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Art Essay: Decades of Attending College Art Association’s
Annual Meeting

By Gail Levin© 2017
April 6, 2017

From February 15 -18, the College Art Association held its annual conference. Attended mainly by English-speaking art historians, museum professionals, and artists who teach in colleges and universities in North America, this meeting offers a combination of individual scholars’ and artists’ papers, panel discussions, poster sessions, a career center for job seekers, and professional development workshops. These workshops were on useful topics ranging from making websites to getting published to writing grant applications. The meeting also featured a huge book and trade fair (with art supplies, software, and other products), award ceremonies, speeches, exhibitions, gallery walking tours, reunions, and receptions. All of this took place at the lackluster Midtown Hilton Hotel in New York, located close to the Museum of Modern Art. Whenever the CAA meets in New York, it has taken place at this capacious hotel—at least since the 1970s, when I can recall my first such meetings. Decades later, there is a lot that continues, but some welcome changes too.

As the cost of attending has gone up, attendance has gone down. This year, a non-member could have to pay as much as $595 to register for the entire meeting. A new option, however, was the opportunity to attend the conference for just one day, “paying what you wish.” This even made it possible for area colleges and art schools to bring their students. There was something for nearly every taste. Multiple events took place simultaneously.

Attending CAA over several decades, I watched as critical theorists asserted their dominance in our profession. “There are no facts,” I heard a theorist proclaim at CAA in the mid-1980s. I recall this with irony now that our politicians in Washington talk about “alternative facts” and “fake news.” At the recent CAA meeting in New York, I asked a prominent critical theorist how this could have happened. The response I got is that the right wing has taken over theory and turned it into “an alternate reality.” I observed to myself that at least some of the theorists in art history share something with those politicians; they often are intolerant of people with approaches and philosophies other than their own.

The dominance of critical theory in the profession of art history is linked to an almost complete absence of training in materials analysis and the close study of art objects. As a result, it has been possible for decades to earn a Ph.D. in the history of art without ever learning what it means to examine a work of art or even how a color is mixed or how varnish is applied to a painting. Instead, one can produce an entire dissertation by writing about theory or works of art known mainly through reproductions.

With the internet, virtual works of art are easily available, but then so are forgeries, fakes, and misattributions. Sometimes, it’s difficult to distinguish which is which. No one can convince me that this practice is adequate preparation for working as a curator in an art museum. In the trenches, so to speak, one meets regular challenges to one’s ability to tell the real thing from fakes. A growing criminal element in the art market now makes such knowledge more crucial than ever.

It should not surprise anyone that the art market is now drowning in forgeries. To take the worse case scenario, there are the forgeries of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Robert Motherwell that initially managed to pass muster with respected “outside experts” hired as consultants by New York’s venerable Knoedler Gallery, but then turned out to have been commissioned by a middleman from a Chinese artist working in Queens. Following this discovery, the gallery closed after some 138 years, putting a number of employees out of work, and ending its long history.

Of course some will be quick to point out that it is not the scholar’s responsibility to police the art market. In the mid-1980s, even a prominent art history textbook dismissed the catalogue raisonné as “a tool of art dealers,” without redeeming value. Yet, it is and has been up to scholars to identify and define an artist’s body of work—especially before publishing on the artist. Had their been a reliable catalogue raisonné, for example, no forger could have invented an entire corpus of Vermeer’s early work as Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947) did in early twentieth-century Holland. Furthermore, it’s inexcusable for art historians to write in ignorance about fakes in their field. Yet, this continues to happen. A few unlucky curators have unwittingly organized shows and even written books about entire collections of fake art.

I have begun to think of this predicament in the context of Timothy Snyder’s powerful 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency. The Housum Professor of History at Yale, Synder is also author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015) and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017). The discipline of art history would do well to absorb some similar lessons.

Snyder cautions us to “believe in truth.” “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” Yes, indeed, there are facts and, with effort, these can be gathered to document the works of art that one is writing about. The art historian sometimes needs to function like an investigative journalist, combing archives, piecing together the pieces of a puzzle. The effective art historian needs to avoid the trap of using the jargon of critical theory as a substitute for having something significant to say. Theorizing about research that needs to be done to prove your points is not the same as actually doing that research.

Perhaps the domination of excessive emphasis on methodology has now passed its peak. Scholarly papers presented this year did offer an interesting enough variety of topics and approaches. Attending a CAA meeting is an excellent opportunity to get outside of one’s narrow field and learn about other fields and their concerns. The trend toward globalism is now readily evident, meaning plenty of welcome attention for non-Western art and speakers from third-world countries. Their presence was made possible by a “generous” grant from the Getty Foundation, which for five years has sponsored a CAA-Getty International Program. This year there was a reunion of sorts with four panels featuring the Getty alumni from these programs.

The four Getty sessions shared the heading “Global Conversations.” They addressed the following topics: “Decolonizing the Curriculum,” “Dominant Ideologies and Political Trauma,” “The Trouble with (the Term) Art,” and “Transnational Collaborations and Interdisciplinarity.” One of these sessions, for example, included speakers from Croatia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Bangladesh, and Argentina. All of these participants offered art news, opinion, and analysis from areas not so well known or studied except by specialists. One point that seemed to be a general consensus is that the concept of “center and periphery,” once so trendy, is now passé, far too Euro[-American]-centric.

I was particularly interested in hearing from Georgina Gluzman, the speaker from Argentina, a feminist, who gave compelling testimony about art and the difficulties for women there. We learned about a women’s strike to protest violence against women held in Buenos Aires in 2016, in which hundreds of thousands of women took part. It was also worth consideration that Cameroon in Central Africa still suffers from museums built by NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) in the 1920s. These institutions simply appropriated works still considered sacred objects and turned them into “decorative art.” In some of the discussion that followed this panel, the issue of “African art without artists” was raised with the warning that bringing in the artists will “bring back the monograph.” While some speakers admitted that artworks from Africa were not created by nameless unknowns toiling within the framework of restrictive “tribal styles” that lacked any personal stamp, they feared that recognizing individual artists might necessitate bringing back the biographical, which most critical theorists reject. So such a complex question remains unresolved.

Beyond the non-Western sessions that were Getty-sponsored, there were additional sessions on Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I got to one session on Japanese art that was fascinating: “Beauty, Spectacle, and the Grotesque as Fascist Tools of Wartime Japanese Art.” After seeing a retrospective of the art of Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, in 2006, I had some remaining questions about his violent “War” paintings. He produced these for the Japanese government during the World War II. The United States government had confiscated these “War paintings,” so that they were then being shown for the first time since the end of the war. All three of this session’s papers touched upon Foujita, though none of them fully resolved my questions. I was, however, able to confirm in the discussion that followed that most of Foujita’s personal papers remain unavailable for scholarly study.

Such an absence of biographical documentation leaves many questions unanswered. A similar lack haunts too many scholars’ presentations, sometimes seeming to suck the air right out of their analysis. A willful shunning of biographical material by art historians has resulted from the dominance of theory. Most theorists dismiss biography as untrustworthy, perhaps a comment that only a small percentage of artists’ biographies have art historians as their authors. Theorists prefer to generalize about large groups of artists or art works. Thus, their conclusions can be misguided, lost, or obscured by methodology.

The losses that result from dismissing the biographical stood in high relief if one was fortunate enough to have signed up for one of the CAA meeting’s perks: attending a special screening at MoMA of the new documentary film, on the artist Eve Hesse, brilliantly directed by Marcie Begleiter. This was a welcome respite from some of the CAA session papers that lacked the vivacity of this film. Although Hesse, born in 1936, has been dead since 1970, the filmmaker was able to capitalize on earlier film footage that included interviews with Hesse’s friends and family, as well as living art critics like Lucy Lippard. Since Sol Lewitt, Robert Smithson, and Nancy Holt, for example, are now deceased, hearing them talk about Hesse was riveting. The filmmaker not only made good use of the earlier footage, but she also interwove it to good effect with biographical documents, most of which became available long after these interviews were shot, especially Hesse’s letters and diaries. The result was a rewarding introduction to Hesse, her art, and her times. Of course, one could argue that it’s not fair to compare a documentary film with a scholarly paper.

This brings up the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association (CRSA), one of several organizations that maintains an affiliate status with the College Art Association. Typically, the former holds a business meeting and a session at the CAA annual meeting. This year CRSA’s special session was “Technical Art History and the Catalogue Raisonné: Case Studies in the Materials, Methods, and Meanings of Art Works.” Speakers included an objects conservator, who works on bronze sculpture. This added a necessary perspective at this meeting of art scholars. Another speaker covered education in technical art history. Topics included new courses in topics like “canvas weave,” which offers yet another means of analysis when determining authenticity. Even if scholars do not need to know how to conduct such a technical analysis themselves, they do need to know whom to consult and what is knowable.

Other affiliated groups were also meeting at the CAA, including, among them: the American Society of Hispanic Art Historical Studies; the Association of Historians of American Art; the European Postwar and Contemporary Art Forum; the Design Studies Forum; the Historians of Islamic Art Association; the Japan History Forum; the Association of Print Scholars; the Society of Historians of East European, Eurasian, and Russian Art and Architecture; the Queer Caucus for Art; the Feminist Art Project; and the Women’s Caucus for Art.

At its award ceremony, the Women’s Caucus for Art, gave out its annual Lifetime Achievement Awards. Among those honored were the artist Audrey Flack, now in her mid-eighties, and Mary Schmidt Campbell, now the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, and once commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Watching these women receive overdue recognition and hearing them speak was reason enough to attend the annual meeting of the College Art Association and its hectic schedule of related activities.

Gail Levin writes artists' biographies, art history, and fiction; curates exhibitions; and exhibits her own art. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Levin is now Distinguished Professor of Art History, American Studies, and Women's Studies at The Graduate Center and Baruch College of the City University of New York.