REV-CONF May 31, 2001

Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies

Williamstown, May 4–05, 2001

Report by Karen L. Schiff, Clemson University

"Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies", Conference in Williamstown, MA,
4-5 May 2001
Reviewed by Karen L. Schiff, Clemson University, for H-ArtHist

When I arrived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on 3 May 2001, I phoned an
old acquaintance who is a curator at a local art museum. "I’m in town for
the Visual Studies conference," I told her. "The what?" she asked. "The
Visual Studies conference," I repeated, "at the Clark Art Institute." "Oh!"
she exclaimed in recognition, "You must be talking about the Aesthetics
conference!" Readers of this article may well refer to this same conference
as the "Art History conference" – the two days of papers and discussions
were collectively entitled, "Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies." A
primary underlying issue of the conference was, in fact, how these three
"fields" interact with each other. Conference organizer Michael Ann Holly
asked another key question to sum up the conference: how do ideas intersect
with the objects of our studies? I came to think about this latter question
in other ways as well: how do our objects of study give us information
about their contexts? Or, chiasmatically, in what ways are artistic forms
actually "en-formed" by their situations?

Three Trees?

The overall organization of the conference was thought-provoking in itself.
Over the two days, there were three major sessions: "In Time," "Out of
Time," and "With Time." The categories roughly corresponded to papers that
dealt with historiographic issues, theoretical issues, and issues of "visual
studies" in the contemporary academy, respectively. The final afternoon of
the conference was completely devoted to discussion – a rare treat. There
were no concurrent sessions, participants could engage in the final
discussion having heard the same set of papers.

Michael Ann Holly welcomed participants with a witty slide lecture on the
thought process behind the conference theme. She mused about various
possibilities for how Art History, Aesthetics, and Visual Studies could
interrelate by showing images that had been contenders for the conference
brochure. The winner, a suitably genteel and non-anthropomorphic etching by
Rembrandt ("The Three Trees" – see
http://www.arthist.net/WForumPx.html#Rembrandt), emerged because the trees
intertwined in their roots and branches. The three trunks, representing the
three fields, retained individual strength and integrity without any one
tree becoming dominant. Thus we could assume a common ground of shared
objects of study, and perhaps we could use the conference to grow toward
some common goals or ideals.

The metaphors connected to this image multiplied, in ways that could be seen
as a blueprint for issues that arose at the conference. Taken upside down,
one could see the face of the artist emerging in the negative space around
one of the trees; this reminded us, as Griselda Pollock mentioned during the
final discussion period, not to overlook the makers of the visual objects we
were discussing. One participant asked the group to examine the background
of the etching instead of focusing exclusively on the three trees; the
people, animals, and weather patterns could stand for the contextual
considerations that enrich any scholarly inquiry.

Wrestling with Ghosts

In a sense, these observations were asking us to look at the ghosts in the
image – the aspects of the etching that had remained invisible or which we
had neglected. Ghosts became a theme of the conference on the second day,
after Nicholas Mirzoeff’s paper. In "Ghostwriting: Working Out Visual
Culture," Mirzoeff suggested that we create ghosts when we – as critics and
artists – repress images of specific categories of bodies (for instance,
Jews). Two examples included Walter Benjamin, whose body is remarkably
absent from his Arcades Project, and Anne Frank, whose image looks "at home"
when it appears in photomontages of New York City streetcorners, simply
because it always already exists in New York as a ghost of her existence in
the cultural consciousness. In a paper whose wide-ranging vision seemed
spiritual itself, Mirzoeff compared these specific ghostly presences to
spirit photographs and television in general. In a sense, Mirzoeff was
implying, all acts of seeing are haunted, and Visual Studies aims to face,
or at least bring into circulation, the ghosts that influence all
experiences of vision.

I came to see the entire conference, in fact, as a series of wrestling
matches with ghosts. Several papers took on eighteenth-century
aestheticians – for example, Karen Lang suggested "style" as a rubric to
replace Immanuel Kant’s "form". Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann examined "National
Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Aesthetic Judgments in the Historiography of
Art" – notably with reference to the writings of Kant and Ernst Gombrich –
though it was noted that scholars in the 70s and 80s had also criticized
these ghosts for overlooking race and other sociopolitical concerns. Still,
Kaufmann proposed further that Kant’s feelings of beauty or sublimity might
be influenced by factors besides race, such as climate or chance.
Other papers challenged the ghosts of prominent art historians who were
working within a nineteenth-century positivistic tradition. Jonathan
Gilmore, for instance, argued that the early twentieth-century emphasis on
apolitical formalism, made fashionable by Clement Greenberg, could actually
be seen as a politically strategic response to censorious attack: when
artworks are denounced for their politically risky content, their defenders
can point to the art’s superior formal qualities. Gilmore cited examples
from the Renaissance to Robert Mapplethorpe to prove that "formalism" can
save (and often has saved) works of art from political persecution. During
the discussion session at the end of the conference, Michael Kelly reminded
the group that the historical figures we discuss, at the conference and
elsewhere, are actually quite fictionalized versions. We exaggerate the
importance of the aesthetic distance to the eighteenth-century thinkers, he
insisted; we discuss an Enlightenment rationality or Cartesian separations
as abstractions instead of accurately representing these thinkers’ own
ideas. We polarize their views in order to make our own points as a
contrast.

In addition to creating historical ghosts to suit our own agendas, we create
contemporary ghosts that haunt our lives – they are the beings and forces
that remain "unseen." Mirzoeff’s paper addressed this dynamic, as did
Griselda Pollock’s contributions. She discussed the repression of
femininity in theory and art history in general, and in discussions she
repeatedly asked us to examine the near-invisibility of the last three
decades of feminist studies (plus racial politics and identity theory) at
the conference itself. Her paper, "The Aesthetics of Difference," posited a
matrixial model for the formation of subjectivity as a challenge to Jacques
Lacan’s phallic model.

The papers discussed so far seemed marked by an oppositional struggle. There
was an underlying tone of a contestatory dialectic. Or, to invoke a concept
from Hal Foster’s paper, "The Dialectics of Seeing," these papers all
followed a process of "reification and reanimation" – the speaker first
established a solid position that someone else occupied (as if it were a
static or stultified entity), and then went on to challenge (and thereby
revivify) that position. I started to wonder how else we could wrestle with
our ghosts – instead of imagining a grim academic struggle, could we
consider that our ghosts are actually ourselves?

How Do I Look?

The first and last papers of the conference offered alternative models for
how to grapple with our topics of study. At the end of the conference,
W.J.T. Mitchell shared his classroom activity of "Showing Seeing" – a
college-level version of "show and tell" – as a way to inquire into how
"looking" works. When students narrate to each other how to "see" things
they have chosen from their daily lives, he recounted, they uncover their
own unarticulated, and even unconscious, ways of seeing. He suggested
asking students to describe their visual experiences as if they were talking
to beings who had never seen anything before; the students therefore also
began to appreciate the properties of sight by imagining the experience of
blindness. This proposal seemed very much in the spirit of Bill Readings’
The University in Ruins, in that it asked students to examine what they were
doing in their lives just as Readings challenged people within the
university to interrogate their own roles and practices [1].

Another alternative to the contestatory dialectic came out of Irene Winter’s
paper, "Defining ‘Aesthetics’ for Non-Western Studies: The Case of the
Ancient Near East," in which she challenged scholars to redefine
"aesthetics" so that it no longer required the stereotypical
eighteenth-century bracketing off of an object from its social fabric [2].
Aesthetic objects could be judged in terms of how "fit" they are for their
intended purposes, one of which is to become an object of cathection.
Winter showed ritual objects from ancient Mesopotamian cultures to
illustrate her points, and it was clear even from the slides that these
objects were inextricably intertwined with intense use and spiritual
significance. An animalistic figurine exuded the aura of having been held;
the eyes of the votive statues contained a strong yearning of spiritual
seeking. I thought that this could be the key to Winter’s new approach to
aesthetics: could we consider any art object in terms of its function?
This is not to say that all objects have a utilitarian function, but rather
that each object lives within a context of culture, social expectation,
individual imagination. Even Kant’s vase on its pedestal, holding no
flowers, performs a ritualistic function within our conventional way of
talking about aesthetics, for instance.

So we, and the objects we study, are always already within the matrix of
a/our situation; we can begin our inquiry with any detail and key into an
entire fabric of information. In fact, we could say that our senses of the
objects we study are en-formed by all of this information; text and context
are inextricably intertwined. If it is true, however, that the object can
lead to the artist, the society, or anything else we might want to know,
then how should we talk about that context in which an object comes into
being? What epistemological model can let us articulate relationships
between art and ideas, or between forms and the in/en-formation that affects
them?

Several papers at the conference offered possibilities that transcended the
Enlightenment dualism of mind and matter (as represented in the dialectical
papers already discussed above). Kobena Mercer, in his study of "Romare
Bearden: African-American Modernism at Mid-Century," presented a model of
hyphenation: he discussed Bearden’s collages, artistic process, and
identity as examples of elaborate juxtapositions of ideas and forms.
Bearden’s personal situation as an
African-American-artist-in-a-white-modernist-world, Mercer observed, is
hyphenated like his medium: "Montage creates a hyphenated interval between
painting and photography." By examining multiple sociopolitical concerns
alongside Bearden’s artworks, Mercer’s paper became an illuminating series
of mutually informing juxtapositions, with a New Historicist slant. Two
other papers, taken together, represented a phenomenological perspective,
and considered how our perceptions (both psychological and sensual) of art
objects arise in specific contexts. Philip Fisher, in "Darkness and the
Demand for Time in Art," considered the environmental factors that slow us
down when we look at artwork. Dark areas of a painting – which "slow down
seeing" by forcing the pupil to adjust – were only one of his examples; he
was also interested in how museums display artworks in terms of the flow of
foot traffic and the architectural setting of each piece. Many contemporary
museums, Fisher said, discourage a sense of "engulfment" or contemplation of
artworks [3], though some artists challenge this trend by using techniques
that work like darkness to create pause in the viewer. Fisher offered the
examples of Bill Viola, whose video works require entire rooms and therefore
cannot be breezed through so easily, and Jasper Johns, whose use of words in
"Land’s End" asks the viewer to reread – the harmony of the whole painting
is resisted and we must take time to puzzle it through.

While Fisher looked at how and where artworks appear externally, Ivan
Gaskell inquired into how we come to them internally, or psychologically.
In "Thanks for the Memories: Recollections of Rembrandt’s Jeremiah,"
Gaskell recounted personal stories that a handful of experts in
seventeenth-century Dutch painting associate with this famous image. We
cannot view the same painting twice, he exhorted us to remember; memory,
coalescing with knowledge, creates one’s sense of a painting. This
"coalescing" (or perhaps bringing the ghosts of our minds back into the
picture, so to speak) takes place over many years – Gaskell reminded us "to
pay a special kind of attention to art objects over time." He expressed
this reminder with a gesture that recalled Fisher’s discussion of the
contemplative gaze: the single image of Rembrandt’s Jeremiah stayed on the
screen for a very long time before Gaskell began to speak.

If I were to tell you what it was like to sit in the darkened auditorium, to
look at that slide amidst those people and under the structural expectations
set up by the conference, I would be engaging in the kind of narration of
ordinary visual/haptic experience that W.J.T. Mitchell advocated in the
final presentation of the conference. Mitchell decided to switch his topic,
from a talk about "The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction"
to a synthetic discussion of Visual Studies (as a field) and the study of
visual culture (as a pursuit)[4]. His stories about using his "Showing
Seeing" exercise in class grew into a series of refreshingly open-ended
musings on new paradigms for talking about the vernacular experience of
vision. For instance, could we reconsider Descartes’ idea that vision is a
form of touch? Could we think about vision as "a cat’s cradle of
intersubjectivity," in which "‘objects’ stare back, and vision happens
in-between ‘subjects’"? (Are objects alive?) Though we have come to accept
that our assumptions about what we see are conditioned by culture, to what
extent could we imagine that vision is not learned, acculturated, or like a
language? (Is vision in any way natural?)

Looking Ahead

If we are always within our multidimensional situations, an attempt to "show
seeing" forces us to speak about that matrix, to narrate it from wherever we
find ourselves. Mitchell suggested that this complexity could be a defining
richness of Visual Studies as a field; Visual Studies could function as
Derrida’s "dangerous supplement" to more established disciplines such as Art
History and Aesthetics. The conference presentations ended, then, with
Mitchell’s discussion of Visual Studies as it has been figured in the
institution. He distributed a handout that contained "Ten Myths about
Visual Culture" and "Eight Counter-Theses on Visual Culture [5]." Two of
his theses seemed to sum up the conference themes for me:

4. There are no visual media. All media are mixed media, with varying
ratios of senses and sign-types.

7. Visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the
social construction of vision.

The study of art, or of visual experience, must include more than the
strictly visual. In some ways this assertion is hardly new; both Art
History and Aesthetics have become more politically aware and socially
accountable as fields. But Mitchell’s theses go further, by suggesting that
the model we have adopted so far still holds social and extra-visual
considerations separate from the objects at hand. Instead, he suggests, the
situation or matrix in which forms arise already has many dimensions, one of
which is the social fabric in which our senses and perceptions operate. Our
objects also help to in/en-form our ways of thinking and relating to the
world in general; we and our objects of contemplation are interdependently
in/en-forming.

What are the implications of conceptualizing Visual Studies in this way?
Indeed, what are the implications of any of the models for talking about the
context in which our objects of study are en-formed? Whether we think and
talk about art using a dialectic of contestation, a series of hyphenated
juxtapositions, a phenomenological account of sensual experience, or an
everyday narration of the vernacular hapsis of living, how we think about
looking influences how and what we see. This, in turn, could ultimately
help to structure our classrooms and our institutions. Our models of study
determine how we talk to our students and what we talk to them about. They
also color the priorities that we pass on when we talk about our visual
impressions with our children. In the case of the university, our models
can dictate the structures we build to house our fields of study.

This conference asked in particular about the interaction of the three
fields of Art History, Aesthetics, and Visual Studies. Is Visual Studies
asking Art History and Aesthetics to redefine their methodologies or goals,
from within those established disciplines? Or is Visual Studies positioning
itself as a reified and stable outside agitator – a grand claim, considering
that five years ago, attacks in October were threatening its basic right to
exist? Is Visual Studies perhaps asserting itself as a third field with no
particular challenge to pose? To answer these questions, I would suggest
that we pay attention to how we conceptualize what we’re seeing, and then
listen closely to how we talk about it. Our methods will reveal the
"ghosts" of our assumptions, which already haunt the futures of our fields.
I started believing in the power of these conceptual ghosts while watching
all the wrestling in Williamstown.

Notes:

[1] Readings’ work figured prominently into his colleague Stephen Melville’
s paper, "‘Theory,’ Discipline, and Institution," in which Melville sketched
several configurations for "Visual Studies" in relation to other disciplines
within typical university structures. In the process, Melville also
proposed a useful definition for interdisciplinarity: if a disciplinary
approach "cuts" an object out of the context of everything, then in that
cutting lies the seeds of the object’s connection to other disciplines. We
can "shake the walls" of our disciplines by attending to how our objects of
study demand, as Mitchell later commented, that we "take a walk across
campus" to find out from someone in another department how we can further
understand something that supposedly belongs within our own discipline.
[2] Winter proposed to define aesthetics as a field that is "concerned with
properties of, investment of, and responses to works of human agency for
which skill is required, standards have been applied, and which is done at
least in part to elicit visual and emotional affectiveness." Participants
scrambled to write it down.
[3] It is interesting to note here that "contemplation" comes from roots
"con" (together) and "temp" (time), implying that a contemplative process is
simply a matter of spending time together with the object of study.
[4] Mitchell noted that his planned presentation would have been the only
paper of the conference accompanied by the latest visual technologies of
computerized images and streaming video. Instead, he observed, the most
advanced technology was "the nineteenth-century invention of the lantern
slide" – we had even skipped over the early-twentieth-century medium of
film.
[5] "Visual Studies," Mitchell noted, is simply a field of study, while
"Visual Culture" could describe either a field or the subject matter that
the field addressed. The higher level of ambiguity in the second term made
it more appealing and richly suggestive, like a word that could function as
a noun or a verb.

Recommended Citation:
Karen L. Schiff: [Conference Report of:] Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies (Williamstown, May 4–05, 2001). In: ArtHist.net, May 31, 2001 (accessed May 6, 2021), <https://arthist.net/reviews/24500>.

Creative Commons BY-NC-NDThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International License. For the conditions under which you may distribute, copy and transmit the work, please go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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