“We are all Demoiselles d’Avignon” or the Breaching of the Dominant Gaze
From Firenze University Press Book: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Modernism
As we have seen, the consequences of Steinberg and the evolution of art history and critique from the 1960s were characterised by the fragmentation of the discourse on modern art. In the presence of these approaches from the 80s, those affiliated to the New History of Art, especially those, who in the 21st century belonged to the Global History of Art, presently active, took up positions. The New History of Art label (close to the proposals that have also been called social, radical or critical history of art) began to be regularly used from 1982 as Jonathan Harris explains. This referred to a history at odds with the hegemonic approaches of formalism and iconology, and committed to semiotic, Marxist, feminist and psychoanalytic points of view.
The new art historians, opposed to the iconological and formalism methodologies they considered passive, uncritical or commonplace, had been offering proposals, in principle linked to left-wing political activism. The routine procedures of an art history as traditional as it was powerful, in the international academic sphere, centred on monographs of prominent male artists — the Great Male Creative Artist-Genius — was about to suffer the thrashing by a posture critical of the glorification of the proper name (masculine), his biography or his insight; a posture critical of the course of an iconological discourse that, while born out of the brilliance of its pioneers, in the hands of some of its less wise followers, was falling into an anodyne vacuity.
The frames of reference of this new art history, centred on social, political, feminist or psychoanaliytic questions, moved the centre of gravity of the author or creator to the spectator; from the producer to the recipient, as artistic practice had been doing at least since the historic avant-gardes. In this sense, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon can be seen exactly as an authentic methodological laboratory, a sort of privileged battle field of these tussles between the institutionally dominant art history and the new art histories. As we have seen, the interpretations generated about this work, elevated to the category of a canon of Modernism, have converted it in an ideal case study of the debates taking place in the heart of the art history discipline. We must remember that, as Jonathan Harris, or female historians like Griselda Pollock explained, institutional or traditional art history has a code of subjects that are well-worth studying. And, as a result, the legitimate ways of studying them and a series of forms and contexts that are able to maintain this code should also be considered. In fact, one of the ways in which the discipline has been renewed since 1970 has been the inclusion in the teaching, as well as in research, of objects of study that will not be recognised within the canon or code. We shall have the opportunity of seeing examples of the methodological propositions of this New Art History from the feminist and post-colonialist theories applied to Les Demoiselles.
This perspective has been extended recently by the addition of the Global History of Art, created from the concept of globalisation, coined at the end of the 20th century. It departs from the intense interconnection of the world and is concerned about the relations, connections, transfers, exchanges and appropriations between the different cultures on the planet. On the strength of their theses, the encounter between Art nègre and Modernism constitutes one of the favoured objects of study. Before beginning the examination of the new gazers who emerged in the 1980s it will be helpful to consider the convergence of Steinberg’s proposals and certain premises of the semiotic theory, or more in general, that of post-structuralism. Even before Steinberg, the problematics of this relation between art and spectator were being discussed; a relation that had up till then always seemed neutral and natural, and not in the least determined by the myriad constraints between the work and the spectator. From this perspective, and confronting the traditional points of view, the gender, race, social position, habitus or cultural endowment of the spectator are considered constraints that will determine different readings and interpretations of works of art.
Even on the sidelines of semiotics, Erwin Panofsky and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had made crucial contributions on the impossible existence of a neutral or naive spectator, capable of seeing or judging a work of art without his cultural baggage affecting his appreciation and his sociocultural conditioning affecting his taste. From the semiotic perspective, Cubism was perceived as launching an auto reflexive conscience on the systems of meaning. That is to say, on the codes and languages used by different visual representations and that these codes or languages are linked with the knowledge, social class and gender of the spectator in question. It is clear that this perspective has much to say about a painting such as Les Demoiselles where the protagonists’ gaze inevitably involves the spectator.
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