In various ways over several centuries, the arts have often been understood humanistically, as a collective expression of the value and vital agency of human life. Scholarship specifically on the arts of the United States has tended to operate within this tradition, seeing art works as representations of the values, aspirations, thoughts, and struggles of human beings, whether individually or in groups. Since at least the early twentieth century, however, there have been several important antihumanist understandings of American culture as well, ranging from Catholic critiques of self-determination to the poststructuralist death of the author and postcolonialist charges of marginalization and exclusion.
Today, scholars of American art operate in a field where the interpretive frameworks of humanism and anithumanism are both deployed in a dizzying variety of ways. To make matters worse, the terms humanism and antihumanism are applied not only to art works but also to modes of their interpretation. Humanism can mean, among other things, faith in progress, belief in pluralism, and a notion of communication as individually owned and controlled. Antihumanism can be a form of existential despair, religious faith, leftist politics, or environmental critique. A major, sometimes virulent debate over these positions has been going on for some time, but the discussion has been clouded by widespread uncertainty over the meanings of the key terms, and their respective implications for our understanding of culture and cultural criticism.
To take one prominent example, many scholars now agree that the arts of the United States took something resembling an “antihumanist turn” in the 1960s, when figurative and expressive modes were forsaken for an interest in indifferent systems. Artists such as Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, who also explicitly conceptualized their antihumanist ideas in writing, spearheaded this trend, while the influential “October group” developed a largely antihumanist school of criticism in their wake. However, doubts over the power of humanity—and over the coherent meaningfulness of its cultural activity—circulated long before the 1960s. Inversely, notions of a pluralist society and of romantic subjects inflect even some of the most self-consciously antihumanist strains of recent scholarship. This colloquium therefore asks: to what extent has American culture been humanist, and to what extent antihumanist? What have been some of the key episodes in American humanism and antihumanism? What, indeed, have the two terms meant across the history of United States culture?
Perhaps most importantly, the colloquium asks what possibilities might emerge if we began to bridge the confrontational “either/or” attitude that has shaped the relationship between humanist and antihumanist understandings of culture, especially in light of the new spates of scholarship in ecocriticism and the so-called “New Materialisms.” How and in what instances have humanism and anthumanism intermingled? What are the stakes of these terms for American art scholarship now?
Laura Bieger, Universität Freiburg/Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Joshua Shannon, University of Maryland
Jason Weems, University of California, Riverside
Please note that this is not a public event.