August 31, 2004

Art. Rape. Politics. Gender. Power: a reflection

My dad gave me a copy of "The Rape of the Masters", by Roger Kimball which I am trying to read on the train in the evenings. This is a great read and you should run to the store and grab a copy.

A little background first. I am by vocation a lawyer and by avocation a frustrated architectural historian. I am removed from the formal study of art history by about 15 years now. Having read Kimball's book, I'm happy I did not make art history my vocation.

Kimball's point is that art historians have stopped looking at art, stopped doing research in primary sources (like, say, journals written by artists) in favor instead of projecting their own views of politics, gender, racism, bias, and every other popular ideological movement from the last 30 years onto the painting. They stop looking at the art as art and start to call it a text, which they can thus read and search for hidden meanings "written" into the text. It is at once both absurd and disturbing. The effect is to destroy the art and to deny its important cultural weight, to remove from the art of Van Gogh its special character as something important in Western thought, to thus attack Western thought and culture as itself unimportant and, indeed, oppressive. The art becomes a tool in the hands of those who wish to deny the Western heritage and to disclaim it.

You should read this book. The art historians, secure in some of the most prominent sinecures of academia, are consumed by their own interest in seeing vaginsa (spelling intentional to avoid odd searches), some with teeth, castration concerns, fears of anla raep (sp., again), etc. It is remarkable. Kimball illustrates his point by picking ten paintings, including color plates of them, and then fisking the academics who write about these works and the artists who painted them.

The thing is, I happen to agree that art is political, to a certain extent. Not every work of art is a political message but I do believe that artists reflect and are part of their society, that they reflect to some degree the social mores of the time (whether reacting against or in agreement) and that you can understand art through its social context. What you can't do, however, is reach back with your own concerns and forcibly impose them on the art (which ain't a text) in order to distort the image to meet your own needs. That's uncool. And sloppy, no matter how many foot notes you include.

But the thinking and the material Kimball pokes fun at are seductive. It's fun to try to do this, as an intellectual exercise. While riding the train this morning, I tried to engage in this exercise. I envisioned Munch's painting, The Scream, and tried to write about it as if I were a modern art historian. The Scream is about a lot of things. I doubt strongly that it is about any of the things I subscribe to it below in the EXTENDED ENTRY (click away, if you dare).

Let the game begin (please note that I have done no research on this and am not copying anybody else's silly ideas, ok?):

Munch's Scream: An Essay on Sexual and Gender Confusion


Here we have before us a "painting", a text, if you will which lends itself to a close reading of the pseudo-sexual conflict and confusion Munch was experiencing at the time he created this, to the extent that any man can create as man was not made to give birth.

Look at the sinuous lines of the water and the air and how they are echoed in the form of the Screamer, a figure left ambiguous as to its gender. It is bald, perhaps a woman shorn of her hair, disfigured by society and robbed of her crowning glory, made unrecognizable in her robes. Or is it a man, thrown into conflict between his feminine nature, as made evident by his long, beautiful hands, and his angular, hard body. What horror does s/he contemplate? What is s/he looking at? For, by becoming the viewer, s/he becomes the viewed and is merging the two experiences into a text replete with meaning and submeanings. Much of this text can only be discerned by a careful and rigorous reading.

If it is a he, is he consumed by his fear of castration? By his overwhelming sense that society has removed his manhood? Note, if you will, that he is robed in black. Is he mourning his loss? His powerlessness? His hands held to his face in shock as the painter/surgeon wields his knife. We know that Munch's father was an Army doctor. Munch would not have been unfamiliar with surgery or the consequences and perhaps a close reading allows us to see that here, even if Munch himself was unconscious of it, as he must have been.

Or is his/her gender subsumed by questions of fear, questions of how a repressive society forced him to choose? We can see that in the approaching figures in the top hat. They clearly represent all of the rigid, patriarchal hierarchy in all its horrible repressive self. Note how that top hat thrusts into the air, punctuating the painting with a phallic object as if to mock the subject, to show the screamer what has been taken from him. It is clear, is it not, that the only permissible use of the penis here is where it is harnessed and restrained by existing societal expectations. The artist fears the penis and he constrains it within the teleological construct of the hat. It is a powerful image and a haunting progression of images as we move from the penis/hat to the scream of the castrated, dressed in doleful robes of mourning.

Ok, I have to stop here. I fear that this is going to warp my mind for the whole day if I don't stop now. Thanks for getting this far.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 31, 2004 09:00 AM

That was very impressive, RP! I like how your "random" thoughts were so leading, and how the pseudo-analysis was cloaked in suggestion and insinuation. Bravo! Now please undo it so nobody takes it seriously!

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 31, 2004 09:08 AM

Hey, you're not so far off! I Googled munch scream patriarchy and here's one of the hits, a paper for Assistant Professor of English Alice den Otter's class in critical theory at Lakehead University in Ontario, on Lacan and the pondering of yellow wallpaper...that's right, yellow wallpaper:

Indeed, the disaffection undergone by our narrator is akin to the alienation felt by the subject of post-industrial capital. She describes the form of the yellow wallpaper in terms of reminiscent of the chaos of modern society:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard- of contradictions. (618)

The patriarchal symbolic eternally and ubiquitously renders her aggravated and fragmented. Its "isolated columns of fatuity" (621), rob her of any agency, and leave her to "exhaust" herself "trying to distinguish the order" (621). Further, this "interminably grotesque" (622) formation calls to mind Edward Munch's painting "The Scream" in ways it echoes the vicissitudes of modern life…

There is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well under was in following it, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream. (623)

In these various ways the androcentrism of the patriarchal symbolic rob Gilman's protagonist of her autonomy and afflict her subjecthood. However, utmost in Gilman's agenda is exposing the ways in which phallogocentrism posits scripted gender roles which further destroy the independence of our narrator, and, by implication, of all women.

And here's some literary theory from honorary research fellow Chris Pawling at Sheffield Hallam U in the UK:

One way of responding to such narratives is to locate them within the context of a "postmodern" culture in which, to quote Fredric Jameson, the characteristic feature is a "waning of affect" (10). Jameson develops this point by comparing the aesthetic "depthlessness" of postmodernist art with that of a "high modernist" icon, such as Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." In Munch's emblem of the "age of anxiety," "the thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation and isolation" are rendered formally through an "aesthetic of expression" which has disappeared from postmodernism. Munch's painting "presupposes ... some separation within the subject ... of the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that "emotion" is then projected out and externalised, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of feeling" (Jameson 11-12). By contrast, in postmodernist art this "aesthetic of expression" seems to have "vanished away" and we are faced with "a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense" (Jameson 9).

There's more. Rather parodies itself, doesn't it? You may have the makings of a new parlor game – just do a search on Munch and, say, phallogocentrism or monad, and see what surfaces!

Posted by: Mark C N Sullivan at August 31, 2004 10:11 AM

I don't much care for yellow wall paper myself, come to think of it. It oppresses me.

Truly, I'm kind of frightened to hear that I was so close. Maybe I should listen to GQ and pull the whole thing down.

Posted by: RP at August 31, 2004 10:58 AM

Fascinating! Indeed, you have the makings of a fine art critic!

Posted by: Mick at August 31, 2004 01:47 PM

jaw drops

I cannot believe I dropped into your comments to cite the drearily analyzed-to-death "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Gilman only to find Mark beat me to it.

I loved reading "The Yellow Wallpaper", but then, I read it on my own, because I chose to do so, not because it was an assignment. And not because I had to search for the reasoning behind the story.

A friend of mine had to read it in school, however, and was forced to dissect it to death for days, both on paper and in class discussion. She hates the damn thing now.

Too bad, I like the story, very much. Well done story of a woman slowly going insane. Creepy as hell.

Good post, Random!

Posted by: Amber at August 31, 2004 02:45 PM

I laughed my pants off when I saw "teleological" and "pseudo-sexual". Well done! This reminds me of things I read while in grad school. Ever thought of reentering the academic field as a ghost writer?

Posted by: Mandalei at August 31, 2004 04:10 PM

Ok, Mandalei, that would be fun, but where's the money going to come from? Those guys are not exactly flush with cash for the most part, are they?

Thanks, Amber and Mick, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was scary how easily it came out.

Posted by: rp at September 1, 2004 01:23 PM

I've profited very much by reading this short essay (and the Jameson-based comments!) and think you should continue it (if you have time/desire). I would just like to add one short comment, though, on something which I think is often forgotten. The fact is that (and you undoubtedly already know this, but as I say, one forgets) everyone starts out as a woman. Just the other day I was reminded of this in an article in the online version of the L.A. Times, where Susan Brink noted how "The first surge of testosterone happens in the uterus, a few weeks into development, causing an embryo with the XY combination of chromosomes to develop male sex organs." What would seem to be the case, then, or an interesting part of the case, is that, as Shelley thought, we are all artists, which is to say creators of many things, from multinationals to oil paintings. Well, actually, from paintings to multinationals is probably what I mean. Thanks for the analyses on Munch!

Posted by: Bill at October 30, 2005 09:04 AM
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