Genealogy and aesthetics: Art, history, Foucault

Paterson, Dominic (2006) Genealogy and aesthetics: Art, history, Foucault. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

My thesis combines poststructuralist and psychoanalytic approaches to investigate the actual and the possible relations between art history and philosophical / critical discourses. To do so it combines framing case-studies of key art works in Chapters One and Five with more concentredly theoretical central Chapters. Although the work of Walter Benjamin and Slavoj Zizek strongly informs what I have done here, my primary theoretical orientation is towards Michel Foucault's "genealogical" approach to historiography. My thesis is underpinned by two assumptions: first, that the historico-philosophical writings of Foucault can be usefully deployed in relation to a number of theoretical and critical problems facing art history in its interpretation of, and relation to, postmodern art practice; second, that Foucault's work has been inconsistently and inadequately addressed by both proponents and detractors of his way of writing history. I argue that close reading of Foucault's texts produces a more complex body of thought than art historical appropriations have allowed. It seems to me that it is the overdetermination of both positive and negative readings of Foucault by the particular stakes surrounding critical-theoretical approaches to art that has produced this situation. In particular, the role of aesthetics in Foucault's thought has been generally missed; on the one hand by those (such as Terry Eagleton) who argue that Foucault capitulates ethical and epistemological concerns into aesthetics in a characteristically postmodern and irresponsible way; on the other by those (such as Craig Owens) who see him as an antidote to art history's bourgeois aestheticism. In contrast to both these interpretations I argue that Foucault's writing produces a complex interplay of epistemological, ethical and aesthetic levels. Specifically I contend that his epistemological insights are delivered via an "aesthetics of the text" that necessitates an appropriate "ethics of reading." This reading looks at the development of Foucault's thought as a whole, emphasising persistent themes (however radically reworked) rather than rupture. Central to my thesis is the claim that the truth value of Foucault's work is both expressed, and needs to be interpreted, in Nietzschean terms. To that extent, my aim is to evaluate the actual and potential "uses and abuses of Foucault for Art History." The potential uses of Foucauldian principles are identified and enacted in two related case-studies of art historical / art critical problematics. The first centres on a reading of Cornelia Parker's 2003 work The Distance (a kiss with string attached), an appropriation of Rodin's Kiss which makes an allusion to Marcel Duchamp. Analysis of this work relates it to problems of institutional and "curatorial" art, to Duchamp as an originary figure for strategies of appropriation, and to broader issues of interpretation and visual culture. The second case-study concerns two appropriations of historical figures by the American artist Matthew Barney. These appropriations work according to a process of excessive identification within a hermetic narrative structure, and my reading of them, by extending this identificatory and narrative logic, attempts to reconnect Barney's Cremaster Cycle - a work deemed too "spectacular" to support such a reading - to important critical perspectives on art, aesthetics, and theory. The thesis concludes, then, by offering an alternative paradigm of critical writing on art to that of the October group- whose influential texts form the interpretative context of Chapters One and Two. This alternate paradigm is based in looking back to Benjamin and Foucault and reinterpreting their relation to art historical discourse, but it does so in order to look forward to new possibilities for engaging with cultural practice.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Adviser: David Hopkins
Keywords: Art criticism, Aesthetics, Philosophy, Art history
Date of Award: 2006
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2006-70999
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 May 2019 14:28
Last Modified: 09 May 2019 14:28
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/70999

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