Written by Jori Sackin
Being an artist and watching the criticism that Peggy Noland has received in the recent Hyperallergic, Salon.com and Awesomelyluvvie articles (just to name a few) has left me mulling over an issue that I think transcends “the Oprah dress”. In case you are not familiar with the story, Peggy and Sally Thurer made a series of floor length dresses with Oprah Winfrey’s head photoshopped onto a naked body. The issue for me is not with the dress itself, but the way in which it was critically interpreted. Almost every one of the fifteen or so online responses took the same stance. The writer looked at the dress through the macro-scale historical/racial lens. This one reductionist way of perceiving and interpreting the world can be a great tool. It smooths over and subordinates the intimate personal details of our humanness, but in return gives us the expansive perspective that helps us see the glacial shifts of culture. We use this macro-scale information to try and understand our collective movement and meaning and to project and anticipate our shared future. The problematic part is that this has been the ONLY acceptable critical reaction to the dress. This is the ONLY way in which the critical eye of examination is approached. Being the only way has unnecessarily flattened out reality, has severed the artist’s own relationship with her work, and has dehumanized everyone involved.
This large scale lens takes a human being, in this case, Peggy, and strips her of all humanness. It pulls apart her personal history. It shreds her intentions and it marginalizes her as a complex conscious being. It does this because in this macro cultural stance, Peggy is simply a white woman from Missouri. Oprah fairs no better. She is reduced to “a black woman” or even further to “a black body”. This dehumanizing stance wouldn’t be an issue, if any of the writers could make the leap from the macro cultural to the micro personal. If they could show that while this story on the large scale fits in with the historical narrative they are trying to justify, that on the personal scale, it might not make so much sense.
To further the point, the personal scale is so ignored that not a single writer/commentator/ blogger even bothered to contact Peggy or Sally. In the currently dominating postmodern stance of denying the importance of original intent, of denying that the artist has any special connection to the meaning of their own work, the bond between artist and object is severed, thus Peggy and Sally's intent for the piece is discounted. In the prevailing view, all the importance is placed upon the viewer and their interpretation. This “special privilege” of the viewer has led to some unfortunate logical leaps in relation to the Oprah dress, the main one being that: “since I interpret an object as racist, then that actually makes the object racist which then by association, makes the maker of the object racist.” If you operate in a single point isolated perspective, this all makes logical sense. If you take into account an art objects multiplicity of meanings, then that view is incredibly reductionist and imposing. It is essentially saying, “since I interpret the object in one way, then everyone else has to interpret it that way to.”
These issues are huge, and unfortunately because of the medium of the internet, I will confine myself to a tiny sliver of the actual argument, and will close with this. Contrary to popular belief, original intent is not there to invalidate the viewer's interpretation, or to say that there is one correct way to see things. It is there as a means for comparison, so a viewer, if they so choose, does not have to remain isolated in their one-point perspective. They can take those two unique points of view, compare them, and then derive a more complex meaning. This is exactly the intimate human reaction that happens in the gallery when we are talking and looking at art with each other. It is the intimate, face to face, mind to mind, comparison of reality, of swapping perspectives and sharing beliefs. Not a single writer was interested in this with Peggy or Sally, because those kinds of relationships don’t exist in the large scale lens, as they are increasingly hard to see, when you are sitting on top of cultural glacier, looking down on us all.