PRINT Summer 1990


the Return of the Same

UNTIL RECENTLY, there was no problem determining who were the subjects of history. They were the largely Caucasian males whose actions and thoughts were inscribed into a history whose very formulation as a science they defined. Discourse was a continuous loop of what the French philosopher Luce Irigaray has termed the “phallosensical hommologue” of Western civilization.

Whether this system has been altered by three decades of liberation movements was an issue tested by “Subjects of History: A Day of Discussion,” a symposium presented in March 1990 at the Columns by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, “in conjunction with the exhibition Interim by Mary Kelly.” This symposium—moderated by Hal Foster and including papers and comments by Kelly, British feminist theorists and art historians Laura Mulvey, Parveen Adams, and Griselda Pollock, American literary theorist Emily Apter, and British video- and filmmaker Isaac Julien—warrants analysis, separate from the exhibition, because it both illuminated the historical context of Kelly’s work and the crisis in representation, and also because, unconsciously or unintentionally, it highlighted a theoretical/artistic movement’s transition from vilified “other” to intellectual elite.

Mulvey and Pollock vividly recalled the initial work of the London Women’s Liberation Art Workshop in the early ’70s. “The importance of women’s lives to become history, to be interpreted,” said Pollock, led to a utopian search for the origin of women’s oppression. A “history group” met for readings and discussions of texts by Engels, Freud, Levi-Strauss, and of theories on sexual difference and the Oedipus. Mulvey concurred: “Theory was exciting,” an “instrument for decipherment.” Such activities are emblematic of differences between the American and British feminist art movements at their onset, which clearly prefigured contemporary rifts within feminism. In 1971 the Feminist Art Program at CalArts held consciousness-raising sessions about our periods, our mothers, our fathers, and researched neglected women artists of the past; in London, they were reading Engels. Both groups understood that the representation of women was a political field. The American approach was, generally, empirical: the creation of new visual and textural representation. The British were discursively problematizing representation itself, and promoting “scripto-visual” subversive strategies, with the emphasis on “scripto.”

Pollock spoke of the “traps of visuality,” condemning the traditional esthetic values of beauty and visual sensuality that have been dominant methods for turning women from potential subjects of history into objects of the male gaze. Adams developed these themes as they are expressed in INTERIM by positing a Lacanian equation—INTERIM is to the viewer as the analyst is to the analysand. The work refuses to offer the viewer an idealized superego (as painting would). “The artist does not have the object any more than the analyst. . . . INTERIM will not make the spectator feel lovable. . . . These are pictures which work at the limit of the image.”

However, both INTERIM and “Subjects of History”—constructed to mount a critical attack on the misuses of visual seduction—suggested, but did not satisfactorily admit to, some inherent contradictions. For example, by embedding a discourse on the aging of the female body (usually neglected or distorted in dominant representation) in a visual project that withholds any visual indication of age, the reality of age as subject was lost in a field of words. As individual pictorial elements, words have no age, and, in English at any rate, most often no gender. The symposium’s emphasis on the “traps of visuality” and the potential of language as a critical tool may have served to perpetuate the lack of focus on female aging—Kelly’s subject remained invisible.

Yet INTERIM’S critique of visual seduction is embedded in a visual project, and thus raises questions about the use of representation and the strategies of commodification for making aging desirable to History. But the panelists seemed only to offer arguments (albeit sophisticated) to explain why INTERIM succeeded in being visually frustrating. Further contradictions emerged and were suppressed: if, as Adams suggested, the strength of Kelly’s work is in its uncompromising refusal to present the viewer with a seductive self-image, then the considerable elegance of her impeccably manufactured works may be problematic. Kelly, however, firmly redirected Mulvey’s questions about the materiality of her work, detailing, instead, her intentions for each and every choice of material and typeface—intentions often not self-evident even to a reasonably well-informed viewer (confronted with photographs of folded clothing, subtitled “Extase,” for example, not everyone will recall Jean Martin Charcot’s iconography of hysteria). The emphasis on authorial intention and predetermined interpretation seemed curious in the context of a work said to refuse an omniscient role, and at a time when the creative role of the reader/viewer is acknowledged. INTERIM’S relationship to conventional sculpture, its references to the work of Minimalist artists such as Richard Serra, David Smith, and Donald Judd, were avoided. And if the strength of the work is in its refusal to assume univocal mastery, then how does one explain the symposium’s choice of Kelly as the only successful exponent of representation in crisis, positing and positioning her as the solution, the subject?

In the way in which baseball fans imagine ideal teams (made up of only short players, only Italian-American southpaws, etc.), the lack of oppositional voices on the panel, and the reduction of a movement to the work of one artist, suggested an endless list of alternate panelists whose presence might have enriched the discussion. How about provoking a discourse between Modernism and feminism by having Rosalind Krauss on the panel? How about a Lacanian feminist from another generation and milieu, such as Jane Gallop? How about “others” within American art, such as Hung Liu or Trin T. Minh-ha, whose esthetic practices are not so different from Kelly’s, who are as theory-adept, but who might have contributed to the “polyvocality” that Kelly believes INTERIM provides? Most important, the gracious presence of British filmmaker Isaac Julien as token “other” (conveniently conflating gay, black, and avant-garde) did not make up for the voices of women of color working in England in the late ’70s and the ’80s. Lubaina Himid or Sutapa Biswas, among others, were not invited or mentioned. Was the audience being presented with a retotalized version of the history of the London movement, whose actual discursive vitality and variety is evidenced in Pollock and Rozsika Parker’s lively anthology of original documents, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970–1985?

In fact, operating at the intersection of feminism, critical theory, and the crisis of representation, “Subjects of History” (presented to an almost all-white, middle-class, well-educated audience) managed to replace one system of exclusion with another. Excluded were such representational strategies as painting, crafts, even language that is not theory language. One thinks of the works of the Reverend Howard Finster, Chéri Samba, or Faith Ringgold in this regard. “Subjects of History”’s esthetic system would, by inference, consider a majority of third-world artists as primitives. Does one need an advanced degree in (white male) philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to be a subject of (the “new”) History? The considerable value of critical theory is compromised if, when transferred to visual practice and discourse, it threatens to reinscribe colonialism.

The goals of the feminist movements in 1971, avowedly Kelly’s as well, were to displace the f/phallacy of the (male) universal, to inscribe other subjects into history, to reformulate what history could be, to break down the closed, exclusionary loop of discourse. Yet here we were subjected to a “return of the same”—the One—presented in an academic cryptography of theoretical language, without sufficient time for questions. A new system of exclusion and exclusivity, or misguided attempts at the kind of artist hagiography that Kelly’s apologists claim her art refutes, does not serve the ideal of a new discourse of history.

Mira Schor is a painter who lives in New York. She is the coeditor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a journal of contemporary art.