McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

“We need a history which does not save in any sense of the word; we need a history that performs.” (Jane Blocker) Discuss in relation to research on a work of art/performance of your choosing.

History is not made up of events which took place.  History is the recording of those events; it is what we say about them and what we are told about them.  History therefore can contain meaning and bias, it can be mistaken, and it can be manipulated and changed even though the original events it addresses, whatever they were, are beyond change.  Jane Blocker gives an example of the purposeful manipulation of history in the re-telling of the Cuban 'Venus Negra' myth. (Blocker 1999, pp 113 - 129)  This myth/history tells of the untameable 'Black Venus', the last of the Siboney Indians, who would not submit to the efforts of the Spanish colonists to civilise her, but instead, through passive resistance, insisted upon her right to and need for her native soil and the nourishment of its native foods.  Whether any events resembling this account ever took place (which seems unlikely - why, in thoroughly colonised nineteenth century Cuba, would one, solitary, Siboney Indian remain, and how would she reach adulthood without ever encountering the colonists earlier?), the history is being used as a tool by the Cuban Creole population to claim both a pre-colonial right to land through some essential connection to the earth (such as the Indians were believed to have) (Blocker, 1999, p 120), and to distance themselves from the ravages of Cuba's ecology by Spanish colonial agriculture (Blocker, 1999, pp 121-2).  In the way they have recorded and passed on these supposed events, the Creoles have produced something new, with a meaning of its own
How do this changeability of history and its sometimes tenuous connection to the original events affect the history of art?  Art history traditionally has not been faced with these difficulties to anything like the same extent as other branches of history because, with the obvious exception of theatre, art history has dealt with unchanging objects which have been preserved, such as paintings, sculpture, textiles and pottery.  These objects can be revisited to verify opinions and conclusions which are made about them.  Meanings can be interpreted and re-interpreted, but the original object of art is always there so that each new generation to check if the interpretations bear a clear relationship to what exists.  There is no need to record the object as the object itself is the (necessarily accurate) recording, and what is left for history to do is classify, place in context, and thus legitimise the object as art.  There is also a secondary, safeguarding role of making sure, if decay and damage occur, that the object's original, intended state is known so that the artwork can be moved closer to this original state through restoration.

The art which has been produced since the Second World War, and particularly since the 1960s, has thrown a grenade into the peaceful waters of art history.  Much of what is known as 'post-modern' art is concerned with the corruptible, with the absent, with negative space, with the unique, one-off experience - in a word, with that which is unpreservable.  This presents great historiographical problems.  As Blocker succinctly puts it, "What kind of history is it that does not save?" (Blocker, 1999, p 133)  The art of both Ana Mendieta, about whom Blocker was writing, and that of Dan Flavin, form part of this 'unsaveable' category of art.

Blocker stated that Mendieta's art was problematic to art historians because it "asks history to do something that by definition it cannot do.  That is, it asks history to let go of the past" making it necessary to use non-historic, "primitive" methods of preserving the past "through repetition rather than storage." (Blocker, 1999, p 133)  This rejection of history is a common feature of post-modern art, which includes a lot of performance or semi-performance art.  However, the repetition method of preserving the past is inadequate since the different reaction of those who participate in performance art can radically change the experience which is the artwork.  Patroka tells of the way her carefully managed reactions as a member of the audience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum were dramatically altered by an encounter with two other viewers, former members of the Jewish resistance, whose story questioned the museum's narrative of American liberation of helpless victims. (Patroka, 2003l, pp 88 - 89)  In this case, despite efforts to make each member of the audience experience the same story, her experience, and therefore that piece of performance art, was different.

History still has the opportunity to "save" this current period of art by categorising and legitimising it as art, applying definitions such as "minimalist" or "feminist", and combining artworks with others which are seen to share the same methods or meaning, however much this categorising may be resisted by the artists.  (See Dan Flavin's views on being labelled a Minimalist, Scottish Arts Council, 1976, vol 2, p 13)  Whether this is helpful in creating context, or unhelpful in leading to skewed judgements based on connections which do not exist, it is a matter which will continually be up for debate.  In the sense of preserving, however, history can neither save nor truly reperform such works of art.  They have successfully rejected history.  This period in art will surely be recorded to the best ability of art historians, but the works themselves, with their intrinsic resistance to repetition and preservation, cannot be saved in any sense of the word.

Related Links
To Top