Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Unexpected Turns: The Aesthetic, the Pathetic and the Adversarial in the Long Durée of Art's Histories

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Unexpected Turns: The Aesthetic, the Pathetic and the Adversarial in the Long Durée of Art's Histories

Article excerpt

Part I

In the autumn of 20111 had the privilege of being a Getty Visiting Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. The JNU's graduate programme is surprisingly one of the very few in art history in the whole of India. There are less than three departments or schools for the study of art history in India despite the wealth of cultural heritage to be studied. The Getty is supporting their endeavours to develop the field by enabling the JNU to invite Western art historians who can share with the JNU graduates specific research interests and scholarly methodologies being developed currently in Europe and the Americas. I was invited as a 'Western feminist art historian' to elaborate on gender in the history of art as it has been studied in the West. Their expectations of me were based on those of my publications that had initially contributed to the establishment of the very possibility of a 'feminist intervention in art's histories' - a formulation I prefer to the simple addition of feminist as an adjectival qualifier of a singular entity 'Art History'.1 Thus, when I proposed a series of lectures and seminars about trauma and aesthetic transformation, my hosts were frankly surprised. What could explain the trajectory from feminism, understood as research into art made by women and a critique of structural disciplinary sexism that had 'disappeared' women artists from the art historical record, to a preoccupation with trauma and historical catastrophe or indeed with aesthetics? What explains the pathetic and aesthetic turn?

Surely feminist art history was allied to a materialist social history of art, focussing on terms such as ideology, representation, discourse, power, and social formation. Aesthetics has been considered either part of a rejected philosophical, hence ahistorical and asocial model or it is associated with quality judgements, formal appraisals and individual responses to art objects indifferent to the mess of politics and social struggle. What truck could feminists have with aesthetics beyond the already long since doomed notion that women artists exhibited a collectively female or feminine aesthetic sensibility?2

In the Spring of 2001 the Clark Art Institute organized a tri-focussed conference Art History, Aesthetics and Visual Studies. Rembrandt's etching of Three Trees (1645) provided an image for the organizers' sense of three distinct postures in a single landscape, although the sublimated reference to the three crosses of the Crucifixion introduced unacknowledged problems to this image. I imagined that the invited speakers were being distributed to represent these three positions. Speaking from a feminist 'perspective', I was supposedly aligned by the organizers with Visual Studies, hence anti-art history and certainly an- if not anti-aesthetic. But they had not kept up with my actual work and were thus perplexed when I gave a paper about the 'Aesthetics of Difference' drawing heavily on psychoanalytical theories of the coincidence of the aesthetic and theories of sexual difference.3 As the introduction to my paper, and inspired by a lecture at the Getty by Paul Barolsky, I analyzed a story Vasari tells about Leonard da Vinci. His father has a farmworker who buys a shield and wants it carved. Ser Piero knows just the man for the job. Leonardo agrees and begins to collect a vast array of insect and creepy crawlies from which he hopes to derive a truly horrifying image of the Medusa-what else would go on a shield? But he takes too long and Ser Piero buys a readymade for his worker. But eventually Leonardo invites his father back to see the original shield. In a darkened room, propped so as to hide its supports, the painted shield awaits the unsuspecting Ser Piero who, on entering the room gasps in horror and faints into his son's hands, before realizing that he has not looked on death, but only an image. The tale exemplifies perfectly what Lacan defines as fascinum: 'the evil eye is the fascinum, it is that which has the power of arresting movement and, literally killing life. …

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