SEMINAR I: Humanism’s Problems in the Nineteenth Century



Rachael Z. DeLue, Picturing the Superfluous Human


Any representation of the natural world, verbal or visual, exists in relation to the human, as does the very idea of nature itself.  It goes without saying that most pictures of nature in 19th-century America (and earlier) by artists of European or English descent configure the human subject as a fundamental unit and immutable presence.  These pictures embody a philosophy of humanism that privileges human agency and cognition above all else and posits human consciousness—or “human nature”—as both meta-physical and extra-historical.  But a starkly different approach to picturing nature coexisted with this humanist strain.  This category of imagery arose primarily within the practice of natural history, but included the landscape genre as well, and articulated nature as so radically in excess of the human that the human as a subject category or an ontology wound up an irrelevancy, wholly superfluous.  Of course in the 19th century any vision of a state of nature apart from the human could arise only in theory or as a thought experiment, and this putatively anti-humanist vein of imagery matters to ongoing humanist/anti-humanist debates precisely because it sits squarely if strangely within both camps.




Jessica Horton, Other Than Humanism


This talk conceptualizes Indigenous forms of “other than humanism” that became entangled with strains of Western humanism in the context of U.S. settler colonialism. It does so by way of a recently prominent example: two Lakota prayers, Mitákuye Oyás'iŋ (all our relations) and Mni Wiconi (water is life) endured Indian removal and assimilation to circulate globally during the Sydney Biennial of 2012 and the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL) in 2016. Although these phrases resonate with past and present strains of antihumanism and posthumanism, they cannot easily be characterized as “anti” nor “post”—modifiers that appear to grant humanist cultural formations the power of primacy. To think through the historical role and political potential of a specific “other than humanism,” we will look closely at two artworks that organize “all our relations” in the wake of frontier violence: a painted muslin depicting the events of the Battle of the Little Bighorn created by the Lakota man Standing Bear in 1899, and mirrored shields that artists involved in the collective Winter Count distributed to NoDAPL “water protectors” in 2016. They help us to see not only that “all our relations” survived through adaptation to imposed forms of humanism under colonization, but that related arts may function as the means of survival within a specific terrain of struggle.




Michael Leja, The Inhumanity of the Mass Subject


When industrially produced, printed pictures began being mass marketed in the early/mid 19th century, the audience for them was envisioned as comprising “all classes of society,” “the poorest of people,” “the lowly and rude,” “humble families,” “the million,” “the masses,” “the mob.”  The specter of popular patronage led many guardians of culture to worry that art now would cater to the debased tastes associated with the mass subject, who was assumed to be a childish, ignorant, bestial barbarian enthralled by the crudest examples of mass-market art.  In E. L. Godkin’s famous formulation, mass subjects constituted “a society of ignoramuses, each of whom thinks he is a Solon . . . the result is a kind of mental and moral chaos.” (1874)


The subjects of mass-market art, in other words, were understood to be profoundly dehumanized, and art thriving in the popular marketplace to be feeding and exacerbating this inhumanity.  Sensational, prurient, violent, and sentimental tendencies did indeed flourish in mass-market art, as did formal innovation, profound reflection, and remarkable beauty.  (Whether any of these qualify as inhuman is a question for another day.)  A plain, even crude representational style associated with unpolished artists was favored as an antithesis to the elegance of fine art and the social and cultural hierarchy it implied.


This paper will argue that with the development of mass art and the controversies it provoked, an opposition between aestheticism, humanism, and fine art/modernism on one side, and anti-aestheticism, inhumanism, and mass culture/kitsch on the other took form and became fundamental to historical accounts of U. S. art.  When avant-garde art flipped to aligning itself with varieties of anti-humanism—i.e. with Pop Art and Minimalism in the 1960s—it introduced another in a long line of appropriations of mass art.




SEMINAR II: Anti/Humanist Modernisms



Jacob Wamberg, From Entropy to Abstraction: On Posthuman Tendencies in Modernist and Avant-Garde Art


It is well known that the American earth artist Robert Smithson used the thermodynamic notion of entropy in antihumanist terms. Alluding to characteristics such as energy drain, superficiality, falseness, levelling out of differences and exchangeability between widely varying times scales, this term was seen as a common denominator between minimalism’s primary structures, science fiction monuments, and urban phenomena from skyscrapers to construction sites and quarries. In my paper I will expand the usability range of entropy and its antihumanist connotations to modernist and avant-garde art more broadly, unfolding a genealogy of entropy that Smithson briefly touches upon, namely the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s notion of abstraction presented in his dissertation Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1907).


Whereas empathy (Einfühlung) is the mark of humanist naturalism, concerned with identification with human subjects in space, abstraction implies embedding in the inorganic parts of nature, its geometric patterns echoing nature’s crystalline structures. My argument will be that modernist and avant-garde art right from their introduction around 1900 are marked by an antihumanist, indeed posthuman tendency, in which the empathy-attracting centers of the humanist subject – the autonomous body and the autonomous mind – are challenged through a pervasive anti-organic dedifferentiation that dissolves the body into abjection, fragmentation and dissolution and combines or wholly displaces it with an inorganic entropic dialectics between geometric order and random chaos. The conservative Austrian art historian Hans Sedlmayr had already entered this path of thinking, when he in his Verlust der Mitte (1948) lamented that modern art had become thoroughly antihumanist. Adopting a syncretic and Big History methodology I will seek to reconcile Sedlmayr’s lament with Smithson’s and Worringer’s more positive descriptions of antihumanism in art.




Jason Weems, Figuring Forgotten Men


In an April 1932 radio address, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt called upon Americans to “put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” This crystallization of the all-too-abstract Great Depression into the palpable figure of an everyman proved a potent metaphor. The term echoed through national culture and across a spectrum of politics and social thought. In the visual arts, the forgotten man became a through line in strains of figuration as different as avant-gardist abstraction, social realism, New Deal liberalism, and populist regionalism. Though sharing broad purpose as an icon of social critique, different figurations of the forgotten man were often deeply incompatible—not in the least for their varied conceptualizations of the human figure, and human being, in social and representational discourse. This paper uses the forgotten man as a cypher for understanding the emergence of a self-aware discourse of humanism and antihumanism in US art and thought at one possible emergence point in the 1930s. It also will seek to identify some blind spots that continue to vex American art from both the humanist and antihumanist directions—many of them embodied in the “forgotten man” metaphor itself. 



Larne Gogarty, “Monsters of Mutilation, Death and Decay”: Humanism and the Figure in Post-war Chicago


This paper will address the presentation and reception of Leon Golub, Cosmo Campoli and H.C. Westermann's work in New Images of Man (MoMA, 1959) as representing a “Chicago school.” Shortly after that exhibition, these artists alongside several others including Dominick diMeo, Nancy Spero and Evelyn Statsinger became known by the name Monster Roster, with their affiliation to one another rooted in their persistent focus on the figure as well as a shared a set of interests in psychoanalysis, myths, the irrational and the legacies of surrealism and expressionism. For the purposes of this colloquium, I want to explore how these artists’ engagement with the figure—which took on both a tragic and comic dimension—can be understood in relation to a dominant, Cold War humanism as well as the specific politics of Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s.




Christopher Nealon, Language, Poetry, Rhetoric


My talk traces some of the unexpected paths taken by 20th-century antihumanism, with an emphasis on its literary and historiographical implications. Though we tend to think of the critique of “the human” as a project led by the French post-structuralism of the 1960s, it is more various than that. A whole flank of antihumanist language is built around a Nietzschean critique of metaphor as mere human projection onto an indifferent nature, and a related critique of interpretation as both an inadequate narrative consolation for the difficulty of life on earth, and a solipsistic reduction of the variety of the world to human story-telling. My talk both follows the movement of these ideas in and out of literary discourse, and exposes some of their limits.




SEMINAR III: The Antihumanist Turn?



Jean-Philippe Antoine, George Kubler and the Supposed Antihumanism of the 1960s


With The Shape of Time, his short and dense 1962 book, George Kubler proceeded to a swift and systematical deconstruction of the humanistic art history that prevailed at the time of his writing, with Erwin Panofsky as its figurehead. This task was mainly entrusted to a select network of imagery borrowing variously from current linguistics, astronomy and cosmology, mathematics, biology and genetics, whose combined action dealt blow after blow to the “human narcissism” (Freud) habitually reinforced by art historians. This dimension of the work partly explains the astonishing success of the book with the “anti-humanist” artists of the mid-1960’s New York scene. Or does it ? Indeed, one may locate, and attempt to outline, in the very deconstructive and “structuralist” dimension of the book, a different image of man, drawn from the inorganic “history of [man-made] things” that Kubler purposefully calls for.




Robert Slifkin, On Dennis Oppenheim’s Marionette Theater


Between 1974 and 1978 Dennis Oppenheim staged a series of dramatically lit and oftentimes disturbing tableaux featuring motorized, less-than-life-size marionettes that jerkily moved to a pre-recorded soundtrack of the artist’s voice or music recorded by the artist. Described by Oppenheim as surrogates for himself (their facial features resembled the artist’s) these marionettes often engaged in acts that would be impossible for actual human bodies to perform. This paper will examine the ways in which this body of work explored the challenges and contradictions associated with liberal humanism in the wake of the radical political critiques waged against such values in the second half of the 1960s. Presenting a notably reduced surrogate for the white male body engaged in various acts of self-abuse and often associated with signs of criminality and guilt, Oppenheim’s installations express the anxieties and antimonies of liberal humanism at the end of the 1960s in which a political allegiance to liberatory and pluralistic politics entailed—at least for a large part of the liberal population—a necessary reduction if not negation of one’s own social position. As such, Oppenheim’s surrogates suggest the ways in which the ideals and contradictions inherent in liberal humanism of the 1970s informed a wide array of artistic practices within the art world, an art world, it should be noted, that was still largely dominated by white males despite the growing contestations from women, artists of color, and queer artists. Indeed it could be argued it was precisely the challenges of these previously marginalized groups that crucially informed significant facets of the art of the 1970s.




Laura Bieger, Reading Rocks: Earth Art, Deep Time and Implied Beholders


Earth artists were at the forefront of what came to be known as the “anti-humanist turn” in U.S. arts. Using the earth as material, site and subject of their work, they engaged the deep time of geology to liberate artistic practices and cast them against humanist notions of progress, rationality and technological control. And if earth artists used their work to expose the fundamental limitation of human knowledge at a time when a scientific worldview was thriving, in the 1960s and 70s the bedrock of this worldview was nuclear science. My paper revisits two of the artists closely associated with this movement—Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer—to propose that some of their best-known works are marked by a residual humanism, albeit for different reasons and with different implications.


In Smithson’s case humanism slipped in through the backdoor. He rejected it in theory but could not fully dispense with it in practice—his signature work Spiral Jetty, for example, exhibits far more artistic cultivation and refinement than is usually recognized. And while Heizer’s anti-humanism was never as pronounced as Smithson’s, some of his recent and long-term projects—Levitated Mass, City—seem to overtly embrace a humanist agenda. One way of making sense of the shift that becomes tangible here (and in other recent earth works such as Doug Aitkin’s Altered Earth) is that concerns with nuclear destruction, brought about in one random moment with the power of making the earth uninhabitable for ages, have been replaced by concerns with environmental destruction, brought about by the slow and reckless exploitation of our planet in which all of us participate.




SEMINAR IV: Abiding/Lingering Humanisms



Jennifer A. González, Can Speech Still “Figure” the “Human” in Democracy?


Humanist and anti-humanist approaches in the history of art, and in the study of American Art in particular, have slippery boundaries.  Rather than merely considering how these two, apparently oppositional, philosophical categories shape the discipline, we might think about the ways art practice and the discipline(s) of art history have ultimately troubled these two categories.  Cartesian humanism has been strongly criticized since at least the nineteenth century for its limited conception of the cogito; the post-structural turn in European thought of the 1960s is often credited with the most recent wave of anti-humanist approaches in American Art. But isn’t humanism always buried within anti-humanism? What can art and art history teach us about the limitations of these two conceptual frameworks that both lean toward exceptionalism, determinism and teleology in defining the human? Can such terms adequately address the inhuman, the para-human, the becoming-human or the unbecoming-human? Can there be alternative “humanisms” that incorporate the insights of “anti-humanisms”? Taking the work of Mark Tribe and Sharon Hayes as a starting point, and with reference to John Dewey and  Edward Said, these questions will be further explored.




Hanne Loreck, From the Mirror Stage to Diffraction: Models of (Female and Queer) Subjectivity in the Visual Arts of the Last Decades


Founded in 1976, October magazine has been renowned for introducing poststructuralist discourse into art history—with respect to art positions since modernism. Killing Clement Greenberg’s formalism, October’s authors focused on psychoanalytical approaches to subjectivity, especially on Lacanian models. My talk will revise this framework through Cindy Sherman’s images and their discourse (R. E. Krauss, K. Silverman); it will touch on Melanie Klein’s importance for the discussion of artistic formations of fragmented bodies and body parts, and finally look for the critical potential of the posthumanist eye of diffraction looking at most recent art production.




Joshua Shannon, Portraiture’s Credibility Problem


As a form of western cultural production, painted portraiture enjoyed an extraordinary viability and importance between about 1500 and 1950. In the last several decades, however, the painted portrait (and, to a lesser extent, the formal photographic portrait, too) has lost much of its credibility, both as art work and as document. This paper seeks to accurately narrate this recent historical transformation and to offer some explanatory analysis in terms of shifting philosophies of the human subject. In particular, the talk will consider a group of apparently conservative portrait paintings—those commissioned over the last thirty years to depict the presidents of the California Institute of Technology—in comparison with some avant-garde depictions of the human body. At stake will be the possibility of a newly capacious and nuanced understanding of the fate of humanism in American culture in recent decades.




Cherise Smith, Carrie Mae Weems: A Humanist Photoconceptualism?


My presentation will focus on Carrie Mae Weems’ From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-1996), a twenty-six-work series in which the artist appropriated images from the history of photography. Previously, I argued that From Here sought to steal back the subjectivities of the photographed subjects, all of whom are of African descent.  I suggested that the series endeavored to bring the viewer closer to the experiences of the pictured. In other words, affect, or the structure of feelings, always played a role in the images, to my mind, even while I struggled to articulate how. My arguments speak to a humanist enterprise: the series, and perhaps the artist, argues for the fundamental humanity of black individuals who were (and continue to be) systematically de-humanized. My analyses rely on reading the works’ form in relation to the conventions of realism and the history of photography, documentary photography in particular.


My recent work contextualizes From Here within the history of Conceptualism. The formal strategies that comprise the Institutional Critique vein of conceptualism—in which the artist adopts institutional practices, such as archiving, use of the grid, seriality, and distribution methods associated with the mass media among them—are visible in From Here. In its conceptualist disregard of what might be called the clap-trap sentimentalism in which realism and documentary photography traffic, the series might be interpreted as anti-humanist. Some might even say it borders on authoritarian, due to Weems’ cooptation of dehumanizing images.


The series toggles between recognizing the subjectivities of the unnamed individuals pictured in the appropriated works and representing the mass community of people of African descent who have been subjected to white supremacy and anti-blackness. From Here’s status as a synecdoche—in which the one stands for the many—guarantees it a unique position relating to the histories of individual black people as well as making universalist claims to truth, including the complex interplay of xenophobia and capitalism. Topics to be covered may include, but are not limited to, a) whether the work and artist espouse humanist or anti-humanist ideologies; b) an evaluation of my own analyses’ relationships to humanism; c) the conflation of universalism and humanism; and d) differentiating humanism/ anti-humanism from Afrocentric humanism/ anti-humanism.