Assignment 5 – Reflective Commentary

I found this final section of the course the most thought provoking. On reflection, it should be obvious that someone who has always played with yarn and started selling hand painted silk scarves would consider studying textiles yet strangely I started this degree determined to study painting. Looking at the huge variety of applications of textiles throughout this course and particularly reading through Bradley Quinn’s Textile Designers at the Cutting Edge made me realise how much further I could push those interests. Studying Part 5 has inspired a flurry of ideas and so I have decided to switch to textile art instead.

This wasn’t the only change of mind I had on this course. When I started my final assignment I originally began researching the Piper tapestry in Chichester Cathedral but during the preparatory work for the essay I kept getting drawn back to the Benker-Schirmer tapestry that hangs on the reverse of the Sherbourne Screen. The only frustrating thing about changing the focus of my essay has been trying to obtain primary sources. I have contacted the factory in Germany where half of the tapestry was constructed but have yet to receive a response. I have also been trying to arrange a visit to the West Dean Tapestry Studio in the hope that I could discuss the tapestry with weavers currently working there (currently to no avail). I am hoping that I will have more success before having to submit the essay for final assessment and I will be able to add a few extra comments into the final draft.

In this section I think it has finally clicked that it is acceptable to have an opinion and to write an essay which incorporates that. It has been helpful to approach this essay from the starting point of Kevin Seasoltz assertion that Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin (tapestry) in Chichester Cathedral is “[m]uch less successful” than Piper’s and ask the question, was he right? I have tried to work the answers to the guidance questions within this framework and included as much evidence as I could to support the position that Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s tapestry is more site specific than the Piper tapestry.

Word count: 362


Books: Art since 1900: Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism

This book contains five introductions which each cover different conventions and methods of analysis. The topics of these essays are:

  1. Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method
  2. The social history of art: models and concepts
  3. Formalism and structuralism
  4. Poststructuralism and deconstruction
  5. Globalization, networks, and the aggregate as form

Psychoanalysis in modernism and as method

Psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud at the same time that modernist art arose and are many relationships between the two:

  • Artists have directly drawn on psychoanalysis
    • Surrealism explores its ideas visually.
    • Feminism critiqued ideas theoretically and politically.
  • Psychoanalysis and modernism share many interests
    • origins
    • dreams and fantasies
    • “the primitive”
    • the child
    • the insane
    • workings of subjectively
    • sexuality
  • Psychoanalytical terms have entered vocabulary of art and criticism (eg. repression, sublimation, fetishism, the gaze)

There are problems with eg Surrealism as a “psychic automatism”, either:

  • the connection between psyche and art is posited as too direct – the specificity of the work is lost
  • the connection is too conscious/calculated – the psyche is simply illustrated by the work.

The association between modernism and “primitives”/children/insane made the artists a target of Nazism.

Much art of the 60s was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism:

  • staunchly antipsychological
  • concerned with ready-made cultural images – Pop art
  • given geometric forms – minimalism
  • rise of feminist art (Freud associated femininity with passivity)

Levels of Freudian criticism (Who/what is to occupy the position of the patient? The work, artist, viewer, critic, or combination of all?) reduces to three levels:

  • symbolic – art work needs to be decoded in terms of latent message hidden behind the content. Similar to iconography. Here artist is ultimate source.
  • accounts of process – interested in the dynamics of process with understanding of “sexual energies and unconscious forces that operate in the making and viewing of art”
  • analogies in rhetoric – analysis of artwork in analogy with art visual productions of psyche such as dreams and fantasies.

The social history of art: models and concepts

Models were formulated to displace humanist (subjective) approach to criticism and interpretation.

  • Autonomy
    • Jürgen Habermas suggested that the bourgeois identity required the subject’s capacity to experience the autonomy of the aesthetic, to experience pleasure without interest.
    • Artist as self-determining and self-governing subject.
    • Aestheticism conceiving work of art as purely self-sufficient and self-reflexive experience.
    • Aesthetic autonomy fits into overarching philosophical framework of Enlightenment philosophy.
    • Liberated linguistic/artistic practices from mythical and religious thought. Emancipated artists from aristocratic/religious patronage.
    • Contributed to fundamental transformation from cult-value to exhibition-value. Paradox that artistic independence and aesthetic autonomy guaranteed only within commodity structure.
  • Antiaesthetic
    • Peter Bürger (Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974)) believed antiaesthetics inspired emergence of:
      • Cubism
      • Dadaism
      • Russian Constructivism
      • French Surrealism
    • Avant-garde strategies:
      • initiate fundamental changes in conception of audience
      • reverse bourgeois heirarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value
      • conceive of cultural practices for proletarian public sphere within advanced industrial nation states.
    • Replaces originality with technological reproduction.
    • John Heartfield defines its artistic practices as:
      • temporary
      • geopolitically specific
      • participatory
      • utilitarian – assumes a variety of functions such as information, education or political enlightenment
  • Class, agency and activism
    • Marxism political theory – classes served as agents of historical, social and political change. (Marx defined class as a subject’s situation in relation to the means of production)
    • Hemogenic culture acts to sustain ruling class through cultural representation.
    • Oppositional cultural practices articulate
      • resistance to hierarchical thought
      • subvert privileged forms of experience
      • destabilise ruling regimes of vision and perception
    • Problem: should exclude all artists and production which lack commitment, class-consciousness and political correctness?
  • Ideology: reflection and mediation
    • Ideology has important role in aesthetics of György Lukács.
      • key concept was of reflection – mechanistic relationship between economic and political forces and ideological and institutional superstructure.
      • phenomena of cultural representation were secondary to phenomena of class politics and ideological interests of particular historical moment.
    •  Louis Althusser created a distinction between the totality of the ideological state apparatus and explicit exemption of artistic representations (and scientific knowledge) from totality of ideological representations.
  • Popular culture vs mass culture
    • Stuart Hall argued same dialectical movement detected in gradual shift of stylistic phenomenal from revolutionary and emancipatory to regressive and politically reactionary could be detected in production of mass culture
    • Specificity of audience address and experience should be posited above all claims.
  • Sublimation and desublimation
    • Desublimation for Adorno is “to dismantle the processes of self-determination and resistance, and ultimately to annihilate experience itself in order to become totally controlled by the demands of late capitalism.”
    • Herbert Marcuse conceived of desublimation by “arguing that the structure of aesthetic experience consisted of the desire to undermine the apparatus libidinal repression and to generate an anticipatory moment of an existence liberated from needs and instrumentalizing demands.”
  • The neo-avant-garde
    • American critics were eager to establish the first hegemonic avant-garde culture of the 20th century post World War II
    • Adorno claimed that politicized art would only serve as an alibi and prohibit actual political change.
    • Peter Bürger called American neomodernism neo-avant-garde and claimed they attempted to write history from the perspective of victorious interests, systematically disavowing the major transformations that had occurred within the conception of high art and avant-garde culture.

Formalism and structuralism

  • Roland Barthes – leading voice in structuralism
  • In 1971 Barthes pointed to the historical link between modernism and the awareness that language is a structure of signs.
  • Brecht believed a formalist was someone who “could not see that form was inseparable from content, who believed that form was a mere carrier”.
  • Lukács believed that “form even affected content”.
  • Antiformalism was prevalent in the 70s but can be explained by confusion between two kinds of formalism
    • one concerns itself with morphology (“restricted” formalism)
    • one envisions form as structural
  • Structuralism and art history
    • linguistic/semiological model (Saussure) inspired structuralist movement (1950-60) but art history had already developed structural methods by this time.
    • Cubism allowed Russian Formalists to develop their theories by underscoring gap between reference and meaning – required more sophisticated understanding of nature of signs.
    • Heinrich Wölfflin (1915) posited an anonymous art history which established a set of binary oppositions with a smooth transition between each:
      • linear/painterly
      • plane/recession
      • closed/open form
      • multiplicity/unity
      • clearness/unclearness
    • Riegel advanced this theory and he understood every artistic document as a monument to be analysed in relationship to others.
    • Riegel understood meaning as structured by set of oppositions.
  • A crisis of reference
    • Viktor Shklovsky
      • the main function of art is to defamiliarise our perception.
      • what characterised any work of art was set of “devices” through which it was reorganising “material” (referent), making it strange.
  • The arbitrary nature of the sign
    • For Saussure the arbitrariness of sign involved not only the relation between the sign (the word “tree”) and its referent (any actual tree) but also between the signifier (the sound when we say “tree”) and the signified (the concept of a tree).
  • Structuralism and the analysis of signs can be scaled from a single work to all works by and artist or all work within a style.
  • It is limited by presupposing the internal coherence of the corpus.

Poststructuralism and deconstruction

Throughout the 60s there was a backlash to those in authority, partly towards universities which were seen as an interested party in social engineering. This caused a reevaluation of the premises and suppositions of various academic disciplines (human sciences) and was termed post structuralism.

  • There is no “disinterest”
    • Structuralism had viewed any human activity as a rule-governed system.
    • Poststructuralism grew out of a refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system.
  • Challenging the frame
    • Émile Benveniste divided verbal exchange into:
      • narrative – 3rd person past tense
      • discourse – present tense 1st and 2nd person (active transmission)
    • Benveniste applied the term “discourse” to what had always been understood as neutral communication of scholarly information contained within a given departmental discipline and confined to the transmission of “objective” information. Michel Foucault took up the position that “discourses” were always charged from within power relations.
    • French artist Daniel Buren exhibited his work Within and beyond the frame to challenge the value of the work asserted by the space of the gallery – rarity, authenticity, originality and uniqueness. See also Robert Smithson’s Non-sites for other acts of reframing.
    • Derrida’s double session
      • Structuralist model suggests that language is made up of uneven opposing binary pairs such as “young/old”. This inequality is between a marked and unmarked pair eg “John is as young as Mary” implies youth whereas “John is as old as Mary” does not imply anything about age. Unmarked terms have greater generality and it gives the term implicit power.
      • Derrida termed “deconstruction” as the marking of unmarked terms eg replacing he with she or says with writes (as more specific hence marked). simulacrum – a copy without an original “a false appearance of the present”
      • Art in the age of the simulacrum
        • See Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler
        • Argued representations, instead of imitating reality, preceded and constructed it.
        • Artists questioned the mechanics of image-culture
        • Led to questions on ‘appropriation’.

Globalization, networks, and the aggregate as form

  • Developed around 1980s when financial markets were deregulated – neoliberalism
  • Culturally led to two opposed conditions:
    • homogenization of life
    • greater diversity and heightened awareness of cultural difference due to increased contact between geographically distant regions.
  • Global chronology of modern art:
    • European avant-garde (early 20th century) – introduced in areas of Asia and Africa as belated, hegemonic neocolonial language rather than protest.
      • Cubism
      • Constructivism
      • Surrealism
  • Not one but many histories
    • eg Japan Meiji Dynasty (1868-1912) developed two opposing types of painting:
      • nihonga (Japanese-style painting) – sought to preserve Japanese materials and themes whilst adapting to contemporary conditions.
      • yōga (Western-style painting influenced by Impressionism and Postimpressionism) – Japanese artists at mid-century expressed different attitudes towards matter and art than American contemporaries.
    • Works from each country will have their own history.
  • A global art world?
    • Since late 60s artists from all continents have adapted the lexicon of Conceptual art.
    • Does a global art market require that art conforms for saleability rather than proliferation of ideas?
    • Some scholars prefer the term “translocal” rather than “global”
  • New networks, new models
    • Shift in global politics around 1989 eg collapse of the Cold War, Tiananmen Square protests etc
    • Rejection of histories based on the idea of the West transmitting its aesthetic forms, institutions and values.
    • Third Havana Biennial introduced three innovations:
      • new structure no longer based on competitive model of discrete nations as organising principle and prizes were abolished to reduce competitiveness
      • inclusion of folk/traditional arts
      • emphasis on live interaction between artists and between them and the general public (lectures, conferences, workshops).
    • The aggregate as idea and form
      • traditionally art history attempts to discover whether a particular timeframe generates its own aesthetic forms and practices.
      • David Joselit proposes “the aggregate” rather than being based on a unifying identity.
        • aggregate is filtered by shared social demand – is this just commercialisation of art?
        • Contemporary Art Daily and e-flux are major sources of art-world information
        • aggregates question how common ground can be established within discontinuous field.
        • example is work of Slavs and Tatars who are between Berlin Wall and Wall of China, Communism and Islam.


Foster, H., Krauss, R., Bois, Y.-A., Buchloh, B. H. D. and Joselit, D. (2016) Art since 1900: modernism anti modernism postmodernism  Third edition China:C&S Offset Printing Co. Ltd

Books: How to Write About Contemporary Art

I get the feeling that Glinda Williams’ book How to Write About Contemporary Art would be a book that my tutor wishes he could hit me over the head with! To be fair, it doesn’t say anything new that isn’t in my feedback forms but for some reason I wasn’t getting the lightbulb moment until I read this book. Glinda Williams discusses a lot of the errors that I have been making in my essay writing but handily gives examples which seem to have made things click. (Famous last words to type before submitting my final first draft of this course). Below are my notes which I intend to try to incorporate in future: Continue reading “Books: How to Write About Contemporary Art”

Research: Beginning Theory

Notes from Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory

These notes have been made to supplement my essay on Victoria Hislop’s The Island in particular. The original draft of this essay can be found here.


The aim of stylistics is to “show how the technical linguistic features of a literary work, such as the grammatical structure of its sentences, contribute to its overall meanings and effects”. (p196)

A ‘floating signifier’ is “the idea that the meanings established through language are innately fluid, indeterminate, and shifting.” (p197) This idea is generally ignored in stylistics

Look into the structure of sentences ie what is the subject and what is the object. For example he [subject] touched her [object] (p205)

A problem (see Stanley Fish What is Stylistics and Why are they Saying such Terrible Things About It?) is that there is always a gap between the linguistic features identified in the text and the interpretation of them offered by the stylistician – hermeneutic gap ‘hermeneutic’ refers to act of interpretation (p206)

“common feature of poetry is to break habitual collocation patterns, so that words not usually seen together suddenly occur. Poets divorce words from their usual partners and provide unlikely new partnerships between words which we would never have imagined together” (p210)


Gérard Genette – how the tale is told:

  1. basic narrative mode ‘mimetic’ (dramatised/scenic) or ‘diegetic’ (telling/relating)?
  2. how is narrative focalised? (viewpoint)
  3. who is telling the story? (narrator/character)
  4. how is time handled? flash back -> analepsis. flash forward -> prolepsis
  5. how is story ‘packaged’? frame/embedded narratives (look at relative balance between frame and embedded narrative)
  6. how are speech and thought represented? direct and tagged vs indirect speech. each inserted tag is a reminder of the presence of a narrator that tends towards telling rather than showing (mimesis)


Four areas:

  1. ‘the wilderness’ (deserts, oceans, uninhabited regions etc) often entered as if instinctively by those who would ‘find’ themselves
  2. ‘scenic sublime’ (forests, lakes, mountains, cliffs, waterfalls etc)
  3. ‘the countryside’ (hills, fields, woods etc)
  4. ‘domestic picturesque’ (parks, gardens, lanes)


  1. re-read major literary works from ecocentric perspective, to look at representation of natural world
  2. extend applicability of a range of ecocentric concepts eg growth and energy, balance/imbalance, symbiosis/mutability, sustainability
  3. give canonical emphasis to writers who foreground nature
  4. extend range of literary criticism by placing emphasis on ‘factual’ writing, reflective essays, memoirs, travel
  5. turn away from ‘social constructivism’ and ‘linguistic determinism’ and emphasise values of meticulous observation, collective ethical responsibility and claims of world beyond ourselves.


Barry, P. (2009) Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory Manchester: Manchester University Press

Assignment 4 – Photography Reflective Commentary

In writing the essay for Assignment 4, I have attempted to demonstrate understanding of the historic and cultural contexts of La Jetée as they seemed particularly relevant. It also seemed appropriate to reference later works by Chris Marker and others that were influenced by the film.

As I felt that the photography was integral to this work, I attempted to justify that argument using other sources and theoretical arguments from people such as Susan Sontag and the concept of the role of the reader. This was introduced when reading Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ in Part 2 (Creative Reading) and I wanted to start trying to tie together the learning from different sections.

I have tried to use a variety of sources but am still having difficulty finding primary sources. For example, I found a quote from Marker to Jacques Ledoux however I could not find the original letter, only quote from it in Darke’s book. I have tried to engage with the overarching themes of time and place in this essay as well as focussing on the importance of Marker’s use of photography.

I have attempted to act on my tutor’s feedback from earlier assignments, for example including a link in my bibliography to ensure that I am cross-referencing all my work.

As I mentioned in Part 3 Exercise 3 I have felt conflicted studying Photography. Whilst I have always enjoyed taking photographs, it was frustrating to realise how little stamina I have compared to a decade ago. To compensate for fluctuating energy and the shake I develop when tired, I realised that I needed to capitalise on higher energy levels by not procrastinating and planning ideas for practical tasks in advance.

Studying photography has shown me that it is worth looking to other disciplines for ideas on composition, colour combination and subject matter. Discussions with someone who had worked with David Bailey made it clear that the only way to get better at photography was to take lots of photographs so in future I intend to be more confident using trial and error to learn how to improve my understanding of my own camera and lenses.

Artists such as Ben Shahn and Yvan Salomone who use photography as prompts for their art fascinated me. Although it is challenging for me to undertake too much photography, I am keen to use it as a way to supplement my broader creative work. Reading Dialogue with Photography it became apparent that many photographers such as Minor White and Brassaï also engage in other creative practices.

[Word count: 427]