Theory, Ideology, Politics: Art History and Its Myths

Article excerpt

To reread as a woman is at least to imagine the lady's place; to imagine when reading the place of a woman's body; to read reminded that her identity is also remembered


in stories of the body.--Nancy K. Miller(1)

Re-vision--the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction--is for women far more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.--Adrienne Rich(2)

I. Being Childish about Artists

In her study of Freud's aesthetics, Sarah Kofman tracked Freud's apparently contradictory statements about what psychoanalysis has to offer the study of art. As a mere layman and scientist compared to the connoisseur who has a specialist knowledge of art and aesthetics, Freud appeared to play down his own contribution to an understanding of art. Kofman revealed these disclaimers to be ironic and concluded:

But at the end of the text, as in "The Uncanny," the "connoisseurs" are reduced to glib talkers caught up in subjective opinions, elevating their own fantasies about works of art to the status of knowledge, yet unable to solve the riddle of the text in question. Freud's plea to them for lenient criticism should thus be interpreted ironically. What Freud means is that the art "connoisseur" criticizes without knowing what he is talking about, for he is talking about himself; only the psychoanalyst can disclose the "historical truth," if not the "material" truth of what he says.(3)

Psychoanalytically inspired analysis, therefore, of the discourse of connoisseurs--read art historians--identifies the fantasies and desires that are invested in art and artists. Freud also had suggested that the "public's real interest in art lies not in art itself, but in the image it has of the artist as a 'great man,'" even though this fact is often repressed.(4) To unravel the riddle of a text is consequently to do violence to the idealized image of the artist as genius--to commit some kind of "murder"--hence the resistance, not merely to psychoanalytic work on art in general, but to any kind of demystifying analysis such as that carried out by social, critical, and feminist historians of art. Quarantined by being called theory, self-analysis of what deeply structures the discourses named art history is rendered a violation.

In writings on art--his contemporaries were some of the so-called founding fathers of the discipline of art history--as well as in general public interest in art, Freud identified a combination of theological and narcissistic tendencies. A student of both anthropology and histories of religion, Freud established parallels between the history of humankind revealed in these emergent disciplines and the psychological history of the individual being mapped by the discipline he was inventing. Thus, ancient rituals and forms of religion such as totemism and deism could be related to stages of infantile development.(5) Freud discerned the way in which what we might imagine to be a highly sophisticated social practice--art appreciation--is informed by psychic structures characteristic of certain powerful moments of archaic experience in the history of the human subject that remain active in social institutions and cultural forms such as religion and art. The high valorization of the artist in modern Western art history as a "great man" corresponds with the infantile stage of idealization of the father. This phase is, however, speedily undermined by another set of feelings--of rivalry and disappointment--which can give rise to a competing fantasy and the installation of another imaginary figure: the hero, who always rebels against, overthrows, or even murders the overpowering father. Sarah Kofman writes:

People's attitude toward artists repeats this ambivalence. The cult of the artist is ambiguous in that it consists of the worship of the father and the hero alike; the cult of the hero is always a form of self-worship, since the hero is the first ego ideal. …