Taught by Prof Mignon Nixon with Prof Juliet Mitchell.
This course was conceived as a dialogue between art and psychoanalysis on questions of war protest. It focuses on art produced in response to American wars in the period after the Second World War, heralded as a time of sustained peace and prosperity after two world wars fought with the declared aim “to end all war.” Often, the wars in question—in particular the Vietnam War, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the Afghanistan War—have been portrayed as military interventions intended to preserve or restore this “post-war” condition of peace. Psychoanalysis was used to reflect upon artistic resistance to “wars of peace.” Our proposition will be that artistic responses to these war situations work to expose the unspoken, or even unconscious, motivations for war in the name of peace, and to galvanize social awareness, or raise consciousness, about the underlying trends in this mode of imperial aggression.
The course began by looking briefly at the idea of “post-war” art, a category that persists in art-historical scholarship today, and at the cultural fantasies, and corresponding repressions, that shaped this period in art—for example, the liberatory rhetoric of “expressionism” and the stereotype of the “happy housewife,” later interrogated by Betty Friedan. Louise Bourgeois was a key figure for this discussion. Another central question for this part of the course was the extent to which post-war ideals are predicated on the repression of guilt and mourning. Noting, for example, that 2010 was the first year the United States government sent an official representative to the commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we will consider art works, some produced recently, which examine historical amnesia of this event.
The course focussed closely on art produced in opposition to the Vietnam War. Nancy Spero’s War Series (1966-1970) and Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home project (1967-1972) offer primary instances of anti-war work. We also looked at work that eschews violent imagery in favour of promoting peace. The performance works of Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama are pivotal in this regard. Among other projects to be explored in this part of the course are works by Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, May Stevens, and such groups as the Art Workers’ Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution. The role of an emergent feminism in shaping war resistance will be a significant theme.
The course also considered recent artistic interventions in war discourse, for example, Silvia Kolbowski’s After Hiroshima Mon Amour (2008) and Rosalyn Deutsche’s critical study Hiroshima After Iraq (2010). The role of women in the military, as investigated in relation to the first Gulf War by Mary Kelly (Gloria Patri, 1992) and more recently by Coco Fusco (A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America, 2006), was another point of focus. Another was the sexualisation of violence as a manifestation and weapon of war. Here we looked, in particular, at some recent work of Thomas Hirschhorn and compared his use of illicit war photography to Nancy Spero’s earlier exploration of fantasies of sexualized violence in the War Series.
The course drew extensively from Juliet Mitchell’s recent writing and ongoing research on questions of war in the context of her work on siblings (see Siblings: Sex and Violence, 2003). Professor Mitchell took part in the course throughout the year, with a particular focus on directing discussions of psychoanalytic texts and bringing psychoanalytic methodologies to bear on the material. She also took a role in advising students on their research. The course was conducted as a dialogue between disciplines. The potential of art and art history to challenge and enrich psychoanalysis was as significant as the potential of psychoanalysis to illuminate art’s critical engagements with war, considering texts in psychoanalysis from Freud to the present day (including selections from the work of Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, Franco Fornari, D.W. Winnicott, and Juliet Mitchell). The course readings also drew upon art-historical and critical literature, artists’ writings, and other writings on war.