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Gender and Art (edited by Gill Perry) and The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (edited by Paul Wood) are erudite, useful, elegantly packaged, and critically astute books. Informed by a felicitous mix of marxism, feminism, and other poststructuralist models for exploring meaning formation and cultural value, they show how far art history has come over the last twenty years. As two of the six titles in the series Art and Its Histories, their publication coincides with and supports a series of courses bearing the same name offered by London’s Open University (the other Open University/Yale texts cover the following topics: the status of the artist, views of difference, cultures of display, and canons and institutions. In fact, CAA.Reviews readers may also want to check another review from the Art and Its Histories series—Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker.) One might expect the texts to be highly specialized and geared idiosyncratically to the curriculum of this particular program. These two books, however, with a few caveats that will be addressed here, transcend the specificity of their origins; they could well become major introductory texts used in a wide range of undergraduate classes.
The format of the books in the series is, in the main, well conceived. A general introduction by each book’s editor defining the scope of the topic addressed, and some of the key terms, is followed by eleven chapters from various contributors. The range of essays is not comprehensive; rather, each covers a particular issue relating to the book’s overall theme. Each chapter consists of a general examination of the theme as well as more pointed discussion sections on specific texts or images that offer valuable guides for student engagement with specific aspects of visual culture and the texts that condition its production and reception. This structure allows for dialogue to take place within and among chapters, and for an interesting range of topics to be covered from productively different points of view. At the same time, the editors of these two volumes have made certain that each book coheres as a whole. To balance particular viewpoints and an overall argument is a precarious enterprise, but is very well managed in these two cases.
The illustrations are copious and generally good; the chapters cover a wide range of imagery from newspaper cartoons and sketches to buildings, architectural plans, photographs, and paintings. Chapters are thus not, by and large, canonical studies of masterpieces, but analyses covering the fine arts as well as certain more instrumental cultural effusions; for example, The Challenge of the Avant-Garde includes an interesting chapter on the Eiffel tower by Tim Benton.
In some cases, chapters are articulated as “Case Studies” covering specific problems and issues: from portraiture in premodern art (Catherine King), class and sexuality in Victorian art (Lynda Nead), and the relationship between the avant-garde and the feminine (Gill Perry) in Gender and Art to modernity in Germany (Jason Gaiger), les Indépendents (Gill Perry), and the Futurists (Gail Day) in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde. Overlaps between books in the series—Perry’s discussion of the avant-garde in Gender and Art, for example, or, in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde, a chapter on “Caillebotte, Masculinity, and the Bourgeois Gaze” by Fionna Barber—provide a sense of intellectual continuity.
There are, however, themes that might have been more insistently stressed across the books: one wishes that the problematic of colonialism had been put more in the forefront of The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (one assumes it is covered in the Views of Difference volume but I would argue that colonialism to an extent far beyond that hinted at in Challenge shaped notions of advanced as well as popular culture, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Issues of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation might have been more strongly emphasized in Gender and Art, the essays of which tend to assume gender as a category separable from and, implicitly, more important than other aspects of identity—an assumption that has proven extremely problematic for feminism in recent years.
One of the only major weaknesses in the book’s conception as a whole is of a bibliographic nature. The bibliographies offered to the reader are generally extremely limited and, more disturbingly, so slanted toward each author’s particular take (one senses these are the books each chapter’s author happened to have on hand rather than the most important texts in each case) that they will not be helpful to the budding art historical researcher. In the book on the avant-garde, for example, although a nice balance is struck between primary and secondary sources, the secondary source books listed are almost all in English, a fact that is of some concern since most of the artworks and much of the context covered is French (the Menzel chapter does far better, with a range of primary and secondary sources in English and German). Footnote use is only occasional and seems inconsistent as well.
In Gender and Art, as is typical of most books published in English on feminist themes in art history, the bibliographies reveal a very strong bias in the book toward the Anglo-U.S. context, missing a lot of interesting issues on the German scene, for example, not to mention globally. At the very least, the book should put this bias on the surface rather than claiming—via the title—to cover the theme of gender and art comprehensively. However, the book is laudable in its varied approach to gender and art: it deals with women as artists, images of women, particularly feminized modes of visual culture, issues of self-portraiture and gender identity, etc. (Interestingly, there are also glaring bibliographic absences of British sources in this book; for example, Caroline Murphy’s important work on Lavinia Fontana and Laudomia Gozzadini is not cited at all in Catherine King’s case study chapter, “Portrait of the Artist as a Woman,” though she seems clearly to draw on it for her discussion [see 70–72].)
In general, the contributors to both books do an exemplary job of covering very complex debates, although—in spite of an obvious desire to assume nothing and pitch the text at the level of undergraduates—some of the concepts would still be too abstruse for many undergraduates. In particular, the attempt to cover all sides of the issue in the debates over the meaning of the avant-garde is admirable but sometimes leads to confusion. Discussions about the complex tensions arising from class politics, for example, may be accessible to British readers but U.S. students will, sadly, require more contextualization since class goes largely unexamined in our culture. Some of the in-depth discussions of class conflict—such as Paul Wood’s excellent examination of the bourgeoisification of Paris after the Commune uprisings were suppressed—will unfortunately be obscure to most U.S. undergraduates (see 121).
The authors of Gender and Art run into similar problems when psychoanalytic theory comes up. At the very least, the authors run the obvious and probably inevitable risk of oversimplification, as when Perry is forced to argue in her introduction that through their interest in the dominant role of the phallus in the formation of sexual identity, both Freud and Lacan reinforced the perception of gender as socially constructed rather than biologically determined (29). This is reductive to say the least; many seasoned feminist theorists have argued otherwise (see, for example, Jane Gallop’s incisive critique of Lacan’s supposed constructivism, and the slippage between the penis and the phallus, in her books The Daughters Seduction [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982] and Reading Lacan [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985]).
While Briony Fer’s chapter, “The Work of Art, the Work of Psychoanalysis,” manages to be lucid and provocative, focusing on the work of Eva Hesse and Mona Hatoum, Claire Pajaczkowska’s more abstract chapter on “Psychoanalysis, Gender and Art” is problematic. Granted, Pajaczkowska is given an impossible task: to present a vast range of highly complex and specialized debates drawn from feminist psychoanalytic models of reading visual imagery in such a way that students unfamiliar with psychoanalysis in general will understand. Still, her expositions are more obfuscating than not. The topic of the divided subject is oversimplified beyond recognition; reduced to describing only the split between unconscious and conscious selves, the concept as presented misses the profound dimension of loss and incoherence through which Lacan mobilized the notion of the split subject (see 230–31). Fetishism is defined as a process whereby obsessive sexual desire is displaced on to a safe or familiar object associated with the original object (or body) of desire, leaving out entirely the issue of castration anxiety (although this is subsequently discussed, it is not linked directly to fetishism) and the primacy of the male viewing subject in the castration dynamic, and thus, in the scenario of fetishism (a primacy excavated to some degree by Mary Kelly in her 1979 opus Post Partum Document, among other places).
In general, Gender and Art—not surprisingly—expresses the point of view of a resolutely British feminism, informed by psychoanalysis and marxism, though Perry makes an admirable attempt to look fairly at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979). This piece has come to define what is viewed, especially by British feminist art historians critical of this type of practice, as an essentializing U.S. (or specifically Californian) feminist approach to the visual arts; Perry’s efforts to reinscribe it in feminist art history are thus commendable. In relation to this, however, the information she conveys about the exhibition I organized at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art in 1996 (Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History) is wrong and I will take this opportunity to correct it. It was not “the directors and curators at UCLA who decided to hold a show… which would place the work in the context of other examples of past and contemporary feminist practice, and situating it within the development of feminist theory”(22); this was entirely my idea, and I accept full responsibility for it, for better or worse (the show engendered some positive responses, but also acrimonious negative reviews and commentary—on the part of feminist art historians as well as Los Angeles critics). I was simply hired to organize a show of the Dinner Party, which I considered an odd request since the piece itself is largely self-curated, hence my attempt to use the opportunity to present a broader, historical view of feminist art through the lens of Chicago’s piece and the issues it raises for a feminist visual practice.
Each book thus, inevitably, has its shortcomings. The avant-garde book suffers from an overly detailed delving into the complexity of the debates over advanced culture that is at the same time, inevitably, oversimplified. Major figures from literary theory such as Renato Poggioli—whose 1962 The Theory of the Avant-Garde (in English, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968) came out well before Peter Bürger’s eponymous book, which is described by Wood thus misleadingly as “initiat[ing] a fundamental reconsideration of the modernist conception of an autonomous artistic avant-garde” (227)—and Matei Calinescu are left out of the discussion entirely. In fact, ultimately one wishes this book had been framed around the issue or problem of modernity instead of the avant-garde, as the discussions of modernity, the modern city, and the modern subject in relation to various avant-garde practices (including photography) on the part of Tim Benton, Gail Day, Steve Edwards, Gill Perry, and Paul Wood are the most clearly argued and interesting sections of the book. Gender and Art suffers from being too fixated on the discourse of psychoanalysis (the introduction and three chapters out of eleven focus on psychoanalysis and feminism) at the expense of other models of analyzing sexual and gender differences—such as Foucaultian theory, sociological approaches, or phenomenology.
In spite of these shortcomings, however, Gender and Art and The Challenge of the Avant-Garde are both excellent, well-informed, and provocative introductions to these complex themes and give a fair look, at least, at the dominant discourses within debates surrounding gender and the avant-garde in art history. As exemplars of the best of what the new art history has to offer, the books in this series will find an important niche in newly restructured introductory classes in art history across the U.S. and in Britain.
Robert A. Day Professor in Art and Design and Vice Dean of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California