Looking Back AND Looking Forward: The Material Collective at Kalamazoo 2015

Well, now that we’ve all had some time to recover, can we just say that this year’s International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo was a particularly exciting and thought-provoking one? Of course, there were all the usual fun activities–the happy hours, the dancing–but the sessions and conversations left us exhilarated and energized to continue thinking about the big-picture issues in medieval studies, the humanities, and academia as a whole. What follows is a brief recap of the Material Collective’s activities, listed here in an earlier blog post. Please see the growing #KZoo2015 Blog Roll over at In the Middle for more inspiration!

In addition to the summary below, there are also links throughout this post to the live-tweeting of some of these sessions that provide additional or alternative viewpoints.

Romanesque to GothicThe Material Collective was busy first thing Thursday morning with the session “Medieval Art: From Romanesque to Gothic,” one of the six disciplinary roundtables named after sessions in the first congress in 1962. The speakers each gave short, five-minute presentations, which allowed for nearly an hour of lively and engaged discussion by the standing-room-only audience.

Sarah Thompson positioned us to think about the codification of the Romanesque/Gothic taxonomy with the publication of a series of books in the 1960s that anchored not just the terms, but their linear narrative. That codification brought with it many obligations, among them that of a developmental model, the idea of cause and effect, and the model of a biological, evolutionary, unified system. Her call to consider experience, perception, and relationships in “an era largely devoid of names” found resonance in the discussion following on issues of restoration (with specific mention of Chartres) and knowledge production.

Luke Fidler’s current research on Meyer Schapiro yielded an early, joyous selfie by the famed art historian. This self-reflective image led to considerations of the politics of terminology (differently pronounced in the 1920s than today) and the “genealogies of struggle” of race and class, nation and identity in terms like Romanesque and Gothic. Art history’s history is entangled with “soil and spirit nationalism” and turn away from Germany and the prizing and prioritization of France was reframed within its politics. A call for a “turn to unruliness” as practised by Schapiro (in his comparison of Amiens cathedral with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in an unpublished paper, for example) made us wonder where that call might take the material turn.

Sonja Drimmer gave the audience the thrill and pleasure of seeing the slides from professor Robert Friedmann’s paper at the first Kalamazoo art history session reunited onto a light table. This now-historical image made us think about the materials of our scholarly and pedagogical processes (from lantern slides to slides to digital images; from comparison to multiple), and evoked the “historicity and materiality of the canon.” Considering relationality, and The Comparison as the analytical bread and butter of art history, Drimmer’s paper presented a scroll of King Edward IV onto which unfurled a history from Creation to the new English king’s contemporaneous fifteenth century. This scroll does not fit into any of the taxonomic categories delineated by Romanesque and Gothic: its shapes, viewing, and function defy those operative categories. It, and other monuments that “don’t fit” then become a challenge to “use monuments as we use critical theory”–discussion afterwards reflected great interest in pursuing this challenge into practice.

Maile Hutterer’s paper pursued Sonja’s practice of “weaving non-conformist objects into existing narratives” with a case study of flying buttresses that appear outside the temporal constraints of the Gothic. The form art historians have come to recognize as heralding developments of the Gothic was sighted in a building from c. 1150 as well as one from c. 1570 – and there was a wonderful effect within the murmurs of the audience of a kind of house of cards falling down. What are we doing when we perpetuate the terminology and evolutionary classifications of Romanesque and Gothic? Discussion was vigorous on this issue in the ensuing discussion, especially on the tactics (new terms, new models, new monuments) that may be exercised within a shifting discipline such as art history.

Marian Bleeke ended the talks with a beautiful meditation on the crucial little words: “to” and “from”, and asked us to let “Romanesque” and “Gothic” recede a bit. Instead, she suggested that we think of the terms in their directionality – in the memo, in the gift, and in the space plotted by, for a vivid example, Google maps, with a starting point and a destination. The temporal development “from Romanesque to Gothic” was thus mapped onto spatial arrangement and invited the possibility of a shift in direction. What happens when we move “from Gothic to Romanesque”? for example? Or add stops along the way? Marian pushed us to consider how much we switch directionality in our teaching and our thinking along the “from… to” trajectory:

Don’t we as historians reverse time all the time? Don’t we in fact move from Gothic to Romanesque in particular when we are trying to get from Romanesque to Gothic and so are looking Romanesque art and architecture for signs or landmarks of the Gothic-to-come; signs that are only recognizable as such because the Gothic has already happened?

The panel was honored to have Madeline Caviness respond to the papers and she did so with a call to think through the goals of art history as these have shifted and will continue to shift. A reminder of turning points in the material history of art history (the Age of Emulsion of film and slides has been supplanted in the Digital Age), as well as in its exhibition history (the Year 1200 exhibit) recognized that shifts in terminology and temporal categories have kept the field dynamic over the past thirty years. There are, it was suggested, as many “things to unlearn” as there are things to learn within art history, and these epistemological shifts can (should) be welcomed as part of the vitality of the discipline. The field’s efforts to establish an objective analytic practice with methodologies such as iconography and evolutionary development are now met with historiographic curiosity and even questioning: what is the role of the subjective approach in art history? What happens when we put aside these objective methodologies and, as Ben Tilghman would say in a later session about art history across temporal divides, “Go to town” with our interpretations?

Sparked by the excellent comments of the panel and respondent, the engaged discussion focused on a number of related issues about terminology, periodization in art history, the usefulness (or not) of chronology in teaching, alternatives for teaching medieval art, and the relationships between teaching and research. In fact, the conversation quickly moved to teaching, which suggested that we grapple with our reliance on, and the inadequacies of, these terms more often in the classroom than in our scholarship. Madeline Caviness may have said it best: “we’re teaching something we aren’t doing.” There seemed a general sense that it would be great to get rid of these terms if we could, because of the many ways they are flawed and misrepresent the period’s rich visual culture, but others made the point that they are integral to understanding the historiography of the field. Is there a way to critique chronology, without losing a sense of historical period and earlier art history? Can you discuss chronology without implying development?  What exactly are we trying to teach our students?

Although by the end of the session little had been resolved, it was clear that these difficult questions are significant enough that we must keep asking them. They are fundamentally about the future of our field, and as such, impact everyone who teaches, writes about, or takes a course on medieval art (or art history more broadly). The engagement of the session’s audience demonstrated as well that this is an opportune moment to be thinking collectively about what kind of medieval art history we’d like to see.

Transgressive-crowdFriday’s first Material Collective-sponsored session was  “Transgressive Materialities,” organized by Heather Coffey and Holly Silvers, which posed the question, how do things transgress limits, boundaries, norms, categories? In particular, the session organizers were interested in interrogating the stigma associated with “transgression.” This was another session in which the audience did not fit into the room, and eager attendees were sitting on the stairs, on the floor, and standing!

The three papers all took different approaches to the notion of the transgressive. Amy Gillette explored the depiction of silence in Spinello Aretino’s Magdalene Banner, suggesting the transgressive qualities of visually representing the immaterial. The depictions of Angel musicians stand in for the actual song, and thus expand the function of the work of art. While ostensibly evoking “lightness and sweetness,” Gillette pointed out that if all of these instruments were actually played simultaneously, the sound would be anything but sweetness!

In “Making Marvels–Faking Matter,” Beate Fricke considered medieval bezoar stones, rare but humble objects (from animals’ stomachs or organs) that became imbued with magical and medicinal powers. In exploring the question of how such objects acquire power, Fricke argued that these stones “transgressed marvelousness and miraculousness.” Their power eventually leads to relic-like treatment, and persisted throughout into the early modern period when Jesuits began exporting bezoar stones housed in lavish containers to Europe from their missions in India. Analysis of these exotic imports reveal these to be ordinary stones, but their origin in India and their illustrious encasements gave these “fakes” the magical powers of “actual” bezoar stones. Desire for the miraculous transgressed the mundane.

The third speaker was Genevra Kornbluth, who wowed the audience with amazingly detailed photographs of an eighth-century reliquary made of bone and lead. In arguing for the transgressiveness of this object’s materiality she asserted that this apparently simple object encased in relatively humble materials was in fact a carefully crafted object made intentionally with specific materials that were not seen as humble. Bone is not just bone, especially when used to decorate a reliquary, and lead was a precious material chosen for its important associations with death and its physical properties.

The lavish materiality and through-provoking questions of this session energized a lot of audience members, including Angie Bennett Segler. Check out her Storify summary which focused on Medieval Materialism (#medmaterialism) for another enthusiastic point of view on this session (and which includes some great images of the presentations as well).

Meta-sessionLater Friday afternoon came the big “meta-session,” organized and moderated by Maggie Williams of the Material Collective. This panel discussion took the title “Medieval Originality” from the name of the first Congress, and brought together representatives from the six groups that organized the earlier roundtables. A list of 50 Questions was gathered ahead of time and pre-circulated, although in the end we didn’t get to many of them!

One of the highlights was hearing from the indefatigable Elizabeth Teviotdale, the key point person at WMU involved in organizing the Congress!

Frankly, the best way to see how the session unfolded is by looking at this summary of posts on Twitter.

Although the session was predicated on the speakers talking about their own fields, it was remarkable how much overlap there was in the comments of the panelists. So many of the issues we struggle with are shared by our colleagues across disciplinary boundaries: notions of “quality” and the construction of a canon; the continued division into specialty subfields; in contrast, our desired (if still unattained) interdisciplinarity, made difficult by the fact that we all speak different languages; how to engage early-career and amateur scholars; how to make medieval studies more diverse and global.

Despite the fact that our discussion time went by too quickly, it was really exciting that this session ended on such a forward-thinking and collaborative note. There was a strong sense that these questions are ones we should continue to think about, and that conversing across disciplines is an essential part of determining the future of medieval studies.

All three of these sessions contributed to the broader tone of this year’s Congress, which seemed to be especially energized and optimistic about the changes in our disciplines and the future of Medieval Studies. This optimism was also expressed by the excellent plenary by Richard Utz, “The Notion of the Middle Ages: Our Middle Ages, Ourselves,” which highlighted the affective turn in historical studies, the value of medievalisms including recent popular culture, and included a call to embrace and further promote alternative forms of scholarship, publishing, and thinking about the Middle Ages.

The standing-room-only attendance at several sessions was simply thrilling (note to Congress: next year can we have bigger rooms?), and we saw people in the audiences from a wide range of disciplines, implying that the mission of the Material Collective is not only important to art historians, but is a mission shared by many.

One Response to “Looking Back AND Looking Forward: The Material Collective at Kalamazoo 2015”

  1. Sonja D June 1, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    Thank you so much for compiling and commenting on all of the events, Jennifer! It’s invigorating just to read what you’ve written here, and I really appreciate that these sessions now have a more lasting presence online here.

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