Sublime dissension: A working-class Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics of the female grotesque

PhD thesis

Hatherley, F. 2017. Sublime dissension: A working-class Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics of the female grotesque. PhD thesis Middlesex University Visual Arts
TypePhD thesis
TitleSublime dissension: A working-class Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics of the female grotesque
AuthorsHatherley, F.

This thesis reclaims and refigures negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, proposing an “Anti-Pygmalion” aesthetics (referencing Shaw’s Pygmalion)in which pressure to conform to bourgeois notions of respectability is refused in favour of holding onto aspects of working-class female identity which have been treated as faulty and shameful. It examines a previously under-theorised dimension of the “female grotesque”: its formation under a process of classed construction.
Contesting the disavowal of class identity in much art writing, I explore how it shapes art reception, showing how images of the Anti-Pygmalion female grotesque can provoke sublime experiences in viewers who share an empathetic connection with the work’s presentation of class difference. Against Enlightenment aesthetic theories which associate the sublime with the lofty, this thesis conceptualises it from the perspective of working-class women, connecting it with an excitement and awe that comes from below and bursts up and out.
My approach is auto-ethnographic, drawing on my experiences as a woman from a working-class background to deepen my readings and address gaps in the field. To counter the erasure of working-class artists, I focus on work by working-class British artists and filmmakers from the 1980s –2000s. Exploring the problematic experiences of working-class artists and writers in the institutional spaces of education and the art world, I highlight the resulting internalisation of stigmatised subjectivities. This frames my analysis of three case studies, each addressing aspects of working-class femininity: Jo Spence’s Class-Shame series, the photographs collected in Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, and Carol Morley’s film The Alcohol Years. My analysis builds up a dialogue around Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics which forces a reconsideration of the categories of the sublime and the grotesque in the light of working-class identities and creativities, dispelling stereotypes which have hampered existing criticism, and reframing working-class stories and lives as significant and valuable.

Department nameVisual Arts
Institution nameMiddlesex University
Publication dates
Print15 Dec 2017
Publication process dates
Deposited15 Dec 2017
Accepted11 Dec 2017
Output statusPublished
Accepted author manuscript
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