PRINT February 1990


I AM NOT A CRITIC. By academic training and the means by which I earn a living, I am an art historian. But the women’s movement has made all the difference to writing about art. The difference cannot be reduced to the emergence of the auxiliary categories of feminist artist, feminist critic, and feminist art historian. In fact, feminist interventions have redefined the key characters in the processes of artistic production and consumption—the Artist, the Critic, the Reader/Viewer.

The abstract figures—Author [Artist], Critic, Reader [Viewer]—I have taken from Roland Barthes’s 1968 essay “The Death of the Author,” in which Barthes articulated how the textual system of “modernist writing,” which had replaced the “classic realist text,” effectively destroyed the idea of literature as the utterance of an authoritative subject. Barthes argued that Modernist writing presents itself as a fragmented text whose momentary coherence is only achieved at the site called the Reader. The “text” is no longer conceived as an expressive vehicle, as a single “line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but [as] a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”1 Writing (or any other creative activity) generates a productive space that reflects the play of a writer with the social processes of signification, with subjectivity itself understood as an effect of signification and textuality.2

It is obvious that women, never admitted as candidates for the Godlike space of the Author-Subject, have not mourned his death. Yet Barthes’ system posits the now enhanced Reader as “without history, biography, psychology,” as merely a destination toward which the writing works.3 And women have rightly queried this abstraction of Reader as bearer of culture, arguing that it does matter who is reading, and calling for an examination of the power structures that privilege certain readings while repressing others.

Another fatality associated with the death of the Author is the Critic, who was, according to Barthes, the chief ideologue of the Author system. The Critic, claiming merely to decipher the meaning put into the text by the Author—who serves as the “limit on [a] text,” the “final signified”—in fact invested in the text his/her own meanings, thus generating his/her own authority.4 But in Barthes’ anatomy of the Modernist text, we are all Readers now.

The history of Modernism in the visual arts (and literature too for that matter), however, is not quite so neat, for the critic continues to play a significant role in the determination of “preferred” or authoritative readings. Ultimately, I believe we need a larger historical framework than Barthes offers in order to unravel this complex relationship between meaning and authority, and to negotiate its contemporary ramifications.

The typical “private” producer of the 19th century, working in the private space of the studio yet producing for the competitive market, gave a modern, commodified form to the author system. The role of the individual producer’s name became a vital part of brand naming as art entered the open market. Yet Modernist initiatives also had a supraindividual project that created the collaborations and sense of collective identity we now call the avant-garde. It was in this conjuncture that criticism was radically altered.

We can locate its first shiftings in the 1870s, as the early Impressionists solicited commentary from the working critics of the time, doing their rounds for the dailies and periodicals. But by the mid to late 1870s, specialist advocacy emerges, through cultural journals in which partisan critics offer historically based apologia for the Impressionist project. They argue for recognition of particular artists on the grounds that these artists are the rightful inheritors of the great tradition of painting, and also the articulators of the sense of modernity. In this new position, the critic defines the terms by which the new program is to be valorized. An emphasis on formal concerns and one on individual contributions become major, often contradictory strategies implicit in this discourse. With the proliferation of rival factions by the 1880s, the avant-garde becomes internally competitive; increasingly, criticism takes on even more partisan dimensions, serving as advertising and publicity for a select tendency amidst those vying for leadership within, and status beyond, the subculture.

Finally, in our own century, as this subculture is accepted as the dominant cultural expression of the Western bourgeoisies, criticism works to secure the equation of a particular manifestation (and/or interpretation) of the Modernist project with the dominant notion of Modern Art (as in Museum of Modern Art). The writings of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, for example, exhibit this strong historicist and teleological tendency, while framing Modernism in highly individuated forms called Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, etc. And Clement Greenberg stated the case, concluding a review of the history of Modern painting and sculpture, “Towards A Newer Laocoon,” 1940, by saying that he had found himself merely producing a historical justification for the art he championed.5

I would not wish to suggest that his position deserves easy skepticism. For I think, in the end, it is also my own. To engage with contemporary practice is always to engage with questions of historical legitimacy. Any writing about contemporary practice is inevitably shaped by the conditions of the market and by the institutions and discourses that define its social spaces and cultural valuations. The important point for me, however, is that these conditions never exhaust culture’s meanings or effects.6

Museums and art magazines, serving, as the Vancouver Art Gallery so bravely stated in its mission statement, “the purposes of art,” are not merely fooling themselves that they are concerned with making “a living culture.” Making culture, however, like making history, does not take place in circumstances of our own choosing, but in “circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”7 In this sense writers on art have been forced in two directions at once—publicity and explanation, advocacy and historical perspective, appreciation and analysis.

But if Modernism can be defined as a radical doubt about the possibility of meaning, a throwing off of authority in favor of reading, the critical management of Modernism has confidently managed to sustain a tradition of attributed meaning and re-created canonical authority. Raymond Williams has called this the making of a “selective tradition. . . . an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a preshaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification.”8 The selective tradition works always in the interests of a specific social group. I would define that group, as Gayatri Spivak does, as “the privileged male of the white race.”9

My overall project is a commitment to a critique of that dominance and those interests. This puts me in the Janus-like position of looking back into the forgotten and effaced histories of women in order to position and understand the stakes for women in practice today, at the same time that I must look at the work of women practicing today in order to understand what might have been the stakes for those working at the initiation of the Modernist project (and before, in other configurations of sexuality, power, and representation). The result is a certain irony. To achieve the discursive and theoretical space in which to speak, I may utilize the writings of Barthes that effectively assassinate the Author and the Critic. Yet the urgency of the situation for women artists requires a highly articulated advocacy of the work of named individuals, because they have to survive in a market economy. Yet they participate in a critique of social, economic, and cultural power, a struggle that has to take place in the arena of culture, which is the arena of representation, power, and knowledge that is never entirely defined by its capitalist economics.

Let me be clear: such a project does not involve merely inventing an all-woman canon. Nor does it imply the effort to discover “the single theological meaning” of statements made by women, easing Woman into that Godlike space Barthes identified with the ideology of the Author. This would be to assume that a signifying space is already simply there, waiting to be filled with feminine/feminist enunciations. In fact, that space has to be produced through the crossover of traditional boundaries, through an exchange between critical theory, critical writing, and critical practice that produces new knowledge ledge about existing structures and sign systems.10 As a writer, like the intellectuals associated with the competitive avant-garde, I share a political and theoretical context with feminist artists, a sense of common experiences, both personal and political. Collectively we are producing a distinctive textuality through which to signify and speak a critical, and historical, feminist subject.11 The stories produced are not, however, teleological. They do not add up to a “sense of predisposed continuity.”12 They are the contribution, instead, to a counter-hegemony.

I am suggesting, therefore, that certain feminist practices fulfill the kinds of textuality that Barthes defines, and thus the project of Modernism, better than Modernist art criticism. To avoid misunderstanding, let me be clear. Feminism has earned some currency by being positioned as either an instance of, or the representative moment of, post-Modernism. I think this is a stumbling block. While post-Modernism undoubtedly defines our current horizons, we may be premature in abandoning the Modernist project. I am still very much a Modernist —though not in the obvious and very limited terms associated with American abstraction and MoMA etc. Difficult and betrayed as the Modernist project has been since the late 18th century, I cannot see that feminists can abandon its hope of change, its belief in struggle, its critique of power, its ethics of responsibility, and its commitment to knowledge.13 The emergence onto the political and cultural stage of many groups, peoples, and minorities resisting their oppression has condemned some elements of Modernism, but these groups have also used its forms to voice their protest for freedom, equality, and self-determination. The critique, then, is directed at the distributions of power based on the social contradictions of class, race, and gender. Contradictions are, however, to be overcome; they are not superseded by invented terminologies like the term “post” (as in post feminism, post-Modernism, postindustrial), for instance.

At the specific level of cultural practice feminism can be understood, using Barthes’ propositions about a new kind of readership, not as the effort to destroy all authority, but rather to locate it, critique it, disperse it, and, as important, claim it for ourselves. This generates a distinct and emphatic textuality, in which the manufacture of certain kinds of objects functions as part of a larger strategic intervention, the production of signifying space. This term corresponds to Barthes’ notion of the text as a space for a reader to activate its traces into meaning. It also encompasses the spaces of cultural practice—exhibition galleries and the pages of magazines and catalogues. The kinds of art practices that interest me, therefore, are those that use things, objects, forms, and spaces to generate multiple narratives. They are also works that define gallery and museum spaces as the sites for something quite other than the typical capitalist spectacle of exhibition as consumption; as sites where the formal presence of the esthetically vivid work (the thing, picture, photo, video, etc.) becomes the token of exchange between cooperating subjects—producer and reader—mediating the social production of meaning within and among explicit historical, biographical, psychological positionalities.

I write to clear a space for these textualities to function—not because they lack a historical context and place in the trajectories of modern culture, but because that connection has been systematically and violently repressed. Instead of being able merely to note the historical position of feminism, we have to contest the continuing policing of the selective tradition that distorts feminism by representing it as the tedious Voice of the Other, as that monster from outside the city of culture.14

THUS MY PRACTICE AS a writer is dedicated to comprehending in one, dialectical movement the specificity of women’s participation in the production of modern culture and the conditions that have repressed knowledge of it. This produces the leverage by which to set the Modernism that women have made and lived against that selected and legitimated by the “privileged males of the white race.”15 In my Vision and Difference, for example, I offered a new theorization of early Modernism, locating its emergence in terms defined by the deployment of a gaze within a promiscuous social space. Out of this matrix was generated the apparent autonomy of the pictorial spaces—studio and canvas— where men were allowed to cut up women (Angela Carter’s famous phrase about Picasso). We can, from this perspective, see the discourses of high Modernist painting and criticism (for instance, Greenberg’s opticality and support for an abstraction valorized through canonized masters) in terms of a sexual politics, a politics never overtly stated but expressed in its persistent emphasis on artistic vision, visual truth, and, of course, mastery.

This theorization has made it possible to assess what, of the varieties of cultural initiatives enacted by women in the wave of the women’s movement post-’68, would count as feminist intervention—i.e. as calculated strategic practices both rooted in the culture of Modernism and superseding it, critically—precisely by deploying complex expanded textualities against Modernism’s ideologically overloaded “visuality.” This is not a mere endorsement of so-called disruptive image-text, or scripto-visual artworks. Textualities can refer to many sites, many systems, and can draw upon many drives and pleasures, visual as well as verbal, invocatory as well as spatial.

I am not a critic. Yet I am partisan. And I am not an art historian with a presumedly neutral scholarly overview. Writing of contemporary practice, I want to avoid publicity and I want to avoid teleology. What I am aiming at is historical knowledge. That requires an understanding of the present configurations of power. I think artistic practices are as likely a place to find and produce that knowledge, when they function knowingly as strategic practices, even in the midst of an administered, commodified culture. Writing about contemporary art, therefore, is not a matter of choice, but a choice to meet several necessities.

Griselda Pollock teaches art, art history, and film studies, and is the director of the Center for Cultural Studies, at the University of Leeds.



1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image-Music-Text, ed. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977, p. 146.

2. See Julia Kristeva, "The System and the Speaking Subject. 1973, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp. 24–33.

3. Barthes, ibid., p. 148.

4. Ibid., p. 147.

5. See Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” in Partisan Review no. 4, 1940, p. 310.

6. I draw this formulation from Raymond Williams, who writes: “We can recognize. . . that no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention (this range is not the inventory of some original ‘human nature’ but, on the contrary, is that extraordinary range of variations, both practiced and imagined, of which human beings are and have shown themselves to be capable).” See Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays, London: Verso Books, 1980, p. 43.

7. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970, p. 96.

8. Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford: at the University Press, 1977, p. 115.

9. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Imperialism and Sexual Difference,” in Oxford Literary Review 8 nos. l–2, 1986, p. 225.

10. In addition to the many important critical articles written by Mary Kelly, or by Laura Mulvey, I am thinking also of the sustained interventions of Martha Rosler across a variety of cultural practices, including historical and theoretical writings, video, and photography.

11. This is a paraphrase of the terms with which Nancy K. Miller concludes her important paper on authorship and feminism, “Changing the Subject: Authorship, Writing and the Reader,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis, Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986. I am also indebted to Joan Borsa’s paper “The Critical Female Subject,” unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Leeds, 1989.

12. Williams, Marxism and Literature, p. 116.

13. On women and ethics, see Kristeva, “Women’s Time,” 1979, in The Kristeva Reader.

14. My reference here is to the Mulvey/Wollen film Riddles of the Sphinx, 1976.

15. The “difference” is socially construed (over a complex psychic field). My book Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988) is organized around two moments — the construction of Modernist culture in the spectacular city of consumer capitalism structured around cross-class sexual exchange, and the critical challenge to its legacy that emerged in the 1970s. The study of the earlier moment in history required me to examine the construction of a fetishistic regime for the representation of the sexualized body of working class women—which is the figure of Modernist art (from Olympia to Demoiselles d’Avignon). The operative categories of flâneur/voyeur/scientist brought into the visual arts the objectifying distanced gaze characterizing modern science and medicine, and normalized as what Foucault called “the eye of power.” The social identities assigned to women, and the psychic installation of a socially specific feminine subjectivity, both constrained women from that deployment of the gaze while generating quite other relations within pictorial representation (as well as in social space between social subjects) that do not privilege the relations of looking over all other modes of interaction and knowledge.