What’s the big idea?
In the field of intellectual history, that question usually leads to the examination of notions, propositions, theories, and arguments that have spurred the development of human civilization: its cultures, societies, beliefs, modes of communication, systems of administration, and assorted institutions. Written language, Buddha’s path to enlightenment, Plato’s ideal forms, Copernicus’s heliocentrism, Renaissance art’s illusionism, Shakespeare’s psychological insight, Hegel’s concept of history, Marx’s class struggle, Freud’s unconscious mind, Abstract-Expressionism’s angst, the birth of rock’n’roll, the death of God, the death of painting, the death of Elvis, the post-Cold War “end of history,” and Homer Simpson’s resonant, all-encompassing “D’oh!” — such events and products of the human imagination are all grist for the intellectual-history specialist’s idea-grinding mill.
Molly Nesbit, a professor in the art department at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, is interested in what she referred to in a recent interview at her home in Manhattan as “the genealogy of ideas.” Reflecting that interest, in her new book, Midnight: The Tempest Essays (Inventory Press), she offers a selection of her art-centered essays, which were originally published in journals or exhibition catalogs between 1986 and the early 2000s. In them, what she’s up to is not conventional art history, but rather an exercise in recognizing certain dots (some big and others smaller and more subtle) on the time-map of art’s generative ideas and then connecting them — at times more purposefully and, sometimes, not.
Nesbit’s approach can feel scientific and a bit free-associative at the same time. Although she is rooted in the academy, her texts suggest a desire to break away from familiar, academic-writing models. The essays she has written combine the spirit of natural-history research — turning over rocks in search of clues — with that of poetry, for which a little ambiguity is something to savor, not proscribe.
Nesbit earned an undergraduate degree at Vassar and later continued her studies at Yale. At Vassar, she has taught courses focusing on various aspects of 20th-century art. She has written a book about the French photographer Eugène Atget and in 2013, her first collection of essays, Pragmatism in the History of Art, was published. Since 2002, with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the artist Rirkrit Tiravanjia, she has helped oversee Utopia Station, an ongoing, multifaceted project involving exhibitions, publications, and other activities.
As the late-afternoon light began to fade in Nesbit’s book-strewn sitting room, she told me that the thinking that informs her approach “comes primarily from a set of developments that took place in art history in Europe and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.” She was referring, of course, to trends associated with structuralism and later critical-analytical tendencies, which, broadly speaking, can be found in the general hopper marked “postmodernism,” along with post-structuralism and deconstruction.
However, Nesbit said that she would prefer not to use “postmodernist” to describe the overlapping currents of thought that inform the observations and analyses in her essays. Stepping back, she proposed, “Let’s just call it all ‘that broad way of thinking’” that many academics, intellectuals, and artists employ today, some with more self-awareness than others.
She explained that she is interested in how “art historians can use philosophical questions as starting points for their work,” and especially how “sustainable aesthetics,” as she put it, could be developed and practiced as an approach “that is integrated into the wider world, not separated from it, like modernism’s, which is critical but separated.”
“What Was An Author?” is an essay in the new book that looks at the meanings of “author” and “authorship” in the evolving context, since the late 1800s, of French law. Over time, it variously defined who or what constituted the author of an idea or a specific work vis-à-vis its applicable copyright protections and advancing media technology.
Nesbit points out that, by 1967, the French literary theorist Roland Barthes was signaling the “death of the author,” only to be followed by Michel Foucault’s declaration of the “author-function,” which effectively sent the visionary author packing. The “author-function,” Foucault wrote, “is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourse,” adding that “it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy.”
In “The Copy,” Nesbit’s research about the sources of some of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” — the appropriated, quotidian objects he presented as works of art — is especially interesting; she links his drawings of such items and his seminal appropriationist gestures, which spawned legions of imitators, to 19th-century French drawing-instruction manuals filled with model trapezoids, curves, and other shapes, and sample images of manufactured objects in which such forms were visible.
Elsewhere, Nesbit focuses on the film director Jean-Luc Godard’s “extreme techniques of montage that became his way of giving life itself, reality, a form.” He used it, she writes, “to break the rule of show-and-tell” that had typified so much of literature and the cinema’s approach to historical narratives. She examines Godard’s 1991 film Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), which was made after the Cold War’s end and looked back at German history. In it, she notes, Godard attempted to find “as many ways as he could to lay out the contradictions between past and present so that memory should never again grow cold and opaque.” She observes, “All futures sleep with their pasts at the risk of waking up alongside them.”
One of Nesbit’s essays looks at some of the definitive pomo artists who came to prominence in New York during the hype-driven 1980s — among them: Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Sherrie Levine. Overlooked in her discussion of Sherman is the recognition that her dressing-up, role-playing, selfie-photo schtick was already old when she revved it up in the late 1970s, and that, for some time, such pioneering feminist artists as Martha Wilson, Martha Rosler, Suzy Lake and others had already been examining women’s society-defined roles and images through photographic, performance-based artistic projects. Here, an air of veneration for Sherman, Salle and Levine’s offerings seems misplaced.
As for Levine, in particular, how can anyone revisit her supposedly subversive appropriation, in 1981, of Walker Evans’ iconic photographs of poor, Depression-era tenant farm families (which had illustrated James Agee’s classic 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) without calling attention to the paucity of talent and intellectual cowardice such a gesture represented? (For those unfamiliar with Levine’s banal exercise in pomo provocation, it consisted of her exact photographic copies of Evans’ original, black-and-white photographic prints, whose images she then exhibited and called her own. Oh, what a frisson of transgression it was supposed to have delivered, denying a real artist the “heroic” authorship of his own work and vision!)
With such subjects in mind, it’s unfortunate that Nesbit looks only at artists in the center of the art market’s mainstream (Gabriel Orozco, Gerhard Richter, and Matthew Barney turn up in these pages, too), for it could be exciting to see her apply her formidable observational skills to some truly original visionaries. After all, she quotes Duchamp’s often-cited observation, made in 1961: “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.” Looking back, was pomo’s revered Saint Marcel on to something?
More satisfying is the book’s last, long essay, “The Port of Calls,” which was first published in the catalog of Documenta 11, in Kassel, Germany, in 2002. It looks at New York in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001, not really making a graspable argument but instead floating through a mist of ideas and observations about utopia; destruction; art’s expressive potential; Duchamp on the risks of becoming a “successful” artist; Tiravanija’s audience-participation performance art; the big money that coursed through the mainstream art market of the 1990s; the architect Rem Koolhaas’s take on Manhattan’s buildings; and John Cage’s delicious, Zen-inspired contention that nothing could be regarded as something. As thought pieces go, “The Port of Calls” is all waves of intriguing, sometimes curious ideas gently washing up on a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t, unknown shore.
“I’m interested in how ideas function in the world, in questions of practice, not just theory,” Nesbit told me. “I’m not interested in theory per se, but rather in thinking.” She added, “I’m interested in how we bring the past forward into the present for its wisdom. I work in the realities of the past. A lot of the past is still alive.”
With such concerns in mind, she explained, when she sat down to compose her essays, she asked herself, “With what kind of voice is it possible to write history” — imaginatively, that is — “without it turning into fiction?” As Midnight: The Tempest Essays shows, when she is in her stride, she can and does find the writing voice she is looking for — and it is no mere echo of a soulless, Foucaultian “author-function.”
Ultimately, using it to investigate the disparate range of subjects she considers here turns out to be her own big — and not such a bad — idea.