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Monday, October 14, 2013

Boston, Salem, and the Fall so Far (part 2)

The first longer trip we took this semester (we'll be traveling to Charleston, SC, then Philadelphia and Delaware later this semester) was to Boston and Salem.  I should preface this by saying travel is a bit of an exaggeration, since we did an absurd amount of sitting in the train due to a system wide meltdown that affected all train traffic in Connecticut.  We were supposed to leave Penn Station just before 7:00 and arrive in Back Bay Boston by noon.  When we got to the hotel at 2:30, it was clear that students felt both annoyance and relief (are we there yet?), but we had lunch to eat, art to see, and we make the best of it.

Our first stop was the MFA Boston, and this is great museum.  We're especially lucky to have Gerry Ward (Senior consulting curator, and recipient of the first Wendell Garrett prize) teaching the first semester of American Decorative Arts and grateful that he takes us around the museum when we come to Boston.  Since he knows the collection so well, and since he teaches with many of the MFA's objects, the students get a chance to see them up close and personal, to ask questions about the objects that didn't occur to them during the lecture, and to physically confront objects.


This allows Gerry to continue to make connections with the objects, to talk about the impact of display and the choices made by the curatorial team, and to keep reviewing material with students in a manner that deepens their understanding and improves their learning outcomes.  We arrived at the MFA by about 3:30.  Three hours later, we had made it through about two floors.  He takes him time and we are always grateful for that.  


Additionally, and quite unexpectedly, Nonie Gadsden joined us too.  You may notice a strange, tricycle-like apparatus beneath her right leg.  Injured, but back at work, she spent time with the students talking through individual pieces (here we are in a silver gallery of sorts, and she's speaking about the influence of English design forms on American Colonial production), but also about the aesthetics and messages conveyed by display.  Those who haven't been to the MFA should go, because the aesthetic experience of the galleries (from the scale of the rooms, the mixture of paintings and decorative arts, the choices of wall color and even wallpaper) are a much different interpretation of museum context than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's.  In some ways, this also seems to reflect the organization of the respective departments, which seems to reflect more deeply held core values: the Met has a strong sense of specialization and the separateness of objects, the relative paucity of integrations seems to reflect this.  By contrast, the curatorial appointments at the MFA seem more broadly constructed, and the emphasis on integration of disparate media seems in line with a team of curators whose work extends broader ranges of media and time.

You may also have noticed by my annoying tendency to defocus things that in addition to traveling, I have taken a shine to instagram.  But I digress, the experience is what is important to convey, not my photographic aspirations.  Because of the train fiasco, we missed the Gardner museum on Wednesday, pushed it to Thursday, and all retired after twelve hours of art and travel.  There was probably dinner, but days like this (getting up at 4:00 to meet students by 6:30) are exhausting.

The next day was a bit of a chronological whirlwind, but it is not always possible to match the trip to the specific moment they are studying (in truth, it is always possible, but doing so would mean that they do not see things they should experience).  With that in mind, with some travel realted readings under their belt and additional resources, we made our way to the first stop: the Boston Public Library.  In some ways, it's useful to see this before the Gardner, because next to Sargent's masterful work in El Jaleo, the murals are frankly a bit dry and underwhelming.  While the controversy surrounding the installation of Church and Synagogue, and the backstory of the public reaction to these murals is interesting historically, there is a bit of gap between aesthetic and historical interest that is usually not present in Sargent's work.  Nonetheless, the library is a real testament to civic spaces, and the additional work by MacMonnies, French, and Puvis de Chevannes tells a story about the public decoration of buildings that is not always easy to accommodate in narratives of art and history.  To me, aside from the addition by Phillip Johnson, this is among the most successfully executed civic spaces of the period of the nineteenth century on.  There is a real sense of harmony in the parts--as disparate as they are--and a sense (not always evident in the study of American art) of the international tastes of architects, and the exposure to international art by the general public.


Here's an example of the type of imagery from Sargent's murals that I don't find aesthetically compelling.  Yes, in terms of technique, theme, and history one can make an argument for this, but truth be told, this is Sargent at his driest.


There are flashes throughout the cycle of the technical brilliance he is known for, but--and perhaps the long duration of the commission contributed to this--there is no real sense of cohesion to it.  Later artists realized that this was a problem, and thus Jacob Lawrence in completing the Great Migration cycle worked on numerous panels at the same time, so that there would not be a stylistic shift, even in a more compressed period.  


The grand staircase, with murals by Puvis designed to echo the collections holdings, is simply a stunning space.  From the BPL it was a quick jaunt across Copley Square, and soon we were treated to the best tour of Trinity Church I have ever received.


This is my attempt to make a contemporary view of Trinity Church resemble a period photograph, and again seems to exhibit my fascination with Instagram.  [Those desiring to learn about the travel we do can search #maafda (this program) or #sothebysinstitute (the school in general)].  In any event, whereas all of the tours I have taken in the last four years have begun inside, and relied upon my knowledge of the project to explain the exterior before we began, Trinity gave us an amazing guide who started with the exterior and explained to the students what was Richardson's work, and what elements were later additions.  

Here, we are standing between the old and new, looking at the space containing Richardson's initial exterior (behind the students, with the doors) and the later addition of this porch which provides a transitional space into the church's narthex.  What's exceptional (to my mind) is the manner in which Richardson varied the capitols on the columns, choosing all native species as the basis, but giving the church a real sense of sweep and motion that is both breathtaking and likely unnoticed by most visitors. Here's an artful shot of some of the capitols.


The exterior of Trinity is stunning, and yet it no way prepares you for the interior by LaFarge and his assistants.  It's quite honestly the type of space that makes me want to go to church.  Blending paintings, stained glass, text (some of it not even real) and decoration, it simply is one of the most beautiful religious spaces in the United States.  It's rare that in a slide, in a classroom, sitting in a standardized desk / chair, that students can ever get the feeling of a space.  They can understand the decorative scheme, but fundamentally--at a very deep and almost instinctual and pre-cognitive level--architecture is about the relationship of self to space.  If you want students to understand this, you need for them to experience it, to see how subtle shifts in natural light change dynamics of color and contrast, to be able to hear the difference in their footfalls in enclosed versus open spaces.  I'm lucky in this regard because the program I run allows for this to happen through travel.


Photographs and images of interiors, to my mind, are useful to the degree that they allow you to recall the experience of spaces, or to the degree that they prepare you with knowledge to understand the spaces you will visit.  They are not, however, a useful substitute for the experience of space, but remain instead a poor substitute for that.  Trinity Church is simply overwhelming and rewards close looking, frequent return visits, and time.

We then went from the sacred to the secular (after lunch, of course, these students demand food), and took a short T ride to the Harrison Gray Otis House, a stunning achievement by in architecture designed by Charles Bullfinch.   Unfortunately, the House does not allow photography inside.  To me, this is a mistake and something that house museums across the country need to rethink.  With the advent of social media and the interconnectedness of people across these platforms (facebook, instagram, and there are others I am sure) museums should be thinking less about their photography policies with a proprietary interest (if people take photos, they'll be less likely to buy the books of photographs we publish), and more of these an an effective means through which to market their properties to visitors otherwise impossible to reach.  In effect, the promise of social media promotion is that it allows museums to reach out directly to a client base in a manner more effective, and far less expensive, than direct marketing.  The benefit is that this marketing comes with a level of trust and recommendation that is impossible to secure through other means.  If a friend posts an image from someplace I have never been, it allows me to see it through their eyes, and--as an association with that image--I also (immediately, and likely unconsciously) form an empathetic relationship with the place through the connection I have with the person.  Now, to be sure, there is the potential for this to cut both ways (say, for instance, my friend Larry hates a place, I might be less enthusiastic to visit), but the point is, whether positive or not, the idea of visiting the site likely would not have occurred to me at that moment without the mention on social media.  Museums, especially many smaller house museums and local historic societies, need to find a way to leverage the potential these emerging platforms have, and that requires finding the language to convince their boards, who often retain a strong sense of precedent (i.e., "we have never allowed photography") but have little understanding of how these policies are suppressing the potential for visitor outreach and engagement.  

From the non-profit world, we dove back into the world of profits, paintings, and the process by which objects are brought to market (without which, I should note, we'd have little knowledge of them, and certainly few museums would have any indication what precisely to collect, because truth be told, the cultivation of collectors and donors relies upon the type of price discovery only available through a market).  Back to Copley Square we went, then it was a short walk to Vose Galleries  the oldest family owned art gallery in America.  Quite simply, if you look back at Vose's history, the links between markets, museums, and American art as we know it, are made clear.  Beth Vose and her staff were incredibly gracious hosts, and allowed the students to ask questions, examine works closely, and confront works directly.  The highlight for me was an exceptional Gilbert Stuart portrait on panel, with an exquisite cradle on the back.  It's great for students to be able to see objects from all angles, and in a proper frame, and something that slides will not ever quite convey.

Because it was only about 4:30, and because the students are young (i.e., they never tire or complain of all the walking) and because they need constant looking to foster constant thinking and critical engagement, and mostly because of the Amtrak fiasco, we departed Vose and headed to the Gardner Museum.  The Gardner Museum is at once breathtaking, frustrating, overwhelming, and full of incredible things which are poorly lit, horrendously labeled, and quirkily placed.  The Gardner is a bit like new love, an exquisite agony whose potential is glimpsed, frustrated, acknowledged, and unknown.  It's sublime, in the truest sense of the word, somewhat terrifying, breathtaking, beautiful, and magical.  Bound to the conditions that Mrs. Gardner laid out in the early 20th century, it also (to my mind) serves as a warning about donor conditions--we cannot know what the future will bring, and we should resist the hubris that causes us to believe that we can--and yet brilliantly resists the idea of the museum as a reified narrative.  That said, I wish I could take pictures.  I wish there was better lighting.  I wish that I could stand with students in front of an object and discuss it without incurring the wrath of what can only be described as amongst the surliest gallery guards I have ever encountered (seriously, if I have a question, is it too much to ask that you do not preface your answer with a long sigh that conveys your annoyance with me?).  Anyhow, it's a necessary experience for the students if they are to think broadly about installation, audiences, and objects.  From there, and after a long day, the students scattered like sand in the wind, and made their ways to dinner.

As this seems a bit long already, I should address the trip to Salem in part three, which will follow shortly.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Boston, Salem, and the Fall so Far (part 1)

Blogs require constant attention.  I'm learning this slowly, and often reminded that between teaching, administrating, travel, and life, that I lack the constant diligence to be a blogger.  It's also why I don't have houseplants, but I digress.  This is a post about the fall thus far, not my ability to kill houseplants.

It's been my goal to get the students out and about so that they are seeing objects in person, and thinking about how context and presentation creates meaning and expectations for the audience.  It's also pretty useful to be able to touch things, to understand the weight of mahogany versus cherry, to run your hand around the rim of a bowl and feel the slight shift in texture indicative of a restoration.  And then there's the issue of scale: slides make everything seem about the same size.  There's no better way (that I've found) to get students to understand the physical presence of an object than to place them directly in front of it and allow them to spend time with it.


One of the best things about learning and teaching in NYC is the auction previews.  Looking back on my own experience at the Graduate Center, it seems like a missed opportunity that we didn't often leave the classroom. We went over to Christie's on September 23 to see the American Furniture sale items, and to spend some time with Andrew Holter (he's the Head of the American Furniture department, and an alumnus of the American Arts Program at Sotheby's), and to get the students to learn directly with objects.  The great thing about an auction preview is that you get to pull out drawers, look at dovetail joints, and understand the object not as a two dimensional image, but really as an object--a dynamic, historical, and aesthetic "thing" whose history of use is inscribed upon its surfaces if you can decode the marks.  I'm not precisely sure what I'm doing in the following picture but I know that we spent a bunch of time in front of this Philadelphia chest on chest, thinking through the object and examining the details.  


There are simply too many things about a chest like this to convey with slides.  Even if you tried to get every possible image of every detail, there's a certain luxury to be able to allow the students to self direct their own learning, to have a question about a detail, to walk around an object and get a sense of its presence.  I have a hunch that what we are talking about here is the manner in which the carving was done on this central drawer, how the artist created the texturing and detail in the background, what is carved out of the wood and what is carved and applied.  It also gives the students a chance to see the difference between original and later pulls, to see clearly the difference between primary and secondary woods, and to understand the subtle patterns of wear that are signs of original versus later additions to a piece.  Perhaps most important is that they understand surface and finish, qualities of an object virtually impossible to accurately convey in slides.

I should make clear too that this is not a substitute for classroom time, this all happens in addition to their class schedule.  Each week, excepting those when we travel, I make sure that Fridays are devoted to a site visit.  Museums, auction houses, galleries, and professionals in the field are all fair game.  Not only does it allow them to begin building a network, but it means that they need to be constantly engaging the material they are learning.  My belief is that by reinforcing these lessons through direct engagement, the students absorb more, understand more, and have a better sense of the breadth of the field.  It also creates a social aspect to their learning that I feel is important, because it dispels the notion that work, life, and learning are discrete aspects of a professional career.

So far this fall we've been to the Met as an introduction / overview, to the Christie's preview to handle objects and look closely, and this past Friday to Ralph Harvard, Inc. to talk with Ralph about his business, and look at some exquisite and early Virginia furniture (which, to be honest, is something virtually impossible to find anywhere else in NYC).  Ralph's a gracious host, does incredible work, and has the ability to immediately set the students at ease.   



Here's the students looking at some furniture, prints, and assorted objects in Ralph's space.  There are a number of great things here that students get to see up close, including Bermuda Queen Anne chairs, 18th century wall paper samples, and other assorted gems.  


Here's Ralph with some of our students.  Above them on the bookcase?  A whale's skull.  Not an obvious choice for most interior decoration, but one that fits beautifully into the room.  He has the ability to make spaces seem personal and warm.  While it stems from his knowledge of architecture and decorative arts, it allows students to see that in all aspects of the field (design, sales, curating, you name it), there are opportunities to be creative and to directly apply the knowledge you have gained.

Part two to follow... 


A follow up to Prince v. Cariou

It's pretty clear that I dislike the verdict of the recent Prince v. Cariou decision, and so I reached out a while back to Patrick Cariou.  For those of you unfamiliar with his work, look into it.  He's an exceptionally gifted photographer whose creative work demands the full protection afforded by copyright law.  We volleyed a few emails back and forth and it's worth reprinting (with his permission) a statement that followed the first decision, in which the court affirmed that Prince had violated Cariou's rights.  As Cariou told me, "here is enclosed a text... written just after the first judgement, never really published, please use it if you want...[to] represent my state of mind."   

Marcus Goffe, Kingston, JAMAICA The Ras Tafari community welcomes this Judgment. Mr. Prince’s ‘art’ distorted and misrepresented photographs of Rastafarians. The exhibit defamed the Ras Tafari brethren and sistren photographed, and by extension the entire Ras Tafari community. The exhibit also breached our religious, cultural, moral and intellectual property rights as a traditional minority community. Mr. Prince abused his freedom of expression at the expense of a vulnerable, peaceful, spiritual community and we are glad that his indiscretions have been halted by the Court. Non-Ras Tafari individuals and organisations that exploit and/or misrepresent Ras Tafari imagery, culture, words, symbols, music, art and craft without the prior informed consent of and appropriate benefit sharing with the Ras Tafari community, will be regarded as hostile to the community and treated accordingly. We will continue to vigorously monitor this and other infractions to preserve and maintain our cultural and religious integrity.

While the stakes for Gagosian and Prince are pretty clear and frankly kind of crass (can we sell this work and not be sued, what sort of profit is there in it?) the stakes for Cariou and the Ras Tafari community are much more nuanced.  It seems to me that the law, that public opinion, and that Prince and Gagosian could learn a thing or two from this statement.  The first is some sense of cultural understanding.  The Ras Tafari community in Jamaica is an intensely devout and close knit religious community that understandably is sensitive to exploitation and feels clearly as though they are a persecuted and misunderstood minority.  The access the Cariou had to them was clearly a sign of respect; Prince could not and would not have been able to achieve the sensitive, intimate look into this world because they would not have accepted him.  Moreover, in stealing Cariou's work (without so much as a gesture of asking permission), Prince's art serves no public purpose.  His art is going to end up on the walls of wealthy patrons, enrich himself and Gagosian, and never rise to the level of the type of public benefit (like the one scholarship shows) that the fair use law was designed to balance.  I'm not, I should make clear, trying to state that Richard Prince has no right to buy these books and appropriate the images as he sees fit.  He can and should do whatever he likes.  But, when you use someone else's work as the basis for a commercial enterprise (art, when sold, is precisely that) then it seems to me as though the rules shift drastically and precedent / law needs to protect the intellectual rights of the creator, even with a monopoly right to distribute or license that work.  

This seems to be in for another round of lawyering.  Cariou has an intellectual and moral claim to the work, while Gagosian and Prince have a profit to protect.  To my mind, the court should overturn the latest decision because it radically subverts the rights of authors and artists to control and license their work.  The purpose of a copyright monopoly is promote creativity and artistry here by guaranteeing that artists and authors have control over their productions.  This case should be heard by the Supreme Court, and the matter should be settled in Cariou's favor. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Patrick Cariou v. Richard Prince, et al: Why the court's decision was wrong

This week's disappointing decision handed down by the Second Circuit Court is an affront to common sense and makes a mockery of the established intellectual property rights of artists.  While many were relieved that the court found Richard Prince's work "transformative" enough to warrant his defense of the fair use doctrine, the real lesson from the decision is that the fundamental guarantees enshrined in the intent, purpose, and letter of the copyright law to protect artists (in this case Patrick Cariou) are being steadily eroded.  This ruling serves Larry Gagosian and Richard Prince very well (and allows them to be exceedingly well compensated), but it flies in the face of the purpose of copyright and represents a fundamental misreading of the law.

Although the decision would have you believe differently, the law governing fair use is abundantly clear:

§ 107 . Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use40Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include— 

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

And here's the facts as we know them: Prince bought a copy of Cariou's book Yes Rasta in 2005 and by 2007 had created a work Canal Zone drawn directly from the book's images.  The work is essentially of collages torn from the book and affixed to plywood.  Prince then painted lozenges over the faces and didn't use all the works in their entirety.  While the court finds this transformative, the fact remains that Prince's art would not exist in this instance without Carriou's work, photographs that were protected by copyright.  Carriou's photographs were not simply a part of a greater whole that Prince created (as the court seemed to think could be quantified by measuring the square inches used), but was inextricably linked to the copyrighted work of Carriou.   Indeed, as Prince's subsequent actions suggest, Patrick Carriou's Yes Rasta was the foundation upon which his work was built.

In June 2008 (after he had alreasy exhibited Canal Zone) Prince bought three additional copies of Yes Rasta and then created his Canal Zone series, twenty-nine of which incorporated Carriou's images.  The court's reasoning, and bizarre decision to remand five of thirty back to the lower court to determine whether or not they comply with fair use, missed the forest for the trees.  By focusing on whether individual works met a standard of fair use, they overlooked the fact that the genesis of Prince's work lay in Carriou's creative efforts.  What Prince did, in effect, was to mine Cariou's work for his (Prince's) commercial gain.  While the court maintained that commercial interests shouldn't matter, that seems counterintuitive particularly in this case, since Prince's Canal Zone Series is essentially a commercial undertaking.  Fine Art crosses the threshold from creative endeavor to commercial undertaking at the point in which an artist moves from the personal needs of creative self-expression into gallery setting with exorbitant price points.   

While the court has historically recognized the importance of critical commentary, parody, and research, it had a hard time making a case for any of these in this decision.  As a result, the opinion focused on "transformation" and sets a standard by which anyone can paint a lozenge over a copyrighted work, put it on a painted background, and claim fair use.  By asking the question "how much appropriation is tolerable in fair use?" they got this doctrine precisely backwards; a better question would be "how much of Prince's work is indebted to Cariou's Yes Rasta and should Cariou's rights to license the work (or choice not to) be deemed less compelling than Prince's desire to create works for sale?"  That's a simpler answer and a much different result--Prince's series doesn't exist in it's present form without Cariou's work.  It was not only inspirational, but the imagery formed the determining foundation of the work.  The very reason that fair use exists is to mediate the competing interests inherent in the monopoly of artists' rights inherent in the law and the public benefit that would be served by a distribution of the work.  In this case, it's hard to imagine that the remuneration of Larry Gagosian and Richard Prince serves any definition of a public benefit.  

The nagging question that was never addressed by the court's decision was why didn't Richard Prince contact Patrick Cariou and attempt to get permissions?   This is standard practice in the music industry and allows artists to foster in secondary markets for their work and decide what they would like to license and have sampled.  It allows artists a degree of creative control while not excluding them from participating in the marketplace.  More importantly, it seems like the decent thing to do--pay someone for their work when it is essential to the work you are creating.  


Saturday, March 9, 2013

When I'm not teaching...

If you missed the Frans Wildenhain show at RIT this past fall, hopefully your library got a copy of the catalog, since it appears to be quite scarce at the moment and is selling for more than a pretty penny.  I have a chapter in there titled: "'No Medium for the Craftsman Unsure of Himself': Studio Pottery After World War II.

A fairly flattering review of a book I contributed to Art and Authenticity appears in this month's Art Newspaper and my chapter, "Passing the Buck: Perception, Reality, and Authenticity in Late Nineteenth-century American Painting," even received a kind paragraph.  You can find the book here.

Those in the New Jersey area interested in hearing a lecture on early American Furniture, regional characteristics, and how that impacted early collectors might enjoy my talk at the MacCulloch Hall Museum in Morristown, NJ on Sunday, May 19th at 4:30 PM.  You can find a flier here.

If Arts and Crafts is more to your liking, I'll be lecturing on the movement at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms on April 20th and May 4th.  You can register and find more information here.

Lastly, I'll be speaking at the Preservation Society of Charleston as part of their fall symposium in October 2013.  Details to follow... 

The Crisis in Art History Part Two: Pedagogy


It seems to me that the real crisis in art history is that despite the advances in technology, the ease of access to archival materials, and the changing nature of the student body, the pedagogical approach to art history has remained essentially unchanged.  Although the job market continues to evolve, graduate education in art history remains stuck in past: assuming in most cases that there are essentially two tracks available, teaching and curating. While a graduate education remains a prerequisite for employment, there has only recently been any emphasis on building the skills necessary to excel in these positions.  There was virtually none during my time at CUNY from 2001-8.  Graduate students are rarely taught how to teach or how to prepare effective lessons, let alone assess the condition of an object or look for evidence of alterations.  As a field, we routinely ask prospective students to sacrifice substantial amounts of time and money for their studies but fail to alert them to the fact that they may finish with a degree that represents a lot of knowledge gained, but little in the way of actual preparation for the employment market they are entering.  Elizabeth W. Easton’s and Stephen Murray’s perceptive papers were among the bright spots in this panel.
         Other papers took a resentful view of shifting technologies and the need to align pedagogical approaches with them, insisting that kids today have things to easy and that “real” research requires sustained periods in the library.  The idea that sustained library time is required for research is a seductive one on its face, but misses the point.  In an age in which the library was the only repository of resources, one went there not to sit alone like St. Jerome in his study, but to access this knowledge and information.  The digitization of resources has caused a fundamental shift since so much can now be accessed outside the library.  If the quality of those resources remains the same—and I’m thinking of JSTOR or the American Periodical Series in my own work—should the manner or ease with they are delivered matter?  If I can read all of John Steuart Curry’s papers online from the comfort of my home (and I can), has the quality of information within them somehow changed because I am able to conduct the research more efficiently? 
         I found the first part of Pepe Karmel’s paper “Just What Is It That Makes Contemporary Art So Different, So Appealing?” quite interesting and the second part a bit disturbing.  Although contemporary art, he posits, should be taught in the university and by the art history department (but only so that other departments (like the art department) don’t beat art historians to the punch) and not with full time professors, it is not a subject he feels is appropriate for a PhD, and those dissertations that presently exist are quantifiably less impressive than other fields because they take less time on average to complete.  Ignoring the effect that the digitization of information has on access to materials necessary to conduct research Karmel posits that “the simplest explanation [for the reduction of time] is that less work goes into them.”  In fact, for Karmel, the whole enterprise of a scholarly approach to contemporary art is suspect because it requires only “comfortable shoes, physical stamina, and a large travel budget.” 
         It was equally troubling to me that Karmel also presented a view of history, shared by others on the panel and evident throughout the field, as a static, objective truth rather than a fluid set of interpretations shaped as much by the historian’s own time and biases as by the necessarily fragmentary and incomplete nature of knowledge.  His assertion that “Since there is no way for us to know what their art or their art history will look like, there is in fact no way for us to know who are the truly important artists of our own era, or what are the important questions to ask about art today” should raise some serious questions. Consider for a moment that the relentless conceptualization and drive towards abstraction of the later 20th century suddenly dissolves—will Pollock be as important then as he is now?  In 100 years, will art history surveys worry about the many “isms” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries or will that text—like those today do to the 18th century or American Art—need to condense it into a smaller point?  When is it too early to write about an artist or object in an art historical manner?  Do we need to wait a set time after the work is completed, or should the artist be dead?  As the absurdity of these questions should indicate, there is little useful or relevant to be gained by treating history (and art history by extension) as an objective, unwavering truth whose aims, rules, and values are unchanging.
         Beneath the absurdity of those questions however, there is a larger issue at stake: what exactly should art history do? What purpose does art history serve and to whom does that matter?  Is it, as some papers in the panel seem to suggest, merely a guardian of past values and beliefs, unwilling to self-examine and adapt with the changing environment in which it finds itself?  Is the goal simply to create a taxonomy of artistic production?  Does it have the potential to say meaningful things not only about the culture in which the objects were created, but also about the culture in which the author exists?  Should art history really be its own field—or, if the ultimate goal is a better understanding of the culture and circumstances of an object’s creation—would art history be more usefully thought of as a subspecialty within an expanded field?  

Please feel free to comment as you wish, knowing that I have chosen to moderate comments after receiving numerous commercial posts and one rather unprofessional post directed at a student and her work.  Provided you are not selling something, I am happy to approve your comments whether you agree with my review or not.  I'd even welcome some healthy debate on this topic.

The Crisis in Art History Part One: Markets


Recently, a colleague alerted me that there was a crisis in art history.  As she reminded me, art history is always in a crisis, and I was unsurprised but sufficiently interested to dig a little deeper.  That’s when I found out that not only was a crisis brewing, but that the crisis was not just “a” crisis, but “the” crisis.  A session of the venerable CAA annual conference was devoted to this in 2011 and the papers eventually were collected in Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation. If you have not read the papers, I encourage you to do so as they are available online here.  These papers self-admittedly form a “rough draft of [the authors’] comprehension of the situation confronting art history professionals today,” but now that some time has passed and we’ve all had a chance to digest this material, I’d like to add my two cents.  I’m not entirely convinced that there’s a crisis in all of art history, as much as there is a crisis in some art historians.  If pushed, I’d have to admit that I believe the crisis is not in art history, the crisis is art history.
         The main crisis (and one which unpacked into separate, smaller crises) identified by the authors is the interest in contemporary art and its effect on the employment landscape for art historians whose interests lie outside this field.  It is a crisis, but perhaps not in the way that this panel suggested.  Providing a very narrow training for jobs that are increasingly rare does suggest fundamentally that the training art history programs provide to graduate students is in desperate need of retooling.  Yet, rather than address the limits of the educational experience that the advanced study of art history often provides (and look for ways to change this even), the panel demonized the popularity of contemporary art, the art market in general, and offered little in the way of meaningful solutions.  Ironically, although the popularity of the panel (even to the inclusion of a photograph of a standing room only audience) was used to validate the self-evident nature of its importance, the same courtesy was not shown to contemporary art, whose popularity was presented as intellectual vapidity and a general decline of the profession. 
         One of the themes linking the papers together was the pernicious influence of the market and the subsequent rise of contemporary and modern art in academia and museums as a result.  As Pat Mainardi stated in her introduction, “The problem, as I see it, is that art history has become part of the global economy, but not all art history can participate in this economy: only contemporary art offers the kinds of economic benefits that can be reaped by these international emporia.”  For Mainardi, this is another indication of what she termed the new generation’s “presentism,” an approach she defines as largely ahistorical and one that threatens to undermine the field with the “risk of producing one-dimensional and shallow intellectuals whose area of expertise is already irrelevant by the time they complete their degrees, whether MA or PhD.”  Although a thoughtful person might politely ask “irrelevant to whom?” (because certainly different audiences may have differing ideas of relevance), this is not a question the panel addresses. 
         To me, this signals that the crisis within art history is but a straw man, a convenient fiction that hides the fundamental fact that many art historians have no sense of who or what their audiences are or have become.  Schooled in the notion that a priori “art history matters” (and more over that historical art matters) they fail to understand their place in history: art history and historical art meant specific things at a specific time to the audience they engaged.  To emerging audiences, art, art history, and historical art may mean radically different things; if you want to connect with these new audiences, it will undoubtedly be on their terms, and these are not necessarily consonant with ones previously learned in graduate school.  Many of the papers lamented what Mainardi defined as “presentism,” the attention that contemporary art and contemporary art history is receiving by an emerging generation.  Missing from the dialog was the fact that art history often engages in this “presentism,” and as a practice has been defined historically by the influence of markets, contemporary concerns (which only recently have aligned with contemporary art), and perceptions of cultural cachet.
         Indeed, to maintain that the influence of markets is perverting a purer type of art history is naïve on a number of fronts, the most obvious of which might well be the notion of pure art history.  It also requires that we ignore the vast history of markets and collections in order to maintain—as many do—that the academic study of art exists separately from the marketplace.  The idea sounds nice, but is it true?  Are the works of the Renaissance that many venerate not the result of wealthy private and state patrons consuming the work of contemporary artists?  Is Fragonard’s oeuvre less important because he refused state patronage and thought he could do better for himself engaging private patrons?  Are the modern paintings in the Metropolitan Museum given by the Havermeyers somehow less important / useful / desirable because they were collected by wealthy patrons?  And what about Albert C. Barnes?  I think if we look closely throughout history we will find not only that markets have always been integral to art, but—because of the influence of the wealthy in establishing collections and institutions—art history too. 
         This phenomenon is not confined to the primary market—interactions between artist and patron—but exists as a result of the secondary market too.  Scholarship tracks closely with market forces and this is neither bad nor new.  How many books on 19th century American Art history existed before Maxim Karolik’s donation to the MFA in Boston?  Without Karolik’s money, and the subsequent interest generated in the market—through exhibitions and research—would John I H Baur, Barbara Novak, William Gerdts, Ted Stebbins, or John Wilmerding have had the same opportunities in this field?  Would there be any sustained study of the American Arts and Crafts had the market for these objects not picked up in the 1960s?  Would the American Wing at the Met have existed without pioneer collectors and record prices being paid by collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?  It seems doubtful, since from the founding of the Met in 1870 all the way up to 1908, the Museum had no Colonial American decorative arts collection.  It wasn’t until the Hudson Fulton exhibition (made up entirely of loans from private collectors) that the Met began a sustained interest in American Colonial Furniture.  The first major collection to enter the museum was that of H. Eugene Bolles who sold his collection to Mrs. Russell Sage for the unheard of sum of $100,000. 
         With a little perspective, Patricia Rubin’s belief that “Invoking crisis in 2011 is a call to attend to the precarious situation of art history as a commodity in a market of wildly fluctuating values” is no truer now that it has been in the past.  The main difference is that for the first time in a long time there is a substantial number of art historians whose interests are not necessarily attuned with those of contemporary collectors.  Never having considered how their own research and employment was in line with market values and the cultural cachet of their generations, they operated on the assumption that the interests of their generation were universal facts, rather than a temporary condition.  Instead of viewing these changes as a natural part of the human process to which we are all vulnerable, it has become a “crisis.”  

Please feel free to comment as you wish, knowing that I have chosen to moderate comments after receiving numerous commercial posts and one rather unprofessional post directed at a student and her work.  Provided you are not selling something, I am happy to approve your comments whether you agree with my review or not.  I'd even welcome some healthy debate on this topic. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Call for Papers: Emerging Scholars Symposium


The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms and the American Fine and Decorative Arts Program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art seek submissions for the Third Annual Conference for Emerging Scholars to be held at the Stickley Museum on Saturday, October 5, 2013:

 “Integrating Art and Life: Idealism, Economics, and the Arts and Crafts Movement”

Writing in the March 1902 issue of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine, A. M. Simpson told readers: “Unless the production of the necessities of life can be made beautiful, pleasurable and instructive, our whole society must remain disorganized, disintegrated, and productive of pain, and inartistic… What is needed at the present time is a process of synthesis and correlation.”  This aspect of modern life that the Arts and Crafts movement sought to correct—the tension between economic viability and a satisfied, artistic life—remained a constant concern for producers throughout the period.  This conference seeks papers that explore the different aspects of this issue, including (but not limited to) whether producers were able to meet these lofty goals?  Were these goals shared by everyone?  How did the movement’s aesthetics shape perception about these products and the ideas behind them?

We invite current graduate students and recently graduated scholars to submit proposals for 20-25 minute papers that critically examine this issue.  Please direct any questions to:

Jonathan Clancy
Director, American Fine and Decorative Arts Program
Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York
jonathan.clancy@sia.edu


Submission Guidelines:
Please submit the following by May 31, 2013:
·       A one-page abstract of your topic with title.
·       A current c.v.

All submissions will be reviewed by June 28.  By June 28, you will receive an email with the decision about your proposal.

Accepted proposals must submit a final draft of the paper by September 7th, 2013.

Participants must be able to attend the symposium in order to deliver their paper.

Williamsburg Antiques Forum


Williamsburg and I have had a slow courtship at times, I drag my heels, I am not particularly certain how to balance the aspects of preservation and reconstruction and quite get a handle on whether or not the place is authentic, and to what degree.  I maintain that the experience of walking through history--itself a blend of repositioned and re-imagined spaces is a useful teaching tool and that there are craftspersons working at CW that are second to none and provide useful lessons on craft, business, and production in the 18th century.  I also realize that its quite a lot to ask of students to visit solely for this experience, and thus we pair it with the Williamsburg Antiques Forum.  It's a way to keep them engaged with current scholarship, meet collectors, future colleagues, and mentors in the field and each year it seems to get better. 

This year there were particularly great talks and I thought it would be useful to recount for me what were the highlights.  Really, all the talks were very good but it seemed useful to provide a condensed view of the week here.

Karina Corrigan's talk "The Other Export Arts: Indian Textiles and Luxury Goods for America" on Sunday morning was exceptional.  As the H. A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, this is somewhat expected--she has access to a tremendous collection.  What made the talk so good though was her clarity, her pacing, the clear choices of images she chose to illustrate her points, and the care she took in preparing it.  It was a read paper (as most were) that didn't feel read.  She didn't lose her place.  She really commanded the audience from start to finish and (especially for myself who knew little of Indian export art) formed a cogent narrative.  For the students, this was an opportunity to discuss what distinguishes a very good talk from a great one, what did you like about her presentation.  The conference allows me to not only to expose them to objects and scholarship, but because we're there for an extended stay to talk about the art of presentation and deconstruct strategies for successful public speaking.  The nicest part of the day was when Karina joined a few students, Ron Bourgeault, and me at the BBQ Ron hosted.  It was a great opportunity for them to interact with her, ask questions, and show their appreciation.

Sunday afternoon we had a split schedule: we heard about the conservation of the Drayton Hall desk and secretary from Christopher Swan and Tara Gleason Chicarda; then moved through the galleries to view objects, hear from the curators, and think about design, display, and didactic materials.  The Drayton Hall desk looks great, and the conservation team really deserves credit for their thorough and innovative approach to the piece.  For instance, worried that replacing the original mirror (sadly missing) with quarter inch glass would strain the door hinges and threaten the structural integrity of the piece, they opted for a plexiglass replacement that is half the weight and aged to better blend in.  There were a few murmurs among the crowd that perhaps the restoration was too clean, but at the end of the day that was an issue more decided by the customer (Drayton Hall) then the conservation team.  The desk has something like 10 individual secret compartments and is well worth a visit.  It will be at CW for a few years while Drayton hall readies themselves for its return.

Throughout the week all the speakers were very good, but the other standout for me was Alexandra Kirtley's talk "It's all about the dress: Upholstery on Early American Furniture."  She took the audience not only through the state of scholarship on upholstery but really showed the practical side of why this matters.  Whether it was correcting the size of a squab (cushion) and showing how that corrects the proportions of a chair, or finding evidence of original upholstery campaigns and demonstrating the different challenges and options this presented her with, it was a fascinating side of furniture interpretation that is often absent or less obvious.   



The collections at the museum are deep and wide--and as it was pointed out to me, one could essentially use the museum as a teaching laboratory with a little advance planning and enough time.  Even beyond the collections, the craftspersons really make the visit worthwhile because they provide an intimate knowledge into the making of paces, and are a tangible example of how much labor went into the creation of objects.  The highpoints for me were the printer, because he reiterated to them the relative paucity of printed news in the colonies and made them consider populations, densities, and markets as a large component in the evolution of newspapers.  He's also fairly wonderful, quite amusing, and works non stop while he talks.


 I try to always take them to the bookbinder as well, since he's an excellent craftsman, a skilled teacher, and a pleasure to see.  It's easy to forget not only how labor intensive book-making was, but also that the top selling books were blank paged ones, for record keeping.  The level of skill required to bind books well, to tool the leather, and complete the gilding is exceptional. 



The milliner's shop is another favorite of mine too.  There, you can learn about fashion history, import history, clothes construction, wardrobe--really more aspects of the culture than you might believe at first glance.  Colonial Williamsburg seems to have combined the shop to represent both the traditional store as well as have an expert tailor on hand.  



And lastly, because everyone likes to see furniture made, we always go to the cabinet maker's shop.  It's one of the rare chances at Colonial Williamsburg to pull out drawers and flip over chairs to see the details of 18th century construction.  Admittedly, these are reproductions, but we're more interested in seeing and examining joints, having a sense of what finish looked like in the period, and feeling the weight of different woods.  Also, it gives students a chance to have hands on demonstrations and explanations of techniques they may not be fully able to envision, so it's quite useful.

  
At the end of a grey day in Williamsburg, during which it was windy and pouring, I admit that my enthusiasm for showing them every nook and cranny can be less infectious than I'd like.  However, despite some groans, I did make them see the Governor's palace because I think that walking through an interior (even a reconstructed one) is much different than seeing a slide, and because I really like the kitchen there, the types of preparation they do, and the manner in which somehow seeing and smelling food makes a deep impact that helps the students connect with the space.  I don't always love the interpretation of the palace, and the idea that we (as citizens of the 21st century) have been mysteriously been invited to a ball on the 18th of January and we should be excited to meet the governor--I like a straighter interpretation of spaces and materials.  I will say, however, that our guide was excellent, and that upon learning they were MA students, he tempered the talk to social issues and served as historic and social issues guide, rather than beckoning us to the ball.  All in all, another great trip.


Travels to DC and Williamsburg: Saturday

Saturday began with a tour of the Heurich House Museum, one of the often overlooked gems in DC.  Built after Christian Heurich's visit to the Columbian Exposition the house is a marvel of late Victorian design and modern technological conveniences.  Built to be fireproof, the house included full indoor plumbing, a central vacuum, elevator shaft, and pneumatic and electric communication systems.  The house is a somewhat riotous look backward at late Victorian wealth and exuberance, reflecting Heurich's efforts to demonstrate his wealth, celebrate his German heritage, and acquire art and furniture in the latest styles.  It's a great house, well interpreted and worth a visit.  My only regret is that we didn't have more time.


The Kaufman Collection

One of the most significant additions to the National Gallery (really to any museum) was the acquisition of the Kaufman collection and the decision to put it on permanent display on the ground floor.  Spread out over three rooms and spanning the 18th century through the early 19th, the collection will undoubtedly expose many visitors to American arts by virtue of its central location and the high quality of the examples.  Like most collections formed in the twentieth century (and even those today) the collection is heaviest on the Northeast: Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia dominate the Queen Anne and Chippendale holdings while New York and Baltimore emerge in the Federal period.  A notable exception to this general trend is the exquisite Virginia Tea Table and a federal period Clothes Press from Charleston, and its always heartening to see more attention being paid to Southern furniture, the collection of which has long been neglected by our Nationally known museums. 

Perhaps the nicest part of the exhibition is that it rewards close looking—there are details that emerge from furniture when it is considered, re-engaged, and patiently examined.  For example, the spectacular japanned high chest from Boston with gilt finials and shell is at first overwhelming—it’s a rare example of japanning and gilding in the period and an exceptionally graceful form.  It took a second visit back to the piece for me to notice the hand tooled designs on the brasses and the evidence of saw or file marks still present.  



A number of the early Boston pieces on display shared similar working, but each had a slightly different design.  On the japanned chest (I think that's what the photo is from, it might be the japanned William and Mary dressing table too), you really get a sense of each individual strike of the tool, the shape of the instrument used to create it, and the varying force behind each impact.  It seems to me that the brasses, more so than an inventory taken upon death, yields specific clues about the workbench and the tools that workmen used.  Just on this brass alone, you see a small circle used in the background, a middle sized circular tool used and a larger circle surrounding that.  A straight-edged tool (likely the width of the lines in the central gridded square) formed the border and straight lines of the piece, and a larger circle still must have been used for the larger, open curves.  The changing thickness of the curves seems to indicate that the maker used a fully circular tool to make these arcs, but struck the tool at an angle so that only a half circle appeared in the brass.  Carefully using a vocabulary of just five shapes, the artist creates a variety of forms and texture.  Although the well-lit gallery makes close looking like this rewarding, I couldn’t help but think about how theses details in the chest would have shimmered differently in the flickering light of candles.

Some other details I noticed were the extent of separation between the ball and claw on this piece of Newport Furniture.




My students were easy to spot throughout the day as they were usually on or near the floor, trying to better see the details of construction and carving like they are here with a Philadelphia Table.



Another item of note is a late classical Philadelphia table whose inlaid stone top was imported from Italy.  (As an aside, I have a new phone, hence the preponderance of panoramic shots) 



The base and frame were made by Anthony Quervelle but there’s another signature on the top that seems significant “N. Fish [Fash?].”  A little research (perhaps it has already been done?) might shed some additional light on the top including where it was made and what sort of operation this was.  Were these custom ordered?  Pre-designed? 



From furniture we moved to paintings, and as always the National Gallery does not disappoint.  From Stuart’s Skater to Copley’s Watson and the Shark, to still life, portrait, and what I have always found to be Bellow’s best painting (the Last tenement) there is always more to see.  I was kind of delighted that one of the paintings I really like seemed to show its age—Winthrop Chandler’s Mrs. Samuel Chandler—because for the first time I noticed that there’s a painting underneath this painting.  


Evident in raking light and close examination (somewhat close, the guards remain unamused by really close looking) there is evidence of a different dress, a different chair height, what appears to be a bouquet or ball of yarn on the table with trailing ribbons and numerous other changes.  This is covered briefly in the National Gallery’s American Naïve Paintings catalog but I wondered if this was even the same sitter?  


Was it a correction requested by the sitter at the time she saw the painting, or a later addition like the Elizabeth Freake’s dress?  I think a number of us came out of the visit with new questions, and this perhaps is the best thing a museum can do: foster new inquiry.



Travels to DC and Williamsburg: Friday

For the past four years (and really at the suggestion of Amelia Peck), I have been taking the students to the Williamsburg Antique Forum in order that they might get a sense of the field, hear about recent developments in scholarship, and expand their networks by interacting with collectors, other students, and professionals.  This year we made a quick stop in Washington DC on the way there--this breaks up the train ride, allows us a chance to see major pieces in collections, and makes the budget go a bit further so that we can include more travel in the program.  Some of you may have noticed that I have been posting less about the earlier trips this year; I admit this is true.  Frankly, it seemed a bit strange to essentially tell the same stories of who we met, what we saw, and where we went.  Since the principal differences would have been names and images of students, I trust those interested will scroll back through the posts to get a sense of what we do en route to Boston, Charleston, and Delaware.

That being said, one of the great things about the Antiques Forum is that it changes each year.  It presents a roster of experts in the field, a glimpse into an exceptional collection, and gives the students a chance to have extended discussions with peers, colleagues, and each other.  Perhaps more than any other field study we do, Williamsburg allows the students to break out of the insular nature of the program (and the travel we do) and make connections, learn both formally and informally, and discuss their own work.  As always, I remain grateful for those colleagues and friends whose generosity to the students and willingness to engage with them makes this an exceptional opportunity.   In particular I'd like to mention Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions, Brandy Culp of Historic Charleston, Robert Leath and Daniel Ackerman of MESDA, Tom Savage of Winterthur, Nick Vincent from the Met, Alexandra Kirtley from the PMA, and Ralph Harvard.

I should mention too that DC changes too, and we were fortunate to have a chance to see the Renwick Gallery, The Corcoran, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Friday.  The Renwick is a jewel and if you haven't been recently, I'd suggest going soon.  I'd suggest planning your visit to coincide with the exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (it runs from April 12 through July 28, 2013).  The strength of the collection is the survey of craft it presents and the opportunity to teach students in front of the objects.  My only complaint is that with so much strong work in the collection, there is more I want to see.  If it were up to me (and I admit that few things are), I would remove all of the paintings and get more of the collection on view.  That being said, there are pieces not to be missed, and Kim Schmahmann's Bureau of Bureaucracy (1993-9) is high on my list.



While a few students found the accompanying video explanation of the work a bit tedious, everyone marveled at his craftsmanship and I think related to the object because that sense of craft, the elegance of line, and the joy one takes in seeing something well made are qualities that transcend specific eras.  Having learned to admire and appreciate the craftsmanship of a Townsend-Goddard high chest, or the carving of a Philadelphia chair it gives a whole new lens through which to understand Schmahmann's work.  In my mind the quotations and layers of historical references in the choice of materials and forms         (not the narrative elements introduced) provide richer connections that enhance and complicate the narrative in significant ways.  The piece requires time and multiple engagements--it is richly layered, complicated, and retains an elusive subtlety that churns below the overtly didactic elements.  



From there we made our way to lunch, then the Corcoran Gallery.  I love the Corcoran and stop in every time I am in Washington in order to see Church's masterpiece--Niagara.  Unfortunately--for me, but likely not for the painting--Niagara is undergoing conservation and was not on view.  The frame, however, remains in place, and while it is a beautiful frame, its presence seems only to underscore the absence of the painting.  The gallery without Niagara undoubtedly will present a void for visitors, but the frame seems to emphasize this void, calling attention to what the gallery is missing and distracting from the other pieces in the gallery.  I took no pictures while I was there this time--I think the missing Niagara unsettled and unfocused me--but soon we were on our way over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



Yes, we did stop in front of the White House and take a picture.  There's a certain sentimentality which overtakes the group as we head into second semester, and perhaps this explains the desire for pictures.  For me, I like to have good pictures of what I see, and to me that always suffices to remind me of the trip and experience.  Perhaps that's the result of often traveling alone?  Enough about my habits of remembrance and memorial, I'll get back to the art.

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, we saw the exhibition titled the Civil War and American Art, an exhibition whose images I like very much, but whose narratives and catalog I have some issues with.  First, the exhibition presents a narrow view of American Art which seems to have excluded sculpture for the most part, ignores portraiture (which causes problems I'll address later on), and seems to gloss over some of the interesting points of disagreement within the field.  In addition, I couldn't help but think that rather than expand and explore the discourse about the war--about remembrance, and about the manner in which the south's defeat led to some very disturbing and still relevant attitudes that continue to permeate scholarship in the fine and decorative arts--the exhibition avoided them.  It presented a victor's view of the war and missed a great opportunity to challenge persistent notions and to demonstrate why exhibitions, art history, and scholarship is about more than just pictures, that it allows us to broaden discussions and has increasing relevance to everyone.

I love Martin Johnson Heade, and I particularly like seeing his Approaching Thunderstorm, but I’m not entirely convinced that it necessarily had a lot to do with the Civil War either for him, for the audience, or for Noah Hunt Schenck who owned it.  I do think that the persistence of the Thunderstorm throughout his oeuvre—almost to his death—raises serious questions about the viability of this interpretation proposed in Sara Cash’s excellent catalog, as Barbara Novak and John Updike have noted.  Although it didn’t surprise me that people continue to agree with Cash’s argument, I was kind of stunned that nowhere in the text or notes was there any sense that this was an issue with more than one side.  The presentation of this view as a fact rather than one side of a complex issue oversimplifies the issue and missed the opportunity to present these sides to a broader audience and public.

I found the exhibition's and catalog's use of photography to be problematic as well.  Despite highlighting the fact that photographers wanted to be treated the same as artists during the period, the catalog and exhibit separated the photographers and treated them differently. In addition, the focus on Brady, O'Sullivan, Gardener, and Barnard at the expense of Cook and other Southern photographers reinforced the northern bias of the show.  I thought too that the discussion of Barnard's images of Charleston deserved more attention--although presented as destruction caused by the war, certainly there are parts of images that document the destruction caused by the fire of December 1861. It would have been useful to explore how the conflation of these incidents impacted understanding of the war or reception of these images.

The decision not to include portraiture in the exhibit missed an opportunity to explore the imagery created in the South to create its own history and reinforced the northern bias of the works and artists presented.  GPA Healy's portrait of Beauregard would have been a useful inclusion here as it was a northern, Boston born painter working in the South.  At the end of the day, I found myself glad to see the images in person, yet left feeling (as I had after reading the catalog) that there were missed opportunities to expand the discourse about the war, art, and American culture.


The delight for me was seeing a room of Victorian collages like the one seen above.  I don't recall seeing them before and they're strange, delightful, and visually appealing.  I tried to convince one of my students that this could be a thesis--exploring the sources for these, thinking about the visual strategies employed, and the use of different materials.  I may the only one convinced that this is a great topic, but I'll keep you posted.