Hypatia 18.4 (2003) 273-282
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Aesthetics in Crisis:
Feminist Attempts to Create an Interdisciplinary Discourse
Both of these books have the potential to make a difference in the ways in which visual artists, philosophers of aesthetics, and feminist theorists think about the boundaries of their disciplines, because practitioners in all these arenas appear together as participants in an enviably dynamic British debate concerning aesthetic issues with/in feminism. Although Hilary Robinson's (2001) volume contains only about sixty pages of essays on aesthetics, the books are closely allied. Robinson is among the theorists included by Penny Florence and Nicola Foster (2000) in their anthology, and she evinces similar interests in cultural studies and continental philosophy.
Both books respect the knowledge and practice of artists and other "thinkers about art" outside the academy, and both claim to respect earlier phases of feminist thought. They hope to encourage "the kind of inter-disciplinary work or 'critical mass' that can render the discourses [of art, theory and philosophy] fully permeable to each other" (Florence and Foster 2000, 4). They present a substantial body of feminist work in art and aesthetic theory that remains unrecognized even among feminists, and articulate a simultaneous need for feminism not to relegate "the aesthetic" to "a minor subsection of an academic discipline" (Florence and Foster 2000, 6). They claim a central place for the subject, the senses, and the body in aesthetics. All this, and much else, is good. I do not find in either book, however, an approach that makes the abovementioned discourses "fully permeable to each other."
Because Robinson's book may be more accessible to a broad range of readers familiar with the arts but not with aesthetics, I will begin with it.
Hilary Robinson's thick compendium, Feminism—Art—Theory (2001), is presented as "intellectual armour" in the struggle "against the patriarchy of the [End Page 273] art world . . . [and] the structures within visual culture which use markers of gender, race and nation above all else in maintaining hierarchies" (2001, 6). It is intended for use in graduate and undergraduate courses on feminist art and theory. Robinson's strategy is not to reproduce essays easily available elsewhere but to present less well-known texts as items for study and for debate with those given in a list of "Essential Reading" at the beginning of each section.
Robinson's section of nine essays on "The Aesthetic" is situated among others on gender, activism, art history, critical practices, politics, material strategies, identity, genealogy, representation, body, and spirit. Her introduction to the section briefly defines feminist art as "an approach to art making that is politically informed" but accepts the traditional (Kantian) terms of beauty and pleasure as key to aesthetic discussion (2001, 289) before providing her summary of the selections. The essays she selects actually include a broader range of topics than she highlights in her introduction. They address not only feminist art and feminine perception but also art as social production, female images, feminist theory, diversity, essentialism, and the role of the oppositional subject in institutional change. Robinson leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions, but in different ways each of the essays reserves a place for the female subject, the senses, and differences among artists, works of art, and viewers.
The editor's choice of the first four essays serves to complicate the common view of 1970s feminist work as entirely beholden to essentialist thought by showing the internal struggles that were already taking place by 1972. Written by American artists and critics, these pieces explicitly concern "feminist art." Critic Marjorie Kramer seeks to set parameters for painting: on one hand, she asserts that like most Modernist art, feminist painting is well-made and it can be about anything; on the other, it is figurative, does no harm to women, and when fueled by the women's movement it promotes "changing the world for the better" (2001, 293). Artist Judy Chicago focuses on art as a process of using a language, cautioning the artist not to adopt the dominant art...