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Rosalyn Deutsche: Feminist to the Core: Psychoanalysis, Contemporary Art, and Feminism

Erica Richardson, English and Comparative Literature, PhD candidate and 2017-2018 Graduate Fellow

Columbia’s Art Hum course focuses on a wide array of Western masterpieces, from the looming Parthenon of classical Greece to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art paintings, all of which were created by men. This prompts the question, taken up by Professor Rosalyn Deutsche in her recent Feminist to the Core lecture: how can we put women artists and feminism in dialogue with such a canon? In her presentation, Professor Deutsche offered a series of interventions, framing the connections between psychoanalysis, contemporary art, and feminism in order to address the problem of feminism and what she described as the “masculinist tradition of Western art.” According to Professor Deutsche, psychoanalysis, feminism, and art, in concert, critically engage an often masculinist tradition of Western art by questioning not only the mastery of the canon, but also the gendered and historical ideologies built into mastery itself. Deutsche offered a distinctly feminist brand of psychoanalysis, the result of her interrogation of Sigmund Freud (featured on the Contemporary Civilization syllabus) through the modernist contemplations of Virginia Woolf (featured on the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization syllabi). As Deutsche explained, Woolf envisions the cusp of modernity following the war and the rise of a modern wave of feminism as related events. Deutsche discussed how Woolf in Three Guineas reflects on a generation lost to war and women’s presence and thought as a necessary response to the masculine desire for power and control that nearly destroyed the Western world. According to Deutsche, Woolf was speaking from her own perspective and in response to an increasing societal reception of Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis. Indeed, Freud himself expressed sentiments akin to Woolf in his claim that the polemical nature (and necessity) of psychoanalysis lies in its challenge to man’s presumption of grandiosity.

Drawing upon the perspectives of Woolf and Freud, Deutsche argued that women artists in the 1970s and 1980s trouble the concept of mastery or “man’s grandiosity” in their work. Masculinist viewing of the subject in pieces by artists like Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Lorna Simpson was upended by the subject that looks out at the viewer. In a fascinating analysis of the work of Kruger, Deutsche demonstrated how the artwork’s solicitations and declaratives unravel the viewer. Deutsche compelled her audience to adopt a feminist approach that involves less mastery and more dialogue and critical inquiry about the relationship between the subject and the viewer.

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