Beyond the AAH: Groups, Organisations, and Collectives since the 1970s

This conference celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the AAH, an organisation which since 1974 has sought to bring the discipline, as variously practiced in the UK, together. This panel explores less well-known groups, organisations, and collectives that have been influential in the evolution of art history since the 1970s, and in particular those concerning too-often-marginalised materials, objects, and bodies, both in the UK and further afield. The AAH’s formation was coincident with the emergence of the ‘new art history’, as well as numerous collective efforts to rethink scholarship and politics, drawing on feminist, Marxist, queer, and anti-racist thought. Groups and organisations do not need to be political, however; this panel encourages a broad consideration of how to track such histories, and how doing so might help us to widen the landscape of the field today. Art history regularly addresses groups of artists and institutional formations in relation to art, but much less so in relation to itself as a discipline. Archival material charting the genesis of the AAH, for example, suggests that there were fascinating debates and conflicts around who should be included in the organisation, and what the discipline of ‘art history’ might cover. What, we ask, can art history’s different types of group history tell us about the development of the field beyond, or alongside, organisations such as the AAH? And how might such histories enrich, disrupt, complement, or complicate existing or dominant historiographical narratives?

Session Convenors:

Catherine Grant, Courtauld Institute of Art

Samuel Bibby, Association for Art History


Victoria Horne, Northumbria University

Reading Revolution: Feminist Magazines in Art History

To fully grasp the ‘feminist knowledge explosion’ in UK art history of the late twentieth century, we need to better understand the media landscape and communication networks through which it was managed and effected. That surge of activity associated with the ‘second wave’ of feminist activism in the 1970s and 1980s was sustained by political bookshops, presses, printers, and a proliferation of newsletters, pamphlets, magazines, and journals. Indeed in 2010, the journalist and activist Beatrix Campbell evocatively recalled: ‘We ate the literature that was pouring out of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we ate it […] all of these tracts and texts and books, we consumed as soon as they came out.’ This paper investigates the energetic reading activities associated with the women’s liberation and art movements. Acknowledging that reading is not ahistorical, but an activity shaped by numerous psychological and social forces, this paper explores the distinctive grassroots reading culture of UK second-wave feminism, and starts to unpack how it was represented and mediated through visual art of the period. Pivoting on the magazine FAN: Feminist Art News (1980-1993), the paper explores the extra-institutional processes of self-education that were sustained by periodical networks, and considers how reading was represented in the work of artists associated with FAN (including Sarah Jane Edge and Lubaina Himid). It suggests that artworks, as visual fictions, can tell us something about how the act of reading was conceptualised and negotiated within that specific milieu of highly self-conscious feminist-informed readers. I want to contend that the feminist periodical networks which catalysed UK art history flourished because those involved could imagine and see themselves – could self-reflexively understand themselves – as critical readers of an intellectual tradition, and were unwilling to treat art production and art history as neutral practice or discipline.

Giulia Schirripa, University of York

Beyond Rivolta Femminile: The Influence of Autocoscienza on Italian Art History

The 1970s in Italy were a time of profound cultural and social change, from feminism to workers and youth movements. These changes did not spare the discipline of art history. This paper focuses on the ways that art-historical methodologies were influenced by feminist discourse, especially by the women-only collective Rivolta Femminile (RF), one of Italy’s first and most influential feminist groups, composed and run by artists and art critics including Carla Lonzi, Carla Accardi, Simona Weller, and Suzanne Santoro. While short-lived, the group’s theoretical and practical stances strongly influenced both art-making and the development of new art-historical methodologies. This phenomenon has been widely discussed around the art-historical practice of co-founder Lonzi. Following in these footsteps, this research aims to look at how RF’s practices, especially autocoscienza (consciousness raising), influenced the 1970s art-historical production of both women who were part of the collective. and those who were not. Specifically, it concentrates on Lea Vergine’s Il corpo come il linguaggio (1974), and Simona Weller’s Il complesso di Michelangelo (1977), both art-historical volumes that share the methodological practice of interviewing artists and transcribing their conversations. The paper explores how RF’s autocoscienza led to an art-historical practice centred around the idea of togetherness and shared authorship within and beyond the group. It also reflects on how RF’s influence resisted the pre-existing hierarchical power dynamics that were dominant at the time in the Italian art-historical tradition.

Amanda B. Parmer, New York University

Mimetic Relations: The Whitney Independent Study Program and the Whitney Museum of American Art

In recent years the ‘crisis’ in academia and museums has announced itself by perennially calling for our cultural institutions to be rethought. However, the projects and programmes that operate in the margins of such spaces are often overlooked as models for change. This paper considers how one such group, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (ISP), has worked alongside, and at times as part of, the museum since 1968. Made up of artists, art historians, and curators, the ISP foregrounds a critical cultural studies approach to training participants, and considers the conditions of a practice – through feminist, Marxist, and post-colonial thought – as necessary components for understanding the work itself. In order to make such considerations legible and intelligible as part of the artworks and art-historical discourse, administrators, faculty, and participants of the ISP have developed a tactic of miming the authorial voice of its host institution, the Whitney Museum. This paper focuses on the ISP as a model to demonstrate how the mimicry of institutional forms found in museums and universities – including spoken and written acknowledgements, exhibition texts, faculty lists, periodicals, seminar structures, symposia schedules – can provide recognisable forms for thinking about how we come to know differently in otherwise homogenising structures of social reproduction. I draw on archival research undertaken at the Whitney Museum to understand how the programme and such tactics do and do not compel institutions to support, recognise, and reproduce art histories beyond dominant narratives.

Lujza Kotočová, Academy of Fine Arts, Prague

The Role of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in Shaping Art-Historical Paradigms in Czechoslovakia, 1979–1989

Alice Centamore, Independent Scholar

Pauline Oliveros and the ♀ Ensemble: Hang-Out, Gong, Touch, Hear

In 1970, composer Pauline Oliveros published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled ‘And Don’t Call Them “Lady” Composers’, where she condemned the inaccurate assumption that there were no ‘great women composers’. Oliveros argued that women composers did exist, but that their names were excluded from the canon because women did not fit the myth of ‘greatness’ which critics fabricated around the lives of their male counterparts. Oliveros’s vision strikingly resembles that of Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971). Both texts exposed the material obstacles that prevented women from succeeding in the arts, and convincingly demonstrated that the secret to success laid not in the ‘genius factor’, but rather in access to education. What Oliveros omitted from her article is that she was simultaneously at work on a para-institutional space for more egalitarian learning and working conditions. In 1971, with ten other artists, Oliveros created the ♀ Ensemble, a purposely all female collective that fostered creative activity and exploration within a group setting by offering free workshops to anyone who wished to participate. The ensemble’s space represented a politicised opportunity in which the experience of proximity, practice, and listening became a generative form of disciplinary resistance. I seek to posit Oliveros’s NYT article and the ♀ Ensemble as two sides of the same coin, an unlikely conundrum of theory and practice. The op-ed functioned as the historical and ideological critique of disciplines and institutions, while the ensemble responded to women artists’ immediate needs at the height of various and intertwined liberation movements.

Amy Tobin, University of Cambridge

Taking Down Art History Together: Notes on Feminist Art Histories in the 1970s

Apocryphal tales are told about the formation of many feminist collectives in the 1970s. In Britain, one threshold moment was the angry open meeting following the attempted prosecution of obscenity charges against the artist Monica Sjöö and her 1968 painting God Giving Birth. The artist Margaret Harrison has described this meeting as a catalyst for women artists, artworkers, and art historians to form groups and collectives capable of contending with artworld misogyny, the politics of representation, obscured histories, and dull historiography through the force of togetherness. This paper begins at this open meeting to trace the part that art-historical work, as well as historiographical critique, played for women’s groups in Britain in the 1970s. In particular, it focuses on the Women’s Art History Collective, and the collaborative performances of Rose English, Jacky Lansley, and Sally Potter. While the first collective – comprising art historians, critical theorists, and early on, at least, artists – invoked John Berger’s take on the centrality of the past for constituting class identity, articulating new modes for the critical study of women artists collectively, and extending other demands for reparative recuperation, the second group staged analytic readings of cultural texts against virtuosic pastiche performances, taking pleasure in critical acuity. I claim these strands offer two examples of feminist take-downs of art history (in Griselda Pollock’s terms, ‘the discipline’) via attempts to work out feminist histories of art (to broaden ‘the field’). Following Pollock’s description of the proximity of critical and artistic work in this context, this paper considers what group formations provided, prompted, and permitted, especially in relation to the expression of good and bad feeling as method.

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