Rereading Key Texts in Art History

Rereading Key Texts in Art History

Overview by Valery Ledenev

Yulia Liderman’s seminar Key Texts in Art History was launched on Garage library’s platform in fall 2019. The starting point was the anthology Fifty Key Texts in Art History (2012), a collection of critical commentaries on the history and philosophy of art and culture.

The seminars, which took the format of “slowly reading”, studied the anthology’s materials in reverse order, from the most recently written to the earliest ones.

With the seminar’s opening block completed in December 2019, the amount of materials and the polemic enthusiasm it invoked in participants was so huge that the ten sessions weren’t enough to embrace it, so the works in question could well be reread and analyzed from a fresh viewpoint. Many publications mentioned in the anthology are available for free on the Internet. The seminar’s host, PhD in Cultural Studies Yulia Liderman has commented on some of the most striking and significant among them.

Brian O’Doherty. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space


The essay from the eponymous compilation written in 1976–1981 deconstruct the myth around the neutrality of the gallery (exhibition) space. The history of modern and contemporary art, from the early twentieth-century Salons of Independent Artists to the postmodernist project of institutional critique, according to O’Doherty, is the history of revising the boundaries of an artwork. Just like the rest of the Key Texts in Art History, his essay’s meaning reveals itself not in the analysis of its topic (the semantics of the gallery space)—but rather in combination with other texts discussed during the seminar which shed light on the evolution of the subject of art history in the context of transformations that took place in the field of humanities (structuralism and post-structuralism, gender and postcolonial studies, etc.).


Hélène Cixous. The Laugh of the Medusa


Written in 1975, this essay is one of the most famous examples of feminist poststructuralist theory. The article can be viewed as a manifesto. Its pragmatic task is to offend the reader, invoke desire, encourage to act. Research material here are nineteenth-century literary texts. How is the analysis thereof related to the history of visual art? Firstly, from the viewpoint of method. As a researcher, Cixous adheres to poststructuralist positions allowing her to scrutinize artistic practices as acts of speech and writing. When it comes to speech, it is important to distinguish who the speaker is and who this speech is addressed to. In her manifesto-article, Cixous urges women to “write for women” and “about women”, emphasizing the gender component of cultural practices.


Laura Mulvey. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema


Like the previous text, this essay on film theory was published in 1975 and studies the canons of Hollywood cinema. The central category directly related to art history here is the “gaze”, or, more precisely, woman as the object of the gaze arising as a result of Hollywood cinema’s instruments of narration. Under the gaze shaped by cinema, the woman acquires the property of an object endowed with signs of ornamentalism and decorativeness.


Michael Fried. Art and Objecthood


The text by American theorist and critic Michael Fried, written in 1967, has been discussed at the seminar in relation to the problem of art historical periodization. Reflecting in the end of modernism, Fried suggests that it marks the conclusion of the modern art project and is closely connected with the spread of minimalism. The latter’s practices bring into the realm of art elements of theatricality (literalness), which exists in irreconcilable opposition to art.


Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle


One of the seminal texts of the twentieth-century critical theory written in 1969, it remains an exciting reading despite its relative “platitude”, partly because of its aphorism-based structure which grabs attention and seduces the reader to keep on moving through the book. The notion of spectacle (show) reminiscent of Laura Mulvey’s conceptual apparatus, lies at the core of Guy Debord’s conception, which poses a compelling task of tracing the connection between the two thinkers’ positions. On the other hand, Debord reflects on the spectacle, show and theatricality using the logic of antagonisms and confrontation, symbolically throwing a bridge to the previously discussed works of Michael Fried.


Ernst Hans Gombrich. The Story of Art


Like Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, Gombrich’s volume remains incredibly favored by the reader and long ago became popular art history’s hot seller text in the best sense of the word. First published in 1950, it was repeatedly supplemented by the author throughout his life (Gombrich died in 2001 aged 92) and has been republished many times. The text develops the still relevant idea that learning Western European art remains integral to learning the European humanism. And that art history has to be understood as continuous and uninterrupted, hence the title of the book’s final chapter dedicated to current art: “A Story without End”.


Paul Valéry. The Centenary of Photography [Discours du centenaire de la photographie] (7 January 1939)


Poet Paul Valéry’s report at the Sorbonne conference in 1939, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary since the invention of photography, is one of the earliest theoretical texts on this medium. Its central issue—the relationship of literature and photography—remains an important subject in contemporary art history, as well as questions of the status of photography and the viewer’s hopes about its “documentary” essence. The text is a continuation of the discourse around the loose border between the visual and the vocal, later picked up by Hélène Cixous, which anticipates the development of an entire direction in philosophy dealing with image theory.


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