The Gothic by Gilda Williams

As this volume makes clear, there's nothing new about the Gothic culture, which goes back, well, to the Goths.

The Gothic

Publisher: MIT
Subtitle: Documents of Contemporary Art
Author: Gilda Williams
Price: $22.95
Length: 208
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 026273186X
US publication date: 2007-10

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.