Women in Art Project

The Women in Artistic, Monumental and Epigraphic Sources Project involves collecting, classifying, and interpreting the non-literary sources for women’s activities and roles in antiquity. These sources provide an important counterpoint to literary sources, where women appear on the periphery. In this way, the project gives attention to an oft-neglected aspect of historical inquiry.

Margaret Miles’ critique of the methodology of both political history (man as actor) and the history of ideas (man as thinker) is useful for assessing the value of non-literary sources. She contends that the history of ideas as well as political history have as their objective for historical inquiry the delineation of what she calls subjective consciousness, by which she means the intentions, motivations, self-conscious values and ideals of the individual. Essential to this method of historical inquiry is the assumption that the self is linguistically constituted.  Language is the constitutive element of subjective consciousness and therefore makes literary sources primary for the investigation of the history of subjective consciousness.

Miles criticizes these assumptions from the vantage point of semiologist Roland Barthes who distinguishes between language users and non-language users.  For non-language users, it is not language that is constitutive of the self, nor is it the subjective consciousness with which the self is identified. For non-language users bodily experience is constitutive of the self. The identity of the self is described in terms of age, sex, work, and relationships based on birth and marriage.

Women’s history cannot be captured in the net of historical inquiry aimed at subjective consciousness, for women’s history does not appear in the history of language users.  Visual images, art and sculpture, as well as epigraphic sources, provide access to the experience of non-language users. The particular value of visual images is that visual images celebrate, interpret and nuance bodily experience, and are powerful clues to the self-identity of non-language users. The hermeneutic of images requires assuming the perspective of the viewer which also means assuming the perspective of the non-language user.  Therefore, for purposes of historical inquiry, skill in interpreting images provides an appropriate balance to the skill in interpreting written texts. Popular theology, the politics of the lower classes, and familial ideals are all accessible through visual images, and thus the methodologies and the reconstructions developed under this project will have broader application.

Karen Torjesen is Margo L. Goldsmith Professor of Women's Studies in Religion
Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California.

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