Holberg Laureate Griselda Pollock's Acceptance Speech


Holberg Laureate Griselda Pollock's Acceptance Speech is published here in full.

Your Excellency Mr Ambassador;

Members of the Holberg Committee; Colleagues at the University of Bergen; Friends and Family,

It is difficult to convey the emotions aroused by an email address that popped up in February 2020 requesting me to call back the Chair of the Holberg Committee. Shock that such a thing could happen. Delirious delight at such peer recognition for my tiny corner of the fields selected for this prize, namely art history. Disbelief and amazement that I might take my place amongst a stellar list of previous laureates, most of whom are the intellectual gods and goddesses of my academic universe. I also felt the honour of a recognition for the discipline in which I have worked for half a century. So often as I have travelled to give lectures, people have asked what I do. The word art historian often prompts a second question. ‘What exactly is an art historian?’

I also felt the honour — as the citation for this prize defines me a feminist art historian—also on behalf of the historical event of which I am a small part: feminism.  Not only a very successful world-wide social movement of women actively campaigning for justice, safety, health, security, citizenship and the humanity of all women,  feminism of the later 20th century engendered an intellectual and cultural revolution that is its unique contribution to the millennia-long struggle against patriarchy. To be awarded a prize of this dimension as a contributor to, even as a founding of thinker within, this feminist cultural-theoretical revolution is profound and very moving. I thank the committee and those who took the time to propose and recommend my work as deeply as it possible to do so.

I work not only as a feminist art historian but also as a cultural analyst. This expresses an elective affiliation to the concept of Kulturwissenschaft advanced as a contestation of aestheticizing stylistic art historical methods by the German Jewish art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929).  Warburg theorized the image as the carrier and transmitter of psychologically deep, if not archaic, cultural memory enacted initially by gestures and rituals that convey affects from ecstasy to deadly depressivity.  My engagement with Warburg was preceded by involvement with Feminist Film Studies that had been reshaped by both theories of ideology and semiotics and by psychoanalysis.  I have also been involved with the formation and development of Cultural Studies, founding a Centre for Cultural studies at Leeds in 1985 with Janet Wolff.  Approaching the histories of art — pluralized to challenge the limitations of what is presented as the canonical, all-male, Euro-centered story of art— from these expanded and interdisciplinary perspectives, only made more acute what precisely makes art history distinct and indeed a deeply intellectually challenging  discipline traversing historical, cultural, philosophical and semiotic and psychological research.

Yet despite having experienced personal support and respect from my co-thinkers,  I have also felt  some marginalization within my academic community, specifically in the wider cultural field of public-facing art history: the museum and art market sectors. A quietly personal feminist stance has become acceptable, if no longer as respectable or even interesting, but a relentlessly feminist theoretical interrogation and denunciation of power systems of abuse and violation in the world inscribed in and by means of art and culture becomes irritating at worst, and intellectually démodé at its tedious best.  Art is not expected to be a site of agonism, conflict or violation.  

Yet, in fact, everything we teach in the history of art links artmaking and the image to power, to institutions such as religion and socially sanctioned morality and theologies, to monarchy, to property, to law, to class formations, to empire and to the management of bodies and sexualities (in the Foucaultian and Freudian senses) as well as  to shaping of imaginations and identities,  and finally to language itself. Recently more urgent conflicts — Black Lives Matter, planetary disaster, gender transitioning, let alone a global pandemic and other longstanding agonies of world poverty — have attracted media attention and have redirected academic fashion away from feminism. Young women have been misinformed as to what feminism means and encouraged to disown the identity and certainly never to self-label as a feminist.

 My sense of being at the heart of a creative and theoretical phase of the historic feminist project and, as a result at the tolerated but deeply suspect margins of my own discipline, is a result of my intellectual hybridity, or worse, what is sometimes deemed to be disciplinary treachery.  

 Many of the Holberg Laureates from its first, Julia Kristeva to Paul Gilroy, my immediate predecessor, have been my inspirations and guides in negotiating the complex entanglements of language, subjectivity, power, phantasy, desire, meaning, the symbolic and ethics, none of which concepts or issues are central to the historical disciplines under which art history sits. Indeed, I would even dare to say that my published writings have been and continue to be treated a conceptually ‘alien invasion’ into the sphere of art and its history even at its supposedly radical margins.

I have apparently ‘imported’ foreign — another indicative term — modes of thinking into the pure and beautiful domain of art through what I joyfully embrace as transdisciplinary encounters of many kinds. I travel freely across sociology, including Marxism, psychology including many strands of psychoanalysis, theology, both Judaic and Christian, film, literary, political and even legal theory, as well as philosophy, all sorts. My work crosses the very categories of this prize —entangling the social sciences and the humanities in ways uncommon in, and at times considered deleterious to, the arts and disrespectful of both disciplinary specificities and the cultural treasures of which the arts are meant to be the guardians and exponents.

In the wake of new social movements in the 1960s, under the banner of the English term ‘studies’, minority and dissenting students and teachers have demanded their place at the table of thought, while critiquing the university and  its pedagogical systems, terming them ideological apparatuses or discursive formations sustaining an unjust and betrayed world where  the power asymmetries of gender, race, class and sexuality are simultaneously enacted and denied.  Studies represent uprisings into the sphere of knowledge of the dispossessed and oppressed constituencies of a changing, postcolonial, post-traumatic world created in and as the legacies of the catastrophic twentieth century,  defined by industrial-military slaughter in world and colonial wars, by Hiroshima and Auschwitz, by Apartheid and Stalinism, by dictatorship and neoliberal globalizing capitalism all driven in part by what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman defined for us as the deadly, gardening rationality within modernity itself.

While race and class as politicized concepts had emerged in 18th -19th century anti-slavery liberation theory and in Marxism, the originality of international feminism of the late twentieth century lay, in its redefinitions of gender as a radicalizing term of social struggle and analysis and sexual difference as a theoretical concept for the arts, humanities and social sciences. Gender was reconceived to specify a social relation hitherto unrecognized as both an axis of asymmetrical, hierarchical power generating concurrent, culturally reinforcing symbolic meanings and metaphors for power and powerlessness. Sexual difference addresses a fundamental but as yet unanswered question of the uncharted alterity of the feminine in a phallocentric universe of meaning.  

To discern, critique, deconstruct, transform, and challenge the systems and relations of power embedded as much in thought systems, language, and socio- and psycho-sexual formations of subjectivity and disseminated in artistic processes and cultural forms has necessitated new vocabularies and raised the dreaded spectre:  Theory, capital T. The effect of linguistic and theoretical innovation has been alienating. It makes demands for transdisciplinarity and complexity — a complexity corresponding to the temporal longevity and cultural depth of the issues we, as feminists, are seeking to analyse and transform. We gain from theory, however, the power to pierce the opacity of the normalized, sedimented patriarchal, heterocratic and phallocentric systems that have hitherto been unnamed and hence impossible to contest.

A final novelty was that this struggle — at once to acknowledge gender and sexual difference and to trace their entanglements and reconfigurations with race, class, sexuality, and geo-political, geo-ethnic dissymmetries in a globalizing world — has come to take place both  inside the university, in education, and in the sphere of creative culture, understood not only anthropologically as what we do and believe, and not only aesthetically as art in terms of how we represent the world, but as constitutive via actions, beliefs and representations of both power and injury, possibility and transformation.

I am the first art historian to be honoured with this prize. This is very humbling in a still tiny discipline that nonetheless has a wide public reach. The non-specialist public receives the fruits of art historical work through museums, blockbuster exhibitions, biopics of great artists and cultural highlights on Arts TV, news flashes about astronomical sale prices. The museums are, however, driven to become leisure and culture destinations, key sites for the tourist economies of major cities – or just safe places to have first dates.  Some of us in art history are deeply anxious about the slippage of a once critical historical-philosophical discipline into one that services entertainment and cultural consumption in a liquid modern version of Bildung.  Art is now become part of capitalist economy of consumption and a site of massive financialization, investment and trade. To be so its presentation must be shorn of complexity and difficulty, and certainly ‘ugly’ words such as class, race, gender, or power. Exploitation and oppression cannot be part of the promotional script for leisure consumption and the acquisition of cultural — and for the investors — real capital.

In my own work I seek to meet the obligations of postcolonial, queer, international and social historical feminist questioning. These run up against a wall of institutional indifference expressed in the institutional refusal to confront or acknowledge the problematics of difference in all its agonies and creativities, as well as institutional silence in the face of the challenges to the museum in relation to failures to collect, curate, exhibit and educate for societies rich in diversity, for a world of entangled hurts and brilliant creativity. This is where my commitment to the study of artist-women enters.

When I was interviewed after the award of the prize, I was introduced as someone who had re-disovered forgotten women artists, and then asked, hopefully, if things had got better. Batting away the wicked untruths hidden in the words rediscover and forgotten — the constant and ubiquitous creativity of women has, in fact, been systematically absented from art history by art historians, most of all during the twentieth century and actively so by the official canons of art history in academy and museum. I had to reply in the negative to my interviewers’ touching wish for progress.  In 2019, a survey of auction sales of contemporary art revealed that artist-women constitute just 2% of the sales and, of that 2%, 47% of sales are related to just 5 women artists, selected to be a glorious exceptions. These shocking figures reveal the real effects of continuous resistance to the postcolonial-feminist challenge. Financial valuation reflects symbolic value — or rather, its absence — invested in what women do, say, think, articulate, create in all the forms of culture. The art market today starkly reflects how women’s creativity in all its global diversity is systemically unvalued. This, in turn, reflects true picture of the jeopardized status of women as human subjects in the world today.

Art history is, I still assert, an important, if not a critical, arena for thinking the expanded feminist challenge of this magnitude. This cannot happen if art history only tells stories of some great artists, selectively producing so limited a reflection of creativity and culture defined by astronomical price tags, whiteness and/or maleness.  Art history, as Warburg contested  in his time, alone focusses on the dimension of the aesthetic (how art affects meaning)  and the image (how affect and meaning is articulated and transmitted) as both are produced with and by materials and technical processes.  My work is, therefore, not about uplifting stories of art. I seek to offer analysis of what images do as physically and subjectiviely made, critically and inventively enacted, located and differentially embodied practices. Art-making is to be read as a critical index of our world and who or what we collectively are.  Rather than ask what images are of, I ask what do images do, what is art doing, how can we read art-working? These questions cannot be answered in the disciplinary isolation of an aestheticizing, indifferent art history.

I was precipitated into these ways of thinking not by my academic teachers but by artists. Contemporary artists, women also inspired by feminist questioning,  were both the theorists and practitioners of a moment we now term conceptual art. Faced with artworks that utterly perplexed me in their novel materials and processes, their critical investigation into deep structures of class, race, gender and difference, I had to learn to puzzle out what they were doing.  What am I seeing? What it this work doing? How is it doing that? What meanings is it producing,deconstructing and shifting? These were the simple questions that began to unlock complex art works right into the deep past, offering a method of asking questions that could equally transform a work by Michelangelo as by Picasso.  To re-vision the history of art equipped with all the resources of the Studies movements, with an expanded theoretical treasury, a self-questioning feminist consciousness and the lessons from contemporary artists has been an exhilarating and addictive life’s work.

This prize for a contribution to the foundation of feminist studies specifically in art and culture can only be received by me on behalf of an international community of thinkers and artists, scholars and theorists, who have enacted a feminist cultural revolution since 1968, challenging and reconfiguring every discipline from genetics to political theory, quantum physics to art history,  law to literature, delivering a sustained assault on an unjust and, as we keep learning tragically, a dangerous society while identifying its hegemonic phallocentric symbolic order. Within the rubric feminist, moreover, a constant self-interrogation of agonism and difference that both shatters the apparent uniformity of the appellation women while, nonetheless, asserting the necessity for this political fiction, women, to take the stage of history as a complex collectivity whose historic destiny is to identify the system of patriarchy, deconstruct the phallocentric symbolic system embedded in language and installed in the architecture of our psyches, a system that bleeds into the psychic life of power across race and class, culture and social formation.  Art, film, image, text, and sound, the imaginative spaces that play to our phantasies, script our desires can also transform both phantasies and our senses of ourselves and others. These are critical sites of interrogation and analysis as well as creative, aesthetic transformation.

I accept this prize as part of a feminist community in struggle with one of the major challenges in world historical time, what Julia Kristeva termed monumental time. I am also proud to have played one tiny part in this long struggle that might one day wipe away the horrific violence women suffer from sexual, economic, health, social and psychological violation of their humanity because the very concept of humanity has systemically excluded them as full but different participants and made the man/woman hierarchy a deeply embedded model for so many other negating asymmetries.

The fight back against feminism is actively taking place, delegitimising key aspects of feminist thought even within what is presented as its most current form. Hence, daring to speak back both to the patriarchy and to the forms of post-and anti-feminist thought that it accommodates, I refuse the banalization, sloganization and displacement via textual denunciation across social media — what I now term pace Derrida and Spivak — insta-grammar— of the remnants of feminist questioning, thinking and creativity. This feels like an obligation that I shall continue to pursue with the distribution of the prize to assist in the furtherance of postcolonial-queer-social-international-feminist interventions in art’s histories and creative and intellectual struggles while fostering of young artists’ creativity in the arts.  I thank once again the people and government of Norway and the University of Bergen and the Holberg Committee for being the beacon of hope through this prize. I am not worthy, but deeply honoured to accept it.

Professor Griselda Pollock
2020 Holberg Laureate

The speech was given at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London on 25 May, 2021, and included as part of the 9 June Holberg Week Virtual Award Ceremony , which was hosted from the University Aula in Bergen, Norway.