"The Medium, Before and After Modernism"
Panel at the College Art Association 2014 meeting (Chicago, 12-15 February)
The medium and its specificity have oriented the discourse on the arts throughout various historic and historiographic periods. For modernism, for example, Clement Greenberg advocated the specificity of the medium as the legitimate drive of artistic production for the avant-garde. The critical discourse that emerged around Greenberg and his followers was oriented around the various articulations and possibilities of the medium, an investigation played out across the history of the twentieth-century’s art and its historiography. While the advent of performance, installation, and new media art challenged these particular narratives and developed new spaces of investigation, the discipline of art history as a whole still bears traces of these divisions along areas of specialization and study, given that the question of the medium emerged alongside the birth of the discipline, specifically in G. E. Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), itself a response to the work of Johann Winckelmann.
In past years, the revitalized interest in phenomenology, materiality, and object-oriented ontologies have drawn attention back to the aesthetic and material underpinnings of the arts. These trends evidence a burgeoning return to the notion of the medium and its various ontological and phenomenological specificities. However, these methods have become predominant in moments outside of modernity, such as the Ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern period. Likewise, the same questions have been brought to bear on investigations concerning the recent past in spaces normally excised from a certain history of art, such as popular culture, technology, and videogame studies. Therefore, the medium and its specificity, while a necessary investigation, can no longer be addressed in terms of flatness or opticality alone, but must rather be developed from both its historiographic tradition in modernity along with its own specificities within each area of study. Thus, this panel engages the fundamental questions that emerge in such a global project: How does one articulate a notion of the/a medium in periods outside of a Euro-American modernism, or where the term itself is wholly inexistent? Is the medium a technical, material support for art, or is it an epistemological field for artistic production? This session seizes such questions as a shared discursive space for art historians of various fields to engage with what constituted a medium for their respective areas of study and how these orienting concepts construct notions of disciplines and subfields.
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