Author Archives: William Gassaway

Final thoughts

This being my third year in an Art History Program and my first time at the CAA conference, I feel at times like I’m still a little wet behind the ears. From time to time, I peruse the curricula vitae of my professors and stare with my mouth agape at all they have accomplished: articles, panels, books, television specials, etc. It’s a pedigree wholly unmatched by my skimpy, two-page bio. I haven’t published any papers, after all, and my dissertation topic is still nebulous at best. Outside the walls of my own institution, I’ve only presented a single conference paper, and I’ve yet to become the recipient of any terrifically generous grant. Yes, at times it’s easy to feel as though I haven’t accomplished much in my brief career as a PhD student, and I wonder if maybe I’m off to a slow start.

But conferences possess a certain knack, I’ve found, for bringing out the best in us. For example, at the Dumbarton Oaks conference last October, a scholar whom I admire a great deal introduced herself to me out of the blue one morning over coffee. (She introduced herself to me!) She said simply, “Hi, I’m S0-and-So, and I study Precolumbian art. What do you do?” I wanted to tell her, “Excuse me, but I know EXACTLY who you are! You’re the greatest! I’ve read all your books!” Yet surprisingly, I maintained my cool and we ended up talking for quite some time. In the end, she signed a book of hers that I had just bought from the museum bookstore with the inscription: “To William, who will bring new energy and understanding to our field.” A sweet but simple note, I know — but I swear my heart almost leapt from my chest!

And then a few days ago, here at the CAA conference, I witnessed one of my own esteemed professors — who is normally very composed and eloquent — sort of stumble and balk during her talk as she wrestled with technical difficulties and slides that were a little out of order. By no means did I take delight in her momentary fluster, but I did (for the first time) see that she was prone to mistakes as well. I realized that even she gets nervous sometimes and that these kinks and mishaps I so lament happen to everyone. It was a huge relief, and I definitely took notes on all the beautiful ways that she recovered herself.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, I approached a former professor with whom I had not spoken much since he wrote me a letter of recommendation three years ago. I approached him with (I’m sure) a little awe in my eyes. I told him with all honesty how much his writings and courses had meant to me, and that what I am doing today is in large part because of his influence. He seemed genuinely touched, replying, “Well, you were always one of our stars! We’re just glad to hear you’re doing well.” I then tried to offer to repay the favor somehow, offering my services if he should ever need help with archival research or something like that here in New York. He iterated rather magnanimously that, “No, please. Your success is truly repayment enough. Just keep us informed of what you’re doing. That would mean to world to us.” Wow. What a fantastically cool thing to say.

Yes, conferences provide us that rare opportunity to gather, mix, dance, and speak with one another with unusual ease of access. As often as we see each other struggle and strain to be more than we think we are, we witness one other being virtuous and grandiloquent. Absolutely, it’s a chance to see how we stack up against our forebears and the dreaded competition. But it’s also a chance to be humbled and validated. Humbled not simply because others are kind in their words, but because you realize that everyone has stumbled many times in their lives and will do it many times more. And you finally see that it’s all in how you learn from these moments, how you carry yourself afterward, wherein all the difference lies. The focus is not on becoming just like someone whom you admire, but to be the best you can be while never losing touch with those who spurred you along so many years ago. In the end, it’s not about paying anything back — it’s about paying it all forward.

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The Bachelor Pad and Its Discontents

Having never referred to my own place as a bachelor pad, I guess I’ve never been quite sure what one might – or should – look like. Luckily, Jessica E. Sewell spelled it all out for me Friday in her talk on “Seduction Machine: The Libidinous Modernism of the Bachelor Pad.”

In analyzing the physical and ideological make-up of bachelor pads in the 1950s, Sewell was able to paint a picture of how (and why) certain angst-ridden and women-laden young men of half a century ago might have crafted such a disarmingly sexy space. Emerging really for the first time and in all its glory within the pages Playboy magazine, the bachelor pad was the quintessential modernist abode: an apartment with sleek angles, an entertainment center, overstuffed swivel chairs, and a mini-bar located off the living room. Largely fabricated on the model of an all-male sweat lodge, the ideal bachelor pad of yesteryear was bedecked in leather, dark-colored wood, glossy white bathroom tile, and the latest in electronic devices. With everything frilly or precious dutifully omitted, and all unduly comfortable or “swish”-looking pillows resolutely banished, this “man’s lair” was one geared toward the sensual pleasures and entertaining. Mood lighting and music were able to be cued and tweaked with the simple flick of a switch from a master control panel hidden in the headboard of the bed, and the miniature wet bar loomed creepily in the corner. Bathrooms were envisioned as entire apartments unto themselves: a ‘layover’ from the days when the downstairs water closet was a boy’s only respite from his mother and sisters, and a room which promised hours of uninterrupted self-exploration.

Yet with all its sneaky buttons and ultra-modernist design and comforts, Sewell is sure to point out that the quintessential bachelor pad’s focus on entertainment was a bit misdirected at times. Actually, it’s entire design scheme called into question the host’s most prized possessions: his hyper sociability and ardent heterosexuality. Rather than participate in any hetero-normative act, such as having reproductive sex, the confirmed bachelor’s life revolves mostly around practicing tricks alone. With the constant petting of his vain narcissicism, coupled with the intense focus on areas of solitary pleasure within the “home,” the Playboy spread of photos highlights the actual playboy’s loneliness and his masturbatory reversions. Perched atop his entertainment center with his pipe in hand, the playboy of the 1950s is typically pictured alone in the apartment, fumbling with some blunt device in his hand. The pad is entirely emptied of people so as to more effectively diagram the rote movements one might rehearse when alone and then put into action when (and if) the guests ever arrive. And breakfast-in-bed? Well, it’s always for one.

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“(Re)Contextualizing Precolumbian Art in the Twenty-First Century”

In attempting to re-imagine the meanings and motivations behind artifacts whose provenances remain murky, the work of contextualizing objects of antiquity becomes a difficult task. To be sure, Precolumbian scholars are often charged with the job of tracing or deducing the situations in which the works they study once emerged. And, as is often the case, there are as many ways to recreate a context as there are ways to be bereaved of it. Nonetheless, it is the task of the connoisseur, student, and sometimes the scientist, to place an object within its “true” provenance – or to divest it of a false one. As presenter Khristin Landry astutely reminds us, every object has its own purpose, history, motivation and context, and the sensibilities and histories of each curator and museumgoer multiply these factors many times over. But how does the museum, student, or scientist maintain his or her ability to assign such provenances while at the same time realizing that those who have come before have always come up short? How do they know they are not flat-out wrong as well? After all, as panel chair Esther Pasztory has written, “We as scholars concoct our stories, assuming them to be the most reasonable given the current facts, assuming that our explanations are of the greatest elegance and simplicity . . . These interpretations are not necessarily wrong, but many others, similar or contradictory, can be concocted out of the same field of evidence. Such analyses verify the multivalent nature of the system but do not explain it” (Teotihuacan, pp. 66-72).

Just as there are myriad monuments that have been unearthed in strange and unexpected locations, many more objects have come to light thanks to the efforts of amateur archaeologists and looters. In either case, the places of origin of these object remains shrouded in mystery. And then there are other objects for whom ‘provenance’ has never been in doubt – that is, until forensic technology began calling some of these objects into question. Now, with the help of microscopic analysis of chipping methods and spectral analysis of mineral and pigment deposits, the eye of the connoisseur has been able to detect blatant fabrications in our midst. Outright fakes! Yes, these days, it seems, all bets are off.

Fortunately for art historians, the physical context of an object is not its only source of provenance. As Pasztory points out, every object has an intellectual context as well. And often this intellectual point of origin can be an incredibly satisfying and enlightening recourse when the physical eludes us. “Very often art is an idealized solution to intractable contradictions; a distraction from difficulties; an exhortation, threat, or seduction for culturally sanctioned behavior” (Teotihuacan, p. 72). As such, there is always a conceptual or cognitive root in every work of art, and this can tell us a great deal about shifting uses of space in the Olmec world (as in J. Mullenhauer’s talk), or the transformation of political rhetoric in the Epiclassic Period (A. Finegold’s presentation), or even the ways in which these motivations might jive in one museum but not in another (see K. Landry’s piece). Yes, the art historian of today has more histories and tools than ever before. True, sometimes they obfuscate the very things we try to make clear. But more often than not, we find ourselves equipped to tackle a greater level of nuance with alacrity and confidence. As long as we stay a bit self-effacing, we can genuinely proffer exciting new contexts that we never before imagined – contexts which, of course, may very well be upset in the near future. But we have to keep trying, because each little effort takes us a little further back in time.

Just as there are myriad monuments that have been unearthed in strange and unexpected locations, many more objects have come to light thanks to the efforts of amateur archaeologists and looters. Then there are other objects for whom ‘provenance’ has never been a question, but which are also occasionally found to be complete fakes – fabrications of the late-nineteenth century. Finally, untold numbers of other objects must still lie interred in undiscovered tombs and ancient reservoirs. If and when they are revealed, we cannot be certain that their sites of origin may ever be gleaned. All bets are off.

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“Global Art Histories/ Multiple Modernities”

The Centennial Session on “Global Art Histories/ Multiple Modernities” (Thursday, Feb. 10, 9:30am-Noon) is undoubtedly the liveliest panel I’ve seen thus far at the conference. C0-chaired by Leslie King-Hammond and Sarah Lewis, these panelists were as smitten with each others’ work as they were enamored of the topic – or should I say with the idea that this topic represented for them. While there were open disagreements among the panelists themselves as to the nature of their involvement with the global art scene, the entire event was punctuated by a lot of good-natured ribbing and poorly stifled guffaws.

As Dr. King-Hammond admitted in her opening remarks, she was not immediately jazzed to take the proscribed directive of hosting a “panel on diversity.” In fact, this former president of the CAA made it clear that she did not – and does not – wish to call this a diversity seminar (though it may still be listed that way) because, frankly, it’s a struggle which has become difficult to the point of exasperation in recent years. Using the Museum of Arts and Design’s current exhibition (“The Global Africa Project”) as a jump-off point, she and her fellow panelists invited those of us in the audience to make up our own minds as to the importance, depth or shallowness, and continued relevancy of such terms as “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Furthermore, they compelled us to question the apparent triumphs and shortcomings of any “multiple, pluralistic, and cultural-comparative” mode of art production in today’s global modernity.

Sarah Lewis presented a phenomenal talk concerning 19th-century photographs of the so-called “Circassian beauties,” women of the Northern Caucasus who formed part of Barnum’s postbellum museum exhibition and were routinely paraded as exemplars of ideal white beauty. It was through images of these women that Lewis was able to illustrate many of the ways in which the permeability of race and color (as it was imagined in the 19th century) continues to plague racial identity and scholarship even today. Nonetheless, Lewis encourages us that a continued close reading of objects of art, no matter how troublesome they may be, eventually yields a greater understanding of ourselves and of people who may be located in faraway places and centuries past.

With her very first breath, Mina Cheon heartily disagreed with King-Hammond’s opening remarks by claiming, “Well, I’m not done fighting for diversity!” She then proceeded to layout a well-reasoned and sardonic rant against the stagnant institutionalization of art education in university located across the globe today. Citing her dual role as a Korean artist and an American educator, Cheon directly contradicted Lewis by asserting that works of art are resolutely not objects, but rather are more appropriately considered relations between geopolitical negotiations. Yet, much to her dismay, the full imperative and latent power of these relational objects are routinely stifled by the rote academicism that she it today charged to embody. The stagnation of the “art institution,” she claims, allows it to “gain more power the less it does.” Her thinly veiled diatribe against such institutions as that which employs her or the CAA itself was certainly a call to arms, but one whose form and trajectory remain indeterminate.

Continuing the trend, Lowery Sims began the next installment in the session by claiming outright, “I am a victim of diversity fatigue . . . [and] I just don’t give a damn anymore!” Such a statement which was met with uproarious laughter and characterized much of the panelists lighthearted rancor concerning the current state of things. At times humorous and witty, Sims’ talk meandered through the many motivations and themes of the “Global Africa Project” mentioned earlier. Claiming that the title was supposed to be “a prosaic placeholder for a sexier title,” she and the other organizers of the exhibit became too immersed in teasing out the fascinating themes of the exhibition to think anymore about it. Her dialectic of post-colonial thought versus our “Afro-Presumptive” tradition was fantastic, and her temporal/ pro-active approach to the curatorial practice was enlightening.

Finally Edward Sullivan’s talk began with even more scathing jests directed (again) toward the institutionalization of art and the often frustrating tedium associated with conferences such as this. But I think he reflected the sentiment of the entire audience when he said with a smile, “But this was fun! You all have redeemed my love for this kind of thing!” His thoughtful and at times affable run-down of his favorite artists working today was a real treat and remained refreshingly upbeat. Afterward, Paul Chaat Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian kept the spirit alive by joking about “the latest news on Indians” and how their situation may or may not resemble that of Egyptians today. He spoke of the idea and construction of the NMAI in 2004 and of how politics are often prohibitively expensive for Indians. Indians, he reasons, participate in art-making rather than policy construction. “Art is cheap and its part of our brand,” he quipped. “We’re like the supermodels of the ethnic world,” what with the wild get-ups and feathered headdresses with which Native Americans are so often portrayed in the media. All in all, it was a fantastic talk.

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A conference in my very own backyard

Living in the city where a major conference is being held is a dream. I get all the frills and thrills of a place like New York with few of the added costs and troubles. For instance, even in wintry weather such as this, I get to experience the incredible pleasure of riding my bike to the first early-morning talks. Decked out in my tie and gloves, with a pack of books and papers strapped to my back, I peddle like mad down the wide-open trails that crisscross Central Park. Fueled by the coffee I made in my slippers just a few minutes ago, I make pit stops here and there at my favorite bagel shop or fruit stands and wave hello to the ladies opening the doors to their pastry shop. The city is wide awake and ready to start a new day!

Knowing all the back-alley shortcuts and dead-end scurries, I arrive exactly at the time I expect. No unfamiliar train routes or expensive taxis, and no second-guessing if I’ll make it there on time – just the comfort of knowing this is my town and I know all its little secrets . . . Oh, so you’d like to try some street meat from one of the nearby carts during break? Well, don’t go to those guys on the corner wearing yellow jackets: they charge a dollar more and sacrifice half the love of the guy wearing the greasy apron just down the block. Oh, you’d like to get your shoes shined before your talk? Well, don’t go to the guys in Grand Central near the Lexington Passage. They charge a lot and won’t make conversation. Instead, go to Brooks Brothers on Madison and 43rd St., where you won’t pay a dime and you can swaddle yourself in a cashmere robe while some mustachioed gentleman regales you with great stories. Yes, this city has a thousand shortcuts and twice as many comforts, just as long as you know how to find them. So stay agile and keep your head up!

But don’t be fooled, there are some drawbacks of living in the city where a major conference is being held. Not every day can be a holiday and it’s not all fun and games. After all, you’re never quite untethered from your workaday responsibilities. For example, I still had to teach a class today in the early afternoon and, as a result, had to forego a whole bevy of treasured talks. To be sure, it’s a shame to have to make such sacrifices. (Not to mention the sacrifice of trying to live off a graduate student’s stipend while living in such an expensive city . . .) But I gladly accept my duties and damages, because if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have a reason to be here. These are the very things that give me an agenda, and these are the things which afford me an opportunity to attend such meetings as these. Plus, I like my students this year. And who knows? Maybe one of them will present an amazing paper at the CAA conference next year . . . That would be the real thrill, wouldn’t it?

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