In which an anonymous Bwog contributor tells us what else happened the evening of October 4th.
As protestors marched around Lerner Hall last Wednesday evening, a very different showdown was taking shape across campus in Schermerhorn Hall. The Art History Underground, Columbia’s nascent (and, judging by their president’s introduction, quite enthusiastic) art history club had invited four of the department’s biggest guns to square off over the question “What Is Art History?” in a roundtable discussion moderated by Gothic architecture professor Stephen Murray.
Murray, a specialist in the use of digital media in art historical research (he’s responsible for the dramatic – some students sporting a hangover have claimed vomit-inducing – 360º views of Amiens Cathedral in Art Humanities, beseeched the audience to turn the evening’s festivities into electronic communication, “blogging, if you will.” Stirred by his exhortations, Bwog, ever the art history fan, could not resist the will to share what transpired over the next ninety minutes.
James Beck, a specialist in Renaissance painting and sculpture most famous for his claims that major works are forgeries (On the Met’s recent acquisition of a Duccio for $50 million: “The museum officials are blind!”) and easily the most conservative of the group, surprised the audience by noting his recent realization that art production can not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, that politics, spin, and manipulation are as present in it as they are in every other aspect of culture. Has Beck, the great traditionalist, been reading the Frankfurt School? Judging by his parting words, it seems unlikely. Leaning back in his chair with suspenders tensed and brow furrowed, Beck made a claim for careful connoisseurship and strict formalism, asking that the young art historians present “demand truth as the founding basis of our activity.”
Next historiography expert Keith Moxey, looking as adorably sophisticated as his CULPA reviews promise, began to challenge the construction of the discipline, noting art history’s inability to deal with non-Western culture. “What happened to time in the East?” he wondered aloud, noting that the entire art of Eastern countries is usually handled by a single professor. And drafting a theme that would be echoed throughout the evening, he came out in favor of anarchy. “Chaos is a good idea, a great thing for the field,” he declared, urging a broader exploration of visual culture outside of the art world into the realm of medical and commercial imagery.
Anne Higonnet, who teaches on the other side of Broadway, focusing on nineteenth century art, presented third and was the first presenter to brandish a slide presentation, using Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola as a means of exploring the careful research still required to identify sources and adequately explicate paintings for a contemporary audience. The most romantic of the group, she defined the field of art history as one filled “with a lot of beauty, not much truth, and a tiny bit of justice” to the faux-bewilderment of Murray, who, venturing dangerously close to a Barnard Joke, suggested that she was allowed to use the word “beauty” since, well, “Barnard starts with a B.”
Judging by the rapt silence that overtook the audience upon his swagger to the podium as the final panelist to speak, the crowd was most excited to see the department’s newest, edgiest acquisition: associate professor of post-World War II European and American art Branden Joseph, who set about showing how the discursive lines between and among mediums such as film, sculpture, and architecture were being continuously blurred in the work of contemporary artists such as Anthony McCall and Bride Marden. We study art history, he argued, quoting John Cage, “to thicken the plot” of the present, remembering throughout that we can ultimately never escape the pull of history, that our time is not necessarily that unique.
Joseph, hardly the Young Turk many in the audience expected, found himself in alignment with the patriarch Beck with surprising regularity, also signaling a crisis, however dissimilar, in the discipline: artists are becoming more sophisticated than critics. “I realized that I was asking 1998 questions recently, when I should have been asking 2006 questions.” The audience, wishing it could ever hope to have such sophisticated problems, had been conquered. “How long,” many wondered, almost aloud, “until he is poached by Harvard?”
With the opening movement complete, Murray opened the discussion up to audience questions. “Where can we find disagreement? How can we begin a lively dialogue?” He wanted blood, but none one would be forthcoming. Questions ranged from the definition of art to a rambling question about landscape theory and architecture. Bwog began to lose interest, but the point of the evening had already been demonstrated clearly: Art History is a lot of things, and it is currently very much in a state of transition. In short, it’s an exciting time to be working in the field. What was perhaps most revelatory, though, was seeing professors removed from their syllabi, interacting as curious students and colleagues. Seeing Joseph and Beck joke and come together from entirely different worldviews and Higonnet score a rejoinder to (the British) Murray near the conclusion, laughing that “clear the problem with my career has been that I don’t have an English accent”, one couldn’t help but be charmed and comforted that in a department filled with veritable superstars who often seem (viciously) at odds methodologically, professors could still be friends and share a good time. Art History, we were reminded, is fun.