Social Theory and the Realist Impulse in Nineteenth-Century Art

Apprehension of the social can be effected conceptually through theoretical reflection on social formations and the structures underlying them—as in the body of thinking variously described as social theory, political economy or sociology. The picturing of the social, though, generally operates in a different mode. In the Realist or Naturalist forms of picturing dominant in later nineteenth-century depictions of modern life, the scene or situation was designed to be apprehended by the viewer as a directly experienced physical reality. An existential awareness of the social, experienced at a level that was not fully conceptually articulated, was where visual art’s picturing came into its own.

Mallarmé and Impressionism in 1876

“Air” for Mallarmé suggests not only atmosphere or ambient space and the instantaneity and fleetingness of appearance and visibility, but also nothingness, silence, and a sous-texte rhythm or spacing, the “air or song” beneath the “text” of the painting. Invisibility, non-signification, and the not-now are also key to Mallarmé’s understanding of the “truth” of Impressionism. How might this “truth” manifest itself in particular Impressionist paintings?

Modernism and the Green Baize

All of the mundane, even offensive qualities of green baize, its resolute materiality, its potential toxicity, its decelerating and silencing effects on items of play, its easiness on players’ eyes, its associations with the bourgeois interior, and with forms of leisure such as billiards and gambling that were increasingly moralized and pathologized, turned up in Kandinsky’s full-throated rejection of green as bourgeois and cow-like.

In Defense of Painting:
Delacroix's Lion Hunt at the 1855 Exposition Universelle

The claims about Delacroix’s allegiance to l’art pour l’art were not new: critics had been accusing him of this tendency as far back as 1834. In that sense, Lion Hunt is indeed retrospective, in Delacroix’s lifelong embrace of the materiality of the painted canvas. But there was more to this question of art for art’s sake than a simple reiteration of a preferred stylistic mode. More than mere formalism, Delacroix’s fascination with the material nature of the pictorial surface had a deeper resonance in 1855, one that engaged with traditional aesthetic practices, contemporary realism, and modern technologies of vision.

What Materialist Black Political History Actually Looks Like

By (University of Pennsylvania)

There is no singular, transhistorical “Black Liberation Struggle” or “Black Freedom Movement,” and there never has been. Black Americans have engaged in many different forms of political expression in many different domains, around many different issues, both those considered racial and not. They have engaged in race-solidaristic formations and in close concert with others, in class-based and multiclass alliances.

What Hegel Would Have Said About Monet

The question I promised to pose in this essay was whether we have an art—a nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century art—to which Hegel’s descriptions of world and consciousness can be seen to apply. I seem to be saying that they only apply, in the art I take seriously, in the negative—they are what French painting is out to annihilate. But for Hegel’s view of things to be worth refuting in this way—with Matisse’s special vehemence—surely in the first place there must have been pictures that exemplified it strongly, beautifully. And yes, there were.

Cézanne Photographic

How to represent—or, better, to create—“sensation” in a painting? The challenge was to introduce the experience of external and internal simultaneously. Further complication: the demand would have to be met without losing the active presence of the living artist, that is, without reducing the process to a mechanism. A problem for photography: even when it exhibited blur, it suffered the slur of appearing mechanistic. A satisfying image of nature would need to incorporate, on the one hand, nature’s essential animation, and, on the other hand, the animation associated with the living, sensing being of the artist—the artist as both sensing nature and recording this sensation.

Secrets of a Mystery Man:
Wilhelm Schadow and the Art of Portraiture in Germany, circa 1830

In an age acutely aware that revolutionary upheaval had broken the continuous thread of history, the question of how a modern identity would navigate between the desire for historical continuity and the need for contemporaneity was as crucial as it was painful. After all, even Charles Baudelaire desired to distil the eternal from the transitory, and defined modernity through this gesture. Thus, Schadow’s pictures remind us that the geo-political desire for a German identity intersected with the specific desire undergirding the more general quest for a modern identity.

Wrongful Convictions
The Nineteenth-Century Droit d’Auteur and Anti-Authorial Criticism

By analyzing the Gros case in relation to nineteenth-century French law concerning the droit d’auteur, this essay offers evidence against one of the central historiographical postulates advanced in anti-authorial criticism: that the displacement of an interest in an author’s meaning onto a reader’s productive activities represents or would have represented a subversive blow to the modern proprietary regime of authorship. More specifically, I will dispute the plausibility of certain supposedly critical alternatives to the author, be they Roland Barthes’s modern scriptor or his emboldened readers, by demonstrating that the criticality of these positions depends upon a mistaken view of what historical authorship entailed and, more tendentiously, by suggesting that these same alternative “authors” had already been furnished with rights of their own.

Reading Art and Objecthood While Thinking about Containers

Fluxus containers, in summary, initiate the beholder (a holding, handling beholder, maybe a tool-being holder in the Heideggerian sense) to explore and take interest in the world. The boxes sensitize the user to a world where the public is overwhelmed and numbed by the excess goods proliferating, literally ad nauseum, in the world and landing in  the seconds bins along Canal Street, where Maciunas made use of them as artworks. The kits express a collective obligation (or opportunity) to repurpose the excess manufactured articles of late capitalism.

The Luminous Elsewhere

By (Texas Tech University)

Eighteenth-century intentionality was less a directional striving or will, than disclosive, something that made us aware of our being in the world. What the senses do, in this sense, is to make the world available, rather than keep it at a skeptical remove. Perception…is a “skilled attunement.” It is Lajer-Burcharth’s singular achievement to give us a very different eighteenth century, a “luminous elsewhere” that’s also right here with us. And radically ordinary.

Theaster Gates’ Social Formations

By (Tulane University)

As artist and urbanist, Theaster Gates is his own patron, his own institution, his own LLC. He is start-up and content creator combined. Though artists have long engaged in corporate parodies, Gates goes beyond the twee anarcho-entrepreneurship of the Bernadette Corporation or the politicized media takeovers of the Yes Men. He creates new art spaces as anchor institutions in blighted blocks. His works propel white creative types to penetrate black areas of the city formerly unknown to them. His renown encourages art tourists to travel beyond the usual downtown museum circuit. But Gates does not draw attention with mural paintings or large public sculptures. Gates’ artwork is, simply, real estate. And there is real money at stake.

Defamiliarization and the Unprompted (Not Innocent) Eye

By (University of Antwerp)

The aim is to revive the concept of defamiliarization by showing that it has nothing to do with the Innocent Eye and to propose a new interpretation of it in terms of distributed attention. This reinterpreted concept of defamiliarization can be useful for contemporary post-formalist accounts of the history of vision, imagination, and visual attention.

Tain’t So

By (University of Chicago)

To lay out, as clearly and as programmatically as we could, the reasons why despite protestations to the contrary, antiracism, understood as insisting on the symmetry of fighting discrimination and fighting exploitation, suppresses the development of a working class politics rather than offering a road to it. To make this point, the essays printed here, perhaps a little more insistently than our previous responses to critics, attend to the way that antiracism is an expression of the class position of those of us who produce the bulk of the commentary on injustice, and who routinely confront race and gender disparities in our everyday lives.

Black Politics After 2016

By (University of Pennsylvania)

Largely because of the challenge posed by the alternative political vision that Sanders advanced and the subsequent struggle over how to interpret the meanings of Trump’s victory, the 2016 election and its aftermath have thrown into relief the extent to which antiracism, and other formulations of politics based on ascriptive identities, are not simply alternatives to a (working) class politics, as Clinton’s cheesy put-down during the campaign implied. What is typically called identity politics reflects the perspective of a different class, the professional and managerial strata who are relatively insulated from the negative impacts of the four decades long regime of regressive redistribution and better positioned to take advantage of the opportunity structures it opens. That perspective suggests a reason many high-profile antiracists have become so vehement in their opposition to a politics centered on downward economic redistribution.

The Political Economy of Anti-Racism

This is why some of us have been arguing that identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: it’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex. And (this is at least one of the things that Marx meant by ideology) it’s promulgated not only by people who understand themselves as advocates of capital but by many who don’t.

Issue #27: The Nineteenth Century
Part Two

This is the second in a series of issues featuring new scholarship on nineteenth-century art. Edited by Bridget Alsdorf and Marnin Young. Editorial Assistant: Luke Naessens.

The Ornamented Eiffel Tower:
Awareness and Denial

That the almost 130-year-old Tower has been a monument sacré for fifty-five years has clouded both popular and specialist awareness of its transformation. Because we are familiar with Barthes’s, Malraux’s and Barnes’s Tower, the stripped-down post-1937 structure, which features a ruthlessly geometricized horizontal construction as its first platform, key aspects of its initial lacey ornament have not figured in histories of the structure, its reception, and representation. Answering the questions—who noticed the ornament when the Tower was new? and so what?—is a goal of this essay.

The Making of Degas:
Duranty, Technology, and the Meaning of Materials in Later Nineteenth-Century Paris

This essay will revisit key aspects of Degas’s critical reception and elaborate a new professional cohort for him, positioning his exploration of new modes of picture- and object-making in close connection to the work of several illustrious engineers, inventors, and manufacturers with whom he was close. These figures’ careers, I will argue, overlapped in certain important but overlooked respects with Degas’s own, all of which were founded on a primary engagement with materials, construction, and invention.

The Medical Portrait:
Resisting the Shadow Archive

In spite of the historical and ethical difficulties these photographs pose, I would argue that the hesitations are worth overcoming, as the images have a great deal to teach us about the power immanent in the very act of posing for a picture, even when the imagined audience remains unseen. Through the photographs made at the Holloway Sanatorium, a modicum of agency may have been granted to those who were generally presumed to be without it. And thus, even if only for the span of time it took to stage and take the photograph, a highly vulnerable person could resist being reduced to the category of specimen, and could become, instead, a subject.

Gustave Caillebotte’s Interiors:
Working Between Leisure and Labor

To extrapolate directly from Caillebotte’s class a certain mindset that forms the hermeneutic ground for reading the economy of his paintings runs the risk of striking a false equivalence between Caillebotte’s structural class position and his imaginary relation to that position as it manifested in his activity. Rather than dispensing with alienation as an analytical category founded on a Marxist critique of modernity while retaining the restrictive class-determinism of Marxian thought, it will be more productive to retain the former and dispense with the latter.

Issue #25: Authorship/Anti-Authorship: Legal and Aesthetic

Roundtable on Jackson Pollock’s Modernism, counter-narratives to anti-authorship in the nineteenth century, in Fluxus, and in 1960s Brazil, also the beginnings of an Anti-Global art history.

Never Mind the Pollocks

By (Trinity University), (National Gallery of Art), (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) and (University of Southern California)

It might seem idiosyncratic to scrutinize such tiny details in such a large painting: Cathedral’s surface area is eighteen square feet, each dot I have discussed smaller than a dime. Yet my purpose in calling attention to Pollock’s small-scale painterly decisions, the evidence of which he left plainly in sight, is to demonstrate his fastidious concern with the integrity of his surfaces. From the perspective of their studied particularity, limiting the use of “all-over” to describe stylistically the putative uniformity of Pollock’s canvases forecloses the possibility that “all-over” might just as well designate the intentional character of every mark. In Pollock’s automatism, everything matters, at least potentially.

Hélio Oiticica, Tropical Hyperion

Helio Oiticica’s career tells the story of the democratic leap of art off the wall and into life, out of contemplation and into action and experience, from autonomy to involvement, from elite contemplation to democratic participation, from aesthetics to politics. This narrative, which carries the authority of being the story Oiticica himself wanted to tell at one point in his life, is not false. And yet the truth lies elsewhere: closer to the works themselves and, only apparently paradoxically, in the great political crosscurrents that tore through the Brazilian 1960s.

Even More Neoliberal Art History
Globalizing Art History

By (College of William & Mary)

Again: is this Farago’s politics, or is this something deep in the DNA of global art history?  Insofar as globalization concerns itself with “subject positions,” it seems clear that struggles for state power and deep changes to the relations of production and the exploitation of labor are not just beyond its grasp but irrelevant to it.

From a Rooseveltian Dream to the Nightmare of Parliamentary Coup

By (University of São Paulo)

In Brazil, the first decade of the twenty-first century was characterized by a successful but moderate reformist program spearheaded by its president from 2003-2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as Lula. His successor hoped to accelerate the project on the wings of a Rooseveltian dream: to create “in just the space of a few years” a country in which the majority could lead “recognizably similar and remarkably decent material lives.” What happened?

Class Struggle in Brazil:
The Neoliberal Coup, an Attack on Workers and the Poor

By (Indiana University)

The neoliberal program includes: a) the drastic reduction of the federal budget, with a direct impact on social welfare, education, public health, and research spending, a.k.a. “the death budget”; b) labor legislation reform, removing or weakening many of the longstanding protections enjoyed by Brazilian workers and, under the guise of creating “flexible” labor relations, undermining the country’s trade-union movement; and c) social security reform, imposing stricter and longer work requirements, which, given the current and past employment structure would make full retirement unattainable for large sectors of Brazil’s working class.

Two Poems

In the office park he spoke of the land.
To the loan officer, of the land.
At the temp agency, the land.

Issue #23: Naturalizing Class Relations

In this issue we address the various ways in which class has been naturalized by popular political alternatives. As Warren, Reed, Legette, and Michaels argue, there is a class politics to antiracism, which has been mostly expunged from public debate. Grasso considers the rehabilitative ideology of the prison system, Sowa the stakes of the new populism. Finally, Cronan and Palermo look at a current variant of neoliberalism in art history.

The Unity of Individualism and Determinism in the Rehabilitative Ideal

By (University of Pennsylvania)

In recent years, political debates over American crime policy have become centered on whether prisons should aim to rehabilitate rather than punish offenders. While rehabilitative discourse appears to be a progressive alternative to punitive politics, I argue that rehabilitative ideology is built on theoretical premises that justify punitive politics. By conceptualizing criminality within individualistic and deterministic frameworks, the rehabilitative ideal of American criminal justice depicts crime as a function of individual-level faults rather than as symptoms of the deeper social and political inequalities that shape the class profile of the prison population. When criminality is viewed as a function of defects and deficiencies entirely rooted in the person, criminality can only be cured through individual level responses rather than more systematic structural reform.

The Role of Race in Contemporary U. S. Politics:
V.O. Key’s Enduring Insight

By (South Carolina State University) and (University of Pennsylvania)

Today, race performs the function of suppressing working-class politics in the interests of both white and black political elites who are equally committed to capitalist class priorities as defining the boundary of political possibility.

Populism or Capitalist De-modernization at the Semi-periphery:
The Case of Poland

By (Polish Academy of Sciences)

It’s here again, that we encounter the basic flaw of liberal common sense, with its fixation on cultural factors and the importance of ethos. What they neglect is an element that was entirely wiped out of both public and academic discourse in Poland as well as elsewhere, for example, in the US: the issue of class and its indelible materialist component. Populism is a kind of displaced and perverted class revolt. It derives from an oppression of double kind: material for the poor and symbolic for the lower-middle class.

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