In this week’s readings, we are introduced to the idea of reproduction, connoisseurship, and other methodological approaches and issues within other fields regarding material cultural study.
Walter Benjamin’s manifesto explores the idea that authenticity is the first mode of importance in determining the value of an artwork. According to Benjamin, the historical trajectory of an object depends exclusively on the authenticity of a particular work. The innovations of the last several centuries such as photography and other modes of artistic expression alter the lens through which we are perceiving reality. This causes the loss of the artwork’s “aura,” an intangible concept that is lost when something is reproduced from an original. This tension between a perception of reality and reproduction is certainly one that occupies the issues of material object study, as introduced by Prown and Fleming last week.
In tandem with Fleming, Charles F. Montgomery is also largely responsible for producing watershed material culture process and theory at the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Program. In his work on connoisseurship, Montgomery stresses the importance of being aware of larger trends that objects follow. This means knowing the different styles and trends that may contextualize your object. While Montgomery’s list of how to determine several descriptive attributes of objects tends to focus more on what seems to be furniture and the decorative arts, I found his method to be very useful to me for my license plate study. Understanding how my license plate was used in the “form follows function” context can really shape my findings. I’m not sure if my license plate was simply a vanity plate to commemorate the bicentennial as evidenced by the Liberty Bell imprinted on it, or if it served as identification for a vehicle. Whatever the answer to these questions, the function of the object is vital to understanding how the use of the object changes its meanings.
The following reading “Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies” by Michael Yonan delves into the mystery of why art history has remained distant from material culture studies. I myself have intellectually viewed the two as distinct as well prior to taking this class. Yonan makes a call to eliminate this divide by looking at Prown’s definition of material culture as a way to argue that it is broad enough to encompass art as well. While Yonan argues that consuming the two together might submerge the field of art history, it might be a good start towards looking at artworks with a different perspective.
Finally, Jennifer L. Roberts’ essay on the transatlantic travel of American artist John Singleton Copley’s painting Henry Pelham (Boy with a Squirrel) employs a material object approach to understanding how this painting was part of a larger system of networks. Roberts disrupts the traditional narrative used for the painting to explain the physical travel of the painting was a complicated ocean voyage. This was my favorite reading for this week, since Roberts’s vividly depicts how Copley’s painting fit into a larger maritime culture. While Roberts employs a mixture of art historical and object analysis in her essay that might not necessarily apply to a license plate, this is definitely a model for me to follow. I want to be able to create a history of my license plate with a comparable amount of visual details and connections to the larger culture that Robert was able to do so seamlessly.