I. B. Tauris

Julia Kristeva is undoubtedly one of the most influential thinkers of the last 50 years. Her texts have been significant to many fields including those of literary criticism, sociology and feminism as well as artistic practice and so have helped shape the cultural landscape of today. Drawing on her psychoanalytic background, Kristeva’s works often refer to the theories of Freud and Lacan, however contrary to these theories she emphasises the role of the mother in the formulation of the ‘self’ and how the rejection of the maternal has wider consequences in societies which devalue females. Language also forms an important part of Kristeva’s theories; her thoughts on the semiotic redefine how we understand our relationship to language and our experience of art.

Although highly influential, Kristeva’s writings are extremely complex and involved. She often makes reference to literature and theory which if unknown to the reader can make her work difficult to understand or engage with fully. Estelle Barrett’s Kristeva Reframed is a comprehensive and accessible introduction to Kristeva’s work in relation to art practice and theory.

Examining one aspect of Kristeva’s theories in each chapter, Barrett walks the reader through the key ideas and applies them practically to artworks which demonstrate each topic. Examining the roles of language, interpretation, audience and revolution Barrett provides an on the whole well rounded analysis of Kristeva’s relevance to art however she neglects to mention the genres of performance and live art, the histories of which have been profoundly influenced by Kristeva and embody many of the aspects of her thinking as examined in this book. Given that the last chapter directly examines the performative it seems strange not to have included any reference to these practices.

The last chapter of the book looks at the idea of research as practice and the performative. While the examples given in the book are relevant and do relate to Kristeva’s writings, it seems that more relevant examples could have been included. Barrett uses Wendy Beatty’s research project ‘Nude and Naked: Refiguring voyeuristic structures through feminist photographic techniques’ as an example of creative production as potential for revolt and the production of the new, however this work does not seem to demonstrate the idea of performative generation of the “as yet unimaginable” that Barrett argues distinguishes Kristeva’s view on the performative from other thinkers such as Judith Butler, who she all too briefly touches on in this chapter. Barrett suggests that it is the manipulation of and experimentation with photographic processes which provides this potential for revolt and generation of the new in Beatty’s work, however this idea would perhaps have been better expressed in examining for example the Happenings of Allan Kaprow in the 60’s which play with embodied experience, question the ‘boundaries’ between art and life and form the basis of several publications which themselves are very influential within the art community. More recent works from artists such as Marina Abramovic or Suzanne Lacy would also have been interesting and relevant to this discussion.

It is in this chapter that Barrett also suggests the responsibility for interpretation of an artwork and thus how much of an impact it can have in society lies with the artist as researcher, rather than as Kristeva suggests, with the critic. However neither conclusion seems to align with earlier assertions that as aesthetic experience works at a preverbal level, connecting with our lived experiences to convey emotion and affect and to mediate abjection we can experience art work without needing to be able to articulate the experience. As such the meaning of an artwork can only truly be experienced subjectively. Surely Kristeva’s notions of lived experience and the semiotic point to the viewer as solely responsible for the reading of an art work and the revolutionary impact of the work can only be measured by how that reading is translated into society. Here Barrett seems to overlook what appears to be a contradiction between Kristeva’s earlier theories and her later assertion that new ideas generated by art must be mediated by critics in order for the general population to understand them.

This book is however overall very well written. It would have been nice if more images of the art works described were included and if those which were included were in colour where appropriate. The glossary was a thoughtful addition, allowing for a more in-depth explanation of terms which readers new to Kristeva would find extremely useful. Throughout this book Barrett succeeds in giving the reader an understanding of and taste for Kristeva making this book a good resource for artists interested in this most influential thinker.

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