Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 6, 2013
Amelia Jones Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts New York: Routledge, 2012. 258 pp.; 16 color ills.; 42 b/w ills. $39.95 (9780415543835)

In Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts Amelia Jones offers a rebuttal to the frequent claim that we are beyond identity and identity politics. Beliefs about identity are tied to the visual register—people make assumptions about other people based on what they look like. Seeing Differently opens with a recent and tragic example: the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian worker in London, who was murdered by the London police when he was mistaken for the suicide bomber Hussain Osman (xx–xxi). Jones uses the shocking circumstances of Menezes’s murder in order to chide the art world for making facile proclamations about post-feminism, post-queer, and post-black identities in exhibitions that are designed to cater to phobia about the deleterious effects of political correctness. The discourse of post-identity politics is closely tied to the sense of unease and displacement that is the result of living in a globalized, networked, diasporic world, a world in which identity is no longer based on the fictions of birth, religion, place, or nationality. Nevertheless, identity—and identification—continue to matter, particularly in the realm of the visual. Seeing Differently is a history of theories of identity in Western culture that begins with Descartes’s ideology of vision and Hegel’s master/slave binary (in which the subject is either one or the other, but not both). Jones spends a great deal of time dissecting the identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s, noting that these politics were in fact rooted in the binary opposition of master and slave that had also informed aesthetic judgments regarding what was and what was not art for hundreds of years. Jones argues that we must still account for identification—if not identity as it was construed in the heyday of identity politics—in order to acknowledge how we value and understand visual culture. Beliefs and ideologies regarding art, Jones suggests, have much in common with beliefs and ideologies regarding identity. It is necessary to understand how vision and visuality functioned as ideological constructions in Western thought in order to begin to see things differently, which for Jones takes the form of a radical new form of temporality, which she has termed throughout her book “queer feminist durationality.”

Jones has been a prolific and engaged scholar who has consistently advocated for an interrogation of modernist ideologies in order to understand how racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia were propped up by the philosophical discourses of modernity. Modernist art history, which was initially premised on the Kantian notion of art as separate from everything else in the world, is implicated in these exclusionary discourses. In her seminal book Body Art: Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998) Jones argued that the body art of the 1960s and 1970s undermined the Cartesian mind/body split theorized since the seventeenth century by instantiating the body of the artist within the work of art. An early advocate for the identity-based feminist art made in the 1970s in conjunction with the Los Angeles Feminist Art Program and the Woman’s Building, Jones received the critical scorn of a group of Los Angeles–based critics, among them Dave Hickey and Christopher Knight, who argued that these feminist artworks were not art and therefore not worthy of inclusion in a museum exhibition (see Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, Los Angeles: Art Issue Press, 1993; and Christopher Knight’s review of Sexual Politics, an exhibition that Jones curated for the Hammer Museum in 1996: Christopher Knight, “More Famine Than Feast,” Los Angeles Times, Calendar, May 2, 1996). All of this critical disapprobation on the part of middle-aged white men, and directed against a young female critic and curator who at that time was still in her early thirties, had the effect of pushing Jones to explore further what was at stake when artists foregrounded their identity or identities in their work. Jones believed that the art world’s fear regarding the introduction of different aesthetics and art that referenced the personal identity of the artist had implications beyond the art reviews published in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Jones’s initial investigation into art and identity politics was confined to the politics with which she was most familiar—the civil rights movement in the South (Jones grew up in Durham, North Carolina), the Chicano movement in Southern California, and the feminist art movement associated with the Woman’s Building. After living in Southern California for a number of years, Jones accepted a position at the University of Manchester, where she was astonished by the class politics of her new city. Another move, this time to Montreal, raised different issues around identity and belonging. Jones’s peripatetic journeys, outlined in the preface of Seeing Differently, have caused her to realize her own early myopia regarding her own whiteness, heterosexuality, and middle-class privilege. In 2002, when asked to speak about the current state of feminism in the art world, Jones wrote, “I think the crux of the problem (if there is one) for feminist visual culture and analysis lies in how we approach identity and how we theorize and do interpretation. I would like to see feminist art historians, critics, and theorists become more sensitive to the philosophical difficulties of attempting to break down authoritative modes of analysis (per the ’70s and ’80s model of feminist critical practice) while retaining a political and coalitional thrust in our practice” (Amelia Jones, contribution to the Artforum roundtable “Feminism and Art [9 Views],” Artforum 42, no. 2 [October 2003]: 143; emphasis in original). Seeing Differently is Jones’s response to her own call for an art history-criticism of political and coalitional activism that acknowledges that identities matter and that there are social, economic, and juridical ramifications for how Westerners continue to understand and read identity.

Seeing, how we see, and the implications of acts of seeing and knowing are at the center of this book, which shares its title with a 2008 essay by Jones on the gap separating Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) with Shezad Dawood’s Make It Big (2005) (Amelia Jones, “Seeing Differently: From Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) to Shezad Dawood’s Make it Big (2005),” Journal of Visual Culture 7, no. 2 (2008): 181–203). In that essay, Jones argues that Dawood’s photographic reworking of Antonioni’s film about the (im)possibility of the limits of vision represented a new kind of seeing, one that “differs from the mythical ideal subject of Euro-American modernism in that it is hybrid and networked, dissolved across identifications, rather than centered and coherent” (183). This new way of seeing, Jones suggests, is one that is “diasporic . . . linked inexorably to the flows of capital, populations, and information in globalized late capitalism” (184). In both her essay and book, Jones is emphatically not arguing that this subject—a product of global transnational economies, the movement of populations, and digital technologies—is post-identity. In fact, Jones claims the opposite. Seeing Differently is a manifesto for the centrality of identity politics, albeit a politics that has been reconfigured to take into account the seismic cultural shift that has occurred in the past forty years since the various rights movements of the mid-1960s. The book expands upon Jones’s 2008 article in light of the events of the past twelve years, which have demonstrated the degree to which Western secularism is a construction that depends upon a binary relationship between that secularism and religious fundamentalism—in particular, Islam.

Seeing Differently begins with a consideration of the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of modernist regimes of vision through a discussion of Kantian aesthetics and of the Hegelian dialectic of master/slave, in which the master always relies on the slave for the construction of his/her identity. This dialectic pivots, according to Jones, around “a notion of difference that is binary, and related specifically to European ideas of being in the world” (46–47). Identity politics—and its correlating visualization in contemporary art—was thus initially informed by the Hegelian master/slave-self/other construction of the visual regime, often projecting whiteness and/or heterosexual masculinity as the other to all racial, ethnic, and gendered differences. The trick to seeing differently—to interrogating how and why one looks—lies in the ability to engage visually with the world in such a way that the fantasy of viewer-subject coherence and omniscience is exposed as one of many ideological constructions. Jones finds in the Renaissance concept of anamorphosis, or the deliberate distortion of Renaissance perspective, a different mode of seeing that undoes the certainty of the Cartesian subject. Using the example of the anamorphic skull from Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533), Jones suggests that “anamorphosis resists the spatializing tendency of perspective (and, one could argue, the entire logic of the privileged normative subject in Western patriarchy) through introducing duration into the experience of seeing and knowing” (86; emphasis in original). Duration implies a temporality that opens up the subject from a fixed, visible identity to identification, in which the other is you, but “you” is not easily pinned down. Jones is most interested in artists who performatively and reiteratively engage their viewers with the process of identification, citing the work of Martha Wilson, Renée Cox, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and William Pope.L.

Taking as her point of departure the notion of temporality, Jones proposes the idea of queer feminist durationality as an alternative mode of seeing that resists the reductive binarisms of identity in which Western culture remains mired. For Jones, queer feminist durationality is a strategy of being, looking, and interpreting, one that deliberately reads and misreads artwork in order to open it up to the process of interrelationality and ethical responsibility. It is a strategy informed by feminism, a strategy that for better or worse has exposed the ideological structures that have maintained patriarchal values at the expense of women. Queerness, the bastard stepchild of feminism—with its material association with bodies that (don’t) matter and its etymological origins of strange, ruined, or spoiled—is implicated, as Jones suggests, in the idea of temporality, particularly in relationship to delay or sidestepping. Jones unites feminism, queerness, and durationality in order to “indicate a conceptual model of critique and exploration that is simultaneously parallel to and building on . . . earlier feminism” (174).

The result is a radical rereading and reengagement with art and art making. One of the most courageous aspects of Jones’s work as a critic is her willingness to foreground her own interestedness in the critical process, to include asides about the exhibitions she has and has not seen, and to write about artists with whom she is involved while acknowledging that involvement. All critics do this of course, but rarely have they been so open about it. For example, Jones reads Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait Pervert (1994) and Self-Portrait Cutting (1993) through Self-Portrait Nursing (2004). In this final self-portrait, Opie’s chest is decorated with the scars from the cuts made in her flesh for Self-Portrait Pervert. Of these portraits, Jones writes:

It seems to me that Opie’s self-portrait series offers a visual activation of this dispersal of subjectivities, via photographic representation, across time and space. Representation does not secure the meaning of the subject. Nor is it secondary to the ‘authentic’ identity of the body. . . . Rather, representation is the very way through which we take on our various identifications—both here and now as we breast feed our child . . . and in every future moment in which we navigate the world having breast fed our child. (211)

The final chapter in the book includes a discussion of Paul Donald, whose hand-carved wooden sculptures appear to be flaccid, oddly colored phallic or military tools that are strangely hard (made of wood) while appearing soft and vulnerable. That Donald’s project is deeply informed by Jones’s theorization and articulation of queer feminist durationality is not surprising—they live together, after all. What is surprising is Jones’s willingness to expose her own relationship and vulnerability with Donald and the other artists included in the final chapter—Mira Schor, Judy Chicago, and Opie. Jones’s corporeal and temporal engagement with this body of work belies the notion that identity is a stable construction that resides in the work itself. Rather, it is through the activation of meaning within the viewer that identity—and identities—are realized. Homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are not confined to popular culture. As Jones demonstrates, there is still far too much collusion and omission in academic writing that refuses to acknowledge the implications of identity politics. In Seeing Differently, Jones has attempted to provide a model by which critics can begin to work around this impasse.

Jennie Klein
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Ohio University