The Gothic by Gilda Williams

Why does the Gothic continue to be such an important mode and style in contemporary visual culture? If we take editor Gilda Williams’s understanding of the term as wide-ranging, “more atmospheric than neatly defined”, we can the understand the consistent allure of the Gothic mode in the way it achieves a site of balance between different kinds of contradictions. Cultured, escapist, anti-bourgeois, sensual and affected, the Gothic mode brings together things that should properly remain apart and revives things that should properly remain dead.

Documents of Contemporary Art, the series of which this book is an edition, is co-published by London’s Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press. Each volume covers a single theme, practice, or obsession central to contemporary visual culture, is guest edited by a well-known art historian, critic, curator or artist, and reproduces the most important pieces of writing on the subject, specifically in relation to visual culture. The series, whose other volumes include The Archive, Participation and The Artist’s Joke, are handy, affordable, nice-looking and smartly produced, although for a book about contemporary art, the absence of visual images is rather surprising. Perhaps including images would have made production costs prohibitive. Instead, the volume is broken up by seminal and indicative page-length quotations in heavy, Gothic fonts.

As this volume makes clear, there’s nothing new about the Gothic culture, which goes back, well, to the Goths, the Germanic tribes that were dismissed by mainstream culture (i.e. the Romans) as uncivilized and barbaric. The term was later applied to a style of medieval architecture by critics who regarded it as similarly uncultured, and subsequently to a late-18th/early-19th century style of literature dwelling on death and the supernatural. It is difficult to think of any other mode that could have remained current for so long, or that would permit so many different avenues of approach.

The Gothic is divided into seven sections; “The Gothic in Contemporary Art”, “The Modern Gothic”, “The Creature”, “Transgressing Gender”, “The Uncanny” and “Castles, Ruins, and Labyrinths”. Each section begins with a series of significant documents on (or in) the Gothic mode, including extracts from works by theorists, philosophers, critics, artists and fiction writers who have helped to shape the framework of the Gothic, from the eighteenth century to the present day. Thus, there are passages from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, along with snippets from Slavoj Zizek, Michel Foucault, Carol J. Clover, Damien Hirst, Sigmund Freud, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Jacques Lacan.

All are bite-sized extracts, none longer than 10 pages, without too much heavy theoretical jargon. While this makes for a useful and engaging collection, it also creates a curious sense of timelessness and a flattening of hierarchies. The alphabetical list of contributors places Freud next to William Gibson, and curators and editors next to philosophers and fiction writers in an odd, interdisciplinary democracy.

The collection focuses mainly on visual culture, including performance, community, self-representation, and gender relations. But it barely touches on Gothic’s more oblique elements, such as nostalgia, fetishism, its connections with religion and apostasy, and the role that is played by Goth aesthetics in everyday commercial culture. Nor does it venture far into the territory of literary and film criticism, at least not in any depth. The virtue of the book, then, is also its major flaw. Its interdisciplinary nature highlights the impossibility of refining an “atmospheric term” like The Gothic to artifacts belonging to a specific form. The result is bound to seem selective and somewhat arbitrary. Fortunately in this case, the volume loses very little as a result.

RATING 8 / 10