Toying with History: How history repeats itself

[This is part two of a thesis paper about the series Toying with History.  Here is the master post.]

In any critical comparison of the present and the past, it is de rigeur to mention philosopher George Santayana’s much-quoted claim that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (qtd. in Schwartz 271). Tradition has formidable inertia, but some factors catalyze substantial cultural changes. The scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn describes paradigm shifts within the field of physics, but many of his insights relate to other disciplines equally well. As Kuhn explains, “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute” (24). Paradigms do not achieve dominance because they are right, but because they are useful.

Sexism is a paradigm. As Kuhn points out, we are unlikely to question our worldview without overwhelming cause. Feminists describe this process as consciousness-raising. While describing the experience of individual paradigm shifts, feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky observes that:

…feminists suffer what might be called a ‘double ontological shock’: first, the realization that what is really happening is quite different from what appears to be happening, and, second, the frequent inability to tell what is really happening at all. (35)

Bartky’s “double ontological shock” is a helpful concept because the existence of sexism is like an optical illusion: it is either invisible or undeniable. One catalyst for this sort of paradigm shift is finding yourself on the wrong side of an unequal system. Another is realizing that you can identify with none of the top exemplars of your field. Part of what hinders our ability to recognize this sort of inequality is the early age at which it is normalized.

Role modeling is an early and ongoing aspect of socialization. Consider Gloria Steinem’s observations on the parallels between domestic hierarchies and nations‘ tolerance for widespread inequality. As this feminist icon pointed out in a 2012 speech, “We are trained in this division [between gender roles] very young, usually in our own families, and it normalizes later divisions into leader and led, subject and object, rich and poor, even conqueror and conquered” (Steinem). Early socialization has a profound effect on later assumptions, though Steinem quite rightly warns against believing so strongly in “childhood determinism” that we ignore our own agency. We can break paradigms, but only if we realize their subjectivity.

These references to early socialization borrow heavily from child psychology, but they also describe the system by which aspiring artists become professionals. Both art students and children pattern their behavior and systems of judgment on their role models’ precedents.  In the case of children, these role models are parents, peers, and mass media. For art students, the equivalents are professors, classmates, and the canon of art history.

Robert Henri, whose legacy as an art teacher rivals that of his paintings, informed his nineteenth century students that “Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men….Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them” (15). Henri’s lectures as recorded in The Art Spirit sound quixotic in the twenty-first century, but the apprenticeship model endures as the primary pedagogy in art institutions. This apprenticeship is in part a theoretical connection to the art canon, as many artists study art history expressly to learn from past masters of their craft. Just as children often adopt the mannerisms of their role models, so also do art students often absorb more than surface techniques from the art they study.

Karen Dill’s book How Fantasy Becomes Reality unpacks a similar relationship between mass media and individuals’ behavior. Even when something is a known fiction, it still affects us. As Dill points out, such works are not “‘real’ in the sense of nonfiction but because they have a reality to us in the sense of being meaningful” (97). The artistic canon falls into this meaningful category. Dill’s book cites an overwhelming number of studies that demonstrate how often we underestimate the influence of media on ourselves over time. When she analyzes the body of media psychology studies of violence in video games, Dill emphasizes the consistent paradox that greater exposure to a paradigm increases its effect on us while decreasing our ability to detect its influence (23).

We pattern our expectations and behavior on what we see modeled by companions and mass media. This modeling process is both self- and unconscious. In order to explore these concepts artistically, I express them in the format of the paper doll, which is a children’s toy primarily associated with little girls. The late Tom Tierney’s books of paper dolls dominate the market. The main themes of his oeuvre are contemporary and historical fashions. This is consistent with the history of paper doll manufacture. Paper dolls and their interchangeable outfits pay homage to the power of outward appearances to signify identity. Playing with such dolls can seem to reinforce superficiality, but it can also emphasize identity’s mutability.

In my series titled Toying with History, I critique the modeling process by parodying it with paper dolls. The paper dolls parallel my contention that our sense of self and society is directly affected by the images that surround us. The forms with which we clothe our imagination color our expectations and guide our actions. My paper dolls reduce this truism to absurdity by literally presenting iconic images as costumes to put on. In addition, the costumes are all those of female figures from art history or pop culture. Recognizing these paintings as paper dolls is fundamental to their purpose. Engaging with them as clusters of signifiers is the next step. As with visual culture as a whole, some role models are good, but others are flawed or absent. This is the history with which we must be familiar, lest we absentmindedly repeat it verbatim.

Next: Quantity of Representation

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