The Literary Contemporary

Contemporary, Inc.

by Theodore Martin

The essay begins:

It is, in one way at least, a good time to be contemporary. In the past ten or so years, the study of contemporary literature and culture has amassed an impressive sum of institutional currency, paid in the usual forms of new professional organizations, journals, conferences, book series, and—such as they are—job searches. So too has the philosophical idea of the contemporary only recently “begun to emerge into the critical daylight,” as the philosopher Peter Osborne points out, bringing with it a “recent rush of writing trying to make some minimal theoretical sense of the concept.” Yet perhaps the most unmistakable sign of the contemporary’s ascendance as a scholarly category is that it has now become a subject for the contemporary novel.

This is not so surprising. Indeed, one of the first things to notice about the range of Anglo-American writers who, through channels of legitimation ranging from classroom syllabi to academic journals to crossover magazines, have become exemplars of the quality that English professors vaguely but confidently call “contemporary”—writers like Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, and Tom McCarthy—is that they are all intensely aware of literature’s intimate relationship to academic work. McCarthy, one of the most frequently taught and talked about English-language writers of the twenty-first century, offers an especially illuminating case study in the current entwining of contemporary literature and contemporary criticism. As both a Man Booker Prize-nominated novelist (for 2010’s C. and 2015’s Satin Island) and a published literary theorist (2006’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature), McCarthy is not only a ubiquitous topic of conversations at literature conferences; he has also become, in recent years, a speaker at those same conferences, giving keynote addresses at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture in 2012 and at the Society for Novel Studies in 2016. If McCarthy’s public career reveals the increasingly permeable boundary between writers and critics in the contemporary moment, his novels narrate the consequences of this new professional permeability. In McCarthy’s hands, the contemporary novel has become an opportunity to reflect on the academic category of the contemporary itself. Halfway through McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island, the narrator, a former academic turned “corporate anthropologist” named U., travels to Frankfurt for a conference. “The theme of the conference,” we are told, “was—for once!—not The Future. It was The Contemporary.” For U., this trending topic is

even worse. It was, of course, a topic to which I’d been giving much thought: radiant now-ness, Present-Tense AnthropologyTM and so forth. But I wasn’t ready to give all that stuff, all those half-formed notions, an outing. Besides which, I’d started to harbour doubts about their viability. These doubts themselves, I told myself in the days before the conference, were what I’d air. To air the doubt about a concept before airing the concept itself was, I thought, quite intellectually adventurous; it might go down well.

To think about the contemporary, McCarthy suggests, is to think mainly in “half-formed notions.” That is because, as U. realizes, the contemporary is an essentially empty category: its uncertainty precedes its content. Imprecise and unformed, the contemporary brooks no positive definition; it can be expressed only in terms of one’s “doubts” about its “viability” or existence.

U.’s conference presentation is, to that end, all doubt and little notion. “The Contemporary,” U. tells his audience, is “a suspect term.” It is not a stable historical period so much as “a constantly mutating space,” less a fixed moment than “a moving ratio of modernity.” The constant movement and mutation of the contemporary means that it is “misguided” to make “periodic claims” about it, since such periodizing claims “can’t be empirically justified” (100). The absence of any empirical or historical grounds for talking about the contemporary means that the term is, at best, only a placeholder for future inquiry. As U. puts it in the last lines of his talk, “What we require is not contemporary anthropology but an anthropology of The Contemporary.” If U. is not entirely sure what he means by this (“Ba-boom: that was my ‘out,’” he admits cynically), neither is his audience; his talk is, we are told, “met with silence” (101).

Yet that silence may have a familiar ring to it. While U.’s lecture may fail to engage its intended fictional audience, it should still capture the attention of many members of its nonfictional audience, for whom it will evoke, with impressive precision, the recognizable language and familiarly awkward experience of the academic conference. In short, these pages of Satin Island are as much a staging of literary criticism as they are literature. As such, they are our first hint of a novel—and, as I’ll argue over the course of this essay, of a moment in the history of the novel—that strives to be not only a novel but also a commentary on the disciplinary frameworks that, in the Anglo-American academy, determine how something becomes a “contemporary” novel in the first place.

Why does Satin Island consider the contemporary such a suspect term? Continue reading … 

In this essay Martin traces the century-long history of contemporary literature as a field of study in English departments. Showing how prior debates about the scholarly status of contemporary literature coincided with both changing disciplinary methodologies and the changing political landscape of the university, he argues that prevailing anxieties about the study of the contemporary today are central to explaining the emergence of a new kind of contemporary novel.

THEODORE MARTIN is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (Columbia UP, 2017).

New Issue, Representations 142

NOW AVAILABLE

Number 142, Spring 2018

ESTHER YU
Tears in Paradise: The Revolution of Tender Conscience

SEBASTIAN LECOURT
Prophets Genuine and Spurious: The Victorian Jesus Novel and the Ends of Comparison

AGLAYA GLEBOVA
Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

JEFFREY KNAPP
Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films

THEODORE MARTIN
Contemporary, Inc

Upcoming in Representations 143: Bettina Varwig on the physiology of a Bach cantata, Nouri Gana on the politics of affect in post-1967 Arab culture, Trisha Banerjee on equilibrium in Jane Austen, Andrew Shanken on the semantic and spatial history of the unit, and Julie Stone Peters on the visual choreography of the trial of England’s Charles I. (Coming in August.)

In the Box

A Short History of the Picture as Box

by Amy Knight Powell

The essay begins:

Paintings are small. Even those that are relatively large are still tiny compared to the world. The desire to escape this limiting condition has been integral to the history of Western painting since the Renaissance, and it has registered in talk about painting since then as well, in the dominance that the painting-as-window metaphor, with all its connotations of openness and extension, has enjoyed over the metaphor of painting-as-box, with its connotations of closure and withdrawal.

“Then it occurred to me that it could be a box in which all my works would be collected and mounted like in a small museum, a portable museum, so to speak.” This is Marcel Duchamp talking about his monographic box-in-a-suitcase, which contains sixty-nine miniature replicas, photographs, and color reproductions of his own works.

“Duchamp is involved with the notion of the manufacture of objects,” Robert Smithson chides, “so that he can have his little valise full of souvenirs.”

More willing to entertain Duchamp’s irony, Benjamin Buchloh describes Duchamp’s Box in a Valise as a critique of commodity fetishism that is still caught in fetishism’s thrall: “All the functions of the museum … are minutely contained in Duchamp’s Valise: the valorisation of the object, the extraction from context and function, … arbitrary movements in time and space, multiple ownership and privacy of possession.” The box, according to Buchloh and Smithson, is a repository for the sentimentalized and domesticated. It is made to hold discrete things and, thereby, facilitates the circulation of commodities on which capitalism depends.

Indeed, boxes travel well from place to place. (Suitcases are nothing more than boxes with the added convenience of handles. One of the ironies of Duchamp’s box-in-a-suitcase is the redoubling of this portability.) They also allow their contents to travel through time, storing them so they can be used at some later date. Each time something is boxed so it can be transported to another location, it is also readied for another occasion. With each re-opening, the contents of the box will find themselves at a temporal remove from where they were before, having missed, in a certain sense, everything that happened in between.

In this essay, I will make the case that paintings have been box-like for a long time, and that a corresponding desire to move beyond that condition has been around for a long time as well. Smithson’s and Buchloh’s disdain for the box—their preference for a more site specific and less portable and, therefore, less marketable art—is only one, relatively recent, expression of this drive. Their primary target, the modern easel picture, was already an attempt to escape the box that earlier images had inhabited, insofar as its illusionism was already a reaching for the world beyond the frame.

Seeing the longevity of this drive to escape requires taking a long and therefore necessarily cursory view. The view could in fact have been much longer. By starting my story in Europe in the late Middle Ages, I do not at all mean to suggest that this was the first time and place in which the widespread boxing of images occurred. This story could have been told on a much larger scale, both temporally and geographically. Not only is my choice of objects highly selective in this sense; it also adheres in large measure to a canon that itself entails countless exclusions. Aspects of my argument could well have been made by bringing extracanonical material to bear, but here I have wanted to work open the canon from the inside out. Continue reading …

In “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” (1948), Clement Greenberg compares the easel picture, disparagingly, to a box-like cavity cut into the wall. In this essay, I argue that late medieval panel paintings—which indeed often took the form of boxes—show Greenberg to be justified in making this comparison, if not in doing so disparagingly. But what Greenberg failed to fully acknowledge is that the easel picture had already long tried to escape this condition through the opening of the metaphor of the window. Failing to recognize this earlier effort to escape the material conditions of the box, many modernists and postmodernists, like Greenberg, attempting to move beyond the easel picture in the name of an art undivided from life, have unintentionally upheld the easel picture’s own escapist ideology.

AMY KNIGHT POWELL is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (Zone Books, 2012).

“A Ball of Contradictions”

In Search of Madame Blavatsky: Reading the Exoteric, Retrieving the Esoteric

by Gauri Viswanathan

The essay begins:

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), self-styled revolutionary mystic and, years later, adopted as a New Age guru who proudly laid claim to being a “ball of contradictions,” dared her critics to view her as a minor blip on the world stage. They knew her primarily through an odd assortment of paired labels that persisted over time: occultist and mystic, charlatan and trickster, Russian noblewoman and revolutionary, cunning subversive and con-artist guru, hedonist and eccentric visionary, ventriloquist and illusionist. However, no name was more enduring than the sobriquet “Madame Blavatsky” or, to the people in her inner circle, the telegraphic “HPB” by which she was popularly known. Her disparate name-tags have endured in mainstream scholarship as obdurate descriptions of an elusive and charismatic figure who was wildly influential in her time, but whose larger-than-life reputation is now reduced to the messianic fantasies of small fringe groups. The latter characterization has made it challenging, to say the least, to give a serious reckoning of Blavatsky’s impact on the literary, philosophical, and cultural thought of the late nineteenth century, which was considerable, albeit uneven, and occasionally undermined by an impenetrable obscurity that limited her influence to her devoted acolytes. Furthermore, her self-presentation as a vessel for esoteric communications emanating from elusive “Masters,” who were purported to reside in a remote region of Tibet, only estranged her further from people outside her esoteric circle and made her more incomprehensible to them. Indeed, her arcane use of the Masters as conduits to inaccessible knowledge often undercut her historical critiques of religion in works such as Isis Unveiled (1877). If Blavatsky ended up in an esoteric niche, it was in no small part due to her abiding commitment to the Masters as ineffable sources of knowledge, obscuring her readings of religious history, which systematically took apart textual traditions in order to critique them.

Blavatsky may arguably be one of the most important countercultural figures in nineteenth-century Europe, but she nonetheless remains peripheral in scholarly studies of the period, which have dispatched her to the nether regions of esoterica, where she is more closely associated with table rapping than rabble rousing. She plays much better in the popular imagination, appearing as a vivid subject in books such as Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon by Peter Washington, whose entertaining portrayal of Blavatsky as a fraud and peddler of mystical goods dwells on the eccentricities of her personality and the colorful antics of Europe’s spiritualist counterculture in the fin de siècle. Washington’s depiction of Blavatsky as a charlatan parlays the nineteenth-century investigations of her occult claims by the Society for Psychical Research (hereafter SPR) into late twentieth-century terms, treating her story as the defeat of outmoded magical practices by skeptical rationality. Blavatsky even becomes a kind of stand-in for a discredited magical worldview. The apprehension that approaching her outside an empiricist, rational framework comes perilously close to relegitimizing superseded practices partly explains the scholarly difficulties in submitting Blavatsky’s works to serious scrutiny, especially in light of her claims that she was channeling communications from the Masters, who, she insisted, were the true authors of her numerous writings.

In his compelling work on the complexities of writing about the paranormal, Jeffrey Kripal captures the problems in shutting out what cannot be permitted into our rationally ordered schemas, all the while recognizing the conceptual difficulty inherent in the task: “How, after all, can one have an experience beyond matter in a worldview that claims that there is nothing outside of matter? And how can one step out of a worldview that says one cannot step out of a worldview?” Kripal goes on to discuss the work of Harvard psychoanalyst John E. Mack, who became interested in ufology after working with clinical patients claiming to have been abducted by aliens. To illustrate the scholar’s predicament, Kripal cites Mack’s 1992 lecture at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference on experiences of alien abduction, as quoted by Barry Windsor-Smith: “You can’t get there from here without a shift in our worldview—a worldview that contains a ‘we’re here and you’re there’ sense of separateness in which the physical world is all that exists. . . . In other words, you can’t deal with something such as the [alien] abduction phenomenon that is so shattering to our literalist, materialist world-view and then try to understand it from a literalist, materialist world-view!” Similarly, the conundrum of trying to understand supersensible phenomena from a standpoint that upholds different standards of proof partially accounts for the difficulties in approaching Blavatsky from outside the esoteric register.

Not making it any easier for her critics, Blavatsky participated in her own self-exile. In her customary ironic mode, she helped to convey a picture of herself as an untenable set of contradictions that laid bare the “chaos of impossibilities” in the modern era, extending far beyond a crisis of faith. The skepticism that she mockingly described as a bump on her skull, fingered by a perplexed phrenologist, coexisted neatly with equally large “lumps” of belief, and Blavatsky deliberately loaded both terms—skepticism and belief—with new meanings that left the science versus faith debate flat and one-dimensional. Blavatsky picked up on a key understanding of science—that it creates systems of meaning about unseen phenomena—in order to claim that her method was closer to science than to the history of religions. Religion treats the unseen as if it has already been experienced and seen in a unique mystical event, whose visionary insight is transmitted through teachings and texts. Science, on the other hand, depends on imagining the unseen in another space and time, prior to experience. In distinguishing between science and religion in these terms, Blavatsky aligned occultism more closely with science than with religion. Partly her move aimed to give greater respectability to occultism, but she also sought to detach religion from the core of transcendental experiences and so to redefine its modern expression as a form of occultism that collapsed distinctions between mind and matter.

Molding her personality ostensibly to the demands of science, she turned herself literally into a medium for the articulation of modernity’s search for new answers to old questions. The view that Blavatsky outpaced her times, held by occultists like Denis Saurat, painted her as a romantic rebel and revolutionary, more akin to William Blake than to Éliphas Lévi. Her modernity can be more aptly placed in perspective when viewed through the lens of a clash between reason and religion. Wouter Hanegraaff has convincingly argued that secular modernity provided a context for the emergence of occultism, which can be understood, in his view, as “the attempt by esotericists to come to terms with a disenchanted world, from the perspective of a disenchanted secular world.” Speaking to and from a disenchanted world, Blavatsky, in her attempts to find a common ground between science’s pursuit of the unseen and occult studies, epitomized the contradictions opened up by the secularizing rationality of her time. A wide spectrum of intellectuals, writers, and artists were drawn to the organization she cofounded in 1875—the Theosophical Society—partly because secular rationalism failed to meet their spiritual needs, and in equal measure due to the failures of religion to do likewise. In response to the limitations of both rationalism and religion, these seekers turned to so-called fringe movements for answers to questions about matter and mind that went beyond the confines of either science or religion.

The Theosophical Society emerged from the parlor rooms of Blavatsky and her spiritual partner Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and quickly became a magnet for an eclectic group of people who were not only interested in the nature of psychic phenomena but also actively sought their roots in antiquity. A lecture in New York by G. H. Felt on September 7, 1875, “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians,” incited such avid interest that it resulted in the decision to form a society for the study of occult philosophies from antiquity to the present age. Blavatsky went so far as to claim that the organization’s origins were occult in nature, insisting that astral communications from remote spiritual adepts had directed her to form the Theosophical Society, by means of which their wisdom teachings would be disseminated to the world at large. In an effort to create an aura around the Theosophical Society as an enchanted organization, Blavatsky sought in equal measure to minimize her own role as author and to privilege mediumship as the engine of esoteric insights. While Olcott wrote newspaper articles on spiritualism that familiarized the American public with unusual activities involving mediums and séances in upstate New York and Vermont, Blavatsky boasted that she possessed the power to produce the psychic phenomena on which he reported, declaring that her abilities represented true spiritualism, in contrast to the chicanery exposed in Olcott’s reporting. Blavatsky’s effort to distance herself from theatrical spectacle and affiliate her mediumship to spiritualism’s roots in the secret teachings of the adepts, however, was far from successful in those early years, and she remained under a cloud of suspicion that led to lengthy investigation by the SPR.

Theosophy, the philosophy espoused by the Theosophical Society, was a cosmopolitan movement that acquired adherents around the world, where it flourished independently and had a life beyond the society. Theosophy developed in reaction to orthodox Christianity, seeking the roots of spiritual life not in dogma but in an experiential religion recapturing a non-deity-centered, pantheistic theology. Its appeal lay in finding a common ground between many world religions, without necessarily subscribing to the tenets of any one particular faith. Theosophy and other occult movements played a major role in the crisis of culture and conscience in fin-de-siècle Europe, reflecting changes in the status of not only science but also Christianity. Theosophy gained some legitimacy in scholarly circles because it was helping to make available Eastern texts at around the same time that Western scholars were researching Hindu and Buddhist literature. However, unlike other countercultural movements that became part of the mainstream, Theosophy remained at the fringes and was perceived as too enveloped in arcane symbolism and wild sleights of hand to be anything more than an eccentric movement. Yet, despite being at odds with the prevailing worldview and establishment culture, Theosophy was part of a broad search for a new world conception, exploring psychic and spiritual states that defied rational, positivist comprehension. In Theosophy artists and intellectuals found a new vocabulary for discussing topics that could no longer be discussed in the existing terminology of theology or science, although this did not mean that thinkers who were drawn to Theosophy necessarily stayed with the movement. Some in fact, like George Bernard Shaw, turned fiercely antagonistic. But for painters like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian and poets like James Cousins, Æ (George William Russell), and W. B. Yeats, Theosophy contained a cache of imagery that helped them move far beyond the limiting Kantian categories of time, space, and causality. From such images they could develop a nonrepresentational abstract art to convey spiritual and psychic realities that remained unseen and unknown, bringing into play the insights of science to explicate living organisms that remained invisible to the human eye.

Theosophy attracted these creative thinkers and intellectuals because it offered a philosophy that approached consciousness as a substantive rather than transcendental phenomenon. At the same time, its resistance to a materialistic ethic appealed to those dissatisfied with socialism’s failed promise. Positing one substance and no separate God, Theosophy’s pantheistic orientation helped to overcome the vexing problem that a supposedly merciful God can also be the source of suffering. While the unresolved contradictions in the Christian conception of God led many intellectuals to atheism, Theosophy’s decentered divinity encouraged an alternative route for those still suspicious of atheism’s unreconstructed nihilism. At the same time, Theosophy permitted them to salvage the pre-orthodox aspects of Christianity found in the early mysteries, alternatively dubbed “esoteric Christianity.” Furthermore, Theosophy’s interest in the formation of consciousness lent itself to evolutionary theory, which supported the modern teleology of progress and the fulfillment of a world plan. Theosophy presented itself as a quasi-religion that satisfied spiritual drives while grounding them in the biological development of human consciousness, from insensate matter to thinking subject. In part, this accounted for its attraction to people in professional fields looking for new forms of religion not founded on faith alone, which would also be amenable to the tools and techniques of science. Continue reading …

Widely considered to be one of the most influential occultists of modern times, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91) was equally a cultural critic and theorist of religion. This essay examines Blavatsky’s reading practices and the interpretive protocols she followed in challenging the hegemony of certain knowledge structures, whose origin she located in religious orthodoxy. Her extensive writings emphasized that skepticism has its source not only in modern science but also in the heterodox religious philosophies banished or superseded by doctrinal religion. A key point of her critique was that dominant religions consigned competing theories of the world to oblivion by denouncing them as heresies or blasphemies. These so-called heresies were, for her, lost or esoteric knowledge, just as magic was a placeholder for religious debates erased from the historical record. Maintaining that the dislocated past can only be salvaged by nonrational experiences, Blavatsky shifted the weight of truth from the exoteric to the esoteric, thereby creating a space for the recovery of core meanings through such eclectic means as memory, imagination, and the paranormal faculties.

GAURI VISWANATHAN is Class of 1933 Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the South Asia Institute at Columbia University. She is the author of Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Columbia University Press, 1989; 25th anniversary edition, 2014) and Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1998). Her current work is on genealogies of secularism and the writing of alternative religious histories.

 

Tut’s Travels

Tutankhamun in West Germany, 1980–81

 by Mario Schulze

The essay opens:

When I began my research on the Tutankhamun exhibitions, I repeatedly came across one remarkable motif in the archives: quite a few of the remaining photos of the exhibition show the golden funeral mask of the famous ancient Egyptian pharaoh, the most important piece of the exhibition, facing at eye level a high-ranking representative of the country in which the exhibition was then appearing. These pictures call to mind a diplomatic meeting of two states or a state visit across time. Instead of the mandatory handshake between the two leaders, the photos give the impression of eye contact between the Egyptian mask and the queen of England or the presidents of the United States or the Federal Republic of Germany. The photos portray the Western leaders not as connoisseurs in the act of examining a work of art but as reverential admirers of a foreign leader. When the leaders are joined by experts, as in the photograph of President Jimmy Carter with the director of the National Gallery in Washington, John Carter Brown, the experts appear redundant. It looks as if Carter is not even listening to Brown but communing instead with Tutankhamun. In Germany, this connection between the leader and the artifact was so evident that the popular tabloid Bild even expressed concerns about why the German president stood so far away from the mask during his visit. The explanation, that the president was farsighted, made it clear, nonetheless, that this was an intimate meeting between two leaders. All of these pictures suggest that Tutankhamun’s golden mask was more than just a beautiful, awe-inspiring artifact; it was an ambassador.

There have been several exhibitions of objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun since its famous discovery by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. The best known, and the one of interest here, is the Treasures of Tutankhamun tour of 1972 – 1981. At first fifty and then fifty-five tomb artifacts were exhibited in the United Kingdom (London); in the Soviet Union (Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev); in seven cities in the United States; in Toronto, Canada; and, finally, in five cities in the Federal Republic of Germany, where it was renamed Tutanchamun. The 1970s world tour is considered the most popular exhibition of all time, having broken records for attendance at almost every participating museum—records that for the most part still stand today. Especially in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany the “King Tut” show became a pop-cultural phenomenon: “Tutmania.” The exhibition received massive news coverage from tabloids and broadsheets alike. Even on TV, King Tut was everywhere. Although large-scale art exhibitions with hundreds of thousands of visitors had taken place as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the Tut exhibition was the prime example of a new exhibition genre. It became “the ultimate blockbuster,” as the director of the New York Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving, wrote in his memoir. The exhibition was highly successful not only in terms of visitors and media coverage but also because it produced huge revenues for Egypt, which lent the touring objects, and for museums and tourist industries around the world. As such, the 1970s Tut exhibition is interesting on many levels: in its expression of a new exhibition boom, in its exemplification of the postmodern commodification of culture, and in the negotiation of the gender relations and racial identities that intersected in the course of the exhibition.

In this essay I am concerned with the diplomatic dimensions of the blockbuster. News reports on the Tut exhibition often pointed out that the objects, and particularly the gold mask, were not simply museum artifacts but objects of ambassadorial status. The small German newspaper of Southern Schleswig explicitly headlined: “Tut—Egypt’s Special Ambassador.” Other newspapers celebrated the mask as the “King of Egypt” and representative of Egyptian state power. They reported on the way the mask was treated as a state guest, transported by the Luftwaffe (German airforce), and continually guarded by Egyptian and German security forces.

The political charge of the objects was obviously an integral part of the massive appeal of the show in the Western world. But it is not for political reasons alone that the ambassadorial status of museum objects deserves a closer look in the context of the contemporary history of exhibitions. How did Tutankhamun’s grave goods become ambassadors? Or, to put it more broadly: what is the state-political dimension of traveling museum objects and, in particular, of very mobile and world-famous star objects? Continue reading …

Schulze’s essay tells the diplomatic history of the Treasures of Tutankhamun touring exhibition, the most successful exhibition of all time, and its engagement in West Germany. It argues that the exhibition ascribed an ambassadorial role to its objects and used them as a tool of diplomatic propaganda. While the visit of the objects was promoted as an attempt at cross-cultural understanding, the interpretation and commodification of the exhibits also served to justify the West’s appropriation of Egypt’s natural and cultural resources.

MARIO SCHULZE is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Zurich University of Arts. As member of the research group “Mobile Objects,” a project of Humboldt University’s Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Image, Knowledge, and Gestaltung at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, he is writing a book on the Tutankhamun exhibitions.

Blockbuster Diplomacy

The Splendor of Dresden in the United States, 1978–79

by Alice Goff

The essay begins:

On June 1, 1978, The Splendor of Dresden: 500 Years of Art Collecting opened in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. At the entrance to the massive exhibition, two life-size mannequins on horseback, outfitted in ornate armor, lunged at each other in mid-joust: a preview for visitors of the spectacular onslaught of cultural objects across twenty-two galleries in the brand new East Building beyond (fig. 1). The impact of Splendor was both political and aesthetic. This was the first major loan of art from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the United States, initiated immediately after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries just four years earlier. Billed as a grand gesture of cultural exchange in the spirit of the Helsinki Accords, the exhibition was the product of unprecedented collaboration between American and East German museum officials in an environment of intense mutual suspicion at the highest political levels. The gradual erosion of détente in the late 1970s set the stage for a telling opening scene: the dinner planned to celebrate the exhibition’s installation in the National Gallery was deferred to accommodate the NATO summit taking place concurrently in Washington. At the same time that NATO delegates were committing to increase defense spending in response to Soviet military advantage in central Europe, their wives, hosted at a preview tea by First Lady Rosalynn Carter, were among the exhibition’s first visitors.

Beyond the strained political environment from which it emerged, Splendor was a spectacle in its own right, exceeding standards of scale and expense even in an age of blockbuster exhibitions. The 702 objects on display, works of fine and decorative arts from eight of Dresden’s state museums, formed by many accounts the most ambitious exhibition ever mounted by an American institution. Insured for an extraordinary $81 million, Splendor was among the first exhibitions to be partially indemnified by the US government under the 1975 Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act. In addition to funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the cost of the enterprise was funded by a $750,000 grant from International Business Machines (IBM), the largest-ever corporate contribution to a cultural project in the United States at the time. Over the course of a year, Splendor traveled from Washington to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, attracting 1.5 million visitors and widespread national and international press coverage before its return to Dresden in June 1979. “I wore out my eyes,” confessed the Branson Beacon’s Helen C. Saults of the endless galleries of artworks, from Cranachs, Rembrandts, and Friedrichs to ostrich-egg tankards, gem-encrusted mirrors, astronomical clocks, and filigreed automata—not to mention towering arrays of porcelain, weaponry, and bronze sculpture. The New York Times art critic John Russell concurred: “It is by universal agreement the most intelligently conceived, the most inventively presented and, room by gorgeous room, the most seductive exhibition of its kind ever to be seen in this country.”

The lavish scope of The Splendor of Dresden was an expression of the firm belief, common to its American and East German organizers, in the utility of fine art to Cold War foreign relations. Splendor joined numerous other exhibition initiatives during the 1970s that exploited the public forum of the art museum as a stage for the performance of mutual understanding on one hand and cultural superiority on the other. As David Caute argues, while the Cold War was a conflict between opposing world powers, it was also a contest over a shared cultural field located broadly in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. An 1823 bust of George Washington included in the gallery on neoclassicism is a case in point. Commissioned from a Dresden sculptor by a Saxon merchant who had served as a volunteer in the Philadelphia militia, the bust was to stand for a liberal republicanism common to Saxon and American cultural traditions in the nineteenth century: “a work of remembrance and respect,” in the words of the exhibition’s principle organizer in Dresden, Joachim Menzhausen. As the catalog noted, the bust was based on an illustration of Antonio Canova’s 1821 statue of Washington for the North Carolina State House. Incidentally, because Canova’s statue had been destroyed when the state house burned in 1831, and had only been replaced with a marble replica in 1970, the Dresden bust served as a unique referent to a work of American cultural heritage since lost. The collections on view in Splendor established Dresden’s artistic wealth in terms that American audiences could easily appreciate; they also sought to prove socialism’s unmatched capacity as a steward of the artifacts of the Western cultural canon.

For the East German officials who were largely responsible for Splendor’s conceptual framing, the role of art in political performance was not only the exhibition’s guiding premise but also its central theme. This was among the first exhibitions to focus on the history of collecting, narrating the shifting fortunes of notoriety and prestige won through the production, acquisition, and display of art over five hundred years. In the catalog, published by the Metropolitan Museum but authored entirely by curators from the Dresden museums, this story unfolded according to a Marxist-Leninist narrative, with socialism as the last stage in a long dialectical process of progress and retrenchment. Catering to American audiences, “for whom every communist dialectic is foreign,” this trajectory was both conventional and understated. From the curiosity cabinets of the sixteenth-century electors to the grandiose collections of the absolutist monarchs, through the rationalized public museums of the bourgeoisie, and culminating in the rise of fascism and the total destruction of Dresden’s architectural heritage and near annihilation of its art collections by American and British bombs in February 1945, the socialist state emerged from this history as its logical end and proper keeper. “We recognize the creative conservation of our humanistic cultural heritage in the hands of the working class,” wrote Manfred Bachmann, general director of the State Art Collections of Dresden in his prefatory statement. While the objects on display transformed the splendor of the past into the splendor of the present, they also showed the very concept of splendor itself to be a historical construction: dynamic, contextual, and contingent on the political convictions of their owners.

The following pages offer a tour of three focal galleries in The Splendor of Dresden that demonstrate how East German political aspirations, historical imagination, and diplomatic maneuvering shaped the story of art collecting at work in the exhibition’s design and reception. This was a conception of splendor as fragile as it was complex, as the Washington Post noted: “It is ironic that a socialist state should dazzle us with the spoils of absolutism.” The title of the show might more appropriately be “The Splendor that was Dresden,” quipped the Wall Street Journal. To make the cultural wealth of early modern Saxony reflect the political prestige of the East German state for Western audiences was the exhibition’s central challenge. Fully cognizant of the conceptual risks, curators from Dresden worked with their American collaborators to create an exhibition that was as concerned with the perils of splendor in the past as with its promise in the present. In the first gallery, we encounter a history of the destruction of Dresden that established the enduring fragility of its cultural wealth; the second gallery presented the virtues of the unaffected pursuit of knowledge sheltered from the taint of statecraft; the fifth transformed the excesses of princely collecting in the baroque into a new model of cultural diplomatic exhibiting. Throughout, splendor emerged as a historical problem, even as it remained for East German organizers the primary instrument through which its cultural political goals could be achieved. Continue reading …

“The Splendor of Dresdenwas an astonishingly lavish blockbuster exhibition loan from the German Democratic Republic to the United States between 1978 and 1979. Yet the history of its conception and execution reveals the tensions and ambivalences that underwrote cultural diplomatic efforts in the era of the Helsinki Accords, even those at the grandest scale.

ALICE GOFF is a historian of German cultural and intellectual life in the modern period. She is Assistant Professor of History and the College at the University of Chicago.

Sweet Science

Join Amanda Jo Goldstein for a discussion of her Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life

Wednesday, Apr 11, 2018 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm in the Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Today we do not expect poems to carry scientifically valid information — but this was not always the case. In Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (Chicago, 2017),  Amanda Jo Goldstein explores how Romantic poetry served as an important tool for scientific inquiry. She argues that the work of authors such as William Blake and Percy Shelley makes a compelling case for poetry’s role in the perception and communication of empirical realities.

Amanda Jo Goldstein is Assistant Professor of English at UC Berkeley specializing in Enlightenment and Romantic literature and science, with particular interests in rhetoric and poetics, pre-Darwinian biology, and materialist theories of history, poetry, and nature. A version of her Sweet Science chapter “Growing Old Together: Lucretian Materialism in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life” was first published in Representations in 2014.

Presented by the Townsend Center for the Humanities

Is literary criticism political?

The Politics of Literary Criticism Now

A Panel on Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History

April 5 | 6-8 pm | 315 Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley

With Stephen Best, Catherine Gallagher, David Marno, Joseph North, and Namwali Serpell

People in today’s literature departments often assume that their work is politically progressive, especially when compared with the work of early- and mid-twentieth-century critics. In Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North argues that when understood in relation to the longer arc of the discipline, the current historicist and contextualist mode in literary studies represents a step lo the Right. Since the global turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all the major movements within literary studies have been diagnostic rather than interventionist in character; scholars have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing culture, but they have retreated from systematic attempts to transform it. In this respect, the political potential of current literary scholarship compares poorly with that of earlier critical modes, which, for all their faults, at least had a programmatic commitment to cultural change. Yet neoliberalism is now in crisis – a crisis that presents opportunities as well as dangers. The creation of a genuinely interventionist criticism is one of the central tasks facing those on the Left of the discipline today.

Cuban Corals in East Berlin’s Natural History Museum, 1967–74

Cuban Corals in East Berlin’s Natural History Museum, 1967–74

by Manuela Bauche

The essay begins:

On October 7, 1974, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) turned twenty-five. Among the events commemorating this anniversary was a temporary exhibition that opened within East Berlin’s Natural History Museum, the Museum für Naturkunde. The show, entitled Forschung im Museum (Research at the museum), aimed to give an overview of the diversity of research conducted at the GDR’s most important natural history museum during the first quarter-century of the republic’s existence. Included was an impressive exhibit: a coral-reef diorama. The exhibition occupied one room on the ground floor of the museum. Depending on which side visitors entered, the diorama would be either the first exhibit they encountered or, after a long row of glass cabinets bearing information and evidence of the museum’s research activities, the last. The diorama’s plain chipboard wall was three meters high and five meters wide. In its center, a glass window invited visitors to peek inside. Within could be seen a submarine landscape: a slope of sand-colored coral rock, which, while slightly rising up toward the surface of the water, disappeared into the depth; ball-like corals with delicately grooved yellowish and brownish surfaces strewn about the sea floor; in the foreground, a group of bright blue fish, all heading in the same direction, eyes seemingly fixed on an invisible goal; and a small black and yellow fish coming toward them. On the lower left, a gaping hole in the rock formation revealed a glimmering blue, foreshadowing deeper waters and allowing yet another fish entrance into the coralline world.

The new exhibit fascinated Berliners. The press praised it as a “gorgeously colorful, lifelike detail of a Cuban bank reef,” at times even omitting the fact that the diorama—made of dried and dead coral specimens, fish casts, plaster, steel, and glass—in fact was a waterless representation of a reef. Indeed, newspapers proudly announced that the Museum für Naturkunde now held “a coral reef with colorful flora and fauna” that showed a “confoundingly colorful life, diverse in terms of both forms and species, in the midst of bizarre coral formations.” But just as fascinating as the diorama itself was the process of its coming into being. Its construction had entailed experimentation with different types of dyes, inventiveness in the face of scarce resources, and, of course, the application of technical skill and patience.

In 1967, even before the construction of the diorama, a team of researchers from Berlin had conducted an ambitious expedition to Cuba to collect corals and make casts of the fish that would form the centerpiece of the exhibit. After an Atlantic crossing of more than nine weeks, two scientists, two preparators from the Museum für Naturkunde, a doctor, and a seaman from the GDR’s Society for Sports and Technology (Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, GST) reached Havana. With them more than seventy boxes of equipment, several small boats, and a truck were unloaded. There they joined four divers from the GST who had arrived by plane and had already set up an expedition camp on the island’s north shore, seventy kilometers east of Havana, at a spot called Arroyo Bermejo.

The expedition’s aim was to collect enough corals and other specimens from the reef lining the shore to reconstruct a ten-meter-long section in the Museum für Naturkunde’s exhibition. Over the course of three weeks, the GST divers towed a raft to the reef that paralleled the shore at a distance of a few hundred meters, dived into the reef to break corals out of the chalk structure, lifted them to the raft, and delivered them to the expedition camp. The museum staff then scattered the corals on the beach to dry, clean, and gradually pack them into the boxes they had taken care to bring with them from Berlin. In the end, forty-one boxes of approximately six to ten tons of reef material were shipped to the GDR. Seven years later, instead of the envisaged ten-meter-long reconstruction, [a much smaller] diorama . . . was realized.

To understand the significance of the expedition, it must be seen in the context of the diplomatic ties established between Cuba and the GDR in the fields of science and education. In 1962, only three years after the Cuban Revolution, the University of Havana and East Berlin’s Humboldt University had agreed on a joint “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” that allowed for a regular and systematic exchange of students, lecturers, scientists, and publications. Beyond this, a number of other points of collaboration were established between scientific institutions in the two countries: in 1966, the “Tropenforschungsinstitut Alexander von Humboldt” (Alexander von Humboldt Tropical Research Institute) was founded as a joint institute of the Cuban and GDR academies of sciences; and, from 1974 on, botanists from the universities of Jena and Berlin and scientists from Havana’s National Botanical Garden worked, in bi-annual expeditions, toward a comprehensive register of Cuba’s flora. The Cuban side had been particularly interested in establishing these kinds of international collaborations, hoping that they would help to build the scientific capacities urgently needed in the newly founded republic. Among the socialist states with which Cuba maintained scientific relations, the GDR ranked second—after the Soviet Union and ahead of Bulgaria. From a GDR perspective, Cuba was an important partner for activities that needed a tropical environment, as it was one of the few tropical socialist countries and thus politically accessible to the East German state.

Looking at the exhibition—in which only a small portion of the material collected ultimately appeared (in the diorama), and then only several years after the trip to Cuba—it is striking that the museum did not feature the idea and practice of socialist friendship more prominently, especially since Cuban divers, too, had taken part in the endeavor. Indeed, the anniversary of the country’s founding might have provided a perfect opportunity to highlight the importance of this political framework. The only hint of the existence of the expedition itself was a map of Cuba, on which the place where the corals had been collected was marked. Apart from this, the exhibition focused solely on educating the public on the biology of corals and the formation of coral reefs, its descriptive panels detailing the museum’s “coral-reef research in Cuba,” in conformance with the exhibition’s overall agenda of presenting examples of the museum’s research. The special Cuban-GDR relation that had provided the foundation for the genesis of the diorama remained invisible.

Why did the Museum für Naturkunde opt to present Cuban corals in this particular manner? What happened to socialist internationalism along the (corals’) way? In their contributions to this Representations forum, Alice Goff and Mario Schulze show that international diplomacy was an important precondition for the transfer of objects across national boundaries, and that both the design and the planning of exhibitions were at times intimately linked to global political realities such as Cold War competition. In what follows, I examine the effect of global politics and diplomacy on both the coral-reef expedition of 1967 and the 1974 display of the diorama that resulted from it. I will show that although bilateral agreements were an important precondition for both projects, informal contacts between players beyond the political field were at least as crucial. I question the assumption that objects that crossed political and state borders during the Cold War for exhibition purposes were always and as a matter of principle intertwined with high-level diplomacy, that they would necessarily carry political meaning or act as “ambassadors” in international relations. Instead, I show that although the appropriation and transfer of objects could not have been accomplished without a diplomatic framework, it could just as easily come about as a result of contacts between players operating beyond the official political field, in this case divers from the GDR and Cuba.

In this way, my account of the history of the coral-reef diorama also departs from the popular depiction of political and cultural life within socialist countries, and of exchange between them, as generally being organized from the top down and rigidly controlled. Instead, I join with current research that argues for a more complex idea of what “socialist friendship” meant on the practical level and shows that transnational exchange between socialist countries at times occurred beyond high-level politics. Continue reading …

This essay reconstructs the history of a coral-reef diorama, the outcome of a German Democratic Republic expedition to Cuba, that was displayed in East Berlin’s Natural History Museum in 1967 on the occasion of the GDR’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The essay investigates how the practice of socialist internationalism influenced the diorama’s coming into being, arguing that while official diplomatic relations between Cuba and the GDR were a prerequisite for the expedition, nongovernmental contacts were central to both the initiation and execution of the project. It also demonstrates how the diorama’s display was informed more by national and institutional concerns than by the rhetoric and policies of internationalism.

MANUELA BAUCHE is a historian and postdoctoral researcher at Berlin’s Natural History Museum. Her research interests lie in the global history of life sciences and scientific expeditions in the twentieth century.

 

 

 

Objects as Ambassadors

The Object as Ambassador: Exhibitions in Contemporary History

a Representations special forum

with an introduction by Alice Goff

The [essays here address] the exhibition as an instrument of German Cold War politics during the 1970s. This was a decade of transformation in both the museological and the cultural political fields. Beginning in the late 1960s, museums addressed a widely understood global crisis of relevance by rethinking the technologies of exhibiting with social engagement, popular entertainment, and commercial success in mind. In 1972 the Basic Treaty, and three years later the Helsinki Accords, established cultural exchange as an explicit priority of détente both between East and West Germany and on an international scale. In an environment of heightened attention to the power of the museum in contemporary life, the international traveling exhibition became a newly valuable opportunity through which state and nonstate actors could stage foreign political priorities, establish economic relationships, demonstrate diplomatic goodwill, and communicate ideological commitments to broad publics. The core premise of these exhibitions’ cultural diplomatic missions was that the objects within them would serve as ambassadors, embodiments of political identities, on one hand, and bridges across these entrenchments, on the other. In this way, the museum exerted itself as an institutional broker of foreign relations through, but ultimately beyond, its particular cultural purview. Continue reading …

MANUELA BAUCHE

Cuban Corals in East Berlin‘s Natural History Museum, 1967–74: A History of Nondiplomacy

ALICE GOFF

The Splendor of Dresden in the United States, 1978–79

MARIO SCHULZE

Tutankhamun in West Germany, 1980–81

ANKE TE HEESEN

On the History of the Exhibition