Department of Theatre and Film
Introduction: Rethinking Discursive Practices
Articles in this spring 2010 issue of The Projector are related to essays in the fall 2009 issue, for they echo the type of meta-discursive analysis of critical practices in film, media, and cultural studies found in those fall essays. While each article in the spring issue is a standalone piece, when the authors’ arguments are considered together, they could or should draw attention to the fact that regardless of discipline, established positions in scholarship warrant particular scrutiny, if only because they so profoundly influence the questions that academics ask about aesthetic, cultural, and material practices.
The essays in this issue show that overlooked but fraught ideological positions lie at the base of seemingly objective or scholarly views about: the significance of individual performers; presumed breaks with traditional modes of visual representation; official divisions between art and artifact; and purportedly unambiguous divisions between cultural-aesthetic movements like modernism and postmodernism. The essays also call for scholarship that reckons seriously with “the nexus of culture and power” and is consciously oriented toward “developing intellectual and theoretical work as a political practice” that enables people to see that consuming material from what Chris Hedges calls the corporate state’s “empire of illusion” affects not only our ideas, values, and beliefs but also “the social and political conditions under which we live our daily lives.”
Kari-Anne Innes’s essay, “Loie Fuller from ‘la fée lumiére’ to ‘la fée électricité’: Cybernetic Logic, Embodiment and the Electrical Woman,” contributes to several lines of research. Her study of Fuller, an innovator in dance and staging practice often seen by film scholars as simply “the serpentine dancer” in silent cinema, offers new insights into the well recognized but still entrenched tendency for women in film to be presented and seen as “electric” and thus essentially non-sentient, disembodied objects. Innes’s analysis establishes connections between early modern dance and feminist responses to turn-of-the-century modern technology. It shows that François Delsarte’s work on expression gesture is relevant not only to the history of theatre but to accounts of modern dance and cinema as well.
Innes also identifies and reckons with the reality that despite modernists’ much touted rejection of traditional aesthetic and social values, avant-garde cultural politics contributed to filmic images of women being deemed acceptable only insofar as they can be interpreted as “ideal” from the standpoint of patriarchal society. Drawing on Fuller’s own writings about the spiritualist basis for her use of lighting design, costume construction, and principles of self-expressive modern dance, Innes calls into question standard views of Fuller’s performances. Specifically, Innes denaturalizes the patriarchal bias of modernist critics who early on argued that Fuller’s performances could be valued only if they were seen as offering glimpses of a disembodied, ethereal, pure, modern woman who dissolved into “rapid movement like the spirit of the age, with fluttering garments and streaming hair.” Highlighting the role that dominant discursive practices continue to play in the way people think about aesthetic-cultural production, Innes locates that bias in the contemporary scholarship that still sees Fuller as significant only insofar as her performances represent a female body converted into “a pure aesthetic form.”
In another look at the patriarchal underpinnings of avant-garde aesthetic and cultural values, in “A Woman’s Perspective on the Female Nude as the Site of Modernity,” Carolyn Jambard-Sweet briefly but effectively contrasts the female nudes in “traditional” modernist painting with those depicted by Suzanne Valadon, an artist and model for artists like Toulouse Lautrec. Jambard-Sweet explains that the female nude was a “significant aspect of modernists’ response to the past and their surroundings” because producing images of unclothed women was thought to signify a male artist’s “modernity,” his rejection of and alienation from conventional norms. However, as Jambard-Sweet points out, in modernist paintings, typical representations of female nudes did not make a break with the conventions and practices of patriarchy because the images were designed so that male viewers could “engage in the act of ‘seeing [women’s bodies] without being seen.’” By comparison, Valadon’s paintings do signify a rejection of conventional cultural norms; here, the images are not designed for viewers’ erotic pleasure but instead are depictions of women’s complex subjectivity and varying subjective experiences. Like Innes, Jambard-Sweet also notes that the patriarchal slant of avant-garde cultural and aesthetic values has an influence on scholarship even today; as she explains, accounts of modernism still tend to elide the fact that modernist painting includes “traditional” work informed by patriarchy and radical paintings that reject the conventions and assumptions of misogynistic representation.
Jambard-Sweet concludes with observation that Valadon’s paintings are a reminder that “power relationships implicit in mainstream art” are exposed only when people who have been marginalized begin to represent themselves and when their labor, creativity, and subjectivity has been recognized by those in power. That idea can perhaps serve as a bridge to Cynthia Stroud’s essay, “Function is in the Eye of the Beholder: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Consumer Intent in the International Tourist Art Market,” for Stroud looks at the changing visions of art that have, for example, led fine art galleries to see “the artistic commodities of tourism as genuine works of art on the basis that they are creative expressions of a people and place.” Noting that both artisans and consumers have a complex relationship with non-traditional art, Stroud explains that for artisans, tourist art has conflicting functions. It is a product that can be exchanged for money. It is an artifact that plays into structures of power by giving tangible expression to the boundary between dominant and conquered people. It is also a symbolic and thus primarily aesthetic object that allows disenfranchised artisans to “construct, distribute, and promote a group identity.” On the consumer side, purchasing tourist art can reflect an interest in: obtaining something for practical use; giving “feel-good” economic support to impoverished people; and/or securing an object that will effectively remind the traveler of the exotic experience.
Framing her analysis of consumers’ relationship to tourist art within larger debates about art v. craft, high art v. low art, official art v. folk art, Stroud argues that for tourists, “Whatever function the object(s) may serve later, the primary function in operation at the point of purchase is probably an aesthetic one.” To sort out how a commodity like a souvenir could function as a “pure” aesthetic object, Stroud turns to the Prague School’s insights that there are no inherent aesthetic properties and thus there is no “purely aesthetic distinction between art and non-art.” Using those insights to propose that art or aesthetic function is in the eye of the individual and institutional beholder, Stroud notes that the North/First World has come to a “new awareness of the complexity of the cultural and aesthetic expression” in tourist art because practical artifacts (like pottery) have in fact become prized art objects, just as sanctioned art can have non-aesthetic value (as when paintings by modernist artists are studied to discern cultural norms and values).
Stroud’s essay echoes the articles by Innes and Jambard-Sweet by reminding us that the “exclusion perpetuated by the artistic establishment throughout much of its history: the exclusion of women, minorities, non-Western artists” has been framed as reflecting an objective assessment of artistic merit when in fact the exclusion rests on unfounded ideological positions that issue from and shore up existing structures of power. Stroud’s discussion of the complex interplay between the unstable binaries underlying definitions of art and artifact also anticipates Darin Kerr’s analysis in “Old Is the New New: Paradox and Duality in the Modernist Project.” Making a point that parallels the ideas that aesthetic function is in the eye of the individual or institutional beholder and that there are thus no fixed divisions between art and artifact, Kerr proposes that even though “the modern purports to value the new in a seemingly unmediated way, while the postmodern repurposes or reconfigures the old to achieve the appearance or ‘prestige’ of the new,” there is good reason to see that scholarship needs to be grounded in “a thorough reckoning with [modernism’s and postmodernism’s] uneasy continuities” to get beyond a “facile recognition” of the apparent rupture between modernism and postmodernism.
To flesh out that insight, Kerr notes that even the difference between traditional art and modern art is best understood, not as a clear-cut division between temporal periods, but instead as a conceptual paradox that echoes modernism’s own binaries (functional v. decorative, natural v. artificial, East v. West) and its fundamental need for the existence of “tradition” to create its version of “the new.” Kerr notes that the temporal emphasis of aesthetic avant-gardism has led distinctions among traditional, modern, and postmodern art to be seen in relation to a linear timeline. He proposes, however, that by focusing on the French conceptions of modernity that were shaped by Baudelaire and Nietzsche, modernism (especially as the term between tradition and postmodernism) can be seen as a movement that shares with traditional and postmodern art not only a “distrust of history and progress” but also “symptomatic shadow[s]” that confound efforts to describe any one of the movements in a monolithic way.
While shifting the terms of analysis, Justin Philpot’s essay, “The Intent of Methodology: Cultural Studies, Film Studies and Challenging the Corporate Demands of the Academy,” also emphasizes the need to re-examine longstanding positions in scholarship. What emerges from Philpot’s discussion is that a division that warrants closer scrutiny is the supposed contrast between the apolitical, purely aesthetic approach entailed in appreciation of elite cultural products and the purportedly political-democratic celebrations of popular cultural products. In other words, discursive practices need rethinking because the purely aesthetic approach once confined to writing about elite culture has become ingrained in American popular culture studies. Looking at that situation from another angle, what also warrants more attention is the actual distinction between the apolitical formalism of American popular culture studies and British cultural studies’ concern with ideology and political economy. As Philpot explains, “While British theorists [are] concerned with the ways in which hegemonic power [is] expressed through systems of media, American popular culture scholars [are] teasing out the functions and meanings of certain motifs in genre fiction.” For Philpot, an embrace of “the type of analysis now familiar to cultural studies and film studies scholars” is both crucial and timely because that comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach represents a means for opposing the increasingly “corporate management ethos” of American higher education.
Framing that line of discussion in somewhat different terms, the final, editorial essay by Rosalind Sibielski entitled “Media Studies as ‘Work That Matters’: Intersections between Media Studies and Cultural Studies in the Analysis of Popular Culture,” examines the contrast between “American” and “British” approaches and proposes that with “the study of popular media . . . at something of a crossroads,” we should recognize the value and distinguishing features of “media analysis undertaken from [a British] cultural studies perspective.” As Sibielski explains, rather than focus “on the pleasures of consuming” a text or on finding ways to appreciate the aesthetic value of popular culture and low art forms, critically distanced scholarship will depend on “the British cultural studies perspective” because it prompts us to ask not just “which media texts are popular, but rather why it matters that they are.” Rather than insist on “the social relevance of popular texts or practices,” British cultural studies-influenced work can lead to comprehensive analyses because it is concerned with “examining, questioning, or critiquing [the] social impact” of popular media texts and practices. As Sibielski explains, studies grounded in “British” critical approaches give “ideological critique . . . a prominent place” precisely because they are designed to serve as an “intervention in a world in which [cultural studies work will] make a difference.”
The case that Sibielski makes for studies that “move beyond celebrating the pleasures of consuming media texts” and are media analyses that function as “political practice” in opposition to the corporate state is consistent with the central ideas in last fall’s editorial essay, “Subversive Fictions: A Patina of Radicalism in Corporate Media Culture,” for in both cases the call is for academics to “stop ‘reading’ corporate messages in the hope of finding hope.” Both essays argue that corporate media is unlikely to provide material for studies of “authentic” popular culture or subversive expression. Critical analysis of corporate media thus remains a vital area of activity, with alternative media becoming a possible venue for the expression of popular culture and subversion of dominant norms. To facilitate studies of alternative media, this issue includes an appendix that has a brief list of links to alternative media sites. Of course, directing attention to websites encourages continued engagement with mediated forms rather than collective action in daily life. In addition, as it stands, the appendix is likely a misstep, but one that will perhaps lead to discussion, debate, and action.