Art History and critical Theory
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practiced most freely in socially marginal places such as waterfront bars or theatres.)
► Who was the viewer for these works? Did the works present an image of homoeroticism that was meant to attract? Repulse? (Demuth, for example, intended the works for himself and a very small circle of trusted friends who knew and shared his sexual orientation. You could also work, however, on images that were negative or ambiguous in their representation of such sexualities—the sensationalist covers of 1950s dime- novels with lesbian themes are one example).
► Does the artist address homoerotic subjects in other media and kinds of images (oil painting or drawing, for example)? Why did Demuth choose to work in watercolor and a relatively small format in depicting these subjects?
► How does this body of imagery relate to the other imagery Demuth produced (for example, abstract works, still lives, pre cisionist images of factories and silos)?
► You might also look at the scholarship on Demuth: which scholars discuss the homoerotic watercolors? (Jonathan Wein berg’s “Speaking for Vice” is an obvious starting point.) Are there scholarly works that seem to suppress these watercolors, and, if so, why? (For example, a recent visit to the Charles Demuth Museum website revealed no mention of his sexuality or the homoerotic content in his work. I can’t help but think that if he had been a heterosexual married man, his personal life would have been mentioned.)
cultural Studies and postcolonial theory Culture is ordinary.
Raymond Williams, “Moving from High Culture to
Ordinary Culture” (1958)
Culture is everything. Culture is the way we dress, the may we
carry our heads, the way we walk, the way we tie our ties—it
is not only the fact of writing books or building houses.
AimeC esaire,“Culture and Colonization” (1956)
Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary academic movement that takes culture out of the realm of the elite and examines its inter connections throughout society’. From a Cultural Studies perspec tive, all people engage in culture, in the making of symbols and the practices of representation (verbal, visual, gestural, musical, etc.).
Cultural Studies is wide-ranging—its practitioners may discuss novels, workers’ diaries, concepts of race or gender, soap operas, or objects of daily life, from hand-embroidered tablecloths to Ikea furniture. In doing this work, Cultural Studies is strongly interdis ciplinary: it derives its methods and issues from anthropology, his tory, economics, sociology, literary’ criticism, and art history. Art historians have been particularly involved in the branch of Cultural Studies known as Visual Culture Studies.
Cultural Studies emerged in Europe and the US after the Sec ond World War, and in many ways it was strongly influenced by Marxist cultural analysis; in fact, the English scholar Raymond Williams (1921-1988), quoted above, could just as easily have appeared above in the Marxism section. Cultural Studies is particu larly concerned with ideology and power. It takes as a primary con cern subjectivity—that is, how human subjects are formed by the social and cultural forces around them, and how they experience their lives in culture and society: It has a particular interest in both “ordinary” people and in communities marginalized by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. For example, Stuart Hall, one of the founding figures in the field, argues that people are simultaneous makers and consumers of culture, participating in that culture according to their place in economic and political structures. He argues that people, via processes of encoding and decoding, shape culture, and that institutions such as the church, the state, etc. encode certain ideas in mass media, which audiences then decode (this is an alternative perspective to Adorno’s). But Hall holds that we are sophisticated consumers of mass media: we can respond to these representations with skepticism and make oppositional readings. Depending on their cultural backgrounds, individual experiences, etc., some people may accept most of the “text” of the media message, while others reject it almost entirely.59
Postcolonial theory’ has been important to the development of Cultural Studies, so I’ve put the two together here, though there’s nothing necessary or inevitable about this placement. Colonialism has been a powerful cultural force across the globe, and has manifested itself in several forms. The term postcolonial refers not only to the shaping of new identities, and political and cultural practices in former colonies, but also to a body of theory that sup ports the study of the distinctive cultural, social, and political dynamics of both colonial and postcolonial societies. I do also want to note here that the term postcolonial has its critics. Some argue
that the “post” in postcolonial fails to recognize the exploitation still present in neo-colonial relationships: despite political indep endence, former colonies are often economically dependent on former colonizers, and oppressive relations of power may develop within a former colony itself. Moreover, studying cultures, regions, or nations through categories such as pre-colonial/colonial/ postcolonial prioritizes the colonizer’s perspective and can be, itself, a form of neo-colonialism.60
Of course, engaging in Cultural Studies requires a working definition of the term “culture.” For Raymond Williams, culture is an organic “way of life.” Culture can also be social process, com munication, interaction between people, the common frames of reference for interpreting experience. Culture is group identity. Cul ture is also a site of struggle for dominance by competing groups.
Race and postcolonial theory
In discussing race, Stuart Hall argues that there are two kinds of identity: identity in being (which offers a sense of unity and com monality) and identity as becoming (or a process of Identification, which shows the discontinuity in our identity formation). Identity is important, but it is a process of “imaginative rediscovery”: he argues against the idea of identity as true or essential, emphasizing instead the ways in which cultural identities are subject to the con tinuous “play” of history, culture, and power.61 For Hall, identities of race or gender are not an unchanging essence, but a positioning, unstable points of suture within the discourses of history and cul ture (see also the discussions of essentialism and Queer Theory above).62
Race is a key issue not only in studying contemporary cultures, but also in studying the history of colonization, especially through postcolonial theory. According to one influential definition, the term “postcolonial” signifies “all the culture affected by the impe rial process from the moment of colonization to the present day… there is a continuity of preoccupations throughout the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression.”63 Colonial relationships are inherently unequal: social, political, and eco nomic power are held by the colonizer, who exploits the colonized people and territory. Even so, it’s important to remember that there’s no one, single type of colonial experience. Scholars distin guish between different kinds of colonial relationships. For exam ple, there are settler societies, to which Europeans emigrated in
large numbers (such as Australia and the United States) and also colonies that served primarily as sources of raw materials and as market outlets (like many African colonies). Moreover, there is also variation, among both the colonists and the colonized, based on race, class, education, religion, gender, and other factors.64 An army officer, a merchant, and a low-level plantation manager would potentially have very different colonial experiences, as would, among the colonized, a local aristocrat and a plantation worker.
The Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) was a groundbreaking work in postcolonial theory. In it, Said (1935-2003) employed Foucault’s ideas about discourse and power to assert that the West, via Orientalism, represented the East (including the Middle East, China, Japan, and India) as exotic, mysterious, distant, unknowable, as a way of controlling it.65 According to Said, there never was an “Orient,” except as an inven tion that Westerners used to subjugate the region.
Critiques of Said’s work (including those of Bernard Lewis and Aijaz Ahmad) have argued that Said’s divide between East and West is too simplistic, that colonial experience was more compli cated and multifaceted, with more players and participants, than this binary division allows.66 Moreover, scholars have applied Said’s framework to a variety of colonial situations and relation ships, some of which it doesn’t fit very well. Nonetheless, Said raised a set of theoretical issues—especially about representation and discourse—that has been widely influential.
In The Location of Culture (1994), Homi Bhabha, a leading scholar in postcolonial studies, explores mimicry and hybridity as ways of negotiating the power relationships between colonizer and colonized. In mimicry, the colonizers compel the colonized to imitate them—to use their language, customs, religion, schooling, government, etc.67 Bhabha considers what this means not only to the colonized, but also to the colonizer. How does it distort culture and experience to be imitated? What are the power dynamics of the relationship? How is resistance possible? Bhabha also investigates hybridity—what happens when cultures come into contact with each other, especially in colonial situations. He argues against binary oppositions (such as First World/Third World, black/whitc, men/ women) and fixed borders. Instead, he explores what happens at the interstices, at the places where peo ples, cultures, and institutions overlap, where identities are per formed and contested.
Drawing on the writings of the Caribbean political theorist and activist Franz Fanon (1925-1961), Stuart Hal) points out that within colonial contexts a process of “self-othering” takes place. This is distinct from Said’s Orientalism, where the colonized were con structed as different by the colonizer within the categories of West ern knowledge. Hall argues that the colonizer had “the power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Odier.’”68 That is, in a colo nial regime, the colonized people begin to see themselves as infe rior, strange, uncivilized, etc.—they internalize the negative view of the colonizer. Hall writes eloquently of the ways in which this inner expropriation of cultural identity undermines people, and he emphasizes the need to resist it. He quotes Fanon, who wrote that this process produces “individuals without an anchor, without horizon, colourless, stateless, roodess—a race of angeIs.”69 This is a process that has implications not only for formerly colonized nations such as Jamaica, Ghana, or Papua New Guinea but also for people of color in places such as New York and London.
The broadening scope of art history in recent years has meant that art historians have addressed the impact of race on visual rep resentation in a variety of cultural contexts, including colonialism. One area of interest is the representation of colonized people and people of color, especially in painting and photography: a good example is Colonialist Photography: Imagining Race and Plate (2002), which includes essays on subjects as diverse as Algerian postcards, French films of the Second World War, and Hawaiian advertising images.70 Australian art historian Bernard Smith (b. 1916) has written pioneering studies of the European depiction of the Pacific and Australia, and the kinds of values expressed in those images, which addressed difference, the exotic, the taming of the wilder ness etc.71 Among art historians, practices of hybridity—the fus ing of cultures and traditions—have also been an important focus. Recent studies of colonial architecture address not only official architecture (court houses, governors’ mansions) but also the houses, churches, and market buildings of colonized peoples grappling with newly introduced forms.72 New understandings of modernity and modernism have also emerged: scholars have pointed out that there isn’t just one Modernism, located in Europe and the United States, but multiple Modernisms that developed in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.73
In the United States, African-American Studies (sometimes also called Black Studies) has made important contributions to
these theoretical debates as well as to the knowledge of African- American and Diaspora artists. African-American Studies, much like Women’s Studies or LGBTI Studies, both develops theories of race and power and also mines the archives to recuperate forgotten histories. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a key figure in the development of African-American Studies, has stressed the need to define a canon ical tradition in African-American literature.74 Whether or not a canon is necessary (canons work both to include and exclude), art historians have worked at recuperating the history of African- American artists, from highly trained sculptors and painters to quilt makers and potters. David Driskell was one of the founders of this movement, while Sharon Patton’s recent survey provides an excellent introduction to the material and the issues.75
I’ll discuss briefly here the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, although it could as easily have been included in the Marxism sec tion above. Subaltern Studies is the discipline of a loose collective of scholars who study colonial and postcolonial history, largely in South Asia. The term “subaltern” (which literally means “subordi nate”) comes from the work of Antonio Gramsci: he used it to indi cate the ways in which proletarian voices are deliberately silenced by dominant, bourgeois capitalist narratives. Subaltern Studies emphasizes that powerful institutions and individuals (the govern ment, the Church, business leaders) control the ability and oppor tunity to tell history and to represent what’s going on in society, even as they suppress the voices of protesters, the poor, revolution aries, women, the sick or disabled.76
Subaltern Studies seeks to recuperate those silenced voices, especially those of peasants, merchants, small land-holders, and others who either do not have power or else have limited kinds of power, within colonial and postcolonial regimes. Subaltern Stud ies does this by innovative historical methods: scholars read the sources produced by the dominant culture “from within but against the grain” so that subaltern voices emerge, and evidence of agency and resistance can be uncovered.77 For example, one of the primary resources is court records, for trial testimony sometimes reveals subaltern voices representing themselves and their view points. As Gayatri Spivak notes, these voices are a necessary’ and pervasive part of such records, even though the records deliber ately try to suppress them.78
Art history, Cultural Studies, and Visual Culture Art historians, as well as anthropologists, film theorists, sociolo gists, and others, have created Visual Culture Studies as a distinctive arena within Cultural Studies.79 What’s the difference between art history and visual culture? One answer is that, in certain respects, visual culture invites the study of a broader array of objects than art historians typically engage with.80 So, taking a visual culture approach, an art historian may focus not on “high” art produced by trained artists, buton middle-range housing, family snapshots, tex tiles, advertising images, postcards, etc. Another helpful way of framing the distinction (as well as the potential overlap) between the two disciplines is to say that visual culture focuses not on objects but subjects—that is, the ways in which works of art (broadly defined) catch up their creators and viewers in interconnecting webs of cultural meanings and relations of power.”81
While some art historians find Visual Culture Studies liberat ing, others argue that this focus on subjects fails to engage with the materiality of art objects, or else they object that it promotes the mode! of textual analysis in ways that don’t address the specific visual characteristics of works of art.”82 Still others point out that the kinds of questions asked in Visual Culture Studies already have their roots in the art history of an earlier generation: scholars such as Alois Riegl ranged widely in the questions they asked and the kinds of objects they addressed.83 It’s important to note here that art historians sometimes use the term “visual culture” in a very specific way to discuss theories and the technology of vision in different cultures and periods. Such scholars as Jonathan Crary and Barbara Maria Stafford have discussed, in the context of partic ular time periods, theories of vision, image-making devices, and visual skills.84
Browsing through some of the many readers in Visual Culture Studies will give you a sense of this emerging interdisciplinary field. One example of visual culture studies—produced at the crossroads of art history, visual cultural, and Queer theory—is Erica Rand’s Bar bie’s Queer Accessories (1995). Trained as an art historian, Rand brings ail her critical skills to bear on Barbie, controversial and beloved doll. Any good feminist could point out the cultural messages encoded in Barbie that work to reinforce a very narrow vision of womanhood. But Rand goes beyond this, examining how con sumers of all ages have rewritten the Barbie script to challenge dis criminatory cultural messages about bodies, gender, and sexuality.