Criticism and Ideology

I started out today wanting to work on a post about feminism, but I’ll save that for tomorrow as a) it is going to take more time and thought than I can manage in one day and b) I came across this wonderful selection that speaks directly to a few issues I’ve brought up earlier and offers a different and compelling perspective.

The earlier issues are:

  1. Criticism. In a post about mainstream criticism, I argued that criticism ought to enhance appreciation of a work of art, situate it within its larger context, and engage in a dialogue with the work that can serve to further the work and the discipline in general.
  2. Art for art’s sake. Last night I posted about arts advocacy and its emphasis on the impact of the arts on non-arts disciplines. I wondered if there might not also be room for arts advocacy that recognizes the arts as an aesthetic pursuit and that advocates for the arts as a means in and of themselves.

Today, I was rereading some sections of Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic, and came across a great passage about the role and function of criticism. In it, she is talking about a more literary/academic criticism than I was discussing, but I think her ideas here are relevant to that conversation, and are tangentially appropriate to the arts advocacy conversation (and the place of aesthetic considerations).

She explains that her goal in criticism is to understand and interpret the ideological nature of representation. Aesthetic value judgments therefore are of lesser relevance to her.

Before I get into the larger passage that deals directly with her intentions, I want to first pull out a couple sections where she discusses ideology.

What is ideology and why explore it in theatre?

She quotes Michelle Barrett:

“Ideology is a generic term for the processes by which meaning is produced, challenged, reproduced, transformed. Since meaning is negotiated primarily through means of communication and signification, it is possible to suggest that cultural production provides an important site for the construction of ideological processes…[L]iterature [read “theatre”] (for instance) can be usefully analysed as a paradigmatic case of ideology in particular social formations.” (qtd. on 15*)

But the process of understanding that ideology is complicated and requires “careful excavation” (16).

She quotes Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt:

“Ideology…is not a set of deliberate distortions imposed on us from above, but a complex and contradictory system of representations (discourse, images, myths) through which we experience ourselves in relation to each other and to the social structures in which we life. Ideology is a system of representations through which we experience ourselves as well, for the work of ideology is to construct coherent subjects.” (qtd on 16)

This is further complicated in that, as one tries to unpack ideologies in theatre, one must consider that the theater does not simply mirror reality. She writes:

The theatre, that is to say, is not really a mirror of reality. A mirror implies passivity and noninvolvement, an object used but never changed by the variety of people who hold it up and look into it. The theatre has in fact been much more active as an ideological force. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock concur: “Art is not a mirror. It mediates and re-presents social relations in a schema of signs which require a receptive and preconditioned reader in order to be meaningful.” (16)

She then closes this first chapter with a note about criticism:

This study is meant to outline cogent feminist critical approaches to all kinds of performance. It stresses the ideological nature of representation, and the necessity for alternative criticism provided by the feminisms to unmask the naturalized ideology of the dominant culture most theatre and performance represents. Terry Eagleton, in his monograph on the function of criticism, proposes that “criticism was only ever significant when it engaged with more than literary issues—when, for whatever historical reason, the ‘literary’ was suddenly foregrounded as the medium of vital concerns deeply rooted in the general intellectual, cultural, and political life of an epoch.” The bestowal of value judgments about aesthetic quality is at best a subsidiary issue here. As Barrett states concisely, “Preoccupation with the question of value (‘quality,’ ‘standards’) has been detrimental for feminist criticism…This debate is fruitless…in that it reproduces the assumption that aesthetic judgment is independent of social and historical context.”

My point here is not to distinguish “good” theatre and performance from “bad,” according to some prescriptive, transcendent, liberal, cultural, or materialist feminist aesthetic standard. Rather, my point is to conduct a feminist inquiry into representation as a form of cultural analysis. There is perhaps a moral imperitive here; I admit that I think it is “bad” that so much of representation denies women subjectivity, and I do not think it is “good” that dominant cultural ideology relegates women to subservient roles. Robinson tells an anecdote that addresses the question of value judgments and ideology that is relevant here:

“Satre once asked whether it would be possible to write a ‘good’ anti-Semitic novel in the wake of Nazi genocide. I imagine we would all counter by asking, ‘What do you mean ‘good’?’ A radical kind of textual criticism might well be able to answer that question. It could usefully study the way the texture of sentences, choice of metaphors, patterns of exposition and narrative relate to ideology.”

Likewise my effort here is to ask questions about method. How does a given performance—the dialogue, choice of setting, narrative voice, form, content, casting, acting, blocking—deliver its ideological message/ how does it convey its assumptions about its relation to social structures? My intent is to uncover ideological meanings that otherwise go unnoticed and continue to perpetuate cultural assumptions that are oppressive to women and other disenfranchised social groups. (18)

I think here she is formulating a great lens for thinking about what the arts mean to us and what they can tell us about our world.

All selections taken from The Feminist Spectator as Critic by Jill Dolan.

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