All posts by Jacob Leveton

Using the Yale Center for British Art

This week marked my first time working with an actual William Blake manuscript, having looked at the sole complete copy of Jerusalem at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. As a result—following (the always-insightful) Kelli Towers Jasper’s post on visiting the British Library—I thought I’d do well to write my own post on an equally wonderful, although similarly daunting (for some of us, anyway), institution.

Conduct Research Beforehand: Gaining access to the Center for British Art’s collection is both surprisingly easy and astonishingly free. Their prints, drawings, rare books, and manuscripts collection encompasses some 30,000+ objects. So, you can be assured there’s something in New Haven for just about any anglophile. No appointment is necessary to access the collections, nor is it required to let the Center’s staff know which works you’ll be accessing beforehand. That said, in order to make the best use of the collection possible, you’ll do well to take advantage of the Center’s fabulous search engine, which includes a wonderful “subject” component that may allow you to find works associated with whatever primary object(s) you’re visiting the Center to take a look at, in the first place.

Arriving in New Haven: It’s no secret that New Haven is inconveniently located in terms of accessible nearby airports. While you can fly into New Haven Tweed Airport, served by U.S. Airways Express through Philadelphia, your best bet will likely be to fly into Hartford Bradley International. It’s served by Southwest, every grad student’s favorite airline—in Windsor Locks, CT, 50 miles north. While the Yale University website alludes to shuttle service that serves the institution out of Bradley, I’ve yet to figure that one out. Your best bet will be to either rent a car, provided your research budget allows, or cab it from Bradley to the nearby Amtrak station and take the train into New Haven (my fav). Once in New Haven, the British Art Center is a fairly straight-shot by cab and your fare should be low.

Once at the British Art Center: All you need to do is arrive at the Center during the  Prints, Drawings, Rare Books, and Manuscripts Room’s open hours (Tuesday through Friday, 10.00a to 4.30p) with picture ID (a university ID or driver’s license will do). You’ll need to check your bag at the door, but will be allowed to bring whatever research materials you need (books/laptop or tablet/notes/etc.) with you. Once in the room you’re looking for—on the second floor—the wonderfully courteous staff will greet you and ask what object(s) you’ve arrived to see. From there, you’ll need to present your identification and complete a brief registration card. While the staff prepares the materials you’re after, you’ll need to wash your hands in the sink next to the front desk.

Working with Your Object: The Center’s staff, having prepared your study area, complete with an easel, will instruct you on how your object should be handled. In the case of Jerusalem, it was important not to hold any of the separate plates vertically, since not all of them had been matted equally. The staff will monitor your work closely, and gently coach you—should you start to do something wrong (which they assured me occurs almost inevitably when you’re working materials there for the first time). You’ll be able to take notes with a pencil and be free to search through materials you’ve brought with you or request additional items along the way. My advice is to plan your visit so that after an initial period of engaging with your object, you’re able to take a break for lunch in order to process what you’ve looked at thus far. The staff will keep your study exactly as you’ve left it and—at least in my case—I returned with a renewed sense of energy and clear mind to continue to wrestle with Blake’s art.

In Conclusion: Visiting the Center proved to be a great and astoundingly stress-free experience. I highly recommend seeing what their collection might offer with respect to enriching most anyone’s research. Cheers to any other NGSC-ers completing primary-source research this summer. I’d love to hear what you all have been looking at and what your experience was like, in the comments, as well.

 

See you all in Park City.
Jake

NASSR Abstract: William Blake’s “Enoch” Lithograph

William Blake, חניך/(”Enoch”), 1806-1807. Lithograph, 8.50 x 12.17 in. (21.59 x 30.91 cm.), Private Collection

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.”

William Blake’s 1806-1807 lithograph Enoch, the artist’s only known experiment with that medium, illustrates the enigmatic Genesis 5:24 fragment “Enoch walked with God; then was no more, because God took him away” and represents a critical zone of artistic engagement relative to the way in which Blake develops and modifies the idea of self-annihilation across the arc of his career as an artist-poet.  Blake explores how the individual self might be expanded through self-annihilation leading counterintuitively to a corresponding expansion of one’s perceptions.  As early as the 1793 illuminated book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell one sees the proverbial turn of phrase appear, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” [1] Some eighteen years later, in the illuminated book Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1811) the following lines appear, which further develop the self-expansive theme treated by Blake in the earlier Marriage poetic text: “I come in Self-Annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration.” [2] Given that the two texts express similar concerns, and that Blake was engrossed with the idea of transcending a restricted and disconnected conception of self, Blake as an artist-poet thinks through concepts both visually and verbally, sculpting the concept of self-annihilation throughout his career.  Blake’s Enoch image grapples with a passage in the Bible that represents an intertextual precedent for the idea of self-annihilation that, in the Marriage, takes the form of a movement beyond the self and the later Blake sees as closely allied with imaginative inspiration, figured literally in the textual field of the Milton text and pictured visually in the form of the allegorical figures that iconographically signify different forms of artistic media in the Enoch image.  The project takes its theoretical framework from the notion of Blakean syncopation of word and image, originally developed by Northrop Frye and subsequently expanded by W.J.T. Mitchell in Blake’s Composite Art, whereby the Blakean comingling of verbal and visual forms of representation generate meaning through the resonance of related texts and images located in different places within a specific illuminated work.  My project expands such a theorized notion, by demonstrating that thematic syncopation emerges not just within a discrete illuminated book, like Milton or Jerusalem, but also can be seen as emerging from the range of Blake’s artistic production on which Blake works while creating his better known works of illuminated poetry.  To this end, one can see the lithograph as one mode Blake uses to think through the idea of self-annihilation specifically relative to the artist-poet’s concern with the concepts of individuality and forms of inspiration, which becomes demonstrated by the play of signification, both visual and verbal, that connect the Enoch lithograph, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Milton illuminated books, and the Genesis 5:24 biblical text.


[1] William Blake. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 36.

[2] Ibid., 142. Emphasis mine.

My First Acquaintance with Visual Artists & Ballerinas in Eugene

Fig. 1. Faye Mullen, still from: "to never forever-à jamais," 2011. Salt, Three story building, Artist's body. Three-channel video installation, 6min24secs. © Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Looking back, each term of my first year of grad school has offered its own distinct set of lessons. This quarter, after some really good experiences, I’ve realized just how crucial it can be to connect not only with like-minded passionate scholars in the field, but with contemporary practicing artists as well. As a result, I’ve arrived at a greater appreciation of the importance of getting outside my own work, concerned as it is with art and literature of the historical past, to interact and network with creative minds working today, particularly those with similar interests in critical theory. Early on in the term I had the opportunity to to see the Eugene Ballet Company’s final performance of the season that featured a visually stunning experimental performance called Tyranny of the Senses. Later, for this year’s University of Oregon Art History Symposium, we hosted an artist’s talk given by a really fabulous performative video installation artist and sculptress Faye Mullen (MFA Student, University of Toronto) who spoke on one of her latest video pieces, to never forever-à jamais. I’ve included examples of both here in hopes that some of you might take a moment to look at the works and respond as well, being that it is after all (and at last) summer break.

Also, on your end, I’m interested in seeing you all comment on a couple of other things:

(1) The type of interchange that occurs in your respective departments between creative writers and literary historians. If there isn’t any, would this be something you’d find desirable?

(2) Whether or not you feel that you’ve benefited from exchanges across the divide between creative writers/artists and scholars.

In Lawrence Hall–at the UofO–us cultural historians are definitely very much the minority. We’re surrounded by architects and artists working in a variety of media, running the gamut from printmaking, metalwork/jewelery, new media, to painting. Oftentimes, even in Art History seminars, we’re outnumbered by architects and artists. I feel as though I’ve really benefited from a dialogue between those who study art and those who create it. So, I’d definitely love to hear whether or not there are similar dynamics that go on in English graduate programs.

That said, to share a couple specific works with you all, I have to say that I’m totally captivated by choreographer Gillmer Duran and composer Brian McWhorter’s Tyranny of the Senses. The ballet left an indelible impression on me for the way it collides contemporary dance, projected images, and a soundtrack that pans intensely across the stereo-field (think U2-Joshua Tree).

One of the things I’ve found most exciting, in chatting with a couple ballerinas from the company that have subsequently become a part of my core group of grad school friends, is the recognition that shared concerns on both sides of the scholarly/artistic divide can really line up. Since my interests in critical theory are primarily geared towards understanding the process by which works generate their meanings through continuing processes of (reader/viewer)ly interaction, I was most struck by a conversation I recently had with one of the ballerinas who talked about the way Duran’s work created a space in which she and the other dancers are actively encouraged to re-interpret each individual performance through their own acts of improvisation against the ballet’s multimedia elements. For me, it was really cool to see that the post-structural concepts we’re exposed to as scholars actually do resonate with the ways in which contemporary practicing artists working in a variety of media think about their own work.

Lastly, and along these same lines, I thought it a good idea to share with you all Faye Mullen’s work (given that it engendered such a good discussion at this year’s grad symposium up here) (fig. 1; For a 9 minute excerpt of the 52 minute piece, please click here.) In my view, Mullen’s art really engages some crucially important issues related to the contemporary domestic-sphere that, because of its embodied exploration of identity, for me recalls Mary Wolstonecraft’s ideas concerning the detrimental way dependence of mind and body are integrally related. I found it interesting in talking with her after the talk that theory still drives work on both sides of the artist/scholar divide. At least in Canada, artists are strongly encouraged to deploy theory in explaining their art when applying for public grant funding. What really impressed me was that, while some artists react negatively to such a demand playing being placed on their work, others view it as a challenge that can spark the absorption of additional layers of creativity into their artistic practice, something that I imagine resonates with the way many of us might view the role and continued relevancy of critical theory within the humanities.

Increasingly, I’m realizing that the divide between scholarly and creative work runs even thinner that I’ve initially believed. Hope you enjoy taking a look at these works, as I have, and I strongly encourage comments, since I’d love nothing more than to continue the conversation.

Reflections on the First Weeks of Teaching Art History

At the midpoint of the spring quarter, my first term as a graduate teaching fellow (the ‘classy’ University of Oregon term for a TA), I thought it’d be wise to use my third piece as a way to reflect on my first weeks teaching Art History, detail an icebreaker that I will most likely be using in the future (having found it pretty effective), and to speak a bit to how I’ve experienced teaching primarily from images. I’m happy to report that from the beginning, while teaching has certainly been as—if not more—challenging than I thought it’d be going in, the experience has proved even more gratifying than I could have imagined. Playing the role of initiating many of my students into the humanities has been incredibly fulfilling.

Generally, I’ve attempted to proceed from what I’ve realized is a similarly student-centered course organization and teaching strategy to that which I think Teresa expressed so well in her most recent piece, albeit on a bit smaller scale since my first-year teaching is limited to discussion sections in support of the main History of Western Art: Baroque to Contemporary survey lectures.  Walking into the classroom for the first time committed from the beginning to a occupying a sort of headspace where I’d be completely open to the direction my students wish to take the discussion in relation to the materials explored in lecture really helped to alleviate the nerves I felt before teaching for the very first time.

Given the broad transnational and transhistorical nature of the course, its pace is totally relentless. As a result, I recognized pretty early the necessity of setting up my discussion sections as contraries to the lectures, meaning to promote my students’ progression in ways that connect the material to their own personal interests—given that only a handful are actually Art History majors, with the majority coming from History, English, Philosophy, Environmental Studies, and Graphic Design. It was important to me, as I’m sure it is for most teachers, that I craft a classroom experience in which information could be engaged and connected to in ways students would find pragmatically applicable to their other passions and meaningfully relevant, generally.

To establish this from the start, I decided on an ice breaker exercise that would encourage students to both personally identify with the art they’d been lectured on and with one another. Knowing that I’d have to be creative in devising a good icebreaker—since in my own experience they’ve tended to be haphazardly thought out and ineffective—two days before our first discussion section (after about two weeks worth of lecture meetings) I sent my students an email asking them to select and print their favorite image encountered in lecture to date and to bring it to class. To begin the first class discussion, after being pleasantly surprised that the vast majority of my students actually completed the assignment, I asked them to take a moment to reflect on their individual selections and think about how it might exhibit one aspect of their personalities and/or interests in order to introduce themselves and share with the class. To my excitement, the students seemed generally thrilled by the prospect of connecting to the lecture’s material they had been all too rapidly moving through in a more personal way. Thereafter, my classes rarely have had extended moments of silence, and students usually arrive eager to actively engage with the art and each other in discussion. I’d like to think taking the time to craft an unusual icebreaker might have helped, in this regard.

All in all, teaching’s been an enjoyable experience and I have to say, while I hope to be in a better position to bring literary texts into dialogue with visual art in future classes I’ll design and execute on my own as I continue to progress through the trajectory of my graduate studies and—optimistically—beyond, I’ve really enjoyed the immediacy that seems to accompany teaching primarily from images. While in my own scholarship I’m still navigating what constitutes substantive differences between verbal and visual artistic media, I’ve become taken by the way I can throw an image into one of my powerpoints that the students have yet to see previously, and have them become quickly able to engage with and describe its formalistic qualities in comparison to other paintings, sculptures, or architectural examples. I’m wondering if this can occur as easily/spontaneously when working with texts. To cite one example, when we were looking at Baroque art, one of my students brought up a contemporary American artist who she’s particularly interested in, which I was able to locate on a Google image search projected in front of the class in real time, and catalyze a fabulous discussion where we used her artist as a means to draw out some of the germane characteristics of Italian art from the 1600s. Perhaps I’m essentializing my own experience as an art historian, but I’m wondering if this is one area where classroom experience in an Art History/Visual Culture program might differ from that of an English one. As a result, I’m interested in knowing whether or not you all think there is more of a sense of immediacy in play when teaching visual art as opposed to literature (since I know that some of you do use images in your classes, as well)?

At any rate, I’ve definitely enjoyed reading everyone’s posts over these last few months and am looking forward to meeting many of you in Park City in August. The NASSR conference schedule looks really fantastic.

Against Standardized Curricula, or Romanticists Un-Bound

One thing I’ve noticed in Romantic studies is that most romanticists seem to have some interesting interdisciplinary bent to their work. From Romanticism and dance, to Romanticism and science, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and women and gender studies (to name just a few iterations of the interesting work some of the colleagues I’m closest to here at the UofO and elsewhere engage), there seems to be something wonderfully multivalent about the work romanticists tend towards. However, I’ve found that relative to my own work, existing on the (however well-tread) margins of Art History and English, I nevertheless find myself constantly pressing against limitations imposed by graduate curriculum requirements. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about independence as of late, but I’ve found that breadth requirements, particularly in graduate school, tend to follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent. What curricula say to me is that I’m incapable of creating an effective, efficient, and—perhaps above all—enlightening trajectory of course work, for myself.

Like most graduate programs in established academic departments in American universities, my Art History program up in Eugene is designed around an extensive list of requirements. Specifically, we take: (1) A first-year seminar in the theories and methods of the discipline, (2) two first-year seminars on special topics germane to the research of the professors leading the seminars (offerings for my cohort included “text and image” [a definite ‘win’ for me!]  and artistic  “intention and interpretation”), (3) three first-year practicums (first, library research methods in Art History, then a faculty works-in-progress lecture series, and third a workshop geared towards expediting thesis proposals), and (4) four breadth requirements, satisfied by taking a course in the areas of ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Baroque, and modern art.  As one might imagine, when one’s entire program (as is the case at the University of Oregon, where graduate studies in Art History are almost entirely geared towards the M.A. level) essentially consists of twelve-courses, with seven of which needing to be geared towards program requirements, and practicum work absorbing a number of hours per week plus teaching responsibilities on top of all that, one might end up feeling like “Time’s winged chariot” is constantly encroaching on one’s studies.

I definitely do, particularly when the most applicable coursework for myself might be offered outside my department when dealing with the long nineteenth century, new media studies, critical theory, etc. Yet, I’m inclined to believe this problem may pervade Romantic graduate studies, in general, when we might otherwise be able to create a most effective and more richly transdisciplinary trajectory for our studies, were we less concerned with fulfilling requirements than exposing ourselves to the most diverse and provocative ideas and methods possible.

This isn’t to say there’s no elasticity available here for the “picture-people” at Oregon (for instance, in my program our advisors can approve a specific term paper project for a general class as a means to satisfy an area requirement). But, it is to say that perhaps as graduate students, we ought to be afforded extensive—if not total—liberty in planning our individual curriculums, particularly if it takes place in close consultation with an advisor within our respective fields.

Loosening up curriculum requirements, moreover, has the effect of helping to ameliorate the never-ending feeling of being time-crunched that characterizes the work we’re up to as graduate students. When curriculum requirements are reduced to the greatest extent possible, students become able to gear their course work to their own interests, professors teach to their strengths, and I’d argue the likelihood of productive academic dialogue occurring becomes much increased. A criticism of this thinking, however, would of course have something to do with how required course work brings students into an engagement with a standard canon of knowledge that—however slippery the definition necessarily becomes—is always at play (e.g. if the student of Art History hasn’t learned to fully appreciate Michelangelo’s work, or if the student of English hasn’t taken a course in Shakespeare—with what has their education endowed them?).

Yet, I’d respond that the assumption underpinning such a response would be that course work is where—at least before a certain level I’ve yet to hear adequately defined—development takes place and that this development can then be neatly documented/packaged on a transcript. I maintain that by disbelieving students will find their individual paths to the images and/or texts that define an academic discipline and field of specialty, is to show a lack of faith in students’ own abilities that, if they’re well-taught, they’ll have already cultivated.

In conclusion, I think the general idea here, that curricula should be individualized and self-directed, gestures towards the fact that across the arc of my academic development, I’ve become increasingly of the opinion that people thrive on freedom—particularly when it comes to academia (wouldn’t this be a truism in any other context?). Allowing people who do good work already to be cut loose so as to exert their brilliance in whatever ways best reflect themselves potentializes cascading flows of change and transformation, stemming both from ourselves in our own work and from the way we interact with others in similarly liberated intellectual positions, across paths of students’ own choosing. The student becomes best able to take ownership of her or his own learning as she or he assumes responsibility for the course of study. From my point of view, the existence of curricula, particularly in graduate education, moves to predictably map out and contain, thereby curtailing, forms of intellectual growth that are necessarily indeterminate and always self-directed. All of this being said, I’m definitely excited by the way so many of my friends in interdisciplinary studies are stepping out of, and pushing against, institutional boundaries in their research and am eager to see how the field’s terrain shifts in coming years.

Romantic Living

I realize the title of my first piece sounds like a Redbook article. It isn’t. Yet. But, I thought for my first post it’d be good to introduce myself by talking a little about how I’ve come to do, and view, Romantic studies and, in so doing, gesture towards why I think our field is particularly special. I do this because as we’re making the turn toward the end of an academic term it’s good to pat one’s self on the back and to do the same for others pursuing similar interests. In order to rescue this piece, however, from being mere intellectual biography, which admittedly would be pretty drab, I hope some of you reading will chime in in the comments about what your initial experiences were that initiated you into the field and how that informs (or doesn’t) the work you do now.

I’m generally positioned in eighteenth and nineteenth century art, and moving towards specializing in Blake studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Oregon. What I’ve loved from the beginning about Romantic studies is how my intellectual, social, political, and environmental commitments can exist as an integrated whole—life as a romanticist has to some degree, for myself, as I know it has for others, always functioned as a way of living as a type of art in itself.  Continue reading Romantic Living