Wednesday, 31 December 2014

MUSEOLOGY AND CULTURAL THEORY: THE SOCIAL PRODUCTION OF PRINTS

THESIS COLUMN: SPECIAL ISSUE

BY: KATIE METHOT

When I first started studying art history I began to use printed images as cultural sources for understanding other forms of art. What was often considered too insignificant for painting and sculpture were subjects covered by artists working in print. From the mundane to the lewd - prints have it all! The period I am focusing on is the early modern era, roughly between 1500 and 1750. The development of print technologies allowed artists working in this medium to create more impressions from their wooden blocks or metal plates. Consequently, more images were created and consumed by the public. In the introductory chapters of my thesis I have looked at how the cultural production of prints and public consumption of art plays a significant part in how it is perceived and valued.

Sebald Beham, Large Church Festival. Woodcut, 1535
Printmakers would often create images of cultural festivals and religious holidays that were not focused on by painters. Festivals like these were eventually banned because of ‘lewd’ behaviour that went on (Source: British Museum)
The printmaking profession was developed from the goldsmith trade. Artists like Albrecht Dürer came from families of goldsmiths and applied their training to printmaking. The link between tradeswork and printmaking shaped perceptions of the profession as a mechanical process, rather than a practice which required creativity and special skill. Consequently, many printmakers were not considered artists, but considered craftsman and more like a carpenter than a painter.

Lucas van Leyden, The Dentist. Intaglio, 1523 (Source: British Museum)

The factors involved in cultural production are important for understanding why art was created, who it was created for, and how it came to be valued and collected in museums. My presentation will look at how printed images can be used as documentary relics of culture to construct an idea of the ‘structure of feeling’ that defined a particular period. Raymond Williams defines the ‘structure of feeling’ as “the culture of a period: it is the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization. And it is in this respect that the arts of a period [...] for here it is often expressed” (Williams 1961, 64-65). The structure of feeling dies with the participants of a society, but it can live on through recorded communication. In this case, I have looked at printed images as a form of recorded communication to help capture the structure of feeling through cultural production. Developing an idea of the structure of feeling can be used to help us understand what pictures and period-specific iconography mean and how they were interpreted by their original audiences.

An example of a 'monstrous deformity' from Munster's Cosmographia, c. 1550  (Source: Twitter)

And now, a few questions from Robin and Nicole:

Robin: As horrible as it sounds, I get distracted by pretty pictures when reading academic literature with images and often spend more time looking at the work than reading the article. As such, the images you have provided grabbed my attention. Considering you have likely compiled a lot of images during your research, why have you chosen second and third images for this post? How do they relate to what you are discussing?

Katie: Yes, I also get distracted by interesting images when reading academic articles. However, in this case the images (and what they represent) is the foundation for my topic. The multitude of subjects covered by artists working in print provide an interesting source for researching cultural history beyond what can be found in 'higher' arts like painting. This is how my interest in print as a form of communication and a way of accessing a 'structure of feeling' developed. In addition to their academic value, I believe these collections provide a similarly useful purpose in museums.

Nicole: I am curious about what the ‘structure of feeling’ for this period (1500-1750) was, and what affective characteristics can be carried forth in the contemporary museum?

Katie: The structure of feeling during this period is varied and would be specific to the time and place where art is produced. For example, one of the periods I am most interested in is art created during the Reformation (c. 1517 - 1530s). While the paintings from this period would not necessarily recognize the political and religious sentiments of the Reformation movement, the printed images reveal controversial propaganda that was used to draw favour for the Reformation cause. The multiplicity of printed images in subject and number make them useful for visually contextualizing issues that would have not been important enough for paintings. Although this point is certainly debatable, I believe this makes them very useful for constructing an idea of a structure of feeling. In terms of affective characteristics, I believe that printed images can 'humanize' histories through offering a wider visual interpretation of life and culture. Their subjects often reflect the activities of a society that would not have been involved in the production and the consumption of the 'higher arts' which are more often idealized in museums.

Check back on January 2nd to read a synopsis of Nicole's presentation!

If you are interested in the topic that I am covering in my thesis and would like to explore some images in the weird and wonderful world of print, please visit our colloquium on Wednesday, January 7th (room location is still TBA - but look out for updates, there will be pizza)

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