Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Program

Art and Visual Culture

Supervisor

Dr. Sarah Bassnett

Abstract

This dissertation examines the communicative relationship between contemporary autobiographical art and the viewer. By analyzing the work of six artists, Richard Billingham, Jaret Belliveau, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Lisa Steele and Bas Jan Ader, I maintain that lived experience and personal history condition the way viewers respond to autobiographical art. I turn to literary theory as a critical methodology to argue that autobiographical art operates as a catalyst for identification, memory and self-discovery. I use affect and trauma theory to demonstrate how artwork produces meaning and discourse through the viewer’s feelings, emotions and bodily sensations. Consequently, I survey the importance of affect in generating ethically appropriate responses to trauma-related art. With the viewer’s subjective gaze in mind, I also weigh the possibility of trauma-related artwork triggering traumatic affects in the viewer through conscious and unconscious forces. My response to affect theory further reconceptualizes how empathy and community form new social relationships between the viewer, the artist and others irregardless of physical, cultural and ideological differences. In this regard, my study shows that autobiographical art is a pedagogical instrument for learning about others while learning about the self as well: through the artist’s life one may come to better understand their own.

With extensive research and close analysis of select visual material, this dissertation proposes several interrelated points. Chapter one considers the types of responses that photographs of family tragedy generate in the viewer, how viewers connect to these photographs and what meaning can be gained from these encounters. In chapter two I examine three different philosophies of community to argue that inclusion, identification and universality are capable of transforming existing social structures and political relationships. The third and final chapter problematizes the communication of memory by deconstructing how conventional memory is performed. It also addresses why the logic of representation collapses during the artist’s communication of trauma and explains how the conscious and unconscious reverberations of pain surface unexpectedly through the haptic sense. Overall, the dissertation seeks to contribute to contemporary research on autobiographical art, affect, trauma and their complex relationship to spectatorship.