September 27, 2008

Critical Hierarchy

There exists a hierarchy of critical theory in reference to contemporary art; a paradigm of critique, if you will, that once established on a particular artist and their work marshals further consideration and new analyses on the work.

Comprehension of much contemporary art is distinctly fragile because of the hermeneutics of critique and it becomes particularly difficult when essayists overlook previous critical views. Not to say that a critic cannot ignore these previous critical assessments, but when such nuanced “readings” of an artist are laced throughout the Web it becomes apparent that these views may have been omitted not as result of ignorance but possibly in avoidance of critical hierarchy itself.

Rigorously researched critiques on contemporary artists abound in print and electronic media. Moreover, new interpretive views on an artist run the risk of abrupt dismissal or even worse become immediately obsolete if they exhibit such critical omissions, and this is all very troubling for the contemporary art audience that would suffer from the paucity of information presented.

Such is the case in Professor Jonathan Wallis’s otherwise scholarly essay on the photography of Mariko Mori in the Spring /Summer 2008 issue of Woman’s Art Journal. A former fashion model from one of Japan’s wealthiest families, Mori explored a vivid range of identity issues for women through her carefully wrought photographs staged in urban settings. Often Mori inserted herself digitally into these photographs (created in 1994-’95) creating a new media genre within conceptual photography that I would like to call faux tableaux.

There are rather well-documented previous critiques that view Mori’s feminine “aliens” as an “intensified sexualization of abstracted and alienated consumption.”(1) Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, a post-feminist, Marxist treatise of substantial significance to the visual arts, encouraged women to quit trying to erase male “fantasies” but instead take control of men through their libidinous desires and overturn the patriarchal order by taking advantage of their sexuality.

That Prof. Wallis’s ten-page essay fails to even briefly reveal this fact through a footnote is unconscionable. Clearly, he did not miss the evident symbolism in Mori’s images - “...they appear as either cyborgs partially made of machine parts or futuristic aliens with pointy ears.”(2) - but still Prof. Wallis failed to turn up Haraway’s concepts in relation to Mori in his research. Here is a quote from a Mori fan site page devoted to “Cyberfeminism”:

“The office ladies and schoolgirls that appear in Mariko Mori's early work are not ordinary women, that is, they are cybernetic organisms (‘cyborgs’) - a mix between science fiction fantasy and everyday existence. In her influential and ironic work, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991), Donna Haraway declared that in the twenty-first century, women should begin to take pleasure in mixing the boundaries between the natural and the artificial (Haraway 1991). Women should no longer attempt to change the male fantasy, or indeed eradicate it, instead, they must take control of it and subvert it for their own pleasure.”(3)

And from another excellent essay available on line:

“The first time I saw ‘The Birth of a Star’ [Mori’s 1995 photograph] I thought of Donna Haraway's cyborg as described in her seminal essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto...”(4)

I can see no obvious reason for Prof. Wallis to have avoided this topic. Mori’s imagery from this body of work bears a definite cybernetic cast as she has herself alluded:

“The women appear to be happy because they're cyborgs, not real women.”(5)

Thus, I propose there are two possible explanations for Prof. Wallis's oversight: he was either completely ignorant of this previous critical interpretation of the mid-1990s Mori photographs or he knew and decided not to address these views in his own critical analysis.

If Prof. Wallis was not aware of previous views on Mori that made a connection between her plastic, teenybopper vamps and Haraway’s sexual empowerment through cybernetics, then the least we can say is the research is flawed. This results in a weakening of the critical impact of this particular text and certainly would reflect poorly on Woman’s Art Journal as a reputable resource for contemporary art study.

On the other hand, if Prof. Wallis specifically ignored these critiques that interpret Mori’s sexualization of “technology as a potential source for pleasure”(6) then his paper represents a possible negation of the critical hierarchy. If a critic wishes to attempt a negation of previous critical theory about an artist’s work then we expect there to be specific counter-theories that address the contradiction or refutation of the previous critical position. Regardless of the scope of one’s hermeneutics, an academic or critical investigation is obligated to search for undiscovered knowledge.

Remarkably, there is yet another grave error in Prof. Wallis’s research in his characterization of earlier feminist art. He talks of 1970s feminist artists’ “celebration of the natural body and its functions, sexual liberation” and implies that “young female artists [today] embrace and celebrate attire, attitudes, and roles condemned by their foremothers.”(7) Would not Hannah Wilke clearly refute Prof. Wallis's thesis, given that Wilke’s performances circa 1979-'85 were mostly nude rituals of eroticism? In fact, Wilke’s presentations of the inherent power of female sexuality went so against the grain of “feminist standards” that Lucy Lippard “condemned” Wilke in 1976 for “confusing her roles as beautiful woman and artist.”(8) Thus, Prof. Wallis should not overlook Wilke’s work as a possible inspiration for young women artists today rather than recycling tired and trite pop culture icons like Madonna and Britney Spears.

Image: Still shot from performance So Help Me Hannah; © copyright 1978-1985 by Hannah Wilke.

1. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, 1991, 172.

2. This and all subsequent quotes are from “The Paradox of Mariko Mori’s Women in Post-Bubble Japan: Office Ladies, Schoolgirls and Video-Vixens” published in Woman’s Art Journal, Spring /Summer 2008.

3. Quoted on “Cyberfeminism and Mechanical Sex”.

4. Schreiber, Rachel. “Cyborgs, Avatars, Laa-Laa and Po: Exhibitions of Mariko Mori”, originally published in Afterimage, March /April 1999, 2.

5. Quote from an interview with Dike Blair in Purple Prose, Summer 1995, 98.

6. Schreiber, 13.

7. Wallis, 5.

8. Lippard, Lucy. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, New York, 1976, 126. [“Lippard appears to have believed that Wilke’s beauty obscured the issues being raised in her artworks. In other words, Lippard’s argument suggested that only art that did not represent Wilke herself could be considered ‘serious’ art.” - from Julia Skelly’s “Mas(k/t)ectomies: Losing a Breast (and Hair) in Hannah Wilke’s Body Art”, Third Space, Vol. 7, Issue 1, Summer 2007.]

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