in many ways, cultural historians, like all historians, don’t exactly get to chose their subjects. well, that is not exactly true. it’s better to say that they don’t exactly ‘invent’ their subjects. but that too comes with complications. historians can only ‘select’ their subjects from what culture and time have produced. so in one way or another, historians are limited to commenting on what preexists what they select to write about. neither commentary nor selection, however, are innocent. ‘writing’ is not transparently ‘truthful’, and since history is written, neither is it a form of guaranteed, factual, ‘truth’. yet, like science, its reference points are fact and truth; but because it’s grounded in language, imagery, sound and the like, ‘documents’ of one sort or another that today can even take the form of digital data like websites, all of which are interpreted and interpretable; and, because ‘history’ can never be complete, it can never gather ALL the ‘facts’; it is inevitably partial, incomplete, and therefore inevitably partially blind. one of my teachers, hayden white, who died a few days ago, made this case in everything he wrote: his great book, Metahistory, demonstrated that every history is inseparable from ‘narration’, storytelling, and that every narration will conform to one of four of the deeply embedded, linguistic rhetorical figures: tragedy, comedy, irony, or, romanticism. and possibly some combination of those figures. but history can never escape that, is inevitably ‘hermenuetic’, interpretive, and therefore can never achieve capital ‘T’ ‘truth’. He elaborated on these problems in a very important book entitled, The Form of Content. No ‘content’, not even the chronicle’, a mere list of events, can escape interpretation because it ‘selects’ what it lists, and as importantly, does not list. all historians conscious of this situation, of these hermeneutic limitations to historical truth, can do, is to make the principles and figures of their storytelling, explicit to readers. for example, were i to write a history of the T-rump administration, would it be ironic, comedic, tragic, or some combination of those tropes? if i were someone like Bannon writing this history, it would inevitably be romantic… a romance of white suprematism…
historians from various disciplines who attempt to escape from White’s dilemma, since around 2000, have attempted to write what they call a ‘materialist’ history: histories based on the practices and methods of their subject. Peter Gallison, a historian of science, for example, has written a book called, Image and Logic, attempting to write a history of nuclear physics based on how post-world war II physics developed through various forms of visualization practices and methods like cloud chambers and later, various forms of nuclear particle accelerators that smashed subatomic particles together to find their constituents parts, quarks and like. but the ‘evidence’ from these accelerators is entirely ‘visual’, ‘images’ in the forms of maps of the subatomic particles’ trajectories in extraordinarily small scales of spacetime. Based on these ‘image-maps’, a ‘logic’ is constructed through measurements, that takes the form of mathematical formulae. my point being, that ‘image’ and ‘logic’ are essentially inseparable in both the production of nuclear physics, and its history.
okay, enough of that.
as a philosopher and cultural historian who writes about art and other cultural formations, i write about how art ‘gets made’, about it’s practices and methods, about what Foucault called ‘discursive practices’, the various forms of ideas and materials, the cultural assumptions, the techniques used, and the historical reference points the artist relies upon. this approach is something of a radical departure from standard, traditional approaches to ‘art history’, based as it is on market forces and a still hegelian historical sense of evolution and progress, which i reject. that approach only adheres to capitalism’s sense of the art market: the galleries and art magazines that determine ‘value’, which then the museums take up and exhibit. but as with every ‘market’, the art markets is based on limited production in order to ensure that the supply-and-demand ratio is weighed in the favor of the suppliers – the galleries and art magazines, and museums – and against the 99% of artists in the world who are deliberately excluded from the art market.
it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the now globalized art market, from new york to bogata, from london to new dehli, from sao paulo to lagos, produces work that looks pretty much the same everywhere. but what of the artists and art that continues to exist outside the art market? how might a historian account for it? that is a very complex question which i will not attempt to address in this post. but because i’m currently working and living in merida, mexico, and because i’m going to dinner tomorrow night with very serious artists who have made art all their lives independently of the global art market, as many i’ve written about do, i will include below some reference points that influence them. i do this in order to challenge the standard art history protocols that judge this work, this artist, as better than others, and, therefore more ‘valuable’, in market terms. the market isn’t always, by any means, ‘wrong’, but nor is it ‘right’. and it does skew history in a very problematic way.
L is a well know mexican artist, a writer, and lacanian psychoanalyst who studied with lacan. she’s now 76, a ‘fact’ i include here only to situate her in the history of modernism:
these works were created in the last few days, in clay and watercolor drawings:
doors of the moon: L is currently writing a series of ‘prosepoems’ from a psychoanalytic POV, about the moon:
some of M’s work has been inspired by Byzantine art. I happened to visit Ravenna, Italy last december and january, which i had wanted to do for decades, but got there only recently. for those who are not familiar with the history the Byzantine, which i won’t recount here, one of the places it had huge impact was in several churches built around 500 C.E., in Ravenna, a UN designated World Heritage site. i don’t have to say that photos can in no way do justice to the mosaics there… they are impossible to capture by an amateur photographer like myself. i include here some of my amateur photos, nonetheless. i mostly only tried to capture details, and a few contextualizing shots. i’m a ‘devout’ atheist, so it’s not the religious content that i find inspiring, but the aesthetic forms, which are truly brilliant. and remember, the material is made out of brittle, carefully shaped tiles. you’ll have to imagine their luminosity.
the best, in my opinion was the small and intimate mausoleum, Galla Placidia:
and san vitale
relating to some of B’s carved reliefs, are these images from san vitale:
and i can’t help but include some of the ‘decorative’ architectural elements from san vitale: ‘slices’ through stone used in the enormous pillars that hold the roof up… apologies for the very poor photographic quality – it was impossible to take pics there because of the gorgeous low light conditions… :
drawing by M:
see my post below: