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From Virginia Woolf to the Post-Moderns

From Virginia Woolf to the
Post-Moderns: Developments
in a Feminist Aesthetic
Pauline Johnson

Contemporary feminist art theory and practIce has, by and
large, turned away from a modernist affirmation of the
autonomy of art from IHe towards a post-modern
problematisation of the specIfIc category of the aesthetIc.

The modernist assertion of the freedom of the autonomous
work is held to be inconsistent with feminism’s
requirements for a committed art responsive to the needs
of a determinate publIc. To a contemporary feminism
concerned to establlsh the specIfIcity, the legitimate
difference, of the feminine, a post-modern ethos whIch
repudiates any hierarchisation of world-views and endorses
a democratIc plurallsm as the only defensible value
appears as the more attractive option. The following
paper interrogates the supposition of the radIcal
inappropriateness of a modernist aesthetIc to the critIcal
requirements of a feminist perspective and challenges the
supposed appropriateness of a post-modern standpoint to
these needs. Part One of the paper considers a specIfIc
case of modernism’S relevance to a feminist art practIce.

examine the, admittedly not unambiguous, support Woolf’s
feminism finds in her allegiance to a modernist aesthetIc
developed by the Bloomsbury group. The second part of
the paper considers the unacceptable consequences of a
radIcal, indiscriminate jettisoning of the main aspirations
of modernist art theory for a feminist aesthetIc. Several
attempts at constructing a post-modern feminist art are
critIcally evaluated and the fundamental inadequacy of
these enterprises is traced to an underlying incoherence in
the objectives of a post-modern feminism.


Leading feminist interpreters .of Virginia Woolf’s
aesthetIcs have identified two seemingly incompatible
perspectives in her work. Woolf’s feminism is, they argue,
a product of a penetrating sociologIcal analysis of the
material and psychologIcal constraints whIch have
traditionally worked to inhibit women’s capacity te
produce great art. On one level, then, Woolf disavows
any romantIc, ideallst convictions, fully acknowledging
that works of art are not I ••• webs spun in mid air by
incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human
beings and are attached to grossly material things Ilke
health and money and the ho!-,ses we Ilve in’ [1]. For
MIchelle Barrett and Simon Watney [2], Woolf’s feminist
recognition .of the poll tIcs of art production and reception
cannot be reconciled with her equally soJid allegiance to
the modernist aesthetIcs of Roger Fry and CJive Bell
whIch unequivocally repudiates any conception of the
poJitIcal character of art. Woolf’s commitment to an

aesthetIc purity and ‘freedom of mind ‘ represents a
seeming romantIc disregard for the socIologIcal reality of
the class and gender specIfIc influences whIch condition
all creative and receptive activities. On this point of
view, Woolf’s feminism appears to leave off where her
‘materi<:lJist critique of the socIal position of the writer in
the prevailing conditions of Ilterary productien' ends and
her modernist pIcture of the freedom and purity of the
aesthetIc begins [3].

Whllst by no means attempting a full defence of the
unambiguous appropriateness of modernist art theory to a
feminist aesthetIc, my aim here is to contest the idea that
there is a radIcal incompatibility between Woolf’s
feminism and her allegiance to a modernist aesthetIc. In
place of the idea of a fundamental rift between Woolf’s
feminism on the one hand and her medernism en the other,
argue for the existence of cenflIcting pessibitlties and
tendencIes within the aims and metheds .of medernism upen
whIch a discriminating acceunt of its essential relevance
for a feminist aesthetIc can be based.

In the present centext it is net pessible to embark on a
comprehensive account of the main characteristics .of
modernist art theory and practIce. Accerdingly, I merely
propese te examine the relevance .of aspects .of the
specIfIc medernist aesthetIc elaberated by Weolf’s
Bleomsbury celleagues, Bell and Fry, te the construction
of her feminist perspective. I suggest that elements of the
aims and techniques formulated by Bloemsbury art theery
are essential to the artIculatien of this perspective,
rather than an .obstruction to its expression.

The Modernism of Bloomsbury Aesthetics
Barrett and Watneyls influential critiques of WeeJfls
modernism rest, I suggest, on the failure to distinguish
between twe cenfllcting impJicatiens whIch attend the
conception .of the radIcal autenemy .of the aesthetIc
propesed by medernist art theory. Altheugh Marcuse’s
seminal essay on ‘The Affirmative Character .of Culture’

is specifically cencerned with the twofeld impllcatiens .of
a humanist-realist tradition in autenemeus art, we can, I
hope te shew, usefully empley the mest general outllnes
.of his analysis te assess the several pessibilities and
significances .of a medernist art practice [4]. Baldly
stated, this analysis helds that an art practice which
asserts the autonemy .of the werk frem life can beth
sustain an elitist and censervative withdrawal frem the
‘bad’ reality of the everyda¥ whlle at the same time
retaining an emancIpatery significance by virtue .of its
critIcal distance frem an .oppressive present.

The essential censervative spirit of a medernist
disavewal .of all human concerns and interests as


fundamental1y irrelevant to the purity of the aesthetic is
nowhere more apparent than in the cultural aristocratism
of Ortega y Gasset’s dehumanisation thesis [5]. To Ortega,
the dehumanised focus of modernist art offers a means for
arresting the degenerate, levettlng cultural
egalltarianism of modern society. Because the
appreciation of modern art requires a sophisticated
audience capable of raising itself above the merely
narrow, sectarian phltlstine interests of contemporary
society, the aesthetic becomes the arena in which the
cultural aristocrats of the modern era posit their own
positive social identity. In the works of the moderns: ‘We
have ••. an art which can be comprehended only by people
possessed of the peculiar gift of artistic sensibility – an
art for artists and not for the masses, for ‘quality’ and not
for the hoi-polloi’ [6].

Whilst lacking the radicallsm of Ortega’s formulations,
a similar cultural elitism is apparent in the Bloomsbury
group’s attempted justification of modernist art. For Fry
and Bel1 also, the ability adequately to appreciate postimpressionist art distinguishes a cultural elite from the
irredeemably phlllstine masses. Any discussion of content,
the potltics of reception and conditions of cultural
production is, to them, irrelevant to the aesthetic, which
appears only as ‘significant form’ [7]. The art work does
not, they maintain, properly concern itself with any
reatlty which exists outside it but constitutes its own
hermetical1y sealed self-referring ‘world’. Watney
rightly points to the romantic and etltist conception of the
ideal audience which underlies this aesthetic doctrine [8].

On his view, Bloomsbury aesthetics appears as an idealist
attempt to reduce the appropriately equipped viewer to a
mere aesthetic sensibility from whom atl determinate
sociological characteristics have been effectively
effaced. Moreover, their advocacy of the radical
disengagement of the work from alt human commitments
and social interests seemingly involves Bell and Fry in an
etltist appeal to an audience which considers taste and its
cultivation an absolute end in itself. Watney suggests
that for all Fry’s strictures against Victorian culture,
Bloomsbury art theory with its proposed radical separation
between art and life does not leave behind the middleclass values of snobbery and social conventionalism. In
Bloomsbury aesthetics, the capacity to appreciate the
‘right’ pictures appears as the supreme social arbiter [9J.

At this stage in the discussion it would appear that the
conception of the radical autonomy of the aesthetic
formulated by Bell and Fry is entirely unsuited to the
requirements of a feminist art theory, which inevitably
proposes an explicitly ideologically committed aesthetic
and expresses a profound inerest in the character of the
relations between art work and a determinate life
experience. Yet at another level, it would appear that
modernist art theory does not serve in any total,
unambiguous sense a fundamentally conservative and
elitist politics. In a provocative essay entitled
‘Modernity – An Incomplete Project’, Habermas points to
the survival of vestiges of the essential emancipatory
aspirations of Entlghtenment thinking within the temper of
modernism [10]. According to Habermas, a modernist
consciousness has inherited aspects of the Entlghtenment’s
interrogation of the controlllng impact of tradition and
the authority of the merely conventional. Modernity, he
comments, ‘revolts against the normalising functions of
tradition: modernity tlves on the experience of rebeWng
against all that is normative’ [11].

This rebellious spirit, this aspiration towards a new,
free SUbjectivity not constrained by the crushing,
levetJlng norms of social convention, is arguably evident
also in Bloomsbury art theory. Alasdair MacIntyre – who
is a strong supporter of this reading of the significance of
Bloomsbury aesthetics – suggests that Bell and Fry
developed a critical dimension implicit in the moral
philosophy of their associate, G. E. Moore [12]. A central
proposal of the Principia Ethica is that the ‘good’ be


viewed as a simple, indefinable property and propositions
declaring something to be good as aesthetical ‘intuitions’

incapable of proof or disproof. MacIntyre argues that
Bloomsbury absorbed the radical aspect of this ethical
system which, by making the ‘good’ a natural,
unanalysable property discernible by the ‘sensitive
indiv idual’, appeared to offer a release from the
oppressive moral conformism of the earller generation

A balanced picture of the spirit of Bloomsbury would
emphasise the twofold, conflicting imptlcations of the
attempt to construct an account of the disengaged purity
of the aesthetic. Hence the persuasive force of Watney’s
suggestion that the radical autonomy thesis simply
estabtlshes a new basis upon which a cultural etlte is
able to recognise and affirm the quatlty of its judgement
and taste against the philistinism of the uncomprehending
masses. Yet this conception of the radical autonomy of
the aesthetic also seemingly expresses a revolt against
the normalising function of tradition, and articulates an
aspiration towards ,the construction of an aesthetic
consciousness liberated from the shackles of entrenched
social convention. On this account, the modernist thesis
of the purity of the aesthetic is able to sustain an
essentially critical perspective on the present, for it is
precisely this disengagement of the work from the
interests, commitments and norms of the everyday which
enables the autonomous work of art to articulate an
alternative, critical reality. I suggest that, in this latter
aspect, the modernists enter, into essentially sympathetic
relations with a feminist interrogation (itself rooted in
Entlghtenment thinking) of the apparent inevitability of
established tradition and the merely received social norm.

The modernist no less than the feminist aims to break with
the repressive function of the traditionally sanctioned
norm. Like the feminist, the modernist refuses to credit
the merely traditional with the authority of a ‘second
nature’. Both, in their various capacities, offer a
provocative challenge to the supposedly self-evident
certainties of an unquestioned existence.


It is in the tlght of the twofold confllcting impllcations
fundamental to a modernist aesthetic identified above,
that the complex character of Woolf’s feminism can best
be understood.

The Modernism/Feminism Connection in Virginia
Woo If
In her major study of Woolf’s feminism, Virginia ~oolf and
the Androgynous Vision, Nancy Topping Bazin argues that
Woolf’s protest against existing forms of appropriate
feminine subjectivity is informed by a vision of an
androgynous SUbjectivity which, to her, corresponds to the
real possibilities of the self [14]. This vision of a
transcendent androgynous self is conceived as a mediated
unity in which presently constituted norms of mascutlnity
and femininity are fundamentally transformed. Neither
existing masculinity nor traditional femininity is, to
Woolf, appropriate to her vision of ideal SUbjectivity
which can only be realised in the freedom of the aesthetic

This critical perspective on the norms of appropriate
femininity and mascutlnity is powerfully developed by
Woolf both in her fiction and in her essays and letters. A
well-known piece entitled ‘Professions For Women’

usefully summarises her discoveries about the condition of
psychic and emotional subordination required by modern
conventions of the feminine [15]. Woolf stresses that
women are continually haunted by a debitltating image of
an ideal feminine type: an ideal she expresses in the motif
‘The Angel in the House’. ‘The Angel in the House’

requires women to sacrifice their own judgements and
desires, enforcing their adoption of a totally empathetic
perspective which subordinates itself to the desires and
wishes of others. To Woolf, this emotional enslavement
must be unequivoca,lly repUdiated if women are ever to

attain the ‘freedOrfl of mind’ necessary to the elevation of
the aesthetic atitude. Whlle lacking the independence of
mind necessary to the freedom of the aesthetic
consciousness, the fundamentally egoless, empathetic
feminine consciousness provides an essential counterpoint
to an equally debilitated, unfree masculine selfabsorption. Whereas feminine subjectivity finds itself
overwhelmed by and incorporated into the point of view of
the other, the masculine ego. must attempt to dominate and
absorb the perspective of the other. Woolf’s ironic
attitude towards the foibles of masculine selfpreoccupation is clearly evident in the following passage
from The Years where Peggy is talking to a male writer at
a party:

Her attention wandered. She had heard it all
before, I, I, I, – he went on. It was like a vulture’s
beak pecking, or a vacuum-cleaner sucking, or a
telephone bell ringing. I. I. I. But he could not
help it… He could not free himself. ‘I’m tired’,
she apologised. ‘I’ve been up all night,’ she
explained. ‘I’m a doctor’ – The fire went out of his
face when she said ‘I’. That’s done it – now he’ll
go, she thought. He can’t be ‘you’ – he must be ‘I’.

She smiled. For up he got and off he went [16].


To Woolf, neither presently constituted femininity nor
traditional mascuHnity represent forms of consciousness
suited to the purity and freedom of the transcendent
aesthetic attitude. Woolf’s fiction suggests, however, that
the unconstrained aesthetic consciousness represents not
so much a negation of the feminine and mascullne attitudes
but rather a synthetic unity of aspects. of both. As Bazin
points out, Lily Briscoe’s efforts in To ‘The Lighthouse to
produce an aesthetically satisfying painting are
represented by Woolf as a struggle to reconcile the
feminine with the masculine attitude [17]. To Lily, Mrs
Ramsay appears in the inhibiting guise of the ideal
feminine; as ‘The Angel in the House’. Yet Lily’s final
liberation involves more than the negation of this
oppressive ideal of an empathetic, subordinate, selfdenying femininity: !t is not to be sought in a conversion to
the aggressive domineering male egoism of Mr Ramsay.

Woolf holds that the androgynous aesthetic consciousness
combines the principle of the feminine, an anonymous,
self-forgetful world typified by a generalising, abstract
consciousness, with a characteristically· masculine
orientation towards the world of immediate, particular
appearances. The authentic, complete awareness of
‘reality’ requires a pattern of perception which synthesises
a peculiar ‘feminine’ sense of the harmonious generality,
with a typically masculine attention to the ceaseless
passing of the specific details of immediacy. Only when
Lily is able to respond positively to both modes of
perception can she complete her painting with an
aesthetically satisfy,ing design. Lily’s painting finally
draws together the ‘solid triangular shape which represents
the figure of Mrs Ramsay with the taut, linear distinct
form expressive of the masculinity of Mr Ramsay.

Woolf’s search for an elusive, ideal androgynous self
which transcends the traditional, gender-differentiated
experience of the everyday draws upon a modernist
aesthetic which posits a transcendent sphere of aesthetic
purity and freedom. For Woolf, the emphasis of modernist

art theory on the radical autonomy of the aesthetic from
the everyday, gives expression to her feminist call for a
new form of self-awareness which does not simply
articulate but radically transcends presently constituted
gender-specific forms of SUbjectivity. Woolf’s repUdiation
of reaHsm – her turn from narrative and from naturaHstic
characterisation towards a highly contrived, selfreflexive structure – appears, then, as a search for an
artistic form adequate to her vision of a transcendent,
androgynous aesthetic consciousness. Woolf’s modernist
experimentations in style and form are, I suggest,
subordinated to, rather than obstructive of, her feminist
objectives. In her interpretative piece on Woolf’s £1ction
entitled ‘Thinking Back Through Our Mothers’, Marcus
points out that: ‘What some readers have seen as her
incapacity to create character is not an incapacity at all
but a feminist attack on the ego as male false
consciousness. She will not supply us with characters
with whom we may egoistically identify’ [18]. Woolf’s
refusal of an egocentric idea of character, the hated I, I, I
of masculine subjectivity, rests, in the first instance, on a
belief in the transcendent truth of an androgynous
consciousness which totalises a feminine awareness of the
general and eternal with a supposed typically masculine
consciousness of the empirical, of the immediate
particularities of surface appearances. The transcendent,
autonomous realm of the aesthetic which permits the
suspension of naturalistic representation and
characterisation apparently offers Woolf the ‘freedom of
mind’ necessary to her experimental vision of an
androgynous SUbjectivity. It appears, then, that we require
a more balanced assessment than that proposed by Barrett
and Watney of the relevance of Woolf’s modernist
allegiances to her feminist objectives. Just as the
modernist conception of the transcendent, autonomous
character of the aesthetic permits expression to Woolf’s
critical vision of an ideal, androgynous consciousness, so
the modernist experimentations in literary technique
prove, as Marcus suggests, highly appropriate. to· Woolf’s
specifically feminist critique of established conventions
of characterisation.

Yet, whilst acknowledging the relevance of a
modernist aesthetic to the feminist purposes of Woolf’s
fiction, we should not overlook the real obstacles also
presented by a radical autonomy thesis to the construction
of a fully plausible feminist aesthetic. As previously
noted, there is, following Marcuse’s profound analysis in
‘The Affirmative Character of Culture’, a twofold
significance to the assertion of the autonomy of the work
of art. On the one hand, autonomous art, with its
conception of the radical separation between art and Hfe,
allows expression to the desi~e for a better Hfe: for a Hfe
which transcends the oppressive, unfree conditions of the
everyday. Woolf aims in her fiction to construct a vision
of reality from whose vantage point we may understand
both what is oppressive about the present, and how it
should be changed. Yet, as previously indicated, there is
a reverse construction to be put upon this aspiration
towards a transcendent reality preserved within the
autonomous work. Given that the modernist’s autonomy
thesis involves the radical severing of art from Hfe, the
progressive, emancipatory desire for abetter, a freere Hfe
is rendered ·in merely abstract, ideal terms. It could, on
this point of view, be argued that in Woolf’s fiction a real,
concrete dissatisfaction with a repressive, patriarchal life
experience receives only an abstract, aestheticised and,
hence, inadequate response. Locked within the autonomy
of the pure work of art, Woolf’s proposal for a new form
of human subjectivity can appear only as the striving after
a new, alternative androgynous mode of perception. The
concrete desire for abetter, freer life is rendered
abstract. In the language of Marcuse, it appears only as
the desire for an enriched soul. For Woolf, the ideal
androgynous SUbjectivity appears merely as a pure,
complete aesthetic sensibility. It does not articulate any


real prospects for the fundamentally altered life
experience of the emancipated personality.

The merely aesthetical, abstract character of the
ideal, androgynous consciousness to which Woolf’s fiction
aspires is nowhere more evident than in her biographical
fantasy Orlando. Orlando appears in the form of a pure
transcendent sUbjectivity unconstrained by history, time or
determinate personallty. Woolf introduces Orlando as a
16-year-old male living in the 16th century and leaves
the character a 36-year-old female located in the 20th
century. Orlando’s main task, the realisation of his/her
true, complete, androgynous self, is conceived in purely
psychological terms. Woolf here presents the aspiration
towards the completed, emancipated personality not as
the concrete demand for a transformed, enriched life
experience but as the psychic journey of the self towards a
new, authentic, unified state of consciousness; a quest
which occurs essentially outside history and quite
independently of any determinate life experience.

It is necessary to stress at this point that, as a major
study on the specific character of art in modernity,
Marcuse’s essay on ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture’

primarily concerns itself not merely with a content
analysis of particular genres but also with an
investigation of th~ structural relations instituted
between recipientahd autonomous work. On this analysis,
the great realist tradition of autonomous art no less than
the anti-realism of a modernist art practice appears as a
merely aestheticised portrait of an alt”ernative life
experience [19]. Marcuse’s critique of the ambiguous
ideological significance of art in modernity is, therefore,
on no account to be confused with a Lukacsian defence of
realism in the face of the aestheticist, abstract
perspective presented in the. specifically modernist work.

Marcuse’s analysis would not allow us to attempt to
overcome the twofold conflicting implications of Woolf’s
adherence to a modernist aesthetic by simply advocating a
turn by feminist aesthetics to a reallst art practice.

According to Marcuse, the aesthetic transfiguration of the
radical demand for a new, emancipated, life experience
into a merely consoling, affirmative portrait of an
alternative, ideal state of mind or condition of the soul,
hangs on the dynamics specific to the tradition of
autonomous art itself. Accordingly, the great realist
works are considered by Marcuse to be firmly implicated
in the affirmative character of art in modernity [20].

Although Woolf’s commitment to the main spirit and
doctrines of a modernist aesthetic is by no means wholly
inconsistent with her feminism, it seems that serious
obstacles confront any attempt uncritically to adopt her
work as the model for an appropriate contemporary
feminist aesthetic. As already noted, the radical
autonomy thesis she adopts means that, in Woolf’s hands,
all feminist aspirations towards a radically reconstructed
life experience become merely aestheticised. They are
rendered into the abstract demand for a new sensibillty or
way of looking at the world. There appears, then, good
reason to look well beyond the limits of a modernist art
theory to locate the main lines of an adequate
contemporary feminist aesthetic.


As already noted, the turn today in feminist art theory
is, in the main, away from a modernist affirmation of the
autonomy of art from life towards a post-modernist
problematisation of a distinct category of the aesthetic.

For the remainder of the discussion I propose critically to
consider some of the leading characteristics of this pos-tmodernist turn in contemporary feminist art theory and
practice. In particular, I suggest that the adequacy of this
trend towards a post-modern feminist aesthetic depends on
its ability to negotiate an important and challenging task.

From the preceding discussion of the import of Woolf’s
commitment to a modernist aesthetic for her feminist
objectives, it seems that the main index to the adequacy of
a feminist post-modern alternative to a modernist art
theory rests on its ablllty at once to preserve the critical
stance available to modernism’s confrontationist
separation between art and life whlle at the same time
overcoming the merely abstract, aestheticist character of
Woolf’s representat~on of an alternative life experience.

Despite the fact that there is, as yet, no fully established
body of theoretical literature on the issue of a postmodern feminist aesthetic, it appears that the ethos of a
post-modern perspective has permeated many important
currents in contemporary feminist art theory and practice.

I propose to begin the discussion with a very general
outllne of the main tenets of a post-modern perspective.

then consider ways in which the general spirit of a postmodern viewpoint has influenced, in more or less expllcit
terms, a variety of recent experimentations in feminist art
practice. Finally, I consider the ways in which the various
problematic aspects of these experimentations reflect
upon the viability and coherency of the underlying project
and phllosophy of a post-modern feminist aesthetic.

The Spirit of the Post-Modern
In an influential work entitled Theory of the AvantGarde, Peter Buerger makes a useful distinction between
main aspects of modernism, the avant-garde and postmodernism [21]. We saw earlier that a leading dimension
of a modernist aesthetic concerns the attempt to create an
hermetically sealed autonomous sphere of the work of art.

The modernist characteristically refuses to accept
contents given outside his/her art from social tradition but
aims at constructing a wholly self-referential world of
the work of art. From the outset, modernism regarded
itself as a very radical movement which aimed to dispense
with all merely conventional perceptions and to construct
a ‘pure’ art not bound by the normalising function of the
merely traditional. As Buerger reads it, there is a
significant difference between the main lines of a
modernist aesthetic and the phenomenon of the avantgarde. Whereas modernism with its characteristic self
reflexivity represehted the culmination of the historical
development of the notion of the autonomy of art, the
avant-gardists saw themselves as mounting a provocative
challenge to the whole conception of the specificity of
the aesthetic. They protested against the apparent
uselessness of an art which regarded itself as an end in
itself; as having a value separate from the concerns and
interests of everyday life. As Jochen Shulte-Sasse puts it:

‘The historical avant-garde of the twenties was the first
movement in art history that’ turned against the institution
“art” and the mode in which autonomy functions. In this it
is different from all previous art movements whose mode
of existence was determined precisely by an acceptance of
autonomy’ [22]. Yet there remains a sense in which the
avant-gardists carried on the essential spirit of a
modernist aesthetic. Even though they repudiated the core
modernist concept of the autonomy of the art work, the

avant-garde shared with the early modernists a rebellious
repudiation of the merely traditional and an affirmation of
the untried, the experimental, the new.

Onl y with the appearance in the 1950s and 1960s of the
post-modern phenomenon has a serious challenge to the
central values and principles of modernism as a totality
been mounted. Unlike the avant-gardists, the postmoderns do not share the modernist’s conception of the
new and unconventional as primary values. Against ‘high’

modernism, the post-modern’s claim is that it is simply not
possible to shake off all merely conventional, traditional
perceptions and perspectives in the attempt to create a
‘pure’ work of art.

Contemporary theorists of this school point to the
inadequate a-historicism of a modernist project which aims,
in the name of the experimental and the new, to transcend
the normative conventions of all particular, historically
specific, culturally circumscribed world-views. For the
post-modernists, to recognize such historical character is
to acknowledge that any attempt at radical transcendence
of the norms and perspectives given by historical
circumstance is implausible [23]. They characteristically
refuse any attempted privileging of world-views and
endorse a democratic pluralism as the only possible
value. Post-modernism holds that the standardisation of
any particular perspective or value is to be definitely
avoided. It affirms a pluralism of values and outlooks
which are considered reducible to a mere plurality of
styles and genres. As we shall see, it is this easy
acceptance of a relativist outlook and the suspension of
the search for any perspective from which the present can
be evaluated, which is strongly contested by Habermas and
the other leftist critics of the post-modern standpoint.

Its characteristic refusal to elevate anyone specific
value, perspective or mode of representation to the level
of a normative standard makes the post-modern ethos
immediately attractive to several leading trends in
contemporary feminist art practice. Although, as already
indicated, the theorisation of the relevance of postmodernism to a feminist aesthetic remains largely
undeveloped, the influence of the post-modern spirit is
nevertheless evident in many contemporary feminist
experiments in the arts. Attracted by the relativisation of
all social experiences, by the absence of normative
standards and by the affirmation of a non-hierarchical
ordering of differences, a number of otherwise very
distinct forms of feminist art practice appear to have been
powerfully influenced by the general ethos of the postmodern.

The Post-Modern and Feminist Art
Laura Mulvey’s often cited paper entitled ‘Visual
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ represents a seminal
contribution to the development of a contemporary
feminist aesthetic [24]. Perhaps more than any other work
in the field, this piece marks the turn from a conception of
the appropriateness of the universalising aspirations of a
modernist aesthetic to feminist art theory and practice.

Mulvey appears as one of the precursors of the so-called
feminism of difference which has in recent years become
very dominant in many areas of women’s studies. To
Mulvey, a feminist aesthetic must proceed from a
fundamental awareness of the gender-specific character of
all human subjectivity in a patriarchal society. Its most
important and challenging task is, she intimates,
systematically to refuse all attempts to represent as
universal the specific interests, perceptions and desires of
a patriarchially socialised masculinity. According to
Mulvey, a feminist aesthetics is faced with the hitherto
largely unrecognised necessity of constructing a
qualitatively new experience of pleasure which does not
merely reflect the scopophilic nature of masculine desire.

In a certain loose sense, then, Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure
and Narrative Cinema’ articulates central features of a
post-modern outlook. Mulvey limits the appropriate task

of a feminist aesthetic to the construction of a mode of
representation which corresponds to the specific
difference of the experience of femininity in a patriarchal
society. In keeping with the spirit of post-modernism she is
content to define the project of a feminist aesthetic as the
attempt to eradicate the universalising standardisation of
a specifically masculine social experience and mode of

There is, I suggest, a fundamentally problematic aspect
to the whole project of a post-modern feminist aesthetic
as formulated by Mulvey and others. A post-modern
feminism has conflicting allegiances which render its
aspirations incoherent and self-defeating. As an
historicaJly determinate phenomenon, feminism
articulates, in the name of an Enlightenment evocation of
the possibility of an emancipated, rational social life, a
protest at the unfreedom, at the psychic and material
constraints which ensure a subordinated femininity.

Historically, feminism appears as a protesting
consciousness made possible by a critical humanist
interrogation of a repressive ideology which strives to
attribute a natural status to all socially constituted
phenomena. The critical consciousness of Enlightenment
thinking is, it seems, a precondition of the historical
appearance of a feminist rep·udiation of the traditional
tasks and psychologies attributed to women. Yet, whilst a
feminist protest has its roots in Enlightenment thinking,
the relationship of the post-modems to an Enlightenment
aspiration towards the free, rational construction of

Judy Chicago, Female Rejection Drawing.

social life is, as Habermas stresses, an equivocal one [28].

To the post-moderns, the Enlightenment’s hopes for the
emancipatory power of reason involve the attempted
universalisation of a cultural and gender-specific
construct: man conceived as a free, reasoning
consciousness. On this point of view, the attempt to
project conscious self-determination as humanity’s main
historical task appears to rest on a culturally constituted
and ultimately implausible conception of a fundamental
opposition between the constrained, unfree world of social
tradition and the unconstrained realm of a constitutive
rational faculty. This sphere of a valorised rationality is,
as Lloyd and other contemporary feminists point out,
characteristicaJly equated with the masculine while the
constrained world of the uninterrogated passions is
typicaJly tied to the feminine [25].

The point of the present argument is not to attempt to
marshall support for the ideal of androgyny against the
assertion of the positive difference of the feminine, for
there is, as the so-called feminists of difference point out,
every reason to suppose that androgyny only appears as an
ideal objective from a specifically patriarchal standpoint
according to which the feminine appears as, in the words of


Aristotle, ‘a certain lack of quaJlties’. The positing of an
androgynous sUbjectivity as an ideal suggests an
assessment of the feminine as an incomplete subjectivity
to be augmented by valorised, aJlen ‘mascullne’

attributes. Contemporary feminism’s insistance on the
necessary assertion of the legitimacy of the feminine as a
positively different sUbjectivity emerges, then, as a
significant advance in the development of feminist
thought. Yet there remains an ever-present danger here
that, rather than positing this positive difference as the
goal of a conscious, practical, collective struggle, a
feminism of difference will be tempted to assert the
legitimate difference of a presently constituted,
patriarchally circumscribed femininity. This temptation
cannot be resisted, I suggest, by a feminism which
uncritically allies itself with the relat~vism of a postmodern outlook. To the extent that the post-moderns
consider the critique of the universallstic character of its
formulation grounds for a repUdiation in toto of the
Enllghtenment’s aspiration towards the construction of a
feee, rational, social life, it appears unable to posit the
emancipated personality as the task of progressive social
movements. To a post-modern feminism the affirmation of
the positive specificity of the feminine characteristically
appears not as the task of a movement determined to make
a specific identity for women through collective social-action, but rather as an assLlmption of the identity which
has been made for women by a patriarchal cultural
tradition. This JaCk of any substantive critical orientation
towards the terms of a received patriarchal social
identity, which I am claiming to be typical of post-modern
feminism, will be illustrated shortly by a brief discussion
of several contemporary experimentations in a feminist art

A critical feminist consciousness cannot, it seems,
adopt a simple one-sided orientation towards the
aspirations articulated by Enllghtenment thinking. While
the universallstic claims made on behalf of a cultural and
gender-specific conception of reason must be interrogated,
the dependence of feminism as an historical phenomenon
on the Enllghtenment’s hopes for a free, rational social
life must also be acknowledged if feminism’s character as
a protest against the received norms of a patriarchal
femininity is to be retained. Against the various postmodern feminisms, I suggest, therefore, that the
Enlightenment project which looks to the constitution of
the emancipated personality as humanity’s main historical
task must be embraced and reformulated by feminism.

Without the critical assumption of this project, feminism
is, as already indicated, left with no perspective from
which a present, repressively constructed femininity could
be challenged. My aim here is to show that any attempt
to affirm the positive difference of the feminine which
considers this difference, not in the light of a task to be
achieved but as an already arrived at specificity, can only
offer a conservative collaboration with a patriarchal
construction of the feminine.

Experiments in a Post-Modern Feminist Art
Practice: An Assessment
From amongst the wide range of recent experimentations in
a feminist art practice, three stand out as the more typical
bearers of a post-modern spirit. All of these apparently
very diverse trends in women’s art see the attempt to find
a mode of representation able to express a feminine
specificity or difference while undercutting the
traditionally negative positioning of such representations
as the primary task of a feminist aesthetic.

One formulation of this enterprise which has its
significant advocates both in the fine arts and in feminist
literary theory suggests that a non-subordinated image of
the feminine requires the development of new,
experimental forms of representations. Some of the work
of the important American feminist Judy Chicago


exemplifies this attempt to construct a specifically
feminist visual form. In their well known text entitled
Old Mistresses: Women Art and Ideology, Rozsika Parker
and Griselda PolTock criticarry-evaluate Chicago’s
Female Rejection Drawing in the llght of her professed
attempt to find an abstract ‘form appropriate to the
expression of a non-subordinated, specific experience of
female sexuality [26]. In this particular work, Chicago
endeavours to produce in an abstract form reminiscent of a
flower an image of the d~stinctive character of women’s
desire as a decentred, multiple, diverse pleasure of the
body. Chicago says of this picture: ‘I couldn’t express my
own sexuality by objectifying it onto the projected image
of a man but only by inventing an image that embodied it.

This is basicalJy a feminist posture but I don’t think it was
possible before the development of abstract form’ [27].

As Parker and Pollock point out, however, Chicago’s
strategy of using abstract form in an attempt to produce a
new, positive image of feminine sexuality, an image not
regulated by patriarchal representations, is necessarily a
failure. Chicago’s work is inevitably inserted into a
system of established representations about the sexuality
of women. Her evocation of a flower-like image as a
graphic illustration of women’s sexuality is readily
received and accommodated by a pre-existing set of
oppressive, negative images of the alluring, dangerous
character of women’s desire. Parker and Pollock
formulate their objection as follows: ‘Within maledominated culture, its language and its code of
representation, it is not possible to produce in any simple
way an alternative, positive management of the image of
women. The image of women is the spectacle onto which
they project their narcissistic fantasies’ [28]. The
attempts made by Chicago in the fine arts and by Helene
Cixous and others in literature to identify new modes of
representation adequate to the expression of the positive
specificity of the feminine appear as an inadequate
reallsation of a critical feminist outlook in the arts.

Limiting their objectives to the construction of {in image of
the non-subordinated difference of the feminine, these art
workers inevitably find their work inserted into and given
significance by a system of patriarchal representations.

The attempt to formulate a mode of representation
adequate to the positive specificity of the feminine is an
ambition shared also by the feminist advocates of women’s
traditional creative practices. In her essay entitled ‘Is
There A Feminist Aesthetic?’ Silvia Bovenschen critically
assesses a trend within contemporary feminist art towards
the assertion of craft works: embroidery, weaving, sewing
and so on, as not merely artistically inferior to the socalled ‘high’ fine arts but as different, as specific, kinds
of creativity which have been grossly devalued in a
patriarchal1y arranged ranking of creative achievements
[29]. This strategy of asserting women’s traditional craft
skills as of value equal to the so-called ‘high’ arts quite
evidently participates in the anti-universallsing spirit of
the post-modern ethos. This feminist project has,
moreover, assimilated the post-modern’s refusal of the
historical separation between the arts and crafts essential
to the modernist’S assertion bf the autonomy of the pure
art work.

It is, however, not at all clear that the attempt to reevaluate the worth of the so-called feminine crafts
contributes to the construction of a feminist consciousness
critical of a patriarchally ascribed femininity. One
should not, as Bovenschen points out, ‘foster the false
illusion that our sewing teachers indeed pointed in the
right direction’ [30]. In a patriarchally organised modern
society, the traditional feminine skills of embroidery,
weaving and sewing have been the mark of the
subordinated, domesticated, privatised experience
considered appropriate to women. To attempt merely to
assert these activities as positively different, as specific
creative practices rather than negatively different from
valorised mascullne achievements in the ‘pure’ arts, is to

surrender the real sense of a feminist protest at the
constrained, restrlcted nature of the experience and
opportunities available to women in a modern patriarchy.

Not only is the scope of this ambition extremely limited;
its speciflcally critlcal feminist character is very
doubtful also. Without the demand for the radlcal
abolition of gender-speciflc limits to ‘appropriate’

creative activity, the repressive ideology of a genderbased ‘natural’ suitablllty of the various creative
enterprises remains secure and ineffectively contested.

Whilst on the one hand admitting the cultural, merely
traditional, character of the construction of feminine
attributes and skills, the feminist celebration of these
achievements seemingly attributes to them the status of a
peculiarly feminine property. The proposed re-evaluation
of traditional feminine creativity does not, in any
practlcal sense, disturb the convlctions of a repressive,
essentialist ideology of the feminine.

Finally, I turn to a brief consideration of a trend within
contemporary feminist aesthetlcs whlch has, more
explicitly than the options considered so far, adopted a
post-modern perspective. This trend towards a theorised
use of post-modern ideas is described by Craig Owens in an
essay entitled ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and the
Post-Modern’ [31]. According to Owens, a feminist postmodern strategy in the fine arts strives at once to embrace
or affirm the image of the feminine as different, as
speciflc, and to resist the domination or control of this
image by the voyeuristlc, normative gaze of the masculine
spectator. The photographlc exhibitions of Cindy Sherman
are presented as one of the main examples of this expllcit
post-modern feminist strategy in the arts. These
photographs, whlch typlcalJy deplct Sherman herself as a
1950s film star, attempt to impede and subvert the
voyeuristlc look characteristlcalJy courted by this genre.

Sherman’s own obvious, underscored awareness of the
predatory nature of the look from whlch she seeks to
shield herself is seemingly designed to compel the
spectator to become conscioas of the voyeuristlc character
of their reception of the feminine. An unproblematlc
relation between image and receiver is impeded. Sherman
presents a highly conventional image of modern feminine
subjectivity while refusing to permit the easy regulation
of this image in accordance with patriarchal norms and
standards. Sherman, the ’50s beauty, refuses to exist for
the benefit of the normative masculine gaze. The
exaggeratedlY conventional image of the feminine strives
to emancipate itself from the normative gaze of any other
merely culturally constituted mode or style of human
SUbjectivity. According to Owens, Sherman’s photographs
underline and parody the conventionality of the
traditional norms of the regulation feminine ‘type’ in
modern Western society. In this sense her work affirms the
anti-essentiallsm which marks the post-modern outlook.

For Sherman, as for the post-modern feminists in
general, emancipation apparently means only a llberation
from the normative privileging of any specific, culturalJy
constructed mode or ‘style’ of human SUbjectivity. All
that is proposed is an affirmation of the particularity of
gender-based norms and the refusal of a repressive
universallsation of the standards of a peculiarly
mascullne, culturally constituted subjectivity.

It appears that contemporary feminist aesthetlcs confronts

a signiflcant dllemma. On the one hand, as the discussion
of Woolf’s feminism has suggested, there are serious
obstacJes to feminism’S wholesale adoption of the aims
and methods of a modernist aesthetlc. On the positive.

side, a modernist aesthetlc whlch artlculates a conception
of the radlcal disjunction between art and life is very
appropriate to Woolf’s vision of a transcendent,
androgynous ‘real’ self whlch empowers her flction with a
profound critlcal perspective on the oppressive,
inauthentlc character of existing gendered SUbjectivity.

Drawing on the modernist conception of the transcendent
nature of the aesthetlc, Woolf’s work artlculates a
conception of the ideal, emancipated self which presents a
critlcal alternative to the oppressive, restrlcted
experience of femininity encountered in everyday life. At
the same time, however, and again a feature of Woolf’s
commitment to a radlcal autonomy thesis, her vision of an
emancipated, androgynous self is conceived in terms of a
mere aesthetlc sensiblllty. Locked within the autonomy of
the work of art, Woolf’s proposal for a new form of human
subjectivity appears as a mere striving for a new
androgynous perspective. Androgyny is for her most aptly
described not in terms of its concrete realisation in a new
emancipated personallty but as a mode of perception most
fittingly evoked in the form of the abstract, visual
representation. Thus Lily’s final authentlc vision in To
The Lighthouse culminates n6t in a changed practlcal
orientation towards llfe but in a mere aesthetlc
satisfaction at the momentary realisation of her more
complete, androgynous mode of perception in a fitting
visual design. Hence, alt~ough the ideal subjectivity
posited by Woolf empowers her flction with a strongly
critlcal standpoint, the merely aesthetical character of
this ideal means that her critique ultimately falls to
project a practlcal imperative. As already suggested, the
alternative vision proposed in her art functions as a
compensatory, substitute gratiflcation whlch siphons off
and renders harmless the radical need for changed gender
relations to which her works, in their passiOl~ate critique
of existing relations between the sexes, also give

Whilst Woolf’s critique of the truncated character of
given gendered subjectivity finaUy appears as a caU not
for a changed life but as only the demand for a new mode
of perception, at least her art does preserve the protest at
an unfree, subordinated femininity essential to a feminist
outlook. This critlcal impulse is, as we have seen,
sacrificed in the relativist perspective assimilated by a
post-modern feminist aesthetlc. Its characteristlc
repudiation of the Enllghtenment project which looks upon
the emancipated personallty as the task of historlcal
activity, means thijt, for a post-modern feminism, the
attempt to construct a conception of the positive
speciflcity of the feminine cannot appear as the practical
goal of a social movement. Rather, the attempt to
identify the positive difference of the feminine appears as
the mere attempt to assert the speciflc, positive identity
of an already ascribed femininity. To a post-modern
feminism, the ‘feminine’ appears as merely one ‘style’ of
SUbjectivity amongst others which must be protected from
the normative encroachments of other ‘styles’ of
SUbjectivity. Any radical dissatisfaction with the
repressive conventions of a patriarchal femininity is, to
all intents and purposes, lost to a pluralistlc
‘recognition’ of the legitimate specificity of the various
modes of a gendered social e~istence.



A Room of One’s’ Own, cited in M. Barr~tt (~d.), Virginia
Woolf: Women and Writing, HarcourtBrace Jovanovich, New York and
London,-1979, p:-3.

[2] See Barrett, M., ibid. and Watney, S. ‘The Connoisseur as Gourmet’ in
Formulations of Pleasure, Bennett et al (eds.), Routledge and Kegan Paul,

—(3] Watney, S., ‘The Conno!;seur a!; Gourmet’, ~ £!.:, p. 79.

(4] See Marcu!;~, H., ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture’, Negations,
Penguin University Books, London, 1972.

[5] See Ortega y Gasset, J., The Dehumanisation £!. ~ Prince ton
Univeni ty Pr~ss, 1968.

[6] Ibid., p. 7.

(7] S~e Bell, C., Art and Fry, R., Vision and Design.

[8] See Watney, S-:-;’The ConnoisseurasGourmet’, ~ £!.:, p. 77.

[9) Ibid., p. 77.

. ,
(101 ~ Haoormas, J., ‘Modernity – An Incomplete ProJect”, The An~
Aesthetic Essays ~ Post-Modern Culture, Foster (ed.), Bay Press, USA,

[IIJ Ibid., p. 5.

[121 Maclntyre, A., After Virtue: ~ Study.!!! ~oral Theory, Duckworth,

[13) Ibid., p. 16.

(11,] See Bazin, N., Virginia !ooll and The Androgynous Vision, Rutgers,

[15] WoolI, V., ‘Professions for Women’ in Barrett (ed.), Virginia !oolf:

Women and Writing, ~ £!.:, p. 58.

06J Woo”, V., The Years, ql! led in Barrett (ed.), Virginia !oolf: !~
and Writing, ~”””Qb p. 21.

[I] Woo Il ,

LI7 J See lazin, N., Virginia !ooll and The Androgynous Vision, ~ cit. for
a discussion of the feminist politics of To The Lighthouse.

(I8] Marcus, J., ‘Thinking Back Through Our Mothers’, in Marcus, J. (ed.),
New Feminist E~ on Virginia WoolI, University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

IT9T MarCllse does noiSpecifically refer to a modernist tradition and my
usage of his analysis involves an adaption of only the most general
outlines of his diagnosis of the conflicting implications of autonomous ,art.

[20) Indeed it is the implications of a tradition of an autonomous realist art
with which Marcuse is particularly concerned.

[21) Buerger, P., Theory £!. the Avant-Garde, University of Minnesota Press,

(22J Schulte-Sasse, J., ‘Forward’ to Buerger, ~ £!.:, p. xiv.

[23J See Lyotard, J. F. ‘What is Post-Modernism?’ in The Post-Modern
Condition: ~ Report ~ Knowledg!:.. Bennington and Ma~sumi (trans:r,University of Minnesota Press, 1984; and Jameson, F., Postmodernlsm and
Consumer Society’, The Anti-Aesthetic, Foster, H. (ed.).

[24J Mulvey, L., ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16:3,

[25) Sec Lloyd, G., The ~~ £!. Reason ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ .!!! !estern
Philosophy, Methuen, 1984.

[26) Parker, R. and Pollock, G., Old Mistresses: !omen, Art and Ideology,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

[27] Ibid., p. 130.

[28J Ibid., p. 130.

[29j See Bovenschcn, S., ‘Is there a Feminist Aesthetic?’ in Weckmueller
(tram;.), Feminist Aesthetics, Ecker (ed.), The Women’s Press, 1985.

[30] Ibid.~
[31] Owens, C., ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Post-modernism’, in

Anti-Aesthetic, Foster (ed.),



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