This year, we held a pair of roundtables, one on “Material” and the other on “Collective.” In the MC spirit, these write-ups were collectively written and assembled. Our thanks to all the organizers, speakers, participants, and audiences!
Material: a roundtable
The first of two MC sessions sought to interrogate the limits and possibilities of materiality, both in both in medieval art practice, and as a methodology for art history. This session was conceived, in part, as a response to a short essay by James Elkins called “On Some Limits of Materiality in Art History.” Elkins describes how material analyses eventually hit a wall, how “it becomes excruciatingly difficult to keep talking or writing when you are looking very closely.” The five short papers in this session engage with precisely this friction between materiality and interpretation, giving thought to the types of challenges that arise from material approaches, and also the ways in which attention to materiality may productively push the boundaries of art history as a discipline. The speakers engaged with a range of materials—Byzantine architecture, Italian panel painting, Romanesque sculpture, recipes for food and paint, and modern plaster casts—but they all converged on questions of how materialist approaches might intersect or interfere with other kinds of analyses, how they compliment or complicate familiar art historical concepts like iconography and affective embodiment, visuality and sensuality, the real, the copy, and the imaginary.
Marian Bleeke’s presentation “Eating Medieval Art” focused on overlaps in ingredients between medieval art-making and medieval cooking. In particular, she discussed the use of egg white and egg yolk as binders, and on the egg yolk, saffron, leafy greens, and fruits as pigments. Instead of a Powerpoint, she illustrated her talk with three tasting items; an green herb tart, a yellow saffron and egg yolk tart, and a white elderflower tart with a purple berry topping.
Lora Webb’s paper considered the role of lapis lazuli transformed into ultramarine paint in the 14th-century Erbach Panels (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), which depict a full Apocalypse cycle over two panels. Drawing on Cennino Cennini and Nicholas of Lyra, she argued that process of turning luxurious materials into paint may have resonated with events of Revelations. Just as the world must be purified to make way for the Heavenly Jerusalem, so too, lapis lazuli had to be washed and refined before it could become ground for the events of the Apocalypse in the Erbach paintings.
Alice Lynn McMichael’s presentation focused on a group of provincial Byzantine chapels. She argued that Cappadocian painters created a distinctive contrast between the materials represented in depictions of cross-shaped objects and the immaterial, heavenly realm represented by the backgrounds, which are differentiated through a juxtaposition of stylized, aniconic motifs. Using the immateriality of the ceiling, Cappadocian artists created a particular viewing experience that incorporated multiple senses, the entire body, and the full sphere of architecture, space, and matter within it. This interpretation demands that we acknowledge the ceiling as integral to a viewing experience where ideas and images are used in sophisticated collaboration rather than simply as a flat canvas.
Jennifer Lyons focused on a curious upside-down representation of the Virgin Mary, who descends from a canopy of clouds to save the soul of a penitent sinner in the uppermost part of the twelfth-century Theophilus relief from the Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie of Souillac. Lyons argued that the sculptor or image-makers of Souillac called upon a devotional object, the sedes sapientiae or Throne of Wisdom, to picture the shifting materiality of the Mother of God in the Theophilus legend. By thinking with the three-dimensional form of the Throne of Wisdom, the Souillac sculptor transposed the apparition of the Virgin Mary to the two-dimensional surface of a slab of limestone, fixing the moment when the miracle-working potential of a devotional statue was unlocked through prayer.
Julia Finch presented on plaster, a material that was often used as support or structure, a tool of the artist rather than the completed work. Plaster did not have the same permanence (nor cultural significance) as other medieval media; however, as a modern-age mimic, plaster was essential in the reproduction of medieval monuments, which were displayed as architectural fragments throughout museums in Europe and North America. The high quality plaster cast of the twelfth-century façade of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard (installed in the Hall of Architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art in 1907) and its relationship with contemporary art exhibited in the same space served as a catalyst for roundtable discussion. Questions turned to the culture of the copy, authenticity and aura, and the realness or “thingness” of the modern plaster cast in relation to its medieval stone model.
Collective: a roundtable
In the spirit of collectivity, this round-table took shape through collaboration in the space of a shared GoogleDoc, where contributors mused, mapped out their ideas, and formulated the flow of the session. What began as five distinct proposals thereby morphed into an extended meditation on collectivity in four chapters.
Chapter 1: Ben Tilghman explored the idea of networks through a reflection on his collective reading, with students, in network theory.
Chapter 2: Alison Langmead and Aisling Quigley presented their research on the use of research images by medieval art historians by means of Alison Stones’ long-standing website, “Images of Medieval Art and Architecture,” introducing us to the concept of “Google Shame” and revealing the ways collections of research images tap into the collective anxieties of the medieval-art-history mind.
Chapter 3: Karen Leader and Amy Hamlin, founding minds of the Art History That collective and “marauding modernists” enjoying their first experience of the collectivity that is Kalamazoo, led a rousing communal reading of our highest hopes for the discipline.
Chapter 4: Maggie Williams and Julie Orlemanski brought it all back down to earth with some hard-nosed “do’s and don’t’s” for organizing collective action and resistance, advice that most of us may unfortunately need to put into play sooner, rather than later.
Finally, our collective reflection on the terms “network, digital archive, art history, and collective action” produced this mini-manifesto (in the spirit of Material Collective’s own origins, and also, as Ben points out, in the spirit of medieval sententia):
- A network makes possible unforeseen vectors of happening. A network does not necessarily hurt, hinder, or help us; how we relate to other things within it determines that. A network coordinates action that does not necessarily need to be linear or hierarchical. A network exists between actors, but it cannot exist without them.
- Digital archives shape what we expect from our work; our collective stock of knowledge; a way of seeing the world; the explorations we undertake, as teachers and as scholars; and what we desire to know, say, and do.
- Organizing for collective action works best when we listen to each other, when we keep our minds and our eyes open, when the goal aims to raise every one of us up, when we learn from those who have already been fighting to flourish, and when we are honest with each other about where we agree and where we disagree, and see both as obstacles and strengths.
- WE are for an art history that can accept playfulness alongside rigor; that strengthens communities by collaborating with collectives, fostering collegial, convivial conversations; that makes recognizing our shared humanity its core objective; that animates the full historicity of its concepts; that invites many voices to speak, sometimes in dialogue and sometimes in chorus.