Subjective Approaches to Sense-Making in Art and Visual Culture

Over recent decades, writing about art and visual culture has typically adopted a ‘critically detached’ stance in which the writer remains more or less invisible in what they write. This approach is increasingly being questioned and extended, however, by scholars working with a more ‘postcritical’ and subjective orientation towards their materials. Emerging approaches include a heightened interest in emotional response, memory, autobiographical narrative, self-reflexivity and embodiment, with a revived sensitivity to aesthetics and to the agency of the artwork. Such approaches can provide a fuller account of what viewers actually experience, think and feel in an encounter with art; they can help explain differences in response for different viewers in different contexts; and can potentially lead to more transparent and authentic forms of writing, in which interpretation is explicitly linked to the writer’s life history and the uniquely nuanced set of values and beliefs that flow from it.

In line with the conference’s aims of reflecting on transformations in the field, in ways that can lead to cross-cultural and intra-cultural exchange of ideas, this session presents a set of papers which offer illuminating subjective readings of individual works of art and photography, both historical and present-day, and outline innovative methods and rationales for doing so. At a time, however, when the concepts of ‘post-truth’ and ‘my truth’ now often seem to threaten an epistemological chaos of total relativism, the session provides a platform for papers that indicate how subjective methodologies can enrich our understandings of art, ourselves and each other, while nonetheless remaining persuasively grounded in the data of experience, context and art history.

Session Convenor:

Simon Denison, Hereford College of Arts


Andrea Kollnitz, Stockholm University

Making Sense of Leonor Fini

This paper investigates the self-fashioning of the artist Leonor Fini (1907-1996) as a multisensory spectacle meant to affect and transform the performing artist as well as her audiences. Reflecting the challenge of handling the (in several ways) overpowering archival remains of a reportedly fascinating personality and creator, it aims to discuss how to make sense of an artist as an embodied phenomenon. Sense may refer to perception, experience, sensuality and physical reactions of the nervous system to exterior stimulants, as well as be applied in terms of meaning, that is, understanding a phenomenon due to cognitive and mental processes. As I argue, making sense of ‘Leonor Fini’ demands using one’s senses and thus opens up questions on a researcher’s position between analytical detachment and personal subjective and affective engagement.

In my soon to be published monograph I interpret Leonor Fini’s (1907–1996) dressing-up practices as a crucial but hitherto overlooked part of her art production and an important tool in the construction of her self- and artist’s identity at the crossroads between performative control and becoming. Fini expanded her creative practices from painted artworks to her self-creation through costumes, masks and fashion, staged in numerous photographic portraits by some of the 20th century’s most prominent photographers, at balls and in natural environments as well as on the stage of her own apartment and studio. My paper will discuss how I have come to analyse and embrace the spectacle of Leonor Fini, through a deliberately attached, rather than detached approach.

Simon Denison, Hereford College of Arts

Self-Reflexivity, Thinking and Feeling in Art Writing

In some academic fields, explicit self-reflexivity is an established part of any research project, as a way of revealing the non-objectivity of the interpretation and the positionality, values and thinking processes of the writer. Within visual culture writing, self-reflexivity appears to be much less widely deployed and discussed. What would happen if we started to incorporate it more into our interpretations of art? This paper outlines a small research study in which a group of experienced art/photography critics and academics were asked to engage self-reflexively with an art photograph – an image from Mitra Tabrizian’s series Border (2005–06) – and to reflect on the impact of doing so on their response. Most were engaging with self-reflexivity for the first time.

The study has suggested that self-reflexivity can, in some circumstances, do more than just reveal ‘who is speaking’ within a text. By highlighting the entanglement of thinking and feeling within critical interpretation, and the influence of our unique, embodied life histories on our thinking-feeling responses, self-reflexivity appears able to enrich and complicate our interpretations, producing new insights into an artwork’s potential meanings and value, and delivering a heightened level of emotional engagement for the writer/viewer. Critics are ‘taught not to bring ourselves into any kind of analysis,’ one participant declared, ‘but there is a tremendous amount lost in not doing so.’ The paper will draw out some of the implications for self-reflexive writing about art in the future, including opportunities to grasp and potential pitfalls to avoid.

Debbie Meniru, Tate

Speculative Writing as Art Interpretation

Walk around most public art galleries today and you will find interpretative texts that prioritise concise facts about the artworks. Any obviously emotional or personal readings are few and far between and, if they do surface, will be safely harboured within quotation marks and attributed to someone not on the gallery’s payroll. This paper explores what it might look like for galleries to loosen their grasp on the ‘facts’ and embrace speculative interpretation. Speculative interpretation encompasses fictional and anecdotal texts that are often grounded in art historical research or other forms of research but approach their subject through emotion, memory and imagination.

Taking key examples from Tate’s history and other forms of speculative art writing, this paper will examine how speculative interpretation might open up alternative readings of artworks while also revealing existing museum texts to be constructed narratives that themselves draw on emotion and imagination. The paper will explore speculative interpretation in relation to ‘critical fabulation’, Saidiya Hartman’s concept of using storytelling and speculative writing to imagine unrecorded histories. How can these forms of writing be applied to art interpretation? How might they be applied to the interpretation of contemporary as well as historical art?

The paper will present new examples of speculative interpretation written for works in Tate’s collection, especially those which have unrecorded sitters or artists, or about which little is known. Through discussion of these texts, I will explore what considerations might need to be made for speculative interpretation to be adopted by art institutions such as Tate.

Peter R. Sedgwick, Cardiff University

Between Our Selves

This presentation concerns a photograph which I have returned to regularly since first encountering it as a teenager. It is an image which is for me permeated by an intimacy reminiscent of that identified by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida in relation to the famous ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of his mother. The photograph in question is a double-exposure self-portrait taken by my maternal grandfather in the 1920s on 3½x5 inch negative film. In it, the figure of my grandfather sits at a table gazing from the edge of one side of the frame towards the centre. He is holding some playing cards. Facing him on the other side of the table is another seated figure which is also himself and also holding a hand of cards.

My discussion will focus on interpreting this enigmatic doubled figure in relation to two contrasting registers. It will, on the one hand, chart my personal entanglement with this photograph, both in relation to its entwinement with my family history and my own abiding interest in photography. On the other hand, my discussion will seek to reflect on some theoretical questions that arise out of this encounter. These theoretical questions derive from the work of Roland Barthes (not least, Barthes’s construction of the naive viewer in Camera Lucida) and Vilém Flusser (especially Flusser’s discussion of the temptation we have to regard photographs as windows and his linking of the technical image to ‘post-history’).  They principally concern the fascination which the photographic medium can evoke in virtue of its peculiar ability to blend the real and unreal and the objectifying and the personal.

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