Essay review: Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately: The Politics of Western Women’s History by Virginia Scharff

Poster from the movie “Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day and Howard Keel
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History, then, is one word commonly and confusingly used to refer to two things: what happened, and what we say happened. (537)

Apologies for my unusually long absence from the blogosphere, all! The last six days have been filled with preparations for getting to, attending, and returning from a wedding (third of the month for me) in San Diego, which involved a lot of insanely early mornings. Consequently, I didn’t as much done over the last week as I would have liked– exhaustion made sure of that– but I did read three essays over the weekend: “A Minoritarian Feminism? Things to Do with Deleuze and Guattari” by Pelagia Goulimari, “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West” by Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller (inconsequential aside: this essay was the first PDF I read and highlighted using my GoodReader app on my iPad!), and of course Virginia Scharff’s “Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately.” I also started reading a book called Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Social Dissent by David Bate, which I will hopefully be able to review tomorrow or Wednesday. Goulimari’s “A Minoritarian Feminism?” was an unnecessarily jargon-y and difficult-to-read essay that is mostly useful as a secondary source (most of the essay was spent critiquing two works by other scholars) and which I don’t feel like reviewing here. Jensen’s and Miller’s “Gentle Tamers Revisited” was referenced a lot in Scharff’s essay, thus I felt compelled to read it for the sake of thoroughness, but again, I don’t feel like it is necessary to write a review for it. Therefore, by process of elimination/preference, I am now going to review the last aforementioned essay. Continue reading

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Book review: Regionalism and the Humanities, eds. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz

Grant Wood, “American Gothic” (1930)
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[Regionalism] has been a revolt against cultural nationalism– that is, the tendency of artists to ignore or deny the fact that there are important differences, psychologically and otherwise, between the different regions of America. But this does not mean that Regionalism, in turn, advocates a concentration on local peculiarities; such an approach results in anecdotalism and local color. -Grant Wood (177)

Regionalism and the Humanities is (yet another) anthology of essays, which was compiled from papers selected after a 2003 national conference of the Consortium of Regional Humanities Centers. The conference– and subsequently this book– confronted a big issue: in a world that is increasingly becoming homogenized and standardized by globalization, regionalism is simultaneously experiencing a resurgence of interest and risking decline due to (literally) larger postmodern issues and the ever-shrinking nature of diversity due to phenomena such as the internet. It is acknowledged that this simultaneous decline and revival seems paradoxical, and it is stressed that one needs to think about its different political, social, economic, and aesthetic purposes. Different terms are thrown about and defined in the introduction– place, landscape, regionalism/regionalist, local/localism, regional identity– which help illuminate the various aspects of regionalism and reveal it to be more complex than often regarded. Regionalism was once viewed as a reaction against modern forces, but it is now seen as a more aggressive endeavor to make a claim for the importance of place and space (as opposed to other postmodern issues: gender, race, ethnicity, class, demography, and other cultural and physical distinctions). Place and space are more humanist and individualist, seeking to help us understand ourselves and the human experience. This is not to say that postmodernism cannot acknowledge regionalism at all– although it should be noted that there is no formal redefinition– and if we look at regions as fluid and ever-changing, regionalism can fit into the postmodern discussion. Continue reading

Book review: Western Places, American Myths, ed. Gary J. Hausladen

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)
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The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people. (Gary J. Hausladen, Introduction)

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West is a fascinating anthology of essays dealing with the American West, with topics ranging from historical geography to regionalism to art history and analyzing both the myths and realities that signify the “West.” Despite the leaps and bounds that contemporary scholarship has made in analyzing the West, this does not seem to have extended outside of academia, meaning that people still look at its history from a white, masculine perspective that glorifies the notion that it is a fundamentally different place from the Midwest and the East Coast. This notion identifies it as a freer, wilder place that in turn verifies larger ideas of individualism and American nationalism, though it is overall seen as distinct from the rest of America. Physically, it is a different place than the East Coast– drier, generally more mountainous, and greater distance between urban centers– but it is also psychologically and historically more complex than it is given credit for. Continue reading

Essay review: Speaking with a Forked Tongue: ‘Male’ Discourse in ‘Female’ Surrealism? by Robert J. Belton

Valentine Hugo, “Untitled (Object of Symbolic Function)” (1931)
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… we have discovered the issue of methodology itself to be deeply problematic in such a socially crucial area. It is necessary, in a word, to learn to speak with a forked tongue. And since we have no metalanguage with which to characterize absolutely where the female Surrealists stand, what we must do is remain eternally vigilant to our own psychological social, ideological, and methodological preoccupations. (60)

This essay was included in the anthology Surrealism and Women, which was edited by Surrealist scholar-extraordinaire Mary Ann Caws as well as Rudolf Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg and deals with various postmodern issues in the study of Surrealism. Belton confronted a big issue in a relatively short paper: how can we objectively discuss the work of female artists in a genre that is dominated by male rhetoric? As we have seen in previous works, Whitney Chadwick, for example, is all for seeing Surrealism as a joyous outlet for women artists. This outlet not only allowed them to finally express themselves in a less restricted way, but also (in Chadwick’s view) paved the way for feminism. Belton was much less optimistic in his views– he wastes no time in mentioning Chadwick’s views, which indicates to me that he clearly wants to refute them– and wants the reader to recognize that women and Surrealism is a difficult combination to discuss. Continue reading

Essay review: Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression by Benjamin Buchloh

Francis Picabia, “Self-Portrait (Autoportrait),” 1940-43
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When the only option left to aesthetic discourse is the maintenance of its own distribution system and the circulation of its commodity forms, it is not surprising that all ‘audacities have become convention’ and that paintings start looking like shop windows decorated with fragments and quotations of history. (117)

This was the first essay that I have read in a long time that was actually a bit of a downer. Perhaps all of the stuff I have been reading lately is overly optimistic (or maybe my earlier “stuff” is more contemporary and therefore less doomsday than 1980), or perhaps I am just mentally exhausted after a long and trying day at work. Whatever the case, this article was thought-provoking and informative, but a little bit depressing.

“Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting” comes from the anthology Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, which was published in 1984. This particular essay was originally published in 1980 in October magazine, then published again in this book with an addendum that discussed how his ideas/fears were confirmed in the contemporary art of 1984. Buchloh basically discusses the concept of “selling out,” first in the art of World War I then stretching the same ideas/factors to contemporary art. He first addresses the resurgence of traditional forms of representation after 1915. Since the mid-nineteenth century, traditional representation (i.e. the portrait, the landscape, etc) had been undergoing a systematic breakdown, first with Impressionism blurring our vision. However, after 1915, art history saw an increase in the popularity of less charged styles (and by charged I mean Cubism and Futurism in particular). Buchloh proposes that this regression is due to several factors: the socioeconomic and political environment, the artists’ increasing sense of the invalidity of their work, and the idealization of the past.  Continue reading

Essay review: No More Play by Rosalind Krauss

Any artist’s work can be seen from the vantage of either two, possibly conflicting, perspectives. One of these looks at the oeuvre from within the totality of the individual. The other regards it, far more impersonally, within a historical dimension, which is to say, comparatively, in relation to the work of others and the collective development of a given medium. Often these two perspectives overlap… In Giacometti’s case this is not so. (73)

Alberto Giacometti, “Invisible Object” (1934)
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“No More Play” is an essay in the anthology Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths by Rosalind Krauss. I read this particular essay for one of my major questions that deals with Andre Breton vs. Georges Bataille’s perspectives on Surrealism. In this essay, Krauss looks at the art of Alberto Giacometti, specifically in the years leading up to 1934 when he utilized primitivism in his work. She starts with an account (or rather several) about his sculpture “Invisible Object.” She first begins by recounting a rather orthodox-Surrealist story told by Andre Breton about Giacometti being drawn to a mask at a flea market that helped resolve the conflict he was having with the sculpture he was working on. The finding of this mask functioned as a dream, for the dream frees one from emotional scruples. However, in a 1951 catalog of a survey exhibition of Giacometti’s work, Michel Leiris wrote that the piece was sculpted after “‘a young girl with knees half-bent as though offering herself to the beholder'” (43). This reference to a real-world inspiration goes against Breton’s dream-world assumptions because it puts the object at a transparent level to the observable world, which also reflects the attitude of postwar Paris. Breton’s story is suspicious anyway because the piece alludes so clearly to a figure from the Solomon Islands, evidenced in its posture, jut of the head, and shape of breasts. Krauss uses this sculpture as a springboard to talk about the larger issues of the role of primitivism in Giacometti’s art up until 1934, which freed his work from the classical sculptural tradition and Cubism. This primitivism is in accordance with Georges Bataille’s dissident Surrealism, which was arguably transgressive.  Continue reading

Catalog/essay review: American Women Modernists (BYU)

Wanda Gag, “Moonlight” (1926)
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Thus it could be argued that while modernism theoretically protected the values of individuals, those individuals were required to be of a particular race and class in order for society to reach its pure objectives. While modernism theoretically protected the expression of an individual, that expression would only be accepted if it supported the prevailing social march. And while individualism was the source of style and substance in art, it was often only recognized if it was in accordance with the prevailing practice or the emerging form that was its contradiction. (Campbell B. Gray, Preface)

Before I started reading American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, I was a little appalled that the title of the catalog seemed to imply that some dude named Robert was the sole influence in the artistic careers of a number of women, or that their success was completely dependent on him. However, as soon as I saw that this catalog was published in 2005, I realized that there is no way that the scholarship included would paint such a picture (especially Erika Doss, who once called out someone I know on a particularly crass joke about finding a penny versus caring about women’s basketball). While Robert Henri is ultimately at the heart of this catalog, since the women artists discussed/exhibited were his students, it is more about how women and Henri’s beliefs about true modernism changed the course of modern American art history.  Continue reading