Feminist/ Queer/ Critical Race
Truth can be found in perspectives that have been traditionally underrepresented.
In the wake of Poststructuralism, photography criticism turned away from what could be seen in the image in favor of examining the social discourses, affect, and associations images may have.
20th-century theorists like Susan Sontag, Carol Mavor, and Ariella Azoulay examined the power dynamics inherent in the creation of an image, and Maria Sturken and Lisa Cartwright termed what they called “practices of looking” to define the practice of centering the viewer and examining assumptions and claims to authority and seeing colonial practices in visual authority. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001) These approaches to photography rejected the earlier, “straight,” modernist criticism of Victor Burgin and others, which not only minimalized the role of affect in focusing on the materialist and historicist aspects of the history of photography, but also effectively minimalized and marginalized the perspectives of women, marginalized races, queer perspectives, and others who are not represented by the established canon of photography history and criticism. (Brown and Phu 2014, 3)
The emergence of feminist, queer, and critical race theory in the 20th century represents as a political and social movement to recognize historically marginalized identities and different perspectives, to challenge the assumptions of established criticism and the old political regimes of assumption and understanding, and to recognize photography and social issues as a discourse.
A concern with social problematics also represents an examination of a work of art for the conditions of its being made and critical deconstruction of the economic, social, and political institutions of power, the psychology of dominant narratives, and those who have been subjugated by the image. For example, feminist readings critique the inherently patriarchal assumptions of many of the preceding modes and habits of seeing, such as the dominantly male perspective of psychoanalysis or the failure of Marxism consider the female experience of institutional, economic oppression.
For the evolution of Carroll’s character in public understanding, this shift toward feminist, queer, and critical race theory in the late 20th century re-opened and re-centered many of the debates on Carroll’s character that began in psychoanalysis. With a new focus on feminist readings and countercultural readings, new readingscomplicated and offered more nuanced readings of Carroll’s and Alice’s relationship than those suggested by psychoanalysis alone.
A new consideration of Alice’s perspective, which had previously been entirely overlooked, began to ripple through contemporary interpretations of Carroll’s portfolio (such as the short story “Wolf Alice,” by Angela Carter, or through the aesthetics and photography of Anna Gaskell or Polixeni Papapetrou). In readings of “The Beggar Maid”, for example, feminist readings reversed some of the previous assumptions that the image is indicative of Carroll’s male gaze, which assumed that Alice was submissive in her position or failing to consider her perspective at all and refocused their attention on Alice herself and on the implications of a female gaze.
While children in the Victorian era were alternately seen as miniature adults or innocent churbs incapable of sexuality, the 1980s and 1990s also saw a heightened awareness of child exploitation and experienced an emergence of a new sensitivity around childhood nudity in media as well as in the art world, perhaps spurred by the increased sexualization of children in advertising consumer culture and the coinciding commercialization of girlhood. Film processing stores were told to report images of nude children, and many artists faced intense scrutiny for images of nude children. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. canceled a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s images in 1989 due to his image “Rosie,” which depicted the genitals of a toddler, and Sally Mann faced continual threat from authorities in the 1990s due to the controversy surrounding the images she took of her young children, whom she occasionally depicted nude.
Some modern artists have defended Carroll's images, and argued that a hypersensitivity to all forms of child nudity actually works to sexualize children by denaturalizing and making taboo their bodies. Photographers like Sally Mann, Tierney Gearon, and Polixeni Papapetrou all photographed their children nude or in states of undress, but defended their work as the natural observations of motherhood, and describing their children as taking active agency in creating and distributing their own vision of themselves. In fact, Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou recreated one of Carroll's nude studies with her nine-year-old daughter Olympia, causing controversy upon its publication. But when the Australian prime minister stated that he was offended at the image, Olympia responded that she was offended by his offense.
All of these controversies indirectly influenced the reading of Carroll’s images and foregrounded a judgment of his character and the threat of pedophilia in his work. Adding to the fire, a pedophilic club self-named “The Wonderland Club,” was outed in 1998, the same year Colin Ford, the director of the National Museum of Wales curated an exhibition of Carroll’s photography – Lewis Carroll: Through the Viewfinder at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Ford noted that the question of Carroll’s pedophilia “overshadowed everything this year,” standing in contrast to a similar show in 1974, which did not contend with the same controversy. (Kuchich 2000, 255)
As a consequence of these debates, questions of Carroll’s character have foregrounded the many biographies written about his writings and photographs since the 1980s. The arrived conclusion remains ambiguous, however, with no consensus in sight. A number of biographies and documentaries condemn or question Carroll’s character (such as those biographies by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Katie Roiphe, Donald Thomas, Michael Bakewell, Simon Winchester, Carol Mavor, and countless others), while other writers have set out to defend Carroll against harsher criticism (such as biographies by Edward Wakeling, Karoline Leach, Morton Cohen, Anne Higonnet, Jenny Woolf, and others).
1. "The Beggar Maid," can be read not only for the its conventions and the conditions of its creation, but for its implications and reception. The 1980s and 1990s saw a heightened awareness of child exploitation and experienced an emergence of a new sensitivity to childhood nudity in media and art, perhaps spurred by the increased sexualization of children in advertising consumer culture and the coinciding commercialization of girlhood. Depictions of Alice often in popular media often depict her as much older than the 7-year-old she is meant to be in Alice in Wonderland, and several sexualized versions of Alice exist in popular consciousness have been reinforced through video game references, commercial costumes, and fan art.
2. Carroll became a heavily-referenced character in relation to drug and sexual countercultures in the late 20th century, seemingly aiding his association as a countercultural or controversial figure. At some point around the 1960s unsubstantiated rumors of Carroll’s use of opiates or hallucinogenic drugs began to take hold, perhaps fueled by the psychedelic colors of Disney’s animated movie, references in songs by artists such as Jefferson Airplane, and the various references to mushrooms and hookahs throughout the book. Movies like Alice in Acidland (1969) and Curious Alice (1971) use Alice to frame tales of sex and drugs. These associations and pop culture references contributed to a thickening social cloud over Carroll’s character, further associating Carroll’s character with a sense of the taboo or as a subculture figure in general and resulted in a total departure from the saint-like images of his earliest biographers.
3. Lewis Carroll, who has always been in the public imagination, has been referenced in the work of numerous other, sometimes controversial, artists. Vladimir Nabokov was a self-professed lover of Carroll’s works. His translations of Alice into Russian were among his earliest of publications, and card games, thematic doubles, and chess problems are as recurrent of symbols for Nabokov as Carroll. Nabokov, who had translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian, spoke several times of Carroll’s “pathetic affinity” with Humbert Humbert, the grown man who falls in love with a child in his controversial novel Lolita. In one 1966 December interview with Vogue, Nabokov spoke of Carroll’s “perpetual little girl hunt,” and admits, “I always call him Lewis Carroll Carroll, because he was the first Humbert Humbert.” Referring directly to Carroll’s photography, Nabokov commented, “He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade.”
4. Readings of "The Beggar Maid" in the 20th century began to take greater consideration of Alice's perspective and agency, as opposed to focusing solely on Carroll's character. Anna Kérchy summarizes some of these new feminist perspectives: “’The Beggar Maid’s’ class-subversion is coupled with gender bender, as Alice’s undressing has no feminine secrets to reveal, she confronts spectators with bodily markers of an overall tomboyishness - flat chest, short bob-cut hair, defiant gaze - which resist her subjection to conventional eroticization. Feminist analyses highlight the potential of female spectatorship, and related narcissistic, lesbian desires. [Carol] Mavor and [Nina] Auerbach call attention to the Carrollian girl child model’s self-awareness of her own ‘sexuality without parameters’ (Mavor 1995, 42), while [Juliet] Hackling regards the child nude as a means to address or acknowledge the sexuality of respectable adult women who could have imaginatively substituted themselves for the eroticized child, suggesting the disturbing complicity the viewer got involved I might have had to do with this more mature sexual dynamics (Hacking 2009, 102).” (Kérchy 2016, 130)
6. The second half of the 20th century was marked by a heightened visibility of sexual countercultures and historically overlooked perspectives and identities. In terms of photography, this movement is perhaps seen most visibly in the “culture wars of the 80s” which raised debates about what was appropriate to show in galleries, what art should get funding. Artists like Robert Mapplethorpe (whose images are pictured here) and Andres Serrano caused ripples of controversy as they pushed the limits of society’s acceptance of controversial imagery. Mapplethorpe challenged notions of the straight male gaze, which focused on the male gaze of women and instead eroticized the male form and a queer gaze. As questions of funding sparked questions about who artists are and their affiliations , a notion in art interpretations that the identity of the artist is not secondary or irrelevant but central to understanding how a work of art should be interpreted came into being. Douglas Crimp, in the introduction to his 1993 book On the Museum’s Ruins, details how Mapplethorpe’s personality and portfolio was often read above and through the nature of his work itself, extending into Senator Jesse Helm’s condemnation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s image of Jesse McBride as sexual while allowing Edward Weston’s images of his son Neil as permissible – a distinction which, Crimp argues, is due to Helm’s perception of the Mapplethorpe’s character and intentions. (Crimp and Lawler 1993) Such identity-based interpretations of photographs have always been present in the interpretation of Carroll’s images, as though determining the nature of Carroll’s character determines the tone of his images.
7. Examining a photograph for its racial conditions and implications became a more practiced aspect of photography criticism. As Shawn Michelle Smith writes in her book, At the Edge of Sight: “As photographs bring more into view, they also reinforce the invisibility of some things by overtly focusing on others. What is not represented is further obscured. And in any case there is no guarantee that what is captured photographically will actually be seen, because, as [Siegfried] Kracauer reminds us, seeing is shaped by cultural forces and the psychic reflexes of viewers.” (Smith 2013, 14) From representations depicted in media to the technology manufactured to register and represent white faces, the history of photography has taken whiteness as its invisible norm. “The Beggar Maid” can be read for the ways in which race is inscribed and encoded in its composition and assumptions. For example, Alice’s whiteness and assumed privilege might be read as enabling her performance and dominance in the frame, as well as affording an aura of romanticization to her play.
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