Monday, 13 April 2009

Medieval Art History at Kalamazoo, or the lack thereof

The most wonderful time of the year is fast approaching. That's right, just over three weeks until Kalamazoo, the most epic of medieval gatherings, and the best excuse we've found to abuse the open bar and make fools of ourselves in front of our colleagues.

Vellum and I will be gleefully attending this year, as Kalamazoo virgins. Do be kind. After the fun that was Leeds last year, how could we say no? (especially as a hop across the pond to Leeds this year isn't happening) Vellum will actually be co-presenting a paper, so direct your serious conversation toward him; I'm just there for the open bar, and possibly to stalk Terry Jones.

So, in the spirit of getting the festivities underway, let's talk shop. At present, there are 614 sessions, spread across 12 time slots, with god knows how many papers being presented therein. Woefully few of these deal with medieval art or architecture. This, naturally, distresses me. And so you get another rant.

The problem with Medieval Art History is that it's the awkward cousin of both Art History and Medieval Studies. He's nice enough, and kind of cute, but he stares too much, your parents make you dance with him at the 7th grade dance (which totally ruins your life for at least a week), he laughs too loudly, and he tries to get you to join his dorky RPG games, in front of ALL your friends.

Or at least, he was - until you ran into him at your sister's wedding 15 years later, and he's hot, funny, and a consultant for historical movies - when he's not cooking at the trendy Korean place downtown. But you've lost your chance to have a cool friend, because while he's perfectly friendly, and laughs at your jokes, you can tell he remembers all those times when you ignored him on the bus and made fun of him in front of the entire gym class. And so you sit with your champagne, wishing you'd figured out how cool he was going to be before he got there, so you could hang out with someone more fun than your unemployed roommate.

That's Medieval Art History, and it's going to be ultra-cool in a few years. But for now, everyone's sitting around and ignoring it, smiling politely when it pops up with new evidence for Anglo-Saxon material culture, and the earliest written vernacular Italian, and rolling their eyes after it's bustled off to follow up on its new ideas. "It's very interesting," everyone says, nodding politely, before going back to analyzing the use of weaponry in Beowolf.

And this would be fine, except Art History is exactly the same, except more patronising. You know, Medieval Art History just hasn't figured it out yet, and it's so inferior to Renaissance or Baroque, and why does it keep popping up at our parties? It's so badly put together, and the colors are so wrong, and they don't even know who painted it - how can we be supportive? It's not really even Art History at all, it's almost like.... History. Ugh.

So Medieval Art History keeps bouncing back and forth, offering up a new interpretation of the Annunciation iconography, or maybe something on the use of color in Gospel illuminations? Or... wait, Art History, you'll love this: a new name for the artist who carved the brusque sculptures on the façade of St-Trophime! Right, because you love names, right? The artists? Right? Um, well, Medieval History, you'll really be interested in what the portal sculptures at Chartres say about the 12th century understanding of the Creation! Theology?


So listen up: in ten years, Medieval Art History is going to be the coolest guy at the party, so you'd better get your ass in gear and befriend him now, before he's too cool to need your friendship. Ok?

All right, seriously: it certainly feels like this sometimes. I'm still quite surprised at how few art history sessions there are at Kalamazoo. The ICMA is sponsoring 5 sessions, and that's the bulk of what's happening. There are a few more on architecture, and a few assorted papers dealing with space and identity - but that's really about it. Part of the problem is that noted art historians are working outside their area, doing that interdisciplinary thing that's so popular these days. But no one seems to be picking up the slack in the art and architecture area.

Fortunately, this problem is one that's easily solved. Vellum and I are planning on proposing a couple of sessions for next year, at least one of which will be art historical in nature. But I think Kalamazoo is indicative of a greater problem in the field of Medieval Studies. I think the field of Art History is right to be wary of Medieval Art, because there are such profound differences between Art History Since 1500 and Art History Before 1500. I have trouble classifying myself as an Art Historian because I have no interest in a particular artist's talents or weaknesses, his/her use of color, the quality of his/her technique, or the general aesthetic value of the work. It's hard to care about any of that when you work with 12th century artworks, where the color is all but gone, the artist is entirely unknown - and probably didn't consider himself an artist, but rather, a stonemason - and you're lucky to simply know what technique was used, never mind how well it was used. As far as scholarship goes, I have little in common with a Renaissance Art Historian, never mind an Impressionist one. So I don't blame the rest of the field of Art History for being wary of medievalists. I do, however, blame the rest of the Medieval Studies field for steering clear. I haven't figured out why this is the case yet, but I'll be sure to let you know if I do.

There, now the rant is really over. Expect another Kalamazoo post. I promise a survey of the entertaining typos one might find in this year's programme.


(photo courtesy of Sexy People and Johnny's willingness to put his childhood photos online for all to mock. We salute you, sir.)


Matthew Gabriele said...

Welcome to Kalamazoo. I hope you'll both be able to make the blogger meetup.

Anyway, I agree -- wholeheartedly -- that medieval art history is too often ignored. But I think it's a bit much to blame this all on Kalamazoo. Kazoo accepts just about anything reasonable (with exceptions, of course). But people need to propose sessions and papers in order for them to be accepted...

So, propose some sessions!

Vaulting said...

No, I agree - I didn't mean to imply that this was a Kalamazoo problem. Conferences like this provide a snapshot of the field in general. If art history isn't showing up at medieval conferences, it's because art history isn't appearing as a major player in Medieval Studies in general. As I said, Kalamazoo at least has an easy fix, so expect to see at least a couple more sessions next year ^__~

Matthew Gabriele said...

Well, I'm not sure that conferences provide an accurate snapshot. Kazoo is Kazoo. Methinks that there's much less reenacting and Tolkien-ism in the field than is on display at this conference...

Vaulting said...

Thankfully, yes - although I know of many more 'Harry Potter and the Middle Ages' courses than I'd wish.

Actually, I had a coworker ask if it was a "scholarly" conference that I was going to in May. My response was, "Yes...?" She looked so relieved. "Oh, good. I didn't know if it was maybe a dressing up and reenacting kind of conference." Ah yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Vellum said...

Although to be fair, do you really think we won't see at least one person with a set of these at K/zoo? :D

magistra said...

The earlier medieval history seminars at the Institute of Historical Research in London are getting better at having art historians (mainly from the Courtauld) along. But though I enjoy the papers (and some of them get blogged on by myself or Jon Jarrett at I don't often find them useful for my own research. I think the problem may be that, at least for the early Middle Ages, the artefacts studied are often very regionally/temporally specific. So when I hear about the decoration of St Maria Antiqua (, it's not really very useful for my own research, even in generating parallels. In contrast, if you talk about charters, it's relevant to scholars in most early medieval centuries and countries.

Vaulting said...

"I think the problem may be that, at least for the early Middle Ages, the artefacts studied are often very regionally/temporally specific."That's a really good point. It also doesn't help that a coherent narrative hasn't really been developed, especially in the Early Middle Ages. As an undergrad, I remember commenting that medieval Art History seemed to start in Italy, then bounce to Ireland for the ms illuminations, then jump to Germany for Carolingian/Ottonian art, then off to France for Romanesque and Gothic architecture, then back to Italy for early Renaissance. Egad. Within each of those areas, there's a narrative throughout the Middle Ages, but there's not a lot tying the regions together, especially across the various time periods.

Thanks for your input - and the link to Tenth Medieval!

Matthew Gabriele said...

Although to be fair, do you really think we won't see at least one person with a set of these at K/zoo? :DYou mean, besides mine?

Vellum said...

Dare I say it?

good-the-third said...

That is one solid, drawn-out intense metaphor right there, yessirree

where'd you get the pic?

Ben said...

I'm glad to see you writing/thinking/worrying about all this, because it's been on my mind, too. As an art historian who works primarily in medieval art, I so often harangue my friends and colleagues about the things they're missing by ignoring the Middle Ages that I've probably become a royal pain. But, well, they DO miss stuff in their own fields because they're ignorant of the Middle Ages, and that's just a damn shame.

I think part of the problem right now is that medieval art historians try so hard to be relevant to both art historians and medievalists that the end up impressing neither. If and when we do the kind of theoretical/critical work that can have an impact on art history, the medievalists fault us for being too speculative and ahistorical. But when we thoroughly historicize our objects, other art historians claim that our work doesn't pertain to them because it's so clearly of it's own time, and not relevant to other eras. It's a double bind. There's got to be a good balance there, but it's a tough one to strike. I certainly haven't yet.

But, anyway, bravo for proposing more art history sessions - I was bummed by the low number of offerings last year, too, and did the same thing. This year's CFP looks pretty promising.