Monday, February 12, 2007

Internal Faculty Fellows Symposium

On 20-21 September 2006, the 2005-2006 Internal Faculty Fellows of the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research put on a symposium, “Show & Tell: Visual Culture and the Humanities,” that put forward the projects they had worked on while on leave in spring 2006. Professor Michael Ann Holly, Director of Research and Academic Programs of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and a noted historian of art, served as the symposium’s keynote speaker on Friday night. In her talk on “The Melancholic Art,” Professor Holly intriguingly investigated the ways in which art history is at its core a melancholy discipline. Arguing that art history is about recovering loss, but without a lost object, she explored the ways in which the very physicality of art objects poses a challenge to the recovery of their history. Invoking art historians, critics, and philosophers from Freud and Nietzsche to Warburg and Ankersmit, Holly argued that the melancholy unconscious of the history of art could nonetheless find compensations in the presence of these meaningful objects. For art historians, she claimed, the fear of losing that which is always already gone – that is, the cultural context from which the work of art emerged – leads to the critic’s celebration of what remains.

The presentations of the Glasscock Center’s Internal Fellows on Saturday ranged widely. Troy Bickham (History) assessed the awareness ordinary Britons had of the growing British empire in the eighteenth century in his study of the ways images of empire figured in their daily life. Using thousands of grocers’ trade cards, Bickham explored how the images they used to depict the most common consumables of empire – coffee, tea, tobacco, and sugar – rested on particular stereotypes and generated strong associations. These, more than abstract concepts of nationalism, brought empire home to the bulk of the metropolitan population. Lynne Vallone (English) provided an illustrated account of photography and the image of the child by juxtaposing modern photographers’ images of childhood flesh with those of nineteenth-century memorial photography. She compared the ways that both Victorian photos of dead children and contemporary images of children “displaced from childhood” preserved, fixed, and fetishized the child’s body. Sarah Misemer (Hispanic Studies) in a paper on “Moving Forward and Looking Back at the River Plate” demonstrated ways in which the railway and railroad industry helped to shape the identity of modern Argentina and Uruguay. From the time of the mid-nineteenth century achievement of nationhood, the train has appeared recurrently first in literature and then in film as a metaphor for modernization and nation-building. Where its first apearnce was straightforwardly celebratory, the train now provides a means of commenting – nostalgically, critically, ironically – on Argentine history both before and since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his presentation on “Building Cool: How Brazil Became Modern,” Antonio La Pastina (Communication) discussed the ways of seeing Brazil that were current in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s. He showed that in addition to being conveyed through everything from Walt Disney cartoons to Carmen Miranda’s performances, images of Brazil and things Brazilian were also associated with modernity, beginning no later than the influential Brazilian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Although no representations operated in isolation from others, La Pastina argued that images of modernity – linked to visions of “cool” – ranked high in the multi-layered understandings of Brazil circulating in the United States.