In surrealist practices of the late 1920s and 1930s the mask played a significant role. Symptomatic of the anti-humanism of the interwar European avant-garde, these practices aimed to dismantle the intellectual foundation of Western humanism; they also inadvertently exposed the ambiguity of the avant-garde enterprise of de-subjectivization. In her talk Cheng submits surrealist theories of the mask to critique from two radically distinct perspectives: the problem of anonymity as a condition of totalitarianism as analyzed by Hannah Arendt, and the problem of what Gayatri Spivak describes as the “concealed Subject,” by which Western radical criticism claims to undermine the sovereign subject while “actually inaugurat[ing]” it.
Joyce S. Cheng is Associate Professor of Modern European Art in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Oregon. She teaches courses and seminars on nineteenth- and twentieth-century European art, with a research specialty in the visual arts, poetics, aesthetic theories, and the cultural and intellectual history of the interwar period. She has published articles and chapters on symbolism, dada, surrealism, and the art theories of Carl Einstein. She is currently finishing a book-length study on the figure of the mask in surrealist art theories and practices.
Part of the conference Deep Time and Crisis, c. 1930