Okay, now that the semester is over I can take some time to reflect on the symposium and offer a few opinions and some critical reflections.
I was pleasantly surprised by both the attendance and the diversity of presentations. Having a variety of panels proved to be a wise choice and encouraged a lively rotation of audience participants–both of which added to the positive atmosphere in the gallery. It seems fitting to have had our presentations paired with the juried student show. The ideas complemented the art in form and content.
Furthermore, it seems increasingly clear to me that there is a line of demarcation between traditional art historians and more avant-garde scholars working within the visual realm today. Of course, my bias will show, but I think that is the point of having open conversations among colleagues in a forum like this. While the symposium was inspired by the work of Sunil Manghani in Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the way that presenters followed through on his concepts varied. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Kristine Nielsen, provided a thoughtful presentation in which she discussed Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), Fritz Cremer (1906-1993), and Sibylle Bergemann (1941-2010)–artists of German origin. However, I feel that her scholarly work–at least in this context–represents a more traditional art historical approach to images and image makers that is rooted in European culture and traditional methods. This is not to disparage Dr. Nielsen in any way! Her presentation was well researched and informative, but not something that inspires me. Besides potential idiosyncratic reasons for this, I have been trying to analyze just why, but I believe the reasons lie along that line of demarcation that I mentioned and are two-fold in nature.
First, as a graduate student in a new interdisciplinary Visual Culture program at a public American university, I have had the liberty of having no established program that I must conform to as I explore my interests. Conversely, there is no precedent to guide my performance. When I experience a scholar trained in traditional art history, I see a set practice and methodology to the research that can be either a comfort or a constraint.
Second, my line of demarcation recurred in another environment. A number of the symposium participants participated in a moderated discussion of Manghani’s book. There were several undergraduate and graduate students present as well as junior and senior professors. When we discussed Manghani’s idea of Image Critique the room was split into two camps. The first camp advocated for the idea of an art historical or critical canon that considers works by Vasari and Wofflin to be essential to a knowledge base, and the second camp that advocated for more global inclusion and diversity of difference in critical approach. Clearly, this is not a new argument as both the now infamous (and decades old) October survey indicated and as explicated in The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn by Margaret Dikovitskaya.
The most informative aspects of our moderated discussion were made by the undergraduate students just beginning their academic journey. A student noted that studying the work of a scholar like Vasari colors everything you see afterwards–that is either a problem or a benefit depending on the camp to which you choose to belong. I belong to the second camp.
In my presentation, I used images in the initial stage of my presentation that were meant to complement my talk about First Nations art, but I did not label them or explain their specific meaning. I let the images “speak for themselves.” In the second portion of my presentation, I used specific images and discussed them in detail in a more traditional approach. I wanted to see which part resonated with the audience.
What I label, traditionalists and modernists did not seem to find my first stage appealing and perhaps found it to be disjointed or confusing. Of course, this could be my fault as a junior scholar. However, after I spoke with a number of undergraduate and graduate students I found that the ideas had more resonance with them. At this point I do not believe that this signifies a mere function of generational opposition, as I am not a traditional student. Moreover, I admit that this is only anecdotal evidence of my experiment with Manghan’s Image Critique, but I learned a great deal and am looking forward to next year’s symposium.
Please join the conversation if you would like to offer an opinion or your own critique.