Art Paper: Critical Summary of “Desiring Images/Imaging Desire”

We wrote a number of critical summaries of artists’ works (paintings, sculpture, writings, whatever) with a partner. This is the second.

Mary Kelly received her master in 1965 from the Pius XII Institute.  She has worked in many different aspects of the art field including as an artist, teacher, curator, and critic.  Kelly is currently a professor of interdisciplinary studio practice at UCLA.  In her different roles in the world of art, she often investigates questions of sexuality and identity.  As an art writer/critic, she often uses the ideas and criticism of Freud and Lacan to address the role of the female in society.  One such essay is “Desiring Images/Imaging Desire”, which was published in 1986.  Later, in 1997, “Desiring Images/Imaging Desire” was part of a collection of Kelly’s essays re-published in the book Desiring Images.

The main focus of “Desiring Images/Imaging Desire” is a discussion of the role of the female artist and how they fit in within femininity and masculinity.  In other words “The woman artist sees her experience as a woman particularly in the terms of the ‘feminine position,’ that is, as the object of the look.  But she must also account for the ‘feeling’ she experiences as the artist, occupying what could be called the ‘masculine position,’ as subject of the look.”  Women, as the subject of art, are the objects of desire: “Desire is embodied in the image which is equated with the woman who is reduced to the body which in turn is seen as the site of sexuality and the locus of desire.”  Kelly then begins to ask how to change this role of the woman and the “impossibility of being at once both subject and desire.”

Kelly presents some of the responses to this situation.  One response by a “so-called post-feminist” was to “adopt a strategy of disavowal.”  Through the use of “the androgene, she is a picture; an expressionistic composite of looks and gestures which flaunts the uncertainty of sexual positioning.  She refuses the lack, but remains the object of the look…effectively taming the gaze rather than provoking a de-construction.”  Another tactic is to “self-consciously assume the ‘patriarchal façade’; to make it an almost abrasive and cynical act of affirmation.”  However, this can create an “alienating effect of a mis-recognition.”  (Neo-)feminists refused the “literal figuration of the woman’s body, creating significance out of its absence.”  This method did not try to stop the “lure” of the image, but instead focuses on the appropriation of the gaze and the role reversal associated with it.

Next Kelly discusses how the works of Freud relate to the division of the visual field into two “sexually prescribed positions”, such as “repression/perversion, hysteria/obsession, body/word … with the heterosexual couplet seer/seen.”  Freud’s work doesn’t actually focus on these types of divisions; instead he focuses on the “precarious passage called the Oedipus complex” as the cause of sexual identity.  Freud believes that the “child’s recognition of difference between the mother and the father is above all an admission that the mother does not have a phallus.”  Kelly brings up the possibility of there being a female fetishism and taking part in the Oedipal moment by “identify[ing] with her mother and [taking] her father as a love object.”  This then causes “her” to not recognize the ability to have a child.  If the act of bearing a child is seen as providing “her” a phallus, then the “loss of the child is the loss of that symbolic plentitude — more exactly the ability to represent lack.”

Freud describes women as having the fear of castration and its relation to fear of loss of her loved objects, especially her child.  To prevent this “the woman tends to fetishize the child: by dressing him up, by continuing to feed him no matter how old he gets, or simply by having another ‘little one.’”  Kelly then relates this to the way the mother saves things like photos, locks of hair and first shoes.  Lacan would see these objects as “emblems of desire.”  This presentation of the fetishism of women is not to “valorize” it but to “create a critical distance from it”, which can’t be done before it is acknowledged.  Kelly creates a new question regarding the problem of images of women: “how is a radical, critical, and pleasurable positioning of the women as a spectator to be done?’

Kelly further looks into the source of desire, which she says is “caused not by objects, but in the unconscious, according to the peculiar structure of fantasy.”  Desire is not the same as images of desirable women.  When feminists try to refuse the “image” of the woman, it means two things.  First, the concept image is not reduced to one of “resemblance, to figuration, or even to the general category of the iconic sign.”  Second, the goal is to create a “system of imaged discourse capable of refuting a certain form of “culturally overdetermined” scopophilia.

In some cases, Kelly argues that the differences suggested by society between men and women should not be seen as true.  For instance: the idea that narcissism is associated with women and fetishism with males.  In other cases Kelly states that there are inherent male/female differences, like their relationship to the mother’s body.  This then allows for the possibility of producing a “different form of pleasure for the women by representing a specific loss.”

In the end Kelly spent a lot of time talking about the issue of how the female artist fits into both being personally a female and occupying a male role as the gazer.  She discusses the effects that this situation presents and some of the ways that the issue has been addressed.  What she does not do is spend a lot of time actually providing a solution for the problem.  The essay is much more about discussing an issue and its importance than about how to solve it.