“Universal Prostitution and Concrete Abstraction: The Biopolitics of Abstract Art, 1888-2008,” Jaleh Mansoor

Professor Jaleh Mansoor, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, delivered a lecture entitled “Universal Prostitution and Concrete Abstraction: The Biopolitics of Abstract Art, 1888-2008” as the opening lecture of the Krannert Art Museum Exhibition “Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for a Future)”, which is headed by Professor Kristin Romberg (UIUC) and is part of the “1917: Ten Days that Shook the World/2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus” initiative. Professor Mansoor specializes in the history of modern and contemporary cultural production, focusing specifically on twentieth century European art, Marxism, Marxist feminism, and critical theory. Her first book is Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia (Duke University Press, 2016), which, broadly speaking, examines the connection between abstract art and social transition in postwar Italy. Following her own introduction by Professor Kristin Romberg, Professor Mansoor introduced new work that examines aesthetic abstraction through the lens of Marxist and feminist theory.

Professor Mansoor began her lecture by developing a framework that links Marxist-feminist theory to artistic form. She described the emergence of the proletariat in the nineteenth century, and introduced the concept of “universal prostitution” to characterize patriarchal capitalism. She further integrated this concept into Marxist-feminist scholarship, particularly that of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, that notes the gender split under capital and the move in the nineteenth century from patriarchy to capitalist patriarchy and from oppression to exploitation. In conjunction with this discussion of the unequal gender dynamics endemic to capitalism, Professor Mansoor stated that the flaneur emerged in the nineteenth century in response to the worker-prostitute, who is subjugated to and by the wage and its reconstitution of everyday life. After a discussion of Baudelaire and the flaneur, Professor Mansoor noted the lack of a female flaneur in his works and questioned if there could be a “flaneuse” given the unequal market and labor statuses among men and women. In her characterization of the period, as well as under capitalism in general, she identified a dual war between labor and capital, as well as between the sexes. This dual war served as the background to her fundamental assertion that “aesthetic abstraction in the late nineteenth century originates in and enters in[to] a mimetic relationship with and against real abstraction, by which I mean the capitalist mode of production and ontological shifts it demands, where people become the proletariat, places become cities, and things become commodities.” Furthermore, Professor Mansoor argued that abstraction issues from a misrecognition of the relationship of labor to capital, as well as from “the uneven entry of sexed and gendered bodies into modernity,” and these dynamics permeate every mode of cultural production, including at the level of the grapheme (the individual mark or stroke of paint applied to a surface).

Edouard Manet’s “The Balcony” (1869)

Using this framework and argument, Professor Mansoor closely analyzed several works by Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Edouard Manet’s “The Balcony” (1869), and she conducted an extensive analysis of Georges Seurat’s “The Models” (1888). The form of the Impressionist painter Morisot’s art enabled her to cross boundaries that were prohibited for her to cross in the artist’s own life. Professor Mansoor contrasted the free, uninhibited strokes that characterize Morisot’s work with the artist’s own depiction in art as being bound and restricted. Edourd Manet’s “The Balcony” serves as an example of Morisot’s representation, and the painting shows her visually confined to the domestic sphere by the foregrounded balcony railing. Professor Mansoor integrated this painting into Marxist criticism and the scholarship of Jonathan Crary on the family and private property in the nineteenth century, which determined women’s role in the capitalist economy and society. Against these determining external factors, Professor Mansoor sees Morisot’s brushstroke itself as a site of agency and potential contestation of the surrounding socio-economic circumstances. In her words, “the mark marks the struggle between external restraint and self-determination, [it is] a microcosm of the civil war between forms of determination.” According to Professor Mansoor, Seurat’s “The Models” offers both the story and the programmatic demonstration of abstraction’s beginnings in its late nineteenth century character. The painting depicts three nude or semi-nude figures posing in an art studio, with the Seurat’s own “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884) in the background. Professor Mansoor stated that the painting is brazenly self-reflexive, most clearly in its nesting of the artist’s own work in the background, but she also argued that Seurat’s self-reflexive turn is inscribed at the level of the grapheme. In addition, she argued that Seurat’s pointillist method is a way of internalizing disciplinary labor, which casts abstraction in art as a response to the industrial assembly line and suggests solidarity between the artist and the machine worker.

Georges Seurat’s “The Models” (1888)

Professor Mansoor integrated her work into Marxist-feminist theory, as well as into the extant art historical scholarship on the artists she discusses and the grapheme, while also creatively gesturing to future directions of her work. One such proposition involved the examination of the use of abstract art and artists in technological fields to float new advances in artificial intelligence (e.g., Google’s Seurat) as a way of discussing abstraction in contemporary cultural production. In short, Professor Mansoor’s lecture described an ambitious and intellectually rigorous project that relates “aesthetic” abstraction to “real” abstraction in a Marxist-feminist framework.

LeiAnna X. Hamel is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian and Yiddish literature and culture. 

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