Too much responsibility? On the demands made of feminist scholarship

Last month, we published Paniz Musawi Natanzi’s post, ‘Feminist responsibilities: thinking about art history, epistemology and geopolitics‘, a reflection and response to Victoria Horne’s article, ‘Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism‘, published in Feminist Review issue 110. Here, Victoria Horne responds in turn.

This is a brief response to the thoughtful and comprehensive blog post written by Paniz Musawi Natanzi, in which she identifies and critiques a number of the arguments put forth in my earlier Feminist Review article. I would like to question two of the criticisms levelled by Musawi Natanzi:

First, Musawi Natanzi argues that ‘black women artists’ experience cannot simply be reduced to a “parallel” but independently working universe’ to that of their white sisters. And, as she diagnoses, ‘Horne’s idea of re-visioning and re-citing can only be applied to social formations that can refer to a disciplinary canon. How do we read contemporary women’s art that has no art historical canon of its own to refer to?’ I believe we in fact share common ground here. My use of the word ‘parallel’ was not intended to imply an equivalence in social, economic or legal context; instead, I contend that an equivalence or, at least, correlation in re-visioning artistic strategies can be observed between the approaches Lisa Gail Collins uncovers in African-American feminist photography and those I have identified in Kate Davis’ art practice. The question here is not necessarily one of market-recognised artistic canons, but of how historical subjectivities are produced and disciplined via visual materials, including in Collins’ book the pseudo-scientific archives of slavery in colonial America. The reference was not intended to offer an exhaustive argument in this regard, but to indicate that different subjects may have different histories, and that the creative expression I termed re-visioning may be observed in numerous contexts, as those subjects engage with a variety of archival materials (a question I would like to investigate further).

Secondly, Musawi Natanzi enquires, ‘So, is there an Afghan art history?’ I admit, I am not particularly well placed to answer that question. My own research concentrates on the development of art history in Anglo-American contexts, mostly British in fact, given my access to local archives and materials. Taking a historical view I would suggest that ‘art history’ emerged as a recognisable, professional discipline with a certain level of academic and educational standardisation across the field, in the late nineteenth century. Donald Preziosi has written extensively about the formation of art history’s institutions at this time as serving to legitimate the imperialist ideologies of the modern nation state. The establishment of art history therefore serves as a kind of cultural support for nationalism. Recent research published by James Elkins in Is Art History Global? attempts to answer just that question. He traces the number of art history departments and peer-reviewed journals (admittedly, these categories are biased frames from the outset) and finds that the vast majority are still located in Western Europe and North America. There are important distinctions to be made here. If we accept that ‘art history’ names a discipline and set of practices that has roots in the imperialist West, would we want an ‘Afghan art history’ and what would it look like? This integration/autonomy debate has of course been a well-acknowledged problem within feminist writing on art history for many years, and is increasingly a reflexive problem for feminist art history itself, in response to the ascendant hegemony of a mostly Anglo-American developmental narrative. There already is an abundance of writing on this topic, so I’ll move on to highlight the following claim:

‘Complicating the approach to women’s artistic work shows the limits of Horne’s strategies of “re-visioning” and/or “re-citing” since these are not capable to look at art histories, but assume a world untouched by colonialized epistemologies.’

Such an assumption was never my intention. My understanding is that contemporary processes of economic globalisation have their roots in colonial-era powers and discourses, alongside art history’s cultural operations. And I believe (following Dimitrakaki, 2013) that maintaining the singular ‘art history’ encourages us to remain attentive to those harmful legacies that accompanied the instituting of the discipline while developing wariness of globalisation’s ceaselessly assimilative operations. This singularity might also, in an optimistic vein, assist us in the quest for transnational feminist solidarity via the recognition of shared political goals, even in the face of deep ideological and material differences. While this criticism is one I shall be considering further, I disagree with the characterisation of my article as ‘marginalising non-white artistic experience’. I was engaging with a particular artist who lives, works and exhibits in the neighbouring city to where I live; it was necessarily a tight analysis of her artwork and the questions it poses in regards to European art history and UK suffrage legacies etc. In general my research engages with instituting processes on a micro-level, thinking about how small acts reproduce and/or resist existing limits of disciplinary thought. Of course I hope that these analyses might offer useful epistemological tools beyond the immediate context of its subject. As mentioned, I attempted to gesture towards some of these in the article itself.

Ultimately, Musawi Natanzi’s critique exhorts greater ‘feminist responsibilities’. I would not necessarily oppose such an aim but I remain cautious of the excessive demands we often make of feminist research – hence the title of this response. If one of feminism’s achievements has been to challenge the notion of a universalising approach to scholarship, we must accept that many arguments, tools, or methodologies are bound to be provisional and open to reinterpretation, even reshaping, in face of the varying exploitations and oppressions faced by women under global capital. I hope that my article provides, or begins to provide, such a perspective for those of us working in the field of art history.

Victoria currently holds a Paul Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. Her co-edited collection of essays on feminism, art and historiography is due to be published by IB Tauris in 2016.

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