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The Evisceration of Theo Schoon

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Theo Schoon in Tony Fomison's Grey Lynn house in Feb 1985. Photo: Martin Rumsby.

Byrt and Simmons prefer, in sporting terms, ‘to play the man rather than the ball.' A simple accusatory noun, such as racist or copyist deployed emotively lacks the rigor we would expect from empirical investigation. Theirs is neither scholarship nor intellectualism, nor is it concerned with the possibilities of art or human life.

EyeContact Essay #30

Desire … suffices to prove that it would make no sense for life to create cowards.

- Jacques Lacan 

Of all his achievements in the arts, Theo Schoon‘s greatest may yet await us. This being the demonstration of the failure of New Zealand cultural commentators in their assessment of the artist. In 2019 alone, both Anthony Byrt and Laurence Simmons have launched lop-sided attacks on Schoon’s character. These do little more than recycle pre-existing commentaries, many of them idle, that demean the achievements of the artist and his work.

Damian Skinner’s recent biography of Theo Schoon (1) seems to have  stimulated their evisceration of Schoon. Where context and insight are called for we get instead flagrant inaccuracy and unsubstantiated allegations. Byrt and Simmons prefer, in sporting terms, ‘to play the man rather than the ball.’ A simple accusatory noun, such as racist or copyist deployed emotively lacks the rigor we would expect from empirical investigation. Theirs is neither scholarship nor intellectualism, nor is it concerned with the possibilities of art or human life.

The comfort of various staff common rooms, sabbaticals, residencies et cetera ad infinitum have so far failed to produce an energetic encounter with art equivalent to that which Schoon‘s work has given us. His achievement has far surpassed the accomplishments of New Zealand arts academia. For them, the jury is still out on Schoon. Yeah, out to a long lunch in the staff common room.

For their privileging of western over non-western cultures Schoon had earlier dismissed his professors of Art History in Rotterdam as abject provincials. In this he was correct. Are our arts academics any better? In most cases, no. As regards Theo Schoon, I recall Tony Fomison’s reply after hearing a local art historian pronounce New Zealand art as no good. “If our artists are no good, then our critics are even worse.”

I will speak here specifically of Laurence Simmons’ recent review of Skinner’s biography of Schoon (2). He raises points that I feel the need to address.

A good place to start with Schoon is to ask whether his criticisms of New Zealand art and society were correct. Based on my experiences of several cultures and their art scenes I feel compelled to affirm Schoon’s critiques. Not only for his time but also for ours. This is because despite the numerous cosmetic and unjust changes in New Zealand society over the past 30 years, our arts sector still exhibits many of the characteristics of the aristocratic nineteenth century colonial art societies it emerged from. It may offer a slicker surface but underneath, at a structural level, the old hierarchies and inequities remain the same. Indeed, today they are exacerbated.

There is a project here for contemporary artists and cultural activists: Uncomfortable art in uncomfortable spaces. Schoon most certainly was a practitioner of such.

To hear Byrt and Simmons tell it, Schoon was one sick puppy. Barely worthy of the designation human being. They make no allowance for the fallout from a life of strife and striving. For them, artistry is something one can buy on an instalment plan, like an MFA. For Schoon, it was about how one redeems such purchase.

Could a psychological assessment of Schoon be called for; an investigation which proceeds along the lines of absence, exile, loss, displacement, neglect, abuse and betrayal? None of these themes lend themselves to sentimentality and, if handled properly, would not lend themselves to the soapish operatics of hearsay and gossip that have so far surrounded Schoon. An unexamined narrative on the level of Coronation or Shortland Street chatter played on endless repeat. Of course, such complacency is easier than the type of direct encounter and insight that Schoon has already given us. (Both Schoon and Fomison informed me that artists are servants of their culture and their fellow artists).

To his profound discredit, Simmons repeats Anthony Byrt’s unfounded and unproven allegation that Schoon was a racist (3). Really? Schoon, who lived in at least four different countries, was enculturated into forms of Javanese and Balinese art and who studied western art in Europe; he who investigated and innovated within forms of Maori art, at a time when there was little interest in it and virtually no articulation of it, in the Pakeha world.

Schoon discerned a correspondence between the universalist abstractions of western modernist art and the Maori design principle. He also travelled to Asia to independently study its jade culture. These are most unusual occupations for a racist. Perhaps he was confused. On the basis of the precision of his artwork I think not. Besides, confusion is an academic occupation and Schoon was not an academic. (Simmons has something to say about this in his piece).

In his quest, Schoon chose not to prioritize the complexity of his cultural identities over his visual thinking. His was a multi-cultural outlook, one which worked from the specifics within a culture—as shown by his articulation of the Maori Koru motif onto gourds and two-dimensional artworks. He also alerted us to the idea that connections can be made between art and anthropology, just as he straddled the then divide between art and craft as well as helping to set the stage for post-colonial thinking. In these and other ways Schoon was selfless, he gave of himself and for the most part he gave his art away.

Although neither philosophically nor religiously inclined his modus operandi suggests an agreement with philosophies that posit the self as illusory. But his sense of self (and service) is something more than a metaphysical emptiness. Schoon’s is a pro-social selflessness, rooted in the pragmatic. And it was in the detachment of striving for excellence in his engagement with artistic materials and process that he could free himself from the mundane and banal of everyday life. The sheer exhilaration he felt in his encounter with rock drawings and geothermal landscapes could be measured, for him, by their distance from the quotidian world.

Theo Schoon was an outsider, someone who spoke English as a second language, a pacifist, an overt homosexual and an abstract artist in a society that was markedly resistant to any manifestation of ‘the other.’ Schoon’s mistake was that he voiced his unhappiness at the shabby way he felt he was treated in New Zealand. This is not a good place to be outspoken in. Even more so if you are a victim. Engage in such and you will not be spoken well of. They are still finding sticks to beat him with today.

Simmons also replays Byrt’s assertion that Schoon was a copyist. Where is the evidence? None whatsoever is offered. Surely, we have come far enough along the road of multi-culturalism to understand at least some of the workings of non-western art. Schoon and Fomison were able to do so, and they both left us long ago. Why is it taking so long for our commentators to catch up? Where are they and what is delaying them? Maybe it is drinks time in the staff common room.

In these two instances Simmons has merely recycled Antony Byrt’s sloppy and cowardly assessment of Schoon. A good time to recall that cowardice and sloppiness are never charges that could be laid at Schoon’s door—even at his most experimental. What Byrt calls copying is, in Schoon’s case, the workings of precise analysis; a skill our commentators would do well to acquire for themselves. Indeed, the lesson that Schoon offers our art critics and commentators is to be honest and exact. You can see this at work in his photography.

Schoon recognized a ‘patterning’ in traditional art forms and nature. To be an able practitioner within such forms one had to practice these ‘patternings.’ (It is the same for anything. Or, ‘same same,’ as they say in Vietnam). From that came the ability to innovate within the form. That was the way to ‘mastery’.

In his photography of geothermal formations, for example, Schoon’s work depicts existent objects as an abstract naturalism. This is based on a sophisticated reading of patterning in the natural world. Or, as Schoon called them, ‘nature’s finest art galleries.’ These along his research and innovation within Maori art forms offer gateways into abstraction, not just for Schoon but also for the viewer. As Tony Fomison once told me, it is more than being about aesthetics and innovation for its own sake. It is not an individual achievement but rather one from within community. In this case, a community of forms.

Pattern thinking’ emphasizes the connectedness between all things and is quite different in orientation from the abstract universalism that has characterized western thought. It is a collective or communal expression that recognizes ways of being specific to a particular time and place. Within such patterning can lie the rituals and practices of a culture. It can be an anonymous art and, in that, is the exact opposite of individualism. Or, more precisely, it is a place where individualism is defined by how an individual stands in relation to others. (I am speaking here in an east Asian sense of relational thinking rather than the western one epitomized by Byrt and Simmons).

For Schoon, the task was to recognize the highest expression of a culture—‘when it was good’—and to preserve and where possible perpetuate that high point. The psychological motivation behind such thinking was to show things at their best. What would Schoon have to sacrifice to reach his goal?

Philosophically, Schoon can be viewed as a realist artist in that he visited and documented places that existed in art and nature. But he did not document these sites in a mundane or literal way. He created signposts to these places as sites of potentiality—to which we may go in our seeing. This is a speculative form of realism; an understanding that, for the most part, transcends that of our arts academics and commentators. Such imaginative and empathetic engagement is beyond them.

What Schoon did in New Zealand was to create the possibility of hitherto unknown possibilities and to resurrect earlier possibilities that had been put into decline by the colonial project. But this threatened the normative consensus of post-war Pakeha society. He turned the page to a new chapter on how we may see the world. But rather than think about this, our commentators would prefer to talk about how he treated his cats. ‘It is not,’ they will say, ‘what Schoon said. But how he said it.’

In short, Schoon’s fidelity to his work has ultimately caused us to see and think differently, and for this he remains unforgiven. Though there is nothing to forgive. His gift cannot be assessed in trivial gossip and hearsay—anything less than a full engagement with his work merely demeans his attainment and our culture. He is unforgiven because to fairly evaluate his achievement is personally and socially disruptive, and it exceeds the perceptive capabilities of his critics. Faced with an oeuvre that eludes them they choose to disapprove of its creator. The commentators provide the public narration for this disapproval. This is closer to fascism than intellectualism.

Ultimately, the subject-points of art are works of art, not the artist. Which is probably why George Orwell insisted that no biography of him be written. It would only create confusion around the subject and devalue his ideas. This is what has happened with Theo Schoon.

Martin Rumsby

(1) Damian Skinner: Theo Schoon. A Biography. Wellington. Massey University Press, Wellington. 2018.

(2) Laurence Simmons: The Apotheosis of Theo School. Landfall: June 1, 2019. Review online.

(3) Anthony Byrt: ‘Book of the Week: That Total Asshole Theo Schoon‘. The Spinoff. February 28, 2019.

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This Discussion has 10 comments.


John Hurrell, 1:57 p.m. 2 August, 2019

Interesting that impassioned public debate is penetrating our art institutions now with controversial protests (about Schoon) like this.

This one seems to be mimicking the Whitney Biennial protests over Dana Schultz' Emmett Till painting.

Here is also an (at times factually inaccurate) article attacking Gordon Walters in the Physics Room publication Hamster...

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Ralph Paine, 2:11 p.m. 3 August, 2019


A while back I wrote a comment on this site in regards Badiou’s theory of the subject of art. Given Fresh ‘n’ Fruity’s two-part Hamster article I think it’s worth presenting here a supplemented version of those comments.

• An art world is a regime of tension operational between intensities of the sensible and tranquillities of form. Artistic truth-events break the established regime of tension. Via fidelity. While faithful in their truth-events, artistic subjects enter a process of sequencing i.e. a figuring-forth or destiny leading in three different yet often elliptical trajectories: academiscism; iconoclasm; neo-classicism.

• When led to academiscism artistic subjects tend to become reactive, hanging on through time to the novelty of the new figuring-forth in now constituted artistic schools, movements, etc. This is where Badiou speaks of denial: academiscism is when artistic subjects begin to deny the RADICAL nature of the initial truth-event; they become conservative.

• When led to iconoclasm artistic subjects tend to become destructive, thus setting out to completely obliterate the bodies/works, schools, etc. produced by the previous figuring-forth. Rather than in denial, the artistic subjects of iconoclasm are of the occult, they’re purists, fascists—they transport the initial truth-event of art into the Obscure.

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Ralph Paine, 2:14 p.m. 3 August, 2019


• When led to neo-classicism artistic subjects tend to become resurrectionary, always seeking new capacities for the forming and distribution of the sensible; second encounters with the Idea of art, third, fourth… Hence, the artistic subjects of neo-classicism are interested in point-by-point rebirth, in an eternal renaissance of classical worlds/styles. That is to say, not imitation of said worlds/styles (imitation belongs to academiscism) but rejuvenation, renewal. Politically, Badiou aligns neo-classicism with a generic communism (what I call commomism).

• How then to characterise today’s art world a là Badiou? Clearly this world subsists within mixtures of academiscism, iconoclasm, and neo-classicism. So the question becomes: as subjects of the truth of art, what trajectory am I/they/we on?

• No doubt for a long time artistic subjects of the māori world have followed the trajectory of neo-classicisim—we see the beautiful traces everywhere—always seeking/constructing point-by-point rebirths of a classical world/style. Today are they becoming academic, or iconoclastic? How are the alliances gonna shift?

OK then, my two supplements to the above:

First, both Gordon Walters and Theo Schoon were artistic subjects of the māori world, that is to say, they both sought/constructed point-by-point rebirths of a classical world/style. To disallow this would be to disallow ALL pakeha efforts toward an ongoing resurrection of the māori world.

And second, the artistic subject named Fresh ‘n’ Fruity has chosen the path of iconoclasm, that is to say, has opted for a set of purist and wholly destructive beliefs, a kind of fascism/nativism intent on practising a form of obscurantist hate speech.

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Ralph Paine, 5:37 p.m. 8 August, 2019

Here’s a link to an article by Lana Lopesi in The Spin Off

And here’s a list of artists (subjects of art)—including two token writers—who IN THEIR OWN WAY have sought/constructed point-by-point rebirths, rejuvenation, renewal, of the classical maori world/style. Due to research/time constraints my list is limited (and so must be added to at will and at length), but the point of the exercise is this: try sorting out the good from the bad, the ugly from the beautiful, the chaste from the damned, the paranoids from the neurotics, the arseholes from the beautiful souls, the delusional from the clear-sighted, the maestros from the charlatans, the whores from the innocents, the deserving from the unworthy, the egoists from the shy ones, and so on. And then try sorting out the ethnicities, the bloodlines, the pure from the impure, the tangata whenua from the white trash, and so on. And then start profiling the different income brackets, sexualities, religious beliefs, political affiliations, phobias, addictions......

Peter Gossage, Para Matchitt, Dick Frizzell, Ralph Hotere, Joyce Campbell, Emily Karaka, Colin McCahon, Peter Robinson, Gordon Walters, Michael Parekowhai, Theo Schoon, Robyn Kahukiwa, Fiona Pardington, Ayesha Green, James K Baxter, Keri Hulme, Lisa Reihana, Star Gossage, Tony Fomison, Molly McAlister, Frank Szirmay, Shane Cotton, Marti Friedlander, Len Lye, Molly McAlister, Virginia King, Brett Graham......

OK, now start sorting out the good art collectors from the bad, the good capitalists from the bad, the good corporations from the bad, the good iwi authorities (who are in fact corporations) from the bad, the iwi authorities who build infrastructure from those who don’t, the iwi authorities who involve themselves in housing development, agribusiness, forestry, fishing, tourism, real estate, finance etc. and those who don’t.....

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Ralph Paine, 8:54 p.m. 8 August, 2019

Thus doubtless all individuals, whanau, businesses, iwi authorities, corporations, etc involved in housing development, agribusiness, forestry, fishing, tourism, real estate, finance etc. are grappling with water discharge problems, pollution issues, carbon emissions, etc, and so I'm perplexed to the max about what Fresh and Fruity hope to achieve by claiming that "For Pākehā waterways are nothing more than dumping sites." See:

In response, let's just say that the hyper-entity variously named Gaia, the Earth, Papa-Rangi, Nature, Supercommunity (whatever name ya want) is rising up, and Gaia doesn't give a sh_t about the difference between pakeha or maori, men or women, or any other identified group of persons (human or not). The sub-Arctic is on fire, the Himalayan glaciers and Antarctica are melting, forests are dying, the deserts grow, the oceans are full of plastic and streams of radiation, vast storms are raging .... The low lands will soon be flooded by the sea, hot winds will dry the hills, fresh water will become scarce, everyone's on the move, migrants are coming, already here, cities are imploding, wars are raging, and so on and on.... (or is all this just fake news?) In any case, I'm figuring that the only thing to attempt to do about the planetary catastrophe is to help give birth to a new commons, a commons in which TO BE HERE IS TO BE FROM HERE; to help construct a commonism against state-capitalism, a commonism for re-wilding, for the reinvention of money as linked to new values, for a being true to Papa-Rangi via new ways of embracing chaos, new ways of relating to strangers, animals, rocks, machines, new kinds of provisioning, new forms of shelter, labour, travel, etc etc.

When Antonio Gramsci said "The old is dying and the new is struggling to be born: in the interregnum many morbid symptoms appear" he wasn't wrong---a strange and terrifying wind is blowing in from the future and its tearing everything/everybody apart.

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Ralph Paine, 12:14 p.m. 16 August, 2019

The above comment kinda begs the question: is SOUL’s anti-housing development protest at Ihumātao a struggle of/for the common? If nation-state capitalism = colonisation, or what Marx named primitive accumulation (see: Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, 2004) then, yes, doubtless SOUL’s protest is a struggle of/for the common, a struggle against capitalist economics as such. But is it anti-capitalist enough? And is it a struggle against the nation-state as such, that is to say, is it a struggle against this particular political form as enmeshed within capitalist economics and global finance? Tactically (i.e. with a short-term view) there seems to me a completely understandable not-in-my-backyard vibe to the protest, and this links it directly to what's happening throughout Tāmaki Makaurau right now: a full-on development boom is going down city-wide, and it’s exhausting the sh_t outta the 'people', driving us all crazy as it were, and this despite (or perhaps even because of) our reliance on and complicity with the boom.

Given this situation, doubtless the whanau at Ihumātao were angered to the max when the Wallace block was designated a Special Housing Area: immediately they would have sensed the full extent of what was coming! (It’s worth noting here that it was the previous National-Maori Party-etc government that passed the Special Housing Area legislation. Labour, the Greens, and NZ First [???] voted against it). Nevertheless, SOUL’s demand that the whenua at Ihumātao be returned to all mana whenua in the form of publically owned park lands seems a somewhat misdirected effort towards supporting anti-capitalist climate activism, decarbonisation, rewilding, etc., this simply because Ihumātao would then fall back under the auspices of a capitalist nation-state (in this case, under the auspices of Auckland Council) and thus under a business-as-usual and pro-development paradigm involving glocal tourism, fossil fuel use, chemical spraying, pest control, etc. On the other hand, perhaps these issues are part of SOUL’s ongoing internal korero.

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Ralph Paine, 12:17 p.m. 16 August, 2019

However, strategically (i.e. with a long-term view) SOUL is challenging the nation-state, absolutely, and this in the form of a direct threat to the Treaty of Waitangi process, that is to say, to the agreements, protocols, legal processes, axioms, mutually acknowledged legacies, completed settlements, etc that have slowly and surely been established (and continue to be negotiated and carried out) between the Crown (the state) and Māori (as represented by iwi authorities and other legal entities) over the last 50 yrs or so. In this sense, doubtless SOUL well understands the implications of the Crown buying back this block of land from Fletcher Building—if, that is, I’m correct about their tactical demands. Yes, a lot here hinges on private property: if private property-as-such was (for pragmatic and peaceable reasons) exempted from the Treaty settlement process, the protesters are directly challenging this exemption; sure, for now only in this particular place, but legal precedents being legal precedents, one can only imagine what might follow if this precedent were to be set, that is to say, if the Crown were to purchase the land from Fletcher Building and grant it to Auckland Council to be added to the adjoining parkland there. This is pretty much Te Kauwerau a Maki’s stated view.

In effect, the area has a three-fold mana whenua status (at least), aka The Tainui Confederation (basically, the King Movement) so it’s almost certain that kaumatua from Te Kauwerau a Maki will have been in consultation with the Māori King over the housing development at Ihumātao and thus will have been listening to his advice. Also, the Hon Nanaia Mahuta, MP for Hauraki-Waikato and Minister for Māori Development and Local Government is a tribal member of Tainui and so is likely to have been involved also. Adding together these factors gives a good sense of what the protesters are facing up to: a strong and very well established sector of the nation-state, or better, a strong and very well established sector of the iwi-nation-state.

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Ralph Paine, 12:19 p.m. 16 August, 2019

And Pania Newton, SOUL’s leader, is a niece of Te Warena Taua, the principal kaumatua of Te Kauwerau a Maki, so this gives another remarkable aspect to the whole thing: there’s an internal division in the iwi caused by a very young whahine toa (and her cousins) standing up and challenging an established iwi alliance; declaring that a greedy One-ness has erupted on the whenua; seeking and subsequently forming a very successful new alliance with outside/inside forces: ‘E ka huakina! E ka huakina! E ka tohungia! E ka tohungia!’

Clearly then there’s now a growing awareness to the fact that the Treaty process is not bringing reconciliation; that the conceptual dyad Tino-Rangatiratanga–Sovereignty is in many ways a false and deceptive notion, one incapable of decolonising Aotearoa. In my view, any effort towards the common, commoning, commonism within Aotearoa will have to grapple with this looming problem; will have to disassociate Tino-Rangatiratanga from Sovereignty. And in turn, this will involve the creation of better translations/meanings of the term Tino-Rangatiratanga, translations/meanings suited to today’s anti-capitalist struggles. Perhaps whakaaroha–mercy awards the best sense to a newly arising tino-rangatiratanga–governance of the common. Perhaps a type of governance based on mercy offers a better path than that of a sovereignty based on cruel methods of justice.

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John Hurrell, 1:57 p.m. 16 August, 2019

Ralph, you've wandered far away from Theo Schoon (and Martin) in your own little (albeit interesting) fantasy trip. Of course one could blame Anna McAllister for indirectly introducing the Ihumatao debate (and Andrew-- --or Lana's-- --articles) but you really should know better. I will admit though, the debate is very current, and so readers can choose for themselves.

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John Hurrell, 9:44 p.m. 20 March, 2022

Here is Martin Rumsby talking to a dealer in Cambodia...

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