Methods and Theories of Art History – Anne D’Allevena

7th June 2016

Methods and Theories of Art History by Anne D’Allevena

I stumbled across this relatively new book in Waterstones bookshop in Harrogate and read it that weekend (D’Alleva. 2013). While it is not explicitly about photography it is about art and visual culture which easily transfers to photography.

Its strength is its discussion and summaries of theories that inform visual art of any kind including photography. There is a chapter and discussion about semiotics which in focused on Pierce and Saussure rather than Barthes and Eco; this makes sense as the former pair are progenitors of the latter. I think Bates’ writing on semiotics in photography are more dense in content and relevance for my work.

There is also a very good section on writing theory for students which emphasises the importance of ‘having a go’ rather than avoiding including theory in visual criticism.

Several theoretical section stand out;

  1. Marxist theory (as opposed to Marxism)

Many of the ideas Marxist theory espouse are highly relevant to current politics in the UK (The European referendum) as well as the construction and interpretation of photography.

“From a Marxist perspective art is an “ideological form” that dominant classes my use to perpetuate class relations that benefit them – or that revolutionaries may use to undermine the power of the dominant class.” Page 50.

The photograph of Krupps (industrialist) by Arnold Newman in his armaments factory (power base) exposes him to our gaze and criticism for his role as creating wealth at the cost of the harm and the murder and suppression of minorities (Jews) in order to bolster the Nazi dominant class during the second World War (Unknown, 2011).

War, like the government, police, the courts and the prisons is ‘direct oppression’ of people but Marx makes the point that it is also ‘ideology’ that is the prevalent use as a controlling mechanism in most societies.

I am planning to photograph people from families who have cancer and had to pay exorbitant hospital parking fees. Marxist theory is applicable here; the monetisation of the illness experience to feed the means of production and controlling ideologies of health!

“The dominant class asserts its cultural hegemony by persuading subordinate classes to accept its moral, political, and cultural values, convincing them that these values are right, true or beneficial to them even though, ultimately these values benefit only the dominant classes”

Marx emphasized that any one can ‘do art,’ which was counter to the ideas of Kant and Hegel who believed in the uniqueness of the ‘artistic genius.’ Marx emphasizes the egalitarian nature of artistic labour or production which anyone could do although he recognized that some people specialized in art production as (opposed to making bread or cheese).

There is interesting idea on page 52 about ‘commodity fetishism’ which says that things can only be undertood in terms of their economic value. Lukas says that art can be an antidote to this, as in a portrait, as it shows a person and says something about the nature of the human and humanity. Walter Benjamin takes up this idea in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ where we have lost the aura associated with artworks associated with an original so that the focus is now on the individual as a critic.

  1. Feminisms

Patricia Mathews outlines three dimensions to feminist art history

  • “Recuperating the experiences of women and  women artists
  • Critiquing and deconstructing authority, institutions, and ideologies and/or examining resistances to them
  • Rethinking the cultural and psychological spaces  traditionally assigned to women and consequently re-envisioning  the subject self, particularly from and psychoanalytic perspective.

I think that this is correct. The Julia Margaret Cameron recent exhibitions in London, which I visited, are part of this review and re-calibration of woment’s place in photography. There are a number of ideas here; that a gender is not ‘essential’ but negotiated and the “interrogation of the female body as the object of male gaze.” She quotes photographers such as Renne Cox  and Josephine Baker  who “have reclaimed photography and the representation of their bodies.” I don’t have time to explore these photographers now. There are also comments about Gender Studies and LGBTI studies and queer theory.

  1. Psychoanalysis and psychology

I have looked at Freud and Jung in a previous module and tried to show the persona and ‘hidden’ in a portrait image. Freud has largely been debunked in medical circles and psychoanalytic therapy has been replaced with behavioural intervention which have been proven to be more efficacious. Psychoanalysis may be an interesting historical phenomenon but there are interesting ideas about the person.

Whereas Marx’s ‘big idea’ was to explore labour in terms of social relations, politics and the economy, Freud was concerned about our ‘unconcious desires. He tells about ego, neurosis and id, and other concept,s and suggests that these concepts operate on a societal as well as a personal level. There are only a few examples of Freud applying his ideas to image interpretation the most notable for me being his comments on ‘The Mona Lisa,’

“Mona lisa’s famous smile embodies the history of her childhood, simultaneously maternal and boyish, tender and menacing.”

While much of Freud’s work has been challenged he was the first to produce a unifying theory about the making of the inner man.’

Currently Jung and his archetypes have been applied more to art criticism. Such ideas include ‘shadow’ and ‘the mother.’ I have looked at these in detail in another module.

Laclan (P96) is the psychoanalyst who moved Freud’s ideas on creating an alternative trajectory for the development of personality; not oral, anal and phallic but The Real, the Imaginary and The Symbolic. Laclan describes the development of the ego as a ‘Mirror stage’ where the child sees himself in a mirror and someone tells them that ‘this is you. “They identify with this imaginary image of themselves as an ideal ego which is internalised.” Laclan also talks about ‘chains of signifiers’ in the person which refer to aspects of the internal life (of conflict). I was not clear how his work applies to art interpretation despite a section being devoted to explaining this. He also talks about ‘gaze’ and this is something I will explore later.


D’Alleva, A. (2013). Methods and Theories of Art History. London, Laurence King Publishing.

Unknown (2011). Arnold Newman talks about taking Krupps portrait., Nepentanova