This posthumously published study by the great art historian explores the representation of poverty, powerlessness and marginality (gathered under the term misère) in art, painting in the main, from the time of the Great Famine in Ireland to the onset of the Great Depression in the United States. Underlying that is an attempt to work through the contradictions and harmonies within art’s attempts to appease the conscience of the wealthy (largely through representations of charity) and to highlight the plight of the poor: is poverty a subject or a cause? ‘There is no such thing as representation pure and simple, disengaged from ideology,’ Nochlin announces at the beginning of the book, before describing the production of ‘picturesque’ representations of poverty as a means of disempowering the poor. She goes on to explore the idea that ‘truth’ might be fundamentally incompatible with aesthetics, the role of gender in representations of poverty and ideas of social justice in the works of Gustave Courbet, and ultimately touches on (without resolving) the question of whether or not it is ethical or even possible to represent the poor in our current ‘media-saturated’ times. There are moments when the core thrusts of Nochlin’s arguments get bogged down in academic point-scoring at the expense of deeper investigations into the social context of her period of study, but if you’re willing to overlook a certain amount of (earned) peacocking, Nochlin speaks clearly and simply to the ongoing question of whether art can or should be a form of activism or is necessarily a reactive, monocular form of propaganda disguised as reportage.
From the April 2018 issue of ArtReview