What Could Art360 Mean For Art History?

Evelyn Earl

Art360 encourages (many female) British artists, to curate their own legacy through the discovery and organisation of their artworks, sketchbooks, photographs, diaries and any other material (or indeed digital) footprints left throughout their oeuvre. This flags up a plethora of issues at the heart of the art historian’s practice. Certainly, the discussion regarding the meaning and role of authorship is a thread that weaves its way through the rich tapestry of our discipline.

The contribution of women to our culture, to human culture is considered minimal and for sure it wasn’t minimal… even a little bit of digging will make you realise women contributed a big deal on every level. But even in my own lifetime I see their contributions fading away. I know of many women artists who are now more or less forgotten.” — Art360 artist, Liliane Lijn, born 1939

At the Oxford University History of Art department, where I am a student, we are encouraged to broadly survey all visual culture, while constantly re-evaluating the Western Canon and the Eurocentric, patriarchal framework inherited from the ‘great men’ of the discipline, such as Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) or more recently E. H. Gombrich (1909–2001).

These authors, in particular, had a distinct history they wished to advance, in order to satisfy certain political and cultural aspirations. Similarly, the organisation of objects is never silent. The seemingly innocent task of ordering the material mess left behind by humanity, speaks of cultural prejudice in its very literal discrimination. For instance, in Gombrich’s bestselling and bombastically entitled ‘The Story of Art,’ 1950, despite his trying to limit personal bias and dogma, his progression of ‘one’ art is punctuated by Mediterranean classicism, and is entirely masculine-not a single woman exists within its 688 pages. This is the enduring story, the title on the front cover of the book, quite literally carved in stone.

 Artist, Liliane Lijn being filmed for Art360

Artist, Liliane Lijn being filmed for Art360

While Gombrich’s harnessing of the cult of ‘male genius’ speaks of a very specific post war/Cold War moment (in which Western classicism and individualism seemed like the perfect antidote to totalitarianism for this Austrian exile), his case is not unique. It is no coincidence that many of our galleries begin with Ancient Greece, glide seamlessly through the Italian Renaissance and crescendo with the grand finale of British modernism. Laying claim to this cultural heritage is a political act, and always has been. And whereas art historian Svetlana Alpers (born 1936) has famously propounded this in her ‘Museum as a Way of Seeing,’ 1991, I would like to posit that such a narrative begins even earlier in the process. It is first established by the visibility and availability of objects in the archive. Especially in our digital age, the way in which objects are described, photographed and displayed, online completely shapes the histories we can tell. In short, scholars are unlikely to write about what is absent.

In this way, we may view Art360 as engaging in a very practical sense with this effort to undermine such entrenched principles. An example being that “feminine stereotype” referred to by feminist art historian Gill Perry (born 1950) ‘which has tended to see the masculine as the main force of cultural creativity, rendering the idea of the woman artist as something of a contradiction in terms.’[1] By supporting artists in minority demographics (such as women) to amplify their voice in the process of self-curating and in filmed interviews, the project tries to give visibility to extraordinary individuals before the white gloss of patriarchal, heterosexual history completely obscures British cultural heritage.

Returning to the original Liliane Lijn quote, the effort aims to stop unfair discrimination in its tracks. Barbara Steveni, (born 1928) [1] another participant in Art360, was the founding member of the ‘Artist placement Group’-the seminal individual in this radical social experiment. Unjustly her importance has been dulled by referring to her as ‘honorary secretary,’ or the wife of the artist John Latham (1921–2006.)[2] Altering these half-formed histories before they become rigid is both significant and brilliantly exciting: a task that is constantly being undertaken by many current feminist art historians, such as Amelia Jones (born 1961) and Griselda Pollock (born 1949).

However, spotlighting female artists in the archive is by no means novel. Early feminist art historians acknowledged it was not enough merely to try and stud female stars within the complex constellation of male ‘creators’. Searching hopefully through dusty store cupboards was never going to produce a ‘female Michelangelo’ in the same way.[3] It was essential to explore the specific social and political structures, which defined female artists as distinctly ‘woman,’ in order for meaningful study. Judith Butler (born 1956) has argued, in her call for intersectionality, that the reductive assumption of a universal identity of ‘woman,’ for whom representation is sought, charges feminist writing with ‘gross misrepresentation.’[4]

Therefore without considering historical and geographical context, art-historical writing may perpetuate the cult of genius in its over-emphasis of the ‘author.’ While in Art360, the artist’s self-curation of materials and edited oeuvre centralises the maker in the story, the project escapes this criticism through the cultivation of working materials, written or digital dialogues, photographs and contracts. The importance placed upon such resources draws our attention to the method of production and the art object as ‘the deposit of a social relationship,’ to steal a phrase from Michael Baxandall (1933–2008.)[5]

These resources also take on renewed significance concerning how to historicise ephemeral art, such as performance, a continually important medium for artists engaged with feminist theory. Peggy Phelan (born 1948) has written extensively on the subject. Whereas images and props taken from the performance have previously served as documentary ‘relics’ of the piece, artists, such as Tino Seghal (born 1976), seek to dematerialise their work. This poses problems for the archive and the creation of histories. Seghal, by insisting upon re-performance attempts to exempt his oeuvre from mechanical reproduction and image streams. In this way the set of instructions become the object requiring preservation. The curation of a legacy, therefore, demands a nuanced approach.

The online space of the archive is not only convenient for current and future commentators on the arts, but may also be perceived as a democratising force. While the ‘original’ only meets the viewer half way,[6] it exists in a realm open to the masses as opposed to the often elitist social space of the gallery or prestigious institution. Perhaps projects such as these, with a strong online element, may introduce the importance and relevance of artistic narratives to the wider audience, attracting a more diverse array of students to art history and thus giving future commentaries on art polyphonic potential.

Currently the traditional framework of art history is deeply conservative and exclusive. At an institutional level, the ratio of students at university is overwhelmingly female yet the loudest voices on art remain white men. Analogously, the recently proposed elimination of the A level has posed a threat to accessibility. In the very few state schools offering art history, the subject would be struck from the curriculum, while some independent schools may be able to continue its provision in the form of Pre-U education. Indeed, this initiative would mean the very opposite to ‘the end of the intellectual elite’ opined by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones in his misinformed article. [7] If we strive to create a more democratic history, then attention must be paid to accessibility during education. While only a small step, the value of the online space for art lies in its near universality, in the UK at least.

Ultimately, Art360 teases out many issues tightly woven around art history. The beauty of the academic discipline is that it deals with objects that have longevity; our study is not confined to the moment of production, nor artistic intention. The material nature, preservation and provenance of objects enter into the story just as much, thus the archive is indispensable t[2] o our study. However, the point at which the project and the discipline converge in the most meaningful way is the mutual understanding of the ethical importance of the story we tell, and the way in which we decide to tell it.That ‘little bit of digging’ to which Lijn refers, helps us to clarify our existing histories, as well as forming ones without the obscurity of a sexist, racist lens. We can only do this by challenging the supposed neutrality of the archive and art history.[8]This is, of course, only the beginning of a more democratic story. There is so much more work to be done for the deserved representation of many more minority demographics, evidenced by feminism’s current need to reconsider gender binaries and sexualities. The campaign must be unwavering. For, change must be sought at all levels, but most significantly in education.

[1] G. Perry, Gender and Art, Italy, Yale University Press, 1999

[2] http://en.contextishalfthework.net/exhibition-archive/barbara-steveni/

[3] L. Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’, 1971, http://deyoung.famsf.org/files/whynogreatwomenartists_4.pdf

[4] J. Butler, ‘Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire’ in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (London, 1990) p. 5

[5] Michael Baxandall, ‘Conditions of Trade’, in M. Baxandall, Painting and Early Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 1

[6]W. Benjamin, The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media’,Cambridge , Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008 p.254

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/13/art-history-a-level-subject-private-schools-kenneth-clark

* To read the History of Art undergraduate response see-