A Thematic Book List - 1995


Art 110 American Art           BOOK LIST               May 1995

The intent here is to provide an example of a thematic book list, presenting--in addition to the information contained in a standard footnote reference or bibliography--critical comments designed to render the list more useful and informative. In academic publications, the usual mode of reference allows an author to acknowledge (formally or informally) previous scholarship and the work or inspiration of others, whether in published form, or as instructions, conversations, correspondences (or even as confidences, when appropriate) according to conventions of integrity and traditions of collegiality. If we characterize the cultural/historical context of these concerns as "typographic"--as describing mainstream, "Western" (European-American) literate, public discourse of the last 500 or so years--then we must consider a thesis that addresses certain radical transformations that have appeared in the last fifty years. One premise elucidating this process sees the leading-edge of information distribution as the defining mode of technology: a process changing from typography (mechanical, physical, and linear, in marked time) to television (electronic, virtual, and global, in real-time). With this is mind, the history of American art from the last half century may provide illuminating illustrations of a millennial cultural transformation.

For students of the history of American art, one of the central concerns is whether or not there is likely to be continued meaning and usefulness in the very concept of "American art." This raises profound and wide-ranging questions about past and present attempts to express national identity. Throughout the semester we have introduced several related themes. Accordingly, the present book list features texts that may lead to exploring and comprehending such interrelated issues.

The very concept of a book list is obviously anchored in the typographic tradition. Indeed, conventions of scholarship involving footnotes, the implicit obligation to cite appropriate references, provide a way of acknowledging those upon whose contributions one's own work is based, or--in lineal terms--the work of those who have come before. This is a matter taken most seriously by educational institutions with rules against plagiarism, punishments for "cheating" and scenarios of competitive struggle (for grades, funding, awards, recognition, and so forth) between and among individuals. Are these questions of authorship important only in the context of typographic Culture? Are these historically constrained and ethno-centric values that assumed a commanding importance only since the Renaissance, with the introduction of print technology, primarily in Western Europe (and then, in America)? Are not these among the very values now in the process of changing? What, then, is a truly "original" thought or "creative" idea? Is "originality" an essential quality of either scholarly or artistic activity? What media, forms, techniques--or even subject matter--receive different emphasis if, say, dialectical and competitive modes are replaced by collaborative, cooperative ones? Would that mean the end of footnotes and book lists like this one? As a worked example of how a descriptive bibliography might appear, let us begin by referring to a book that addresses topics central both to the class and to this book list: history, change and children.

Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood. Vintage Books edition
          (August 1994) ISBN 0-679-75166-1
We might think of the footnote and its associated bibliographical and scholarly apparatus, as a formal manifestation of civilité, one of the important concepts discussed by Postman. In reference to this term, for example, on p. 169 in the "Index" we are directed to "see manners." Picking up the trail on p. 88, we discover the significance of civilité as the exterior social expression of the psychological mechanism which Postman renders as "shame," and by which impulse is controlled. For the ancient Latin orator Quintilian , this notion was "decorum": the classical sense of honor and dignity as nobility of the soul, enlightenment of the spirit, correct behavior, in line (not "out of line"), decent, civilized--as distinct from barbarian, or "savage."

Mr. Postman points out on p. 10, "there is a traceable line [our emphasis] between the sentiment expressed by Quintilian and the first known law prohibiting infanticide. That law does not come until A.D. 374, three centuries after Ouintilian. [Here, his footnote 10 cites Lloyd deMause, "The Evolution of Childhood," in The History of Childhood. New York, Psychohistory Press, 1974, p. 28]. But it is an extension of the idea that children require protection and nurturing, and schooling [for which see the Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education, 1954, opinion written by the U.S.Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall], and freedom from adult secrets. And then, after the Romans, all such ideas disappear. First literacy, then education, then shame (decorum), then--as a consequence of the other three, Postman argues--the idea of "childhood," only to be reinvented with the advent of printing and subsequent training for literacy.

Civilité, as a social analog to literacy, emerged with printing press [see Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early  Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press (1983)]; "both demanded and promoted a high degree of self-control and delayed gratification...." Both require submission of body to mind, and a long learning process with intensive adult teaching. Yet further demands are made of those who would enjoy the "typographic" humor of art such as that by Marcel Duchamp/Rrose Selavy, or other such expressions of self-referential awareness. We could add to our booklist many titles/authors involved with similar games of high playfulness, but for starters try:

Kindling earnest desires for discovering the truth--viewing Truth in the classical Greek sense as aletheia, that which is inherent and comes to be known through a process of revelation or "apocalypse," literally an "uncovering" of what is dwelling within--we may be obliged to expand conventional notions of what history is and how it gets that way. What is art history anyway, or--whatever ART may be-- what in particular, beyond tales told by wise old men, do we mean by the term HISTORY? The ossified remains many of us were told was history, as still widely taught in the lower (and in many of the "higher") orders of the American school system, is at best spare ribs with little meat and not all that much sauce. The old-fashioned, hard-nosed school of history as king lists and a succession of military conquests and rationalized exploitation, tends to treat art and architecture, literature and philosophy, music and dance as mere condiments for the deadly shark-feeds of war and the cannibalism of political intrigue. More insidious, even, may be the cafeteria line of pablum, partial truths and the subversions of "newspeak" meant to disguise cruelty, dealing death and crimes against the Earth.

Real "historians," when they once get tucked into these topics, can achieve extraordinary results. Works by Francis Jennings, Kirk­patrick Sales, and Alfred W. Crosby stand as superb and timely worked examples of what can be accomplished toward revelation of history's deliberately dissimulating "secrets," which we now realize have been used to fool us for generations. Just in time for the two-hundredth anniversary of the Bill of Rights Mr. Jennings, a former director of the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian, has published a series of three texts on "The Covenant Chain" that help to illuminate a background clouded by grade-school beguiling Pilgrim parables and malfeasant manifestoes of destiny. Their titles alone suggest a Rainbow Coalition of truths enough to give Eurocentric school boards the fits: The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism,  and the Cant of Conquest, for example would require an instructor to explain various meanings of "cant," and the psychology of "conquest." Herein, however, Jennings provides a pithy critique--as cited in lectures--of the distinctions purportedly drawn between savagery and civilization, by contrasting the Irish to the English and the New World to the Old. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from its beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, demolishes the racist projection of a "savage/civilized" dichotomy with which descendants of the invading conquerors are still deluding themselves, and credits Native American institutions with contributions to the intellectual and ethical tradition culminating in our Bill of Rights. Jennings' third volume, Empire of Fortune: Crowns. Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America explodes the anglocentric myths about what really happened in that crucial time for America. Kirkpatrick Sale's study, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy takes the story back a little further, just in time to add a voice of honesty--and perhaps some dampening of remorse-- among the celebrants of the five-hundredth anniversary of the big "discovery" by vicious, gold-grubbing, genocidal, corrupt and fanatic European so-called gentlemen. For explanations of how these vast enterprises fraught with such greed and wickedness could nevertheless succeed, one must turn to Professor Crosby's shuddering studies, The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492, and his more recent but equally disquieting, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological  Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. So: here are several good, honest, clear examples of what recent books have done with ideas of "history."

Mr. Jennings' books were all published by W. W. Norton & Co., New York, respectively, in 1976 (ISBN 0-393-00830-4, 1984, and 1988 ISBN 0- 393-30640-2). More recent is his text with the eloquently expressive title: The Founders of America: How Indians Discovered the Land,  Pioneered In It, and Created Great Classical Civilizations; How They  Were Plunged Into a Dark Age by Invasion and Conquest; and How They Are Reviving. Norton (1994) ISBN 0-393-31232-1. Mr. Sales' book was published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1990). Kirkpatrick Sales is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books. His most recent book is Rebels Against  the Future; The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution. Addison-Wesley (1995), reviewed by Jon Katz in the current issue of Wired (June, 1995), that also contains an interview with Sales by Kevin Kelly. Professor Crosby's Columbian Exchange was published by Greenwood, Westport Connecticut (1972) ISBN 0-8371-7228-4; and his Ecological Imperialism by the Cambridge University Press (1986). He is also the author of America, Russia, Hemp and Napoleon: American Trade with Russia and the Baltic, 1793-1812.

For the idea of the "savage" as introduced in lectures, together with references to the so-called "virgin" land of the New World, the subject of rape, the obsession of early European invaders with gold, the attendant cruelty, and the subsequent religious fanaticism, see: Deborah Small with Maggie Jaffe, 1492: What Is It Like To Be Discovered? Monthly Review Press (1991) ISBN 0-85345-836-7. Also frequently cited throughout the semester was the text by Stephen Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions. In a related context was the provocative study by Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American, published by Stein and Day (1969). Some idea of the level of classical civilization on the American continent before 1492 may be gained from a recent study by David Freidel, Linda Schele and Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. William Morrow and Co., New York (1993) ISBN 0-688-14069-6.

Publications on the art of Marcel Duchamp are voluminous, but serious academic writing on this seminal French-American artist may have begun with the article by Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., "The Art Of Marcel Duchamp," The Art Journal, XXII, No. 2 (Winter 1962-1963). Steefel's 1961 doctoral dissertation for Princeton University was "The Position of La Mariée mise a nu par ses Célibataires, meme (1915-1923) in the Stylistic and Iconographic Development of Marcel Duchamp."

Positive reception of the Steefel article went some way towards legitimizing the realm of modern and nearly-contemporary art as valid subjects for investigation at the stuffier and more powerful East Coast academic institutions. That article's ice-breaking implications were sensed by groups of graduate students abuzz with excitement upon hearing that a study of Duchamp's masterpiece had become acceptable because--although the work of art in question was forty to fifty years old at the time--nevertheless, it had been made by a then still-living artist. You probably had to have been there to appreciate the heady possibilities promised by Steefel's conquest of convention. A slightly younger colleague was encouraged to write his doctoral dissertation on Duchamp's friend and co-conspirator Man Ray; and a few years later, that same distinguished art historian went on to have published a book on the history of rock 'n' roll. [Carl Belz, The Story of Rock, Oxford University Press, New York (1969).] Professor Steefel's near-commando daring that produced his milestone of art historical scholarship came over a quarter century after the famous essay by Andre Breton, "Phare de La Marieé" ("Lighthouse of the Bride"), first published in a 1935 issue of the Surrealist magazine Minotaure. Breton's brilliantly intuitive piece itself was hailed as supposedly a watershed for the critical reception of Duchamp's art. Then, a translation for Grove Press from the French limited edition of Robert Lebel's 1959 monograph boosted Duchamp's popular reputation in America. After Dr. Steefel's academic analysis came the comprehensive studies of Arturo Schwarz, especially his monumental tome, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp first issued by the New York publisher Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in 1969.

The master modern bibliographer, Bernard Karpel, compiled an excellent checklist which was included in the important 1973 volume from the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine. In addition to these published items, of paramount significance for people inter­ested in the profoundly influential legacy of Marcel Duchamp are translations from the artist's own writings. Most of this material is accessible in Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel)--the original title of the DaCapo paperback text currently in print cited above. Important also is the catalog of the Palazzo Grassi exhibition in Venice (1993), which together with other publications devoted to the intriguing life and work of Marcel Duchamp, provide a colorful spectrum of documentation and commentary. Subsequently, many articles and books on Duchamp and his work have continued to appear.

Neil Postman also wrote, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books (1995) ISBN 0-14- 009438-5, and the text recommended as background reading for American Art, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, N.Y. (1992). Among other important texts mentioned were: Robert Graves, The White Goddess, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1978). Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Penguin Books (1964, 1964) ISBN 0-14- 00.4306-3. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Rutgers (1987) ISBN 0-8135-1277-8. David M. Lubin, Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America, Yale (1994) ISBN 0-300-05732-6. For the advent of the next millennium, see Howard Rheingold, ed., The Millennium Whole Earth  Catalog: Access to Tools and Ideas for the Twenty-first Century, Harper-Collins (1994) ISBN 0-06-251059-2; and Carl G. Thelander, ed., Life on the Edge: A Guide to California's Endangered Natural Resources, Volume I: Wildlife, BioSystems Books (1994) ISBN 0-93058B­70-3, dedicated, in the same spirit as that expressed in class: "To the children, the next generation of natural and cultural historians."

Kurt von Meier