Week 9, Nanette Salomon, "The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission"

Nanette Salomon traces the roots of the art historical canon from H.W. Janson’s The History of Art of nineteen-sixty-two, back to Giorgio Vasari’s book Le Vite De’piu eccellenti Architetti, Pittori et Scultori Italiani, of the sixteenth-century. Here, she argues, Vasari created notions of the artist, art critic and canon that persist to current times, as can be seen in the text by Janson. Salomon investigates how the canon has worked to disclude women and perpetuate hierarchical structures.

Vasari founded an art historical structure which placed Florence high in the hierarchy, stressing accomplishments of High Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael. By using biography and value judgments of influence, Vasari privileged the notion of individual genius, thus giving birth to the ‘artist’. Vasari’s ‘artist’ appears to be a white, upper-class male. Alongside the ‘artist’ is produced the critic, who possesses the authority to assert a ‘masterpiece’. Raffaello Borghini absorbs this idea, but writes from the position of a connoisseur in his book, Il Riposo.

Vasari is accredited with the creation of the art academy, the Accademia del Disegno, which allowed him to influence artists to privilege qualities he declared ‘great’. Drawing from live nude models was common, thereby placing women in the role as models and men as artists, and thus excluding women from creating ‘great’ art. Vasari’s age also saw the mechanical reproduction of works, which broadened the scope of viewers and further helped legitimize Vasari’s academies.

According to Salomon, Vasari and Janson strategized a standard which worked to create a hierarchy. This standard privileged art from central Italy and classical forms. For example, Renaissance art from central Italy was accredited high value, which contrasts art of the ‘North’ which was deemed as craft and insuperior. Art from the Middle Ages and use of non-classical forms were frowned upon. Similarly, the art historical canon worked to disclude and marginalize women from its structure. Feminists are now trying to change this exclusive system by strategies of recovering women as artists and women playing an active role as critics.

Salomon argues that biography has been used to celebrate men’s artistic genius as individual and mystical, whereas it has worked to bind women’s art as being inextricably linked and determined by biographical events. This point is exemplified in the fact Michelangelo and Caravaggio’s homosexuality has not played a dominant role in the viewing of their art, in contrast to Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape which has repeatedly been a point of discussion in regards to her artworks.

Salomon suggests an interesting notion: the heroic male nude and sexualized, and passive female nude have characterized classical works to fulfill men’s homosexual and heterosexual desires. This creates a male bonding experience for viewers to share in ‘high’ art culture.

In all, Vasari generated a structure, an art historical discourse, and canon that still persist to some degree today. Salomon sums this up:
While conditions have changed, the deeper stratifications of gender,
race, and class continue to operate within the culturally expressed
power relationships he articulated. Vasari thus furnished the discursive forms that remain potent in Janson’s moment-and ours (p.355).

Week 8, Saussure and the "arbitrariness of the sign"

I was confused by the question posed in the syllabus “What did Saussure, in his famous Course on Linguistics, refer to by what he called ‘the arbitrariness of the sign?’” namely because we did not read the Course on Linguistics. So, I am therefore assuming we are to base our answer on the limited account of Saussure in D’Alleva.

Saussure thought of the sign as a type of structure, consisting of a signifier and signified. For example, a photograph of my cat would be the signifier, and my cat would be the thing signified. With this said, Saussure argues that signs are not meaningful in isolation, but gain meaning only when interpreted in relation to each other. Binary oppositions such as ‘hot/cold’ or ‘night/day’ illustrate this notion.

To get to the point, signs are ‘arbitrary’ because they possess no inherent message illustrating one clear meaning. We construct the meanings through culture and in relation to other signs. For example, an alien visiting earth would not be immediately aware that a red light means ‘stop’. There is no universal message inherently encoded in the colour red that conveys ‘stop’. He may, however, learn that red means ‘stop’ after living in Western culture for a time and observing that people halt in response to this colour. He may also learn that red means ‘stop’ by seeing that another colour, like green, conveys a message of ‘go’. So, it seems signs are arbitrary because they are culturally constructed and gain meaning through binary oppositions.

Week 5, Schapiro on Style

To Schapiro, style is a type of system of constant forms in art used by individuals or groups. Schapiro takes great consideration of historical context, as he suggests style reflects a culture; their values, accomplishments, and illustration of their context in time and space. He suggests the importance of both form and expression; as styles have common form elements, like the arch seen in Roman, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, but, the way such elements are combined and contextualized with other elements will define the style more than the element itself.

Schapiro considers how contemporary attitudes have shifted to a more relative viewpoint, allowing for more flexibility in what styles are seen as ‘acceptable’. He says, “style is like a language” (p.148), and because of this attitude, works by children and the clinically insane are now considered legitimate. Schapiro thinks the influence of primitive art style is obvious in many modern works, although the structure and content have shifted, taking on new meanings in a new context.

Week 4, Michael Baxandall, "Patterns of Intention"

Baxandall discusses the complexities of describing a picture through language. Because of the linear nature of language and the simultaneous nature of sight, an incompatibility arises when trying to describe a picture using words. He recognizes this rift, and considers the influence of our own memories, experiences, and thoughts in constructing a visual image from a written description.

Baxandall asserts that, “a description of a picture is less a representation of the picture… than a representation of thinking about having seen the picture” (p.61). Baxandall here refers to Kenneth Clark’s description of Piero della Francesca’s, Baptism of Christ which reflects Clark’s awareness of a ‘geometric framework’ which may or may not be obvious to other onlookers.

Baxandall goes on to suggest that we explain a picture by describing it with certain words that reflect the effect the picture has on us, for example, blots become ‘excited’. The words we choose are indirect and gain their meaning through their relationship with the picture. For example, the description will have a different intention and effect depending on if the work being described is present or known, just as when speaking of a ‘big’ dog, the intention and effect will shift depending if the dog is present. Through this, the meanings that arise will point to certain interests we hold in the picture.


Week 3, "What guides your own interests and experiences of reading artworks?"

Past experiences and memories
- Something in the artwork may provoke a memory: something I've seen, heard, or touched before... reminding me...

What I have read or been told about the artist, or style of the work. 'Knowledge' I have about its context, purpose... Preconceptions and expectations built around this.

My personal sensory reaction to it
- Do I feel pleased or distraut when looking at it?

My place in time and space, my culture...

Week 2, Assumptions, Belief Systems, and Myths

Cynthia Freeland's "Art Theory"

museums 'elitist' - p. 62

when westerners collect non-western art or view it in a museum we miss lots of its original context - p.45

to understand art, you need knowledge of all the theories

art from community - agrees with Dewey - cognitive enterprise
seems to agree with David Anderson - p.117

not all theories apply to all cultures
open minded, but catches herself when she's not
> 'authentic aboriginal' dance, selling CD's
she comments, 'why should he stay trapped in his tradition but not me?'

seems to favor formalist and contextualist analysis

market can spoil artworks
> believes in artist as an outsider - chpt on art markets - artists have some 'special' status

art as a 'continuous examination of our perceptual awareness...' - p.138

art is life spirit of community

we've always had art and always will continue to
- sensuous medium - Kant and aesthetics
significant form
presumption of a shared system of belief between artist, their time, and the community

relationship between art and nature - p.20
> catharsis? - spiritual awakening, paradigm shift
---> Damien Hirst and idea of death

art must have an essence

why blood and guts? - sensation, to cause a reaction

western understanding of things
> a-historicism - doesn't deal with question of time, liquid

writes as art as expression - 'art is a catalyst'
> resorts to a number of myths

Freeland seems to agree with notion that there is a universal vision that is shared by all
Professor seems to disagree with much of what Freeland argues


Week 1, Notes from "Art Theory" by Cynthia Freeland

- like paint
- human essence
- can be holy/noble
- can be contaminated/dangerous
- can indicate loss of virginity/adulthood
---> many expressive and symbolic associations

Art as ritual
- art can create symbolic value through ceremonies, gestures, artifacts; many rituals of world religions use rich colour, design, and pageantry
- BUT modern artists do crazy things with blood
---> ritual is to reinforce community's relation to God/nature through gestures everyone knows and understands
---> audiences who see and react to a modern artist don't enter in shared beliefs and values, SO how valid is the theory of art as ritual?

Maybe using blood for $ gives them edge - being eccentric, shock value, provoking controversy
- Damien Hirst "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"
- Chris Ofili "Virgin Mary"

Controversial work involving body fluids and religion
- symbols of pain/suffering central to many religions; can be shocking when dislocated from their community
- if they mix with secular symbols, their meaning is threatened

Hume and Kant
- basis of modern aesthetic theory
- both thought some works of art really are better than others and that some people have better taste

- men of education/experience would agree on 'the best' thus creating a universal 'standard of taste'
---> skeptics criticize - values acquired through cultural indoctrination

- beauty - good judgments in aesthetics are in features of artworks themselves, not just in viewer/preferences
- we label and categorize the world to function and for things to have purpose
*this reminds me of what we were talking about in anthropology, how we create categories to classify and understand the world, like "food" or "not food". in some cultures guinea pigs are categorized as food, and in others, they are categorized as pets.
- beauty has 'purposiveness without a purpose' - Kant's saying we label something beautiful because it promotes a feeling of 'rightness' or internal harmony for the mind
- special kind of pleasure - to appreciate beauty, our response must be disinterested
---> so if a viewer responds to Botecelli's "Venus" with sexual desire like a playboy bunny, they are not actually appreciating her beauty
- making beautiful art requires human 'genius'

Kant's 20th century successors
- aesthetic formalists
- Bell - 'significant form' particular combinations stir aesthetic emotions
- Bullough - sexual and political subjects block aesthetic awareness
- Greenberg - form - painting/sculpture refers to its own condition (flatness, boundaries of the canvas)

Serrano's "Piss Christ"
- a photo of crucifix bathed in golden fluid (artist's own pee)
- highly offensive to many
- critic Lucy Lippard attempts to explain/defend by emphasizing the art's content and Serrano's emotional/political commentary (contrasts Kant's followers like Greenberg)
- Serrano shows how contemporary culture is commercializing and cheapening Christianity and its icons, so it seems "Piss Christ" isn't denouncing religion, but its institutions
- ties to beautiful/violent Spanish art tradition

- secure place as 'genius' in Western art canon
- witnessed and depicted atrocities - American and French revolutions, French and Spanish Peninsular war
- made people confront the possibilities of human nature in moments of extreme crisis
- a moral perspective that Serrano didn't have?
---> no, because Goya supported the French revolution and so its assumed he has Enlightenment values, however, in works like "The Horrors of War" he makes clear there were no moral winners in the war, thus rejecting Enlightenment ideals of progress/human improvement
- Black paintings - REALLY disturbing
- Serrano not as good as Goya cause Goya showed violence to condemn it, not sensationalize it?
---> no, hard to compare a contemporary artist to a 'great master' - we don't know the ultimate judgment of history
- Goya may not be asserting a morally uplifting message, but rather saying human nature is dreadful
---> Serrano may insult religion, but coming from a moral motivation - photographing corpses to offer victims moments of human sympathy, not wallowing in own decay. So, Serrano's work has precedents in Western European canon, like Goya. Art includes works that are ugly/disturbing with negative moral content.

* Note to self - it will take way too long if you do such detailed notes, underline in texts and jot down main points and own ideas

Geometry ruled design of the church - form of cross
* I never really realized the symbolic significance of this, whoa! The place of worship actually was in form of an icon of worship; most important symbol of Christianity, the cross! Worshipping inside an item of worship!
- the square illustrates moral perfection
* everything is made of squares! ah! - a connection between everything being squares and showing moral perfection?

- argues that in each time and context, the artist creates something as art by relying on a shared theory of art that the audience can grasp, given its historical/institutional context
---> Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" couldn't have been 'art' in the Middle Ages

George Dickie
- institutional theory of art - an object is baptized as 'art' if accepted by museum and gallery directors and purchased by art collectors

Information and knowledge of context helps enhance our experience of art
Dewey - experience art of other cultures; experience will be enhanced

'Primitive' art
- loses original context when displayed in museums or collected
- the idea of the 'exotic'
- MOMA exhibit (1984) 'Primitivism' and Modern Art
---> had no info about artists, eras, cultures, or original uses - just look or form

Anthropologist, Richard Anderson
- art as 'culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium'