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Reversing curse of American art at Harvard

Although vast amounts of cultural attention have been focused on the Red Sox’s prodigal World Series victory, another curse was broken two weeks ago, this one at Harvard.

That Friday and Saturday kicked off a “banner weekend” for American art scholars. The inaugural Harvard Symposium in American Art at the Sackler Museum was the crowning achievement of the slow progress of drawing faculty and students to the History of Art and Architecture.

Institutions such as Stanford and Yale have had similar conferences for years, and Harvard’s decision to enter the field with such gusto indicates a changed attitude that, for the community, is far more revelatory than the exploits of Ramirez and Damon, who have offered little, if anything, to non-baseball fields.

Although the university has been central in the world of American art scholarship for centuries, its formal relationship to the field has been awkward at best. Some of the biggest names were trained in fair Cambridge and classes on the topic have been taught since the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is only in the past couple of decades that a formal push towards recognition and cultivation of American art history has really come to fruition.

And so, early Friday evening, a throng of excited academics (whom eager graduate students leading the sign-in recognized as the “top names in the field”) prepared for the first step in what organizers hope will be a long tradition of collaborative scholarship at Harvard.

Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture Jennifer L. Roberts, and Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and of African and African American Studies Gwendolyn D. Shaw organized the event. Roberts remarked on how impressed at the turnout she was. Because this was the symposium’s debut and there was no pre-registration, they had no idea what kind of numbers to expect.

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In her opening remarks, Shaw praised the generosity of sponsors from all over the university, who all chipped in to ensure a successful weekend. The Harvard University Art Museums, for example, generously donated a catered reception in the Fogg courtyard.

The ostensible theme of the symposium was “Surface, Space and Interface,” chosen in part to dovetail with the Charles Warren Center for American History’s current focus on the built environment. However, the presenters responded to this broad directive in myriad ways, often bringing in exciting tangential interests.

The conference was divided into three sessions, “Culturing Architecture” on Friday evening “Reconstructions of Space” and “Modern Surfaces” on Saturday.

Alex Nemerov of Yale University started off the proceedings swimmingly with his inspiring lecture entitled, “The Rattlesnake: Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the Place of Art in America.” He carefully drew out connections between a meticulous drawing of a rattlesnake and the ambiguous relationship of Americans to art during the post-Revolution years.

Nemerov mentioned after his talk that he stumbled upon such a fascinating piece almost by accident, and that it had never attracted scholarly attention before. He spoke of how liberating it was not to be encumbered by previous literature on the topic. Less of his energy was spent shattering old myths, and more on synthesizing novel pieces of information and discovering through a sharpened focus “relations, connections, affinities within a culture that it may not even see.”  

Smith College’s John Davis, like Nemerov, was quick to acknowledge the academic value of what he calls “microhistory” the use of a narrowly focused time and place to reveal greater trends in a culture.

Professor Davis used this approach to explore the idea of spatial politics in his talk entitled “Real Estate and Artistic Identity in Late 19th-Century New York.”  He focused on the search for a new home in Manhattan, and used the debate between members (uptown vs. downtown, sponsors vs. independence, galleries vs. school rooms, a highly unpopular proposal in Central Park) as a symbol of the rocky transformation of art’s role into something with high social cachet.

Davis’ exploration of the ensuing controversy also revealed deep biases against artists in American society; the members of the Academy were depicted by the popular press as girlish, French, and, most insultingly, “vegetables who decry patriotism.”

Jane Blocker of the University of Minnesota took the assembled crowd in a completely different direction than traitorous produce. Her lecture “The Shame of Biological Being: Ann Hamilton, Molecular Biology, and the Flush of Subjectivity” discussed renowned artist Hamilton’s installation of an interactive lighting piece on the new molecular biology building of the University of Minnesota.

Blocker, who has always been fascinated by digital media and issues of performance in her work, was immediately intrigued by Hamilton’s project. Her curiosity about the conceptual connections between the blushing of a building, the shame of a Holocaust victim and the issues of existential subjectivity brought into new focus by the decoding of the human genome led her to some unexpected and riveting parallels.

At the Fogg reception Friday evening, Roberts and Shaw said that they were incredibly pleased with the outcome of the conference, as did the crowd, a group of Americanists and interested intellectuals from all over, absorbed in rapt discussion and socialization, often as important a judge of a conference as the actual lectures.

Lectures on Saturday included Stanford professor Bryan Wolf’s discussion of “Figure/Ground, Lost/Found, Seeing/Wound: Eakins, Painting, Perception” and L.A. artist Harry Gamboa’s “Walking Murals: Asco’s Performative Surfaces in the Seventies.”

At least at first the conference will be a bi- or tri-annual affair. Judging by the built-up anticipation of the community however, a repeat performance can’t come soon enough.

—Staff writer Will B. Payne can be reached at payne@fas.harvard.edu

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