Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Alison Lee


In this study, I examine how works of art become vehicles for the postmodern inquiry into the nature of subjectivity. My thesis narrows the focus to those characters who attempt to ground themselves in works of art, especially representational paintings. I argue that, to cope with what they see as the chaos of a decentered postmodern world, these figures try to anchor their confused identities in what they wrongfully interpret as stable and mimetic artworks. Nostalgic for an imagined past when representation was transparent and corresponded to reality, they believe that traditional figurative art offers the promise of cohesive meaning otherwise lacking under postmodernism. Their views of art, therefore, underwrite a desire and nostalgia for absolutes that are non-existent. In their failure to ground themselves in images, we see the fundamental instability of both the subject and of art.

The wayward individuals that I examine yearn for art objects to come to life in order to confirm their own selfhood. What they seek, then, is to transform art-objects into art-subjects; this Pygmalionesque project is grounded in the futile hope that the art-object can reciprocate their desires. We find literary examples of this trend in the characters I analyze in my first two chapters: notably the narrator(s) of John Banville’s Frames Trilogy and the gay spies of the fictionalized Cambridge Five. In my final chapter, I look to the clones and androids of popular culture and explore the real life example of Japanese love-doll owners. In each of these instances, artworks are strategically positioned as sites of ontological anchorage, but this foundation can never be secure under postmodernism. Despite their fervent hopes, these characters have misplaced their trust in a form of representation that is no more stable than any other aspect of the postmodern condition. I argue that Freddie, Victor, Tommy, and Tavo, among others, are particularly good examples of the vexed relationship between the image and the self.