Spectatorial Embarrassment


The Perpetual Student

In 2007, having completed a degree and a masters with the Open University, I embarked on a PhD at Goldsmiths under the supervision of Gavin Butt. It took a long time to complete. I had to learn that I was not as smart as I had previously thought, that I couldn’t just wing this one, that just maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. Life got in the way, I was still working full-time, my father died, I became a grandmother, I got arrested for growing cannabis (ha!)

Eventually, I learned to love Continental Philosophy. Eventually the damn thing got written. Eventually, I became Dr Jones.

Expose Yourself to Art: Towards a Critical Epistemology of Spectatorial Embarrassment

The project was sparked by a chance encounter with a curious quotation;

            ‘We wanted to do art to be embarrassed.  Art that embarrasses ourselves. I think we still do that.  We are very embarrassed sometimes at what we are doing, and that’s a good feeling.  When it hurts then its true for us.’

This comment on embarrassment was originally made to Anthony d’Offay and quoted in ‘London’s Living Sculpture: Interview with Robert Becker 1982’ Gilbert & George. (1997). The Words of Gilbert & George, London: Thames & Hudson.(p136) 

‘A picture should say ‘fuck you’ first then it can get on with saying something else.’                                                                                            

Gilbert & George


This thesis investigates the negative affect of embarrassment and its potential as an embodied criticality.  Two particular characteristics of embarrassment figure strongly in both the methodology and the outcome of this enquiry; embarrassment is characterised as marginal, of little importance and also as a very personal experience of an aversive self-consciousness.  The personal nature of embarrassment has been adopted throughout as a methodology and the embarrassments that are analysed are, for the most part, my own and based on ‘true’ experience.  Precedent for this move is drawn from ‘anecdotal theory’, particularly the work of Gallop and Miller who used event and occasion in the origination of a counter-theory that valued minor narratives of personal experience in place of the generalising and abstract tendencies of theory-proper.

The context for my investigation is a series of encounters with artworks by Gilbert & George, Jemima Stehli, Franko B, Adrian Howells, and Sarah Lucas.  The artists and artworks considered are connected only by their contemporaneity and the fact that they allow the spectator no comfortable position to look from.  This thesis engages with theories of ‘the gaze’, as both aesthetic disinterest and a dubious sign of cultural competence.  Also under consideration is the challenge to aesthetic disinterest made by ‘transgressive art’ which may provoke a more engaged, even embodied response. 

Each encounter sparks consideration of differing causes and outcomes of embarrassment that resonate beyond art to broader sociocultural territories.  The approach taken is inherently interdisciplinary, situated within the affective turn, and engaging with feminist, queer, and psychoanalytic discourses.  Experience of moments of embarrassment as ‘thinking-feeling’ is finally configured as a critical epistemology, or a ‘body of knowledge’ offering the opportunity to value the singular  truth of embarrassment as an embodied criticality that is critical of coercive patterns of social ‘okayness’ and belonging. 

To dip into the full text, head to EThOS at the British Library: http://ethos.bl.uk