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J oanna F rueh Explicit Towards a Feminist Theory of Art Criticism January 1985 Like Marxism and structuralism, which receive due attention, feminism has altered the content and constructs of art history over the past 15 years and continues to do so. However, many art historians, like their compatriots in other academic disciplines, view the adoption of a feminist perspective with suspicion. Simply put, detractors claim that feminist art historians and critics are narrow and self-indulgent and that they distort and polemically misread images and material, thereby undermining art history. Actually, feminists serve both art and art history: by seeking knowledge about the overlooked meanings of art; by examining our own unacknowledged assumptions and biases and those of previous and contemporary art historians and critics; and by developing ways to write about art that will serve as new models for art critical discourse. Art history and criticism are frequently divorced: you practice one or the other. Basically, the myth is that art historians aim for objectivity by gathering data that will prove the “truth” about various aspects of an artist’s life and career or of a particular period’s aesthetic mentality. By keeping their distance, art historians supposedly maintain intellectual neutrality. Traditionally, art critics, whose function and pleasure is primarily writing about the art of their own time, also seek “truth.” However, many of the best critics have been, and are, highly subjective. For Diderot, the first modern art critic, criticism was an empathetic occupation. In fact, 140   T h e E s s e n t i a l N ew A rt E xaminer he demanded passion from art so that he could feel it. In 1766 he wrote, “. . . move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder , outrage me; delight my eyes afterwards if you can.” Traditional art historical methodology answers certain questions about art: who made it? When? Where? How? Whys are often unsatisfactorily answered through stylistic analyses or investigations of iconography and patronage? But whys also demand analyses and interpretations of social and conceptual contexts. Because it involves discernment, criticism is a more inclusive activity than historical study which focuses on the recording, analysis, and interpretation of events. Pursuing old questions in new ways, as feminism does, extends art historical methodology and makes connections between historical context and culture. Such a pursuit turns the historian into a critic. Feminist art critics join the supposedly incompatible modes of art historical and art critical practice, wedding deep responsiveness to art with factual information, such as biography, sources of an individual artist’s work, and stylistic connections with other artists and movements . Many traditionalists find such a marriage wanting in intellectual neutrality, but feminist historian/critics like Arlene Raven believe in intimacy with art. As Raven writes in the first sentence of an essay on Harmony Hammond, “I enter Harmony Hammond’s works.” Raven is speaking of complete identification: being at one with the art, and through it, the creator, another woman. Thus, subject, Raven, and object , the art works and another human being, are not detached at all. The object no longer exists. In this kind of criticism, the term art object does not make sense, and a subject to subject relationship replaces the standard subject to object one. Utter involvement without loss of self is the outcome of this new criticto -art connection, which is discourse as intercourse: entry into another’s body (of art). Feminist criticism of this order belongs to an art criticism of overtly personal engagement, which has waxed and waned in appeal during the past two centuries. After a period of disfavor, for most of the twentieth century, it is now on the upswing. In a 1979 issue of Art in America, Nancy Marmer wrote about “the . . . critic’s openly subjective interpretation of art” and stated that “the expressive possibilities of a personalist prose have once again become highly attractive.” Moreover, Marmer noted that “such criticism weaves the fabric of its content out of the critic’s subjective, psychological response to the J O A N N A F R U E H    Explicit   141 work—thus absorbing the artist into the critic’s mental universe.” Feminist critics do this and more, for a penetrating study of art, being physical as well as mental, requires that the penetrator, as poet and thinker Robin Morgan has said in The Anatomy of Freedom, “feel with the brain and think through the body.” Penetration, then, should not be viewed as...


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