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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 na├»ve 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.