CAA 2014: A Romanticist’s Report (Part One)

Last month I was fortunate enough to attend the College Art Association conference in Chicago. Each year CAA brings together professionals in fields of the visual arts across numerous institutional (and non-institutional) vantage points, from art historians to creative practitioners working in different artistic and performance media, to theorists, curators, and other museum professionals. For me, the conference is exciting precisely because it exists as a contact zone for myriad directions of thought involved in both the production and study of visual culture—past, present, and future. I emerged from the experience wholly energized. In what follows I begin to recap my days at CAA, which were many since my professors canceled graduate seminars that would’ve met during the conference (score!). Last, this will be a post in two parts—with the second to follow shortly.

Unbecoming Animals

I have to say that the first panel I attended was my favorite. Not only was this because the robust supporter of NGSC-based endeavors Ron Broglio gave a great talk. Rather, this was a wonderful panel because it included Ron—as a scholar of romanticism and animal studies theorist—and three contemporary artists exploring engagements with nonhuman-human animal relations across their respective practices. The session was the result of a collaborative effort between Irina Aristarkhova and Holly Hughes, professors of art history and performance art at the University of Michigan. In introducing the session, Aristarkhova observed that the purpose of the event was to look at how animals are “cared for in art,” and ask whether or not there is an “ethics” relative to artistic work concerned with nonhuman life.

Some highlights:

The artist Kathy High led off the panel. High discussed her new video project: Fleeing—The Fate of Escaped Animals.

  • The work explores the human fascination with the escape of animals domesticated and pressed into different forms of production, especially the meat industry and zoos.
  • High specifically addressed such a fascination in relation to “human desire for flight.” The result, for the artist, is that “escape is “conceptual escape,” a “rupture of categories.”
  • Such an artistic endeavor is a means for understanding what humans do to nonhuman animal subjects and, in turn, what that says about us.

Broglio brilliantly followed High’s exciting talk with an illuminating flight into theory.

  • Positing a notion of “Art Beyond Culture,” Broglio made a highly provocative argument. As I took the talk, in pursuing forms of making concerned with nonhuman subjects artists are arriving at a limit of production. Artists working in such a mode break with human-centered notions of culture as a boundary condition for art.
  • Whereas ideas of hospitality are traditionally reserved for humans, Broglio insisted we ask the question: “why can we not be hospitable” to nonhuman subjects?
  • The presentation used Jacques Derrida’s powerful admonition to broach the idea: “Let us say yes to who or what turns up.”
  • The result is what Broglio terms a “significant antinomy” when art becomes “hospitable enough to give itself over to nonhuman culture.”

Next was a presentation by the Brazil-based artist, academic, curator, and designer Hugo Fortes.

  • Fortes began by making the insightful point that, as an artist, he aims to include animals in artistic “praxis.” An engagement with animals, then, forms a constitutive component of Fortes’s commitments that become actualized through processes of art making. Very cool concepts.
  • Primarily discussed his new video work, Evolution in 3 Lessons (accessible, here: http://www.hugofortes.com/home/artist/video-and-photo). The piece, in the artist’s view, connects different places and stories. Though it fascinatingly pivoted on interspecies interactions.
  • Fortes’s stated intervention relative to art, animals, and ethics is to say that art shows how ethical relationships with animals are indicative of human interpersonal relations.

The last speaker on the panel was the photographer Lee Deigaard, who spoke on her project based on a series of photographs, “Unbidden.”

  • In her work, Deigaard aims to produce artworks that show animals as “the protagonists” of the landscapes they inhabit.
  • Deigaard, in a fascinating re-appropriation of apparatuses with respect to her artistic practice, uses the same infrared lenses in her production to create art about animals that hunters use to pursue them.
  • Conceptualizing her practice, moreover, Deigaard suggested that, in her photographic work, authorship becomes shared as the nonhuman gaze is returned. The result is that—theoretically—the viewer experiences a sense of awakening.
  • In the end, Deigaard is committed to art as a mode of witnessing. As she puts it, “to witness can be a moral act”—a “remembering without slippage.”

The Present Prospects for Social Art History

The second panel I attended was also wonderful, and I couldn’t help but think that the session would’ve been especially beneficial for those in our graduate corner of romantic studies. The social history of art is based on resolutely materialist modes of interpretation (i.e. the social, political, institutional, and class-based situations from which art is produced, and frequently struggles against). It was fascinating to see how art historians continue to position their own work and expand this methodological idiom. I was also stoked because I proposed a Twitter hashtag for the framework during this panel, which was actually taken up (#SocialArtHx).

Some highlights:

Hector Reyes (a Northwestern alumnus!) gave a wonderful talk to begin the panel on the relation between Jacques-Louis David and the figure of Marat.

  • Reyes’s rich intervention in doing the social history of art was to utilize what he calls micro- and macro-analyses as terms of engagement for interpreting art in view of broader social phenomena.
  • This allowed Reyes to oscillate between illuminating close readings of David’s work while constantly situating the material in relation to longer genealogies of socio-political issues (e.g. histories of display, rituals for royal funerals, the relation of the king’s body to the social, etc.).
  • What Reyes proposed that I found so compelling was that synchronic social-historical work is most effective when it is in conversation with a longer diachronic critical orientation. My take away was that the present is simultaneously determined by a past an artist like David draws upon in order to effect, or otherwise produce, a future.

Second, Elizabeth Mansfield—whose work has become increasingly influential on my own—looked to the trajectory of how social art history has unfolded as key to understanding the method’s prospects for the present. The point is that the social history of art itself has a history. Namely, Mansfield identified a number of phases over which the mode of doing art history developed:

  • The first was positivist, taking its methods from nineteenth-century sociology.
  • The second is critical, in the sense that practitioners of social art history incorporated into their methods how ideology operates and the ways in which they, themselves, become implicated within such a horizon of interpretation.
  • The third phase Mansfield sees is based on psychoanalysis, bringing an increased level of interpretive attention to ideas of subject formation.
  • Another key assertion was that visual culture studies and the social history of art should be considered complimentary.

Next Margaret MacNamidhe gave an exceptional talk on Picasso. It was really thrilling to see what contemporary social art history could lend to the interpretation of the artist’s work.

  • Interestingly, MacNamidhe’s argument pointed us to the social history of drawing techniques that formed Picasso’s methods.
  • MacNamidhe made the point that works from the artist’s “rose period” reflect Picasso’s “drawing from the wrist”—which itself has a longer social history in terms of institutionalized artistic training and reception of artworks by artists that mobilize the technique.

Fourth on the panel, Alan Wallach took as his originating question: “Can Bourdieu Save the Social History of Art?” I’m convinced that the talk was a critical one for scholars pursuing social history across different disciplines. For me, its corresponding implication was to consider how contemporary modes of continental philosophy might allow for new insights to be produced out of social art history.

  • Centrally, Wallach argued that Bourdieu’s conceptualization of capital was salient to methods of art interpretation now.
  • In Bourdieu’s work there’s an impetus to get clearer on the different forms of capital in circulation. In hearing Wallach speak on the subject, I realized that bringing such an impetus to bear on the interpretation of art has a great potential to allow different socio-economic factors to come into view.

Closing out the session was Joshua Shannon, who gave a talk proposing an important formalist re-orientation of social art history.

  • Namely, he proposed that a problem in the social history of art, today, is that what we’re doing is effectively cultural studies. As a result, we’re losing the disciplinary specificity we get as trained art historians. This attention to visual form, for Shannon, is what makes art history different from other humanities disciplines.
  • Consequently, the most effective present prospects for the social history of art—in Shannon’s view—hinge upon a move towards the practice of what Shannon calls “a social history of form.”
  • Shannon drew attention to the point that forms relate to long historical structures and also “belong to epistemes, organizations of things in the social sense.” This talk had me at the echo of Foucault, I admit.
  • At its core, the “social-formal history of art” Shannon’s advancing is hypothesized to show how trajectories of artistic production make specific contingencies visible.

And that gets us through five hours of CAA sessions. Next week, check back for “Part Two” where I’ll recap CAA panels on Symbolist Art, the “Global and Local” and “Art and Religion” in Eighteenth-Century Art!