boards. Having selected a dry place for the hut, a hole is dug about three feet deep, and about twenty feet square. Round the sides square cedar boards are sunk and fastened together with cords and twisted roots, rising about four feet above the outer level; two posts are sunk at the middle of each end with a crotch at the top, on which the ridge pole is laid, and boards are laid from thence to the top of the upright boards fastened in the same manner. Round the interior are erected sleeping places, one above another, something like the berths in a vessel, but larger. In the centre of this lodge the fire is made, and the smoke escapes through a — hole left in the roof for that purpose. (8) 


This passage is typical in the way that it describes an activity in which a human presence is minimalised: 'a hole is dug, boards are sunk, the ridge pole is laid.' (9)  The information is also stripped of its context of production, the wandering artist is scarcely visible; the language of information is self-effacing. Only rarely is Kane the object of curiosity and attention in this text. Elsewhere it is obvious that his knowledge was secured by exchange (tobacco for a sketching session); by violence (the beating of guides and workers on the trip secures the reliable behaviour crucial to white survival); by translators; by the Hudson's Bay Company's penetration of the country and its interpellation of Indian peoples in capitalist social relations.

The text repeatedly deals with violence, of Indian to Indian, tribe to tribe, and Indian to whites. These representations consistently ascribe some sort of logic or limit to murder — the reasons for murder (the punishment for stealing from a burial site, a sacrifice for the death of a chief, cannibalism in the face of starvation, etc.) rendering predictable — or at least comprehensible — the unpredictable safety of a white man confronted by difference. Once, having left some of his property at the previous night's camp, Kane sent his guide back and alone encountered four Indian men who scrutinized him for three, hours:

As I sat upon the packs taken from the horse, nodding in silence, with a fixed stare at them whichever way they turned, my double-barreled gun cocked, across my knees, and a large red beard (an object of great wonder to all Indians) hanging half way down my breast, I was no doubt, a very good embodiment of their idea of a scoocoom or evil genius. To this I attributed my safety, and took a good care not to encourage their closer acquaintance, as I had no wish to have my immortality tested by them. (10) 


Unlike the rather unpeopled descriptions of buildings, artifacts and customs, many of Kane's paintings and sketches are portraits. Ramsay Cook points out a difference between the sketches and the paintings (see below), but perhaps the most remarkable difference in modes of representation occurs between the visual and written text in Wanderings of an Artist. The written text registers Kane's unease, and even repulsion, in a way that neither paintings nor sketches do. Chapter XII, for example, describes in succession the Chinook practice of binding infants' heads to shape them (11)  ; slavery among them ('of the most abject description') (12)  ; the barbarous language of this tribe ('the horrible, harsh, spluttering sounds which proceed from their throats, apparently unguided either by tongue or lip') (13)  ; and their 'filthy' habits ('their persons abounding with vermin and one of the chief amusements consists in picking these disgusting insects from each others heads and eating them'). (14)  This section is part of the individuation of the tribes, presenting the particularities of the Chinooks, the Walla Walla, the Cowlitz, and so on; the specificity of tribal cultures is offset by the constants of 'savage' behaviour. According to the text these are laziness, filthiness, uncontrollable gambling, and alcohol addiction, the latter 'turning savages into dangerous animals.' (15)  As in other Victorian representations of the working class, the poor and the 'floating population,' this lack of self-control is the object of intervention, in this case by the Hudson's Bay Company, the missionaries, the travellers who employ Indian guides, and the state.

The visual representations are articulated with the written text, which often includes a description of the sketching session or elaborates some details of the sitter's life. The illustrations in the text are referred to as sketches, even though they are chromo-lithographs produced after paintings that were made in the decade following the end of the trip. This re-working of sketches is effaced by the written text (just as the writing of the text is also effaced — many sections are not to be found in the original travelogue), and in its place an immediate correspondence between visual and written is produced. The visual acts as evidence of the written encounter, and the truth of the former is secured through representations of the sitter's fear or respect for the sketches. However, a closer look at one portrait, in particular, indicates just how re-worked these 'sketches' (book illustrations) were. Sketch No. 110 of a Flathead Woman and Child would conventionally be understood as a romantic version of Indian life. It is obvious that the composition is a combination of at least two sketches made on the trip (now belonging to the Stark Foundation). One is of a Chinook infant having its head shaped, the other is a profile of a woman belonging to the Cowlitz tribe, who also shaped their heads. These are sketches of two tribes, taken from two sketching sessions. However, the published journal entry that corresponds with the published image constructs a unity for it — it is the product of one sketching session in which the woman feared the power of the sketch. Further, the portrait, in a typical mother and child format, raises questions about whether this should be understood as a romanticized version of Indian life, or whether — on the contrary — it was read as a nineteenth century indictment of Indian culture. The nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of the bourgeois family, with children becoming more and more the object of intensifying emotional bonds and adult, legal, and philanthropic protection. In that context, can it be assumed that such an image would not be received with curious revulsion? Questions must be raised about the historical readings of these images, questions that disrupt the generalities of a benign Victorian romanticism and attend rather to the particularities of both the representations and their historical moments of reception.

Clearly Paul Kane's work cannot be understood on a formal or biographical level without completely obscuring its part in an imperialist and racist discourse. The paintings and sketches have been the privileged objects of art historical attention, but this valorizing of the visual fails to recognise the written text of which these were an integral part, and in which his work had its widest circulation. Indeed, these texts were productive. They did not merely repeat already-held racist views — they produced an imperialist discourse. In a recent article, Raising Kane, Ramsay Cook suggests that Paul Kane's sketches represent Indian life as it 'was really lived' in works of ethnological accuracy and aesthetic appeal' (16)  and that the paintings, so overtly made to a patron's request, represented Indians as the 'leaders of Canadian society hoped to remember them in the not-too-distant-future.' (17)  Cook's reference to ethnological accuracy connotes scientific status for the art objects, but neglects to acknowledge that the emergence of ethnology itself depended on the manners and customs literature to which Kane contributed. (18)  Ramsay Cook's view, that the works made during the trip sketch life as it was really lived, is a notion that is consistently negotiated throughout the journal itself. The status of these sketches and likenesses as accurate is secured in the text by the representation of an Indian's awe for the likeness, and consequently the attribution of magical properties either to the likeness (the second self) or to Kane. The gap between the referent (which is, after all, only known through its representation) and the representation is closed via the subject's own excessive verification. Truth, accuracy, realism: all are thus produced in the written text for the visual. (19) 

Clearly this archive is not a sketch of life as it really was, a document of Indians in their original state, but neither is it simply the perception of Indians through European filters. Kane's gaze, of observation and of knowledge, his sketches, paintings, and writings are deeply implicated in, and constitutive of, power.

In The Eye of Power (20)  Foucault outlines an historical shift from qualities of monarchic power to a kind of power made necessary by the economic changes of the eighteenth century. The conjuncture of an increasingly mobile population to be supervised and manipulated and a growth in the apparatus of production necessitated that the effects of power circulated through ever-finer channels, reaching individuals and their daily activities. This change from sporadic and spectacular power to a technology of power that is continuous and fluid within the social body and on minute levels within it is intimately bound up with the practice of surveillance, discipline, and the production of knowledge. Foucault insists that knowledge and power are linked in mutually reinforcing relationships.

Foucault deals mainly with institutions, but this work is pertinent to the study of other centres and practices of observation within the social totality — and to the network of referrals, complementarities, and articulations between discourses and practices having different modalities of observation, power, and knowledge. It is also important to note that Foucault insists that these strategies of observation and discipline were invented and developed according to local urgencies and conditions; Kane's can be seen as one such instance.

It is from this point that a study of Paul Kane's work, of his painting, sketches, and Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America must come to terms with a myriad complexities — with the social relations of the production of these representations and their knowledges, with their conditions of existence, with the social relations of their circulation and reception, and with their effects. These will not be simple, reducible to the distortions of the Victorian imagination, for example, but complex, fractured, and over-determined. They have to do with the articulation of power and knowledge, with technologies of observation, classification, investigation and surveillance, and with the particularities of an imperialist discourse. To write this history does not retrieve a nineteenth century other, but it refuses the benevolence customarily accorded to Kane's work in Canadian art history.

Refusing that benevolence and analyzing the relations of power and knowledge in Kane's project is but one aspect of the area of enquiry and activism demanded by women at the Feminism and Art Symposium. That work, of changing social relations and changing knowledges, is crucial to the disruption and transformation of the concepts and the languages of racism in this culture. As the symposium recognised, such questions should not be seen as a healthy alternative that merely revitalizes art history. Rather, they are of central importance in art history as a political practice, as part of the transformation of knowledge and behaviours that is cultural politics.


Vanguard, Vol. 15 #4, September 1986.

Text: © Heather Dawkins. All rights reserved.

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