The Life of Performance Arts

What Happened; or, Finishing Live

by Rebecca Schneider

The essay begins:

When you get a pebble in your boot—flesh, stone, and leather rub, irritating each other into and out of comfort. This essay is like that. In 2012, I stumbled over a minor comment made on April 19 at the conference “Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage” at the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, curated by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson. The comment was made by Sabine Breitweiser, who at that time was the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Speaking of “acquiring actions” when “collecting” performance, Breitweiser said, almost as an aside during the question and answer session after her talk: “If live artworks are collected correctly, I believe they can acquire a patina over time.” The comment puzzled me, and I scribbled it down for memory’s sake with a question mark at the lead. What could it mean?

My difficulty was surely disciplinary. In a blog posting circulated in advance of the same conference, Malik Gaines, who was also an invited speaker, had written:

Visual art and performance are in a classic bad relationship. Art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive. But art will belittle performance in public, will call it late at night but won’t let it stay over, doesn’t really believe what performance does is valuable. Art’s esteemed family only barely tolerates the relationship. Performance stays with its more powerful partner for the money, for the stature, the trips to Europe, for feeling like it belongs to something, for fear of having to go back to that old senile boyfriend, the Theater. How else can it support itself? But performance never feels like it really belongs in art’s world. It’s always using the wrong fork at dinner.

Indeed, as a scholar of performance studies trained in a history of actions that include mime, theater, dance, and other historical forms more “theatrical” and less “object art,” I felt like an awkward guest at the dinner table in relationship to Breitweiser’s comment. I looked up “patina” in various dictionaries, but it only turned up the meaning I anticipated. Patina is

  1. A thin coating or layer; an incrustation on the surface of metal or stone, usually as a result of an extended period of weathering or burial; a green or bluish-green film produced naturally or artificially by oxidation on the surface of bronze and copper, consisting mainly of basic copper sulphate …
  2. A gloss or sheen or finish; that on wooden furniture produced by age and polishing …
  3. An acquired accretion of an abstract quality; a superficial impression or appearance.

None of these definitions works simply or seamlessly with the immediate definition of performance art as typically featuring “live presentation.” Though definitions vary quite wildly across dictionaries—some describe performance art as essentially “collaborative,” others as “solo,” some say “theatrical,” some refer to its “fine art context”—they almost all use the word “live.” And though synonyms for “patina” like “distressing” or “weathering” might appeal to tragedians or expressionists (anyone might agree that a live performance of King Lear would employ weathering and distressing), “oxidation” is less quick to comply with disciplinary orientations tuned to dance or theater. And yet, Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings might seem closer kin to live performance than the average “bluish-green film” on the skin of a local monument. Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings, or piss paintings as they are commonly known, might be read as something of a theatrical parody, making base bodily fluid the agent of oxidation. Still, might one not easily argue that patination may be standard “senile boyfriend” theater as usual? That is, the crusty monument model might resemble the standard American theater to the degree that such theater often trots out productions so encased in layers of accrued acting convention that they can barely strut and fret (spread by the deadly MFA model of training in the United States and the tendency of the professional theater to produce nothing but replicant white and male playwriting). But if this is the case, why would we desire patination for performance-based art in general?

To make a long story short, I scrapped the paper I had carried with me to the conference, and, in the wake of Breitweiser’s comment, I began to track a new set of thoughts, live, as it were. I wanted to try to respond to the notion of a patinal live, but I knew the fork I would take would be different, and I wondered, as well, what or who exactly was being served by thinking of patination as desirable. The essay that follows tracks thoughts that, like thought, do not always track in a linear fashion but overlap, change direction, cross paths, interrupt each other, get swept under, and tend toward general promiscuity. My hope is not that one thought might align with another, or one discipline with another, for in that parallelism nothing can amount to encounter. Rather, I hope that the thoughts collected here might swerve, jump, bend—we could say dance—not under protective cover of singular disciplinary orientation, but open to weathering, on the move. Continue reading …

This essay asks what happens to live performance over time: Can it develop a patina, as claimed by at least one major art curator? Are intervals between or among performances part of a work itself, like skin or film that grows in the cracks of a work? Or is performance itself a kind of patination process? In short, can liveness be finished?

rcschnei_photo__thumbnailREBECCA SCHNEIDER is Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She is the author of The Explicit Body in Performance (l997); Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (2011), and Theatre & History (2014) and editor and author of many anthologies, essays, journal special issues, and book series.

“Time Zones” Launch Event

MINDING TIME: HOLIDAY CELEBRATION OF TIME ZONES

A UC Berkeley Arts Research Center Upcoming Event

You’re Invited! Sunday, December 4, 2016
3:00pm to 6:30pm

3pm: Tour of Mind over Matter Exhibition
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Galleries 

4:00-5:30pm: Celebrating Time Zones
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

5:30pm: West Coast Preview of In Terms of Performance Website
and Holiday Reception
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

Join a time-based (and time-sensitive) tour of Mind over Matter at the Berkeley Art Museum with curator Constance Lewallen.

Converse with Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson about their special issue of Representations, “Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts,” including substantive essays on contemporary Croatian dance practice, Uruguayan art under dictatorship, the work of the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, and the visual and sound arts of China, along with reflections on durational art by Berkeley faculty, including Natalia Brizuela, Jeffrey Skoller, Suzanne Guerlac, Winnie Wong, and more.

Engage with the Arts Research Center’s new online anthology of keywords in contemporary art and performance, In Terms of Performance, coproduced with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Art & Heritage, with contributions from a range of Bay Area artists, critics, and curators such as Rudolf Frieling, Paul Dresher, Judith Butler, and Claudia La Rocca.

Launch the holiday season with a celebration of the Arts Research Center as a think tank for the arts, at Berkeley and beyond. See the full afternoon program here.

New Special Issue on Time-Based Art

TIME ZONES: DURATIONAL ART AND ITS CONTEXTS

edited by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

Number 136, Fall 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available

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SHANNON JACKSON and JULIA BRYAN-WILSON   Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts (the issue introduction; free access for a limited time)   ·   BOJANA CVEJIĆ          A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems   ·   ANDREA GIUNTA   Archives, Performance, and Resistance in Uruguayan Art Under Dictatorship   ·   GU Yi  The “Peasant Problem” and Time in Contemporary Chinese Art   ·   ANDRÉ LEPECKI    The Non-Time of Lived Experience: The Problem of Color in Hélio Oiticica’s Early Works   ·   REBECCA SCHNEIDER   What Happened; or, Finishing Live   ·   WANG JING   Affective Listening as a Mode of Coexistence: The Case of China’s Sound Practice

PlusReflections on durational art from Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Angela Marino, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong

Do we have a problem with time?

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts

by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

This introduction to the Time Zones special issue begins:

Do we have a problem with time? The we here is specific—it means not only the scholars, curators, and practitioners who think critically about twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic production and its relationship to temporality but also the small collective of the two of us who are writing this introduction together. We are a performance studies scholar and an art historian who have been thinking together about what makes questions about time so persistent, and so vexed, within and between our two fields. Duration, we have come to realize, might be the conceptual connective tissue that links these two increasingly overlapping disciplines. But “durational art” is only one of the many names that have proliferated in an attempt to bound an unboundable set of practices that frequently violate the borders of medium-specificity as they move from so-called “static” configurations into durational forms: time-based art, live art, hybrid art, intermedial art.

What happens when the same phrases—“durational art” or “time-based art”—traffic back and forth between the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) and the performing arts, especially when, in the performance-based disciplines, time or liveness hardly feels “new”? While the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic experimentation is one of ever more blurry disciplinary borders, we often find that the habits and divisions of labor within different art institutions persist. Moreover, the training of artists and of critics separates skills and evaluative barometers within different art fields. Many kinds of cultural producers may be making, curating, and evaluating “live” art work, but our sense of what kind of work it is will be different depending upon its context, whether it is housed in a museum or a theater, or whether it is analyzed by a dance critic, a film critic, or a critic of visual arts.

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts brings together six substantial essays (by Bojana Cvejić, Andrea Giunta, Yi Gu, André Lepecki, Rebecca Schneider, and Wang Jing) and nine shorter reflections (by Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong) that approach time, duration, and liveness from an array of disciplinary and regional contexts. From the affective registers of contemporary sound art in China to the politics of labor and laziness in a collaborative performance collective in Zagreb to archive-based interventions during the Uruguay military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the essays plumb the specificities of practices as they unfold in real times and physical spaces. Contributors consider how the presumed presentism of “live art” puts pressure on the demands of historicity, as well as how it reconfigures relations to art’s viewers or witnesses. The essays and reflections examine how notions of time and duration have emerged as central, yet contested, in diverse projects that include public art, kinetic body-based sculpture, dance, and photography.

Together these texts make an argument, which is that the contexts that frame durational art—whether rhetorical, or national, or institutional—matter a great deal. Where and when does a piece take place? In what kind of site is it situated, and in what moment of time does it occur? What are the conditions of its inception and its continued circulation? Who is in the audience, and who talks about it after the fact? Is it applauded, or is it censored? These experiments with time respond to the local economic politics of particular regions as well as to transnational circuits of exchange. Questions of time in art interact with larger questions of migration, capitalism, and mobility in a global world. The ephemeral quality of time-based art can address and elude the political urgencies of volatile sites. Regionally specific themes and political issues prompt artists to collaborate across disciplines in some contexts but dissuade them in others. Funding models in different regions of the world both support and limit the capacity of artists to work across disciplines. Time-based art can in some cases disrupt and in others activate the demands of a market-based art calendar packed with biennials and high-profile festivals. It both challenges and enables the consumptive models of a globalized art world. Continue reading (free access for a limited time) …

Exploring the emergence of the rubric “time-based art” across several disciplinary formations, including performance and visual art, this editors’ introduction outlines some historical theories of duration across the arts and argues for a contextual approach that accounts for both medium and institutional location.

SHANNON JACKSON is Hadidi Chair in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as Director of the Arts Research Center. Other publications include The Builders Association (2015), Social Works (2011), Professing Performance (2004), and the forthcoming online anthology of keywords, In Terms of Performance, co-edited with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009), Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (2016), and Fray: Art and Textile Politics, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

No Problem?

No Problem

by Michael Fried

This essay, from the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” is a reflection on the supposed difficulties of “description” in the writing of art history and art criticism. It begins:

Let me hoist up an epigraph, which I mean to wave brightly over everything I shall go on to say, from Ludwig Wittgenstein (no surprise, to anyone familiar with my writing): “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” Let me repeat it, the thought is so foreign to our usual assumptions: “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” I will proceed by making several somewhat general points, which I will try to back up with examples mainly from my own work.

The first point is this: I stand strongly opposed to the idea that there is some special problem—some problem of a theoretical or systematic nature—involved in describing works of (so-called) visual art. This means, to cite a famous text, that I find myself in disagreement with the views put forward in Michael Baxandall’s well-known essay “The Language of Art History” (1991), where he raises a number of problems of a general nature, the most important of which is the lack of fit, as he understands it, between the “linearity” of language and the non-“linearity” of pictures. In contrast to language, he writes, “a picture . . . or rather our perception of it, has no such inherent progression to withstand the sequence of language applied to it” (notice the metaphorics of this: “to withstand”—as if some kind of struggle is going on, with language as the aggressor; “the sequence of language applied to it”—as if slapped or thrust onto the picture’s surface; no suggestion here that a picture might welcome the right language, as if having waited for it nearly forever: think of my epigraph). Baxandall continues in the same vein: “An extended description of a painting is committed by the structure of language to be a progressive violation of the pattern of perceiving a painting. We do not see linearly. We perceive a picture by a temporal sequence of scanning, but within the first second or so of this scanning we have an impression of the whole—that it is a Mother and Child sitting in a hall, say, or a sort of geometricized guitar on a table” (459–60). We then observe greater and greater detail, including relationships among elements, but whatever our progress of seeing and noticing is like, “It is not comparable in regularity and control with progress through a piece of language” (460). Superior art writers (he mentions Giorgio Vasari and Charles Baudelaire) find ways to deal with this mismatch, Baxandall concedes. But in his view there remains a basic disparity between the circumstances of the literary critic on the one hand and an art historian or art critic on the other, for the simple reason that a literary text and our reception of it “have a robust syntagmatic progression of their own which the linear sequence of an exposition cannot harm” (460). Again, the imagery is that of a struggle, in which sequences of words seek to impose themselves damagingly on—more strongly, to violate—an artifact that by virtue of its inherent nature does its best to resist them. Indeed, Baxandall refers in these pages to “the basic absurdity of verbalizing about pictures” (461), as if the very project of seeking to do so were somehow under a cloud. (I find this a bit too British-commonsensical; why should verbalizing about pictures be thought of as more absurd than verbalizing about human relationships or, indeed, any other serious topic?) Continue reading …

MICHAEL FRIEDFried_2014 is J. R. Herbert Boone Emeritus Professor of Humanities and the History of Art at the Johns Hopkins University.  A new book of poems, Promesse du Bonheur,  with photographs by James Welling, has just been published by David Zwirner Books.

T. J. Clark Lecture

NASSR 2016 poster finalOn Friday, August 12, T. J. Clark will give one of two keynote lectures for the 24th Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR). The lecture, “Too Deep for the Vulgar: Hazlitt on Turner and Blake,” will take place at 6 pm in room 2050 of the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley.

Clark is Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at Berkeley and was a long-time member of the Representations editorial board. His books and other writings, several of which found form originally in Representations, have influenced a generation of scholars.

The NASSR conference will take place from August 11 to 14 at various venues in Berkeley. More information and a full program are available at http://nassrberkeley2016.wordpress.com/.

Fireworks from the Archive

If you need a little respite from neighborhood shenanigans this weekend, consider these two flares from the Representations archive:

Michael Rogin’s “The Two Declarations of Independence”

and

“Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” by Huey Copeland

In the former, Michael Rogin asks “What is the bearing of our radicalized national culture on the color-blind innovation of individual rights?” Discussing the American Declaration of Independence in light of the affirmative action debates of the 1990s, Rogin traces the declaration’s legacy through race relations in both the old and the new Hollywoods.

Less well known than Rogin’s other writings on race and film, this short essay appeared in Representations‘ special issue “Race and Representation: Affirmative Action,” edited by Robert Post and Michael Rogin in 1996. The issue quickly went out of print, but is now back in circulation in pdf format.

MICHAEL ROGIN was the author of many books on race, culture, politics, and history, including Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot and Independence Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enola Gay. He taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Huey Copeland’s 2011 essay “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” looks at contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s multiple engagements with the history of American slavery, particularly as evinced by his 1993 installation To Disembark. As Copeland shows, in casting himself as a runaway slave, Ligon points up the relationships between regimes of power, violence, and resistance that continue to produce black subjects as fugitives in life and in representation.

HUEY COPELAND is Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art. He is the author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America.

Artistic Relationships

Brushes, Burins, and Flesh: The Graphic Art of Karel van Mander’s Haarlem Academy

by Aaron Hyman

The essay begins:

With male bodies of deep brown-reds, and others of an eerie bluish cream, Cornelis van Haarlem’s enormous Fall of Lucifer pulses warm and cool at once, creating an energy more appropriate to a bacchanal than to a scene of damnation. The canvas’s surface is filled with naked men: a bare butt turns out to us in the foreground, knotty flesh is seen through gently parted thighs, scrotums punctuate splayed legs, and penises respond to the forces of gravity. Insects, traditional iconographic elements of northern European depictions of falls from grace, are here used to conceal genitals. Yet, ironically, the insects instead serve to fix our attention on male groins. The man standing at the left side of the canvas renders sexual innuendo explicit, as his outstretched hand leads the viewer’s eye toward two men in an overtly sexual position. Across the canvas, the strange foreshortening creates the illusion that the reclining nude in the foreground stares directly at the anus of the man who straddles his face. A penis and testicles appear to hang just inches from this reclining man’s nose.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

These are the figures of Karel van Mander’s so-called Haarlem Academy, a mysterious and posthumously applied term for an important group of artists who collaborated for a brief, but intense, period at the end of the sixteenth century. The figures in this painting instantiated a web of relationships between the members of this “academy”: the painter Cornelis van Haarlem, the engraver Hendrick Goltzius, the patron Jacob Rauwert, and the art theorist Karel van Mander. These men—a theorist and chronicler of art and his closest colleagues—quite literally defined the northern European canon as it was taking form at the end of the sixteenth century. In the year this painting was begun, 1588, the work and lives of these four men were profoundly interconnected, entwined with the sprawling, muscular, nude men of their art. It was the same year in which Cornelis painted a second, highly disturbing work—Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon (The National Gallery, London)—one that is equally important to exploring the relationships of this group. In Karel van Mander’s renowned artistic treatise, Het Schilder-Boeck, these two canvases are signaled as the high point of Cornelis’s early career; Goltzius made reproductive prints after them; and Rauwert, to whom a print of the Cadmus piece was dedicated, owned both. These works acted as nodes through and around which relationships between these men were formed and conceptualized.

Probing these works and the collaborative working conditions that brought them into being, this essay explores how making art in the early modern period could create a representational space in which relationships could develop and be worked through. With its distinctive treatment of naked male bodies, The Fall of Lucifer points toward a homoerotic dimension of the Haarlem Academy and of this type of collaborative milieu of making in the period more generally. This essay does not pursue a claim—and, indeed, dispenses with the expectation—that the painting evidences (or even could evidence) homoerotic encounters that took place between these men in Haarlem, in the world. Such an interpretive tack has become standard in an early modern art history seeking to give voice to the makers and users of art from within a silenced space of the homoerotic—or homosexual, as is often claimed post hoc for the early modern. Art historians have often proceeded from the belief, explicit or not, that art has the potential to present homosexuality, the desires or sexual practices of makers that become represented in the work of art and that might be confirmed by dint of historical documentation to verify such a reading. The charge made during the social turn out of which much of this now-canonical literature on homoerotism in the early modern period emerged was to give the picture a weight equal to that of the written word in documenting personal (erotic) experience. But if the artwork might offer the art historian initial insight into social dynamics, it is nevertheless inscribed as the historical and methodological endpoint: practices existed, they were documented, and the work of art represents them. The stake in choosing how to treat the work of art is therefore nothing less than the relationship between representation and history. Continue reading …

This essay examines the erotic works produced collaboratively by members of Karel van Mander’s so-called “Haarlem Academy” to suggest that early modern art making created a space in which slippages could occur between homosocial relationships and homoerotic practices. Hierarchical power relations inherent to collaboration, and to early-modern precursors to formalized academies, facilitated these dynamics because they structurally replicated essential conditions of homoerotic relationships. In turn, the piece proposes ways in which formal readings of works coupled with the interrogation of collaborative artistic production can help explore how works of art do more than index homoerotic relationships and, instead, instantiate them.

AARON M. HYMAN is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently the Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (2015–17) and Mellon fellow in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School (University of Virginia). His research has also been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Belgian American Educational Foundation, and the Jacob K. Javits fellowship.

Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

Image and Thing, a Modern Romance

by Christopher Wood

The essay begins:

Romance is a plot driven by interaction among willful, desiring persons within constraining envelopes of social conventions and natural laws. In romance, both the desire-shaping resistance to will and the acquiescence of the world in human ambitions are concretized in things, naturalia and artifacts alike, endowed with unexpected powers. Characters acquire, exchange, hide, and converse with rings, swords, articles of clothing, trees, birds, and the like. According to Italo Calvino, “The magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events.” Such tokens function as protagonists in medieval legends and sagas, chivalric romances, the neochivalric epics of Ariosto or Spenser, and the modern novel. “Around the object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself.” The thing arrests and then restarts the plot. Interactions with things or animals substitute for interpersonal, psychological relations when the literary means to represent such relations are lacking. The bundle of shifting desires and emotions that is a person can more easily “settle” on a jewel or a horse than on another unstable person.

In the romance, the thing provides a background against which personhood is profiled. The thing shares some qualities with persons but lacks other crucial attributes such as will, voice, or conscience. The effects of agency granted to things within the fiction intensify awareness of the nonhuman qualities of such things outside the fiction, in reality. The gem or the ribbon comes into focus as a thing, as the reduced double of a person, inside a narrative. The thing is a precipitate of story that arrives to assist the story. The thing decenters personhood and is at the same time anthropomorphic, in the sense that it stands in for something that is prior to or outside the human, but is customized by the story for human apprehension. The anthropomorphism of animal or artifact in romance is uncanny because partial.

In the last several decades the device of partial anthropomorphism, or attribution of some human qualities to nonhuman entities, has been favored within critical and historical writing across several disciplines. The project signaled by the phrase “Images at Work,” title of the conference from which the present special issue arises, is a good example. Someone who writes or speaks about what images “want,” the “life” of things, or “things that talk” would seem to be making a claim, against common sense, about reality. I am personally unconvinced that pictures desire anything, or that images think, or that things live. Awaiting better demonstrations of such unlikelihoods, I can only speculate about what people really mean when they speak this way.

In the literary mode of romance, partial anthropomorphization signals not only an awareness of the limits of narrative to convey the whole of personhood but also an awareness of the limits of a person’s ability to control his or her own destiny. Similarly, the modern critical trope of anthropomorphization signals a recognition of, perhaps even a resignation to, the limits of personhood. To speak about nonsentient things as if they were almost persons is to ironize the concept of the person. It is a way of speaking that calls attention to the way persons win unearned prestige by inserting themselves in advantageous positions within sentences. Sentences create subjects by associating substantives with predicates, including verbs. The subject is the source of the movement produced by the predicates. Grammar invites anthropomorphism, for inside a sentence or a plot you can simply replace “she” with “it,” and the verb does the rest. Sentences and plots threaten to expose the human subject as an artifact of grammar. The trope of misanthropic anthropomorphism is basically contending that people are things that have been activated by grammar. The trope is antifictional, discrediting modern stories—not just romances, but any story that exaggerates the autonomy of the person. The trope is antihumanist, if humanism is defined as the attribution of too much humanity to people. Writing reveals that from a standpoint outside writing, things would look more like persons and persons would look more like things. To redescribe reality as a series of interactions among persons and things is to replace the hierarchy of animate and inanimate entities with a nonhierarchical network.

The discourses of the “life of things,” actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology restore credence to pre- or nonmodern anthropomorphisms and animistic psychological habits. The tactical, calculated anthropomorphisms of modern scholarly discourse overturn the modern common sense that rejects animism as superstition, undoing invidious hierarchies of enlightened and unenlightened, Western and non-Western, modern and unmodern. Enlightened thought dismissed belief in an animated cosmos as a fiction permitting people to imagine that they participate in an external world greater than they are. Enlightenment was an assault on anthropomorphism, dedicated to replacing comfortable human-shaped fictions such as “God” with the impersonal laws of physics. The modern critical discourse of animism exposes hidden anthropocentrisms within enlightened thought that support an “imperialism” of people over animals, the earth, or things. The deepest aim of the new, counter-Enlightenment animism may not be so remote from those of traditional animisms, namely, to persuade each other that we participate in something greater than ourselves: if not a cosmos, then an ecology or a system.

The visual arts are well suited to this project, even better suited than the literary arts, because images, anyway, have limited means of reproducing the words or gestures that carry interpersonal relations. A simple, effective way of reducing the person is to deprive  him or her of speech. The image or picture delivers a partial person, outside grammar. Within a picture, the leveling of people and things is already half-accomplished. “In iconic communication,” according to Gregory Bateson, “there is no tense, no simple negative, no modal marker.” Modality, or open-endedness, is a key to any ambitious model of the person as emergent, contingent, and unlimited. Because art has difficulty reproducing emergence, intersubjectivity reappears within art as misrecognition and misunderstanding, as if people all along, each time they try to communicate, have been mistaking things for people. The pictorial arts, where persons and things share a mutism, give the cue to the recent critical discourses—materialist, antihumanist, and antihierarchical—that redistribute agency across a spectrum of entities. It is especially in art history, art criticism, and art theory that the anthropomorphizing discourses of the thing have taken hold. Continue reading …

This paper argues that the “anthropomorphizing” discourses that attribute agency to images and things, stressing their efficacy and power, are motivated by a perception of a lack in the artwork, or in art itself.

CHRISTOPHER S. WOOD is Professor in the Department of German at New York University. He is the author of Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (1993, reissued with new afterword, 2014).

Enigma at Nishapur

Animal, Vegetal, and Mineral: Ambiguity and Efficacy in the Nishapur Wall Paintings

by Finbarr B. Flood

The essay begins:

Between 1935 and 1947 excavations led by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Nishapur, one of the four great medieval cities of the eastern province of Khurasan, brought to light some of the earliest extant wall paintings of the Islamic period from Iran. These included a remarkable series of painted plaster dadoes found in a rectangular room measuring almost thirty square meters within a large complex identified by the excavators as an administrative or palatial structure, located in a western suburb of Nishapur known as Tepe Madrasa. The iconography of the paintings, which can be dated to the ninth or tenth centuries, is unique; although some antecedent traditions can be identified, the bizarre congeries of leaves, limbs, and scales evoked in the medium of paint at Nishapur is without any immediate parallel in Islamic art. The absence of contemporary epigraphic or textual materials that might shed light upon the idiosyncratic imagery of the paintings compels one to fall back on analogical reasoning, which suggests that the paintings were invested with apotropaic or talismanic properties directly relevant to their strange appearance. Given the lack of any related contextual data, any attempt to analyze the paintings with respect to their proposed apotropaic imagery must necessarily be speculative. Nevertheless, even such a tentative approach to the paintings may be useful in highlighting aspects of the relation between materiality and representation relevant to the efficacious functioning of apotropaiac and talismanic imagery in general. In particular, the unusual conjunction of anthropomorphic, lithic, and vegetal imagery in the Nishapur paintings raises interesting questions about efficacy, ontology, and the apotropaic image, questions underlined by the metaquality of the Nishapur images as painted abstractions of natural forms and media. Continue reading …

A series of enigmatic ninth- or tenth-century wall paintings from Nishapur in eastern Iran seems to have been imbued with amuletic, apotropaic, or talismanic properties. Recapitulating while exaggerating some of the properties of marble, the paintings also include anthropomorphic and vegetal imagery. Their idiosyncratic iconography seems to highlight a tension between physis and technē that may be relevant to the ambiguous ontology of efficacious images in general.

FINBARR B. FLOOD is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. His publications include Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (2009), which was awarded the 2011 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He is currently completing a major book project, provisionally entitled Islam and Image: Polemics, Theology, and Modernity. Other projects include a collaborative project entitled Object Histories: Flotsam as Early Globalism, for which he and Professor Beate Fricke, of UC Berkeley, have just been awarded an ACLS Collaborative Grant.