Thursday, November 27, 2008

Singular Antiquity 8: Sakka on the Agora

America's aggressive involvement in Greek politics during the Cold War left some indelible marks in Greek attitudes towards the United States and towards relatively innocent institutions like the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). The Athenian Agora Excavations and the construction of the Agora Museum (Stoa of Attalos restoration) within the archaeological site continues to resonate with imperialist associations. On July 1929, the Greek Parliament voted Law 4212 giving American archaeologists the exclusive right to excavate the Agora, a project that continues today under the directorship of John Camp. Unlike any other excavation in Greece, the Agora is sanctioned by Greek law and hence excluded from the limited excavation permits alloted annually to each foreign school.

The Agora is special, but not necessarily the result of aggressive American imperialism. Rather, it is the product of negotiated desires by multiple parties closely tied to the challenges of the 1920s rather than the 1950s. Niki Sakka's, "The Excavation of the Ancient Agora of Athens: The Politics of Commissioning and Managing the Project," in Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (Athens, 2008) pp. 111-124, chronicles those negotiations. Before World War II, both the United States and Greece had different priorities than after the War. For one, Greece's economy was dependent heavily on foreign loans that America, among others, provided. It is impossible to separate the ASCSA and its members from the investment that American businesses were making on the construction of public works, such as the Marathon water system. To this day the water bill in Greece is called "Ulen," which stands for the name of the Chicago company that built the water system in 1930; see Maria Kaika, City of Flows (London, 2005). In short, Americans had contracts with the Greek state, and Venizelos' government in particular. ASCSA director Edward Capps was close to Eleutherios Venizelos. The Agora excavations emerged from bilateral interests from both Greek and Americans. To consider the Agora exclusively as a product of American expansionism is anachronistic.

Of critical importance is the 1922 Asia Minor Catastrophe that produced hoards of refugees that needed urgent housing in public land throughout Greece. The Agora would have been appropriated for the refugees, a situation that would forever limit its archaeological study. Alexander Philadelpheus and the Greek archaeologists were alarmed by the prospects but had no financial resources to stop it. The Americans, on the other hand, possessed the financial resources (American private patrons) but no site to invest them into. In order to promote itself internationally and grow institutionally, the ASCSA had to compete against the archaeological dominance of European foreign schools. The French School had Delphi and Delos, the German Institute had Olympia and the British School had Knossos and Sparta. The Agora offered a perfect solution. A site of such international significance (cradle of democracy, etc.) would be spared from refugee housing and the Greek government would not have to foot the bill.

Sakka's essay documents a forgotten period when American archaeologists were deeply entrenched in the internal workings of the Greek state. Americans had proven their philhellenism during the Balkans Wars and World War I, volunteering their services in all efforts of war relief. For example, many of the female archaeologists (Hetty Goldman, Harriet-Boyd Haws) worked for the Red Cross. The expat community of American archaeologists, were living in Greece and working for Greece. They did not see themselves as colonizers or racially superior. The Athenian Agora is a testament to a unique inter-relationship between two countries that had been strangers till very recently. Greeks loved Americans because, unlike the French, Germans, British and Russians, they had not dominated or governed them. Undoubtedly, American paternalism emerged in 1945, but it was not foreseen 15 years earlier when Edward Capps (dir. ASCSA), Konstantinos Kourouniotis (dir. Greek Archaeological Service), Eleutherios Venizelos (Prime Minister) and John D. Rockefeller (financier) collectively arrived to an archaeological solution. Sakka's essay, which seems part of a larger project, records the terms of this trans-national conversation.

In the last few years, there has been an amazing resurgence of institutional history within the ASCSA. The group of scholars includes Jack Davis (Cincinnati), who has published a series of articles on the politics of excavation. It should be noted that, as ASCSA director, Jack Davis has been amazingly supportive of such projects and that kind of leadership is refreshing. Robert Pounder (Vassar) has been looking at the fascinating alternative family of the Hills and Blegens. Betsey Robinson (Vanderbilt) has been studying the life of Bert Hodge Hill. Despina Lalaki (New School of Social Research) has been investigating ASCSA's political connections during the Cold War. Natalia Vogeifoff-Brogan (ASCSA Archives), has been a tireless historian on many fronts, most recently on the 1948 film Triumph over Time. Other scholars are taking a fresh look at ASCSA's non-archaeology friends; Artemis Leontis (Michigan) is working on an intellectual biography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos and has discovered all kinds of ASCSA connections (see article in Singular Antiquity). I work on the connections between Byzantine archaeology and the avant-garde; a future project includes a close study of George V. Peschke, painter and architect of Corinth's excavations. Reading Sakka's essay makes me realize how exciting this new research is turning up to be. I am titillated by the contemporary vibe.

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Michigan is the Best

It's been a week since my talk at the University of Michigan. Although short, the trip was intellectually intoxicating. I met so many interesting people, saw so many wonderful things, had so many enlightening conversations; my head is spinning. Michigan truly is an archaeological powerhouse (and I was wrong to think that its glory was connected to individual star faculty). It is also a beacon of Modern Greek Studies, a program well integrated with the archaeology. I'm sure I'll be blogging about my trip for weeks to come, but I would like to briefly list some highlights.

1) Vassilis Lambropoulos and Artemis Leontis are two of the nicest people I've ever met in Modern Greek Studies, and they also happen to be brilliant (each in their own way). Hosting me over lunches, dinners, and drinks, we discussed all kinds of topics, from the future of Byzantine Studies to the complications of Modern Greek and Greek American Studies. Artemis and I are now emailing odd bits and pieces of a larger puzzle that involve American School figures and Eva Palmer Sikelianos, on whom she is writing a cultural biography. God is in the archival details. It was also fantastic to have met Elizabeth Sears (in Art History), who works on social networks in connection to Aby Warburg. I look forward to future conversations.

2) The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology was quite a treat. Although closed for a grand enlargement, Laurie Talalay gave me a full behind-the-scenes introduction. I saw Kelsey's archival photographs, the fresh new exhibitions spaces, and even the storage areas. Michigan's excavations of Karanis in Egypt must have produced the greatest comparanda of domestic artifacts for the Late Roman period. Thanks to the dry climate, there is an amazing array of wooden objects (furniture, toys, locks, architectural elements, brooms, combs, pins, etc). For early Byzantine domestic archaeology, Karanis is a gold mine. The Kelsey is housed in Newberry Hall (1886), a Romanesque Revival building that originally housed the Student Christian Association. Laurie did not fail to show me a spectacular Tiffany window in the auditorium of the original Christian Association (photo), connecting my lecture with the physical fabric. I was also fascinated to learn about Laurie's late mother, Marjorie Talalay, founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Cleveland. Mrs. Talalay brought contemporary art to Cleveland; she tragically died this May in a car accident.

3) After my lecture, Elaine Gazda asked a question about Francis Kelsey's commitment to non-Classical archaeology. In 1895, the AIA went through a little identity crisis. AIA founder Charles Eliot Norton clashed with Classics professors (Francis Kelsey from Michigan and John Williams White from Harvard) over the direction of the institute. But my information comes only from Norton's biography, James Turner, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton (Baltimore, 1999), p. 369. Elaine Gazda has put me into contact with Hima Mpallampati, a Michigan grad student writing on Kelsey. Hima has discovered that Kelsey was extremely supportive of Native American achaeology even within the state of Michigan. At the end of my talk, I met Christina Crockett, a fountain of knowledge on the Greek Phanariot community in London, who directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelite love-affair with Byzantium. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to visit a Richardsonian church near her house.

4) The worlds of Ann Arbor and Cleveland connect. My friend Jon Seydl tells me that indeed, Marjorie Talalay was a monumental figure in the Cleveland art world and her loss is greatly mourned. Coincidentally, the water-color copy of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii (commissioned by Kelsey right before his death in 1925) is currently restored at the Cleveland Museum. Drawn by Maria Barosso, the canvas has been the subject of an exhibition and essay by Elaine Gazda, "Replicating Roman Murals in Pompeii: Archaeology, Art, and Politics in Italy of the 1920s, " in Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ed. Victoria C. Coates and Jon Seydl (Los Angeles, 2007). When the Kelsey opens again, the painting will be permanently displayed in a special space replicating the Roman original. That's going to be a double testament to Pompeiian wall painting and 1920s artistic endeavors.

5) The Iggy Pop pilgrimage went great. I visited his home, a trailer park in Ypsilanti, his high school, and other Stooges landmarks. Unfortunately, the Fun House has been torn down. I'm convinced that there are some critical connections between the godfather of punk and Byzantine aesthetics (via modernism and the avant-garde, of course). Proximity to Motown, the Chicago blues, connections to Warhol's Factory and to David Bowie, make Iggy Pop one of the most important case studies for Punk Archaeology. On the plane to Michigan, I finished the excellent biography by Paul Trynka, Iggy Pop: Open up and Bleed (New York, 2007). And who would have known that Iggy Pop has even contributed essays in Classics journals?

6) There was also lots of talk about Byzantine kitchens. Veronica Kalas is writing an article on Cappadocian kitchens, so we discussed the evidence in Greece and the sad state of employment for Byzantine archaeologists. Lots of good stuff in Michigan. I must now order Sufjan Stevens album Michigan to maintain the aura.

Friday, November 14, 2008

17N: Ann Arbor, Michigan

November 17 is the infamous day of the Athens Polytechnic student uprising in 1973, which triggered the end of the CIA-sponsored junta in Greece (1969-1974). Every year, protest marches at the Polytechnic commemorate the student resistance, the Greek Left and anti-Americanism. The Anarchists typically engage the police and destroy property. This year, I will be spending November 17 at the University of Michigan, where I've been invited to give a lecture, “Radical Byzantium: American Archaeology in Greece between the Wars." I have never visited Ann Arbor and I am very excited for my trip; it's the academic highlight of my semester. Once I took a highway exit and got gas at Ann Arbor, sadly on the way back from Angela Volan's funeral at Merrillville, Indiana. Michigan holds an almost mythical spot in my mind, so I will list all the reasons why I'm excited for this first visit.

1) First, I'm deeply honored to have been invited by Artemis Leontis and Vassilis Lambropoulos, a couple whom I know only by their scholarly reputation and their spectacular contribution to one of the best Modern Greek Studies Program in the United States. I still remembe
r Fall Break 2004, when I first read Leontis' Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland (Ithaca, 1995), still one of my top-three favorite books on the Modern Greek predicament. Leontis' book helped align my thinking into the direction that conlcuded with the paper I'll be presenting. One of the pleasures of academia is meeting people you have admired on print.

2) Michigan had been one of the fountains of medieval archaeology, initially under the leadership of George H. Forsyth, Jr. Interestingly enough, my paper deals with Forsyth's contributions to archaeology in the 1930s and last year, I was the Forsyth annual speaker of the Archaeological Institute of America. Michigan also pioneered the discipline of Islamic archaeology in the U.S. Michigan's excavations of Qasr Al-Hayr East is where my mentor Renata Holod received her archaeological training.

3) During my graduate-school years at Penn (late 90s, early 00s), Michigan was a powerhouse of Mediterranean archaeology. My own graduate program, Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, saw Michigan as a direct rival for prestige and graduate students. During this golden period, Michigan trained some of the
best archaeologists in the field. Bryan Burns, Robert Caldwell, Jeremy Hartnett,Veronica Kalas, Camilla MacKay, Amy Papalexandrou, Adam Rabinowitz, Jane Rempel, Ann Marie Yasin are some of my good friends, scholars of Michigan's making. With so many alum friends, I look forward to visit the mothership.

4) Last but not least, I'm psyched to visit Ann Arbor as a punk rock pilgrimage to the city of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. James Newell Osterberg (Iggy Pop) was born at the town of Ypsilanti in 1947. He grew up at the Coachville trailer park on Carpenter Road ( 42°14'20.06"N, 83°40'40.17"W). Believe it or not, Ypsilanti was named after Demetrios Ypsilantis, the brother of the more famous Alexandros Ypsilantis, both heroes of the Greek War of Independence.
I find it most fitting to celebrate November 17 in a town named Ypsilanti and pay tribute to the godfather of punk in front of Demetrios Ypsilantis' statue at the city's water tower building, between a Greek and an American flag. Iggy Pop
attended Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor (42°15'46.37"N, 83°45'14.30"W) where he met Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander, who formed the Stooges in 1967.

On my commute to Connecticut College this week, I happened to play an odd sequence of CDs, Marika Ninou and Vasilis Tsitsanis rembetika (1966) and the Stooges' first album (1969). Paradoxically they seemed to belong together, part of a similar universe. And then, I reviewed some of my notes on Iggy Pop's performance style (see left), including live footage from the documentary Punk Attitude (2005). While preparing my Michigan lecture, I also got a chance to review some paintings by Greek modernists (Photis Kontoglou 1930 painting on the right) and Byzantine artifacts (12th-c sgraffito plate excavated in Corinth, see top). I was struck by some subtle aesthetic similarities. Is Iggy Pop a kind of Byzantine ascetic? a naked bedecked Cynocephalus ("I Want to Be Your Dog")? a rock mosaic in drag? I leave you with this to think about. Juxtapose glam rock with the mosaic of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna and you're there. To fully appreciate Iggy's ascetic stage performance, we should also consider Bob Dylan's masquerades, and Jim Morrison's antics.

A lucky friend of mine saw Iggy Pop perform at the open theater at Lycabettos in Athens more than a decade ago. He reported all kinds of rowdy fan behavior, throwing refrigerators from the stands, stage-diving, etc. From Ypsilanti Michigan to Athens is a long journey. Seeing Iggy Pop glowing under the Greek moon might have revealed some of his Byzantine undercurrents. I'm thrilled that my introduction to Ann Arbor will happen through the thematic cross-road between Byzantium and bohemia. Michigan's generous invitation will also allow me to experience the specific postindustrial landscape that rooted punk in midwestern soil (enough about New York and London). Unfortunately, there won't be enough time to also visit Detroit and explore another its rich punk poetics from MC5 to the White Stripes, not to mention the literary avant-garde of Jeffrey Eugenides.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Punk Archaeology: Origins 1901

Generation X, which just came of Presidential age on November 4th, is perhaps the most archaeological generation in American history. From the perspective of a personal narrative, I've been exploring the thesis of Punk Archaeology (see other postings under this heading). Leaving aside the solipsism of my own decade (80s), I would like to note a chapter in American history that prefigures rock 'n roll altogether. I think I've discovered the earliest intersection between archaeology and American popular music, namely Charles Peabody's excavations in Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1901. Peabody developed an interest on the music of his workmen. Three decades before the ground-breaking musicological fieldwork of John and Alan Lomax, the Delta blues were discovered in the collaborative toils of excavation.

Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody arrived at Coahoma County on May 11, 1901 and conducted a seven-week excavation season at the Dorr Plantation in Clarksdale and the Edwards Plantation in Oliver. The excavations focused on mounds of the Choctaw people. The work was made strenuous by the damp black soil of the Mississippi River. The team of hired workers, (a group of 9-15 people) motivated their labor by song. Their repetitive and mesmerizing chants caught the director's attention. Peabody was transformed by what he had heard. Before even processing his own excavation finds, he published "Notes on Negro Music," in the
Journal of American Folk Lore 16 (July-September 1903), pp. 148-152. He was the first academic to discover the blues, hoping for their "future study and classification." The archaeological publication appeared later, "Exploration of Mounds, Coahoma County, Mississippi," Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology vol. 2, no. 2 (Cambridge, Mass, June 1904).

Those readers who have an appreciation of the excavation processes will enjoy Peabody's description of vertical descent and musical stratigraphy: "On their beginning a trench at the surface the woods for a day would echo their yelling with faithfulness. The next day or two these artists, being, like the Bayreuth orchestra, sunk out of sight, there would arise from behind the dump heap a not unwholesome μυγμός as of the quiescent Furies." (p. 148)

It is noteworthy also to note how Peabody perceived his work as different from the establishment of classical archaeology. If we browse through a 1905 issue of the
American Journal of Archaeology, we find articles on Eleusinian inscriptions, on a signed amphora at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, on a terra-cotta figurine at the Cincinnati Art Museum, on the gates of Dimytrias and on stoas in Ancient Corinth. Within this overwhelmingly classical setting, Charles Peabody summarized archaeological activities in North America (including his own project in Mississippi). His implicit defensiveness against classical archaeology is suggested in the opening paragraph and helps us comprehend his receptiveness of the blues.

"A striking difference in the importance of archaeology in relation to other sciences is to be seen on comparing work undertaken in its name in the so-called classical lands with that in America. In the former case archaeology is a more or less independent study... In the western hemisphere, however, archaeology is but one of the sciences grouped under anthropology: ethnology, ethnograpy, folk-lore, and somatology are all nearly equally with archaeology considered in research and report while geology, paleontology, and even meteorology are drawn upon in corroborating or limiting suggestions." Charles Peabody, "American Archaeology during the Years 1900-1905: A Summary,"
AJA 9:2 (April-June 1905), pp. 182-196. An open-ended discipline was, thus, necessary to appreciate the music of its laborers. A classical archaeologist would have never received the blues.

I became aware of Charles Peabody while reading a new book, Ted Gioia,
Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (New York, 2008), pp. 20-22. It was reviewed in the Economist (of all places) and I checked it out (most fittingly) from the public library. A few weeks ago, Bill Caraher got me thinking about the blues from his series on Archaeological Dreams, see Blindness, Dreams and Relics, (Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, Oct. 29, 2008). On the guitar playing front, I've been enduring a hiatus thanks to a slight tendonitis on the left hand (home improvement injury). But the right hand is still good, so I'm thinking about focusing on some finger-picking techniques. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I'm tempted by the Merle Travis finger style. Mark D. Hanson's The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking seems to be highly recommended.

Getting back on the topic of Punk Archaeology, I have one more comment to make. If one were to write a book about this subject, Charles Peabody would clearly be the first chapter. For a second chapter, I think one would have to look into the 1930s and WPA excavations. One interesting figure might be John B. Elliott working in Kentucky. Did he intersect with bluegrass? I should also divulge the knowledge that my own mentor, Cecil L. Striker, was a devoted scholar of bluegrass before turning his attention to medieval archaeology. Few people know that Striker was a highly accomplished professional jazz guitarist at Oberlin College.

Lots of new books have appeared on the New Deal. Nick Taylor's,
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (New York, 2008) includes a chapter on Kentucky archaeology. There's also a new biography of Roosevelt with a wonderful title, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York, 2008) by H. W. Brands. Given the economic downturns and the election of Barack Obama, books on Roosevelt (and Lincoln) will abound in 2009. See, for instance, Paul Krugman editorial "Franklin Delano Obama?" New York Times (Nov. 10, 2008). Isn't it amazing that Krugman won a Nobel prize this year?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Writing on the Wall: Politics 2008

Some readers of this blog study Byzantine inscriptions and the sociology of defacement, graffiti, spolia. Just in class last week, I was explaining why the font used in the Vienna Genesis (6th-c. illuminated manuscript) resembles the font of stone-carved inscriptions. We discussed issues of literacy (especially in relation to Islam) and the conceptual framework of street art. In the last month, two images of public inscribing have struck my attention.

The first, a photograph by Joshua Lotts/Reuters, appeared in the
New York Times (10/6/08, p. B4) after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It shows a Wall Street employee defacing the image of Lehman Brothers' CEO Richard Fuld, who was held responsible for the company's ill fate. The messages are predominantly negative: "Drop Dead Golden Parachute," "GREED," etc. This canvas was set up outside in Wall Street (not Main Street), giving the public a chance to textually perform.

The second photograph, by Mitch Dumke/Reuters, also from the
New York Times (11/6/08, p. P4) shows another act of public inscription, this time positive, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Three passers-by write congratulatory notes to their newly elected President. On the iconographic connections between Barack Obama and the Lincoln Memorial, see my earlier posting.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Young and the Restless in Paris

Watching low forms of popular entertainment gives one the tingle of shame shared by the female readers of novels in the 19th century. Or in the spirit of postmodernism, kitsch is so good because it is so bad. I am a little ashamed to say that for about a year I have been following the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless at least once or twice a week. This bad habit began at Clemson, where I would come back home to cook lunch and eat by myself. Now that I am spending more and more time at home with a newborn, Y&R has provided some mindless narrative to highlight adult feeding time.

Y&R has gone to Paris this weeks. For a variety of reasons, a bunch of the show's characters have ended up in Paris. Although many of the scenes are clearly montaged into a French background, some are filmed on location. Paris still holds a special spot in the popular imagination. Having the characters visit the famous streets, neighborhoods, cemeteries and medieval monuments in person reassures the aura of the original work of art. I'm watching the episode closely because, in my survey of art, I am dealing with popular culture's Parisian expectations. I know my students are taking the class to prepare themselves for those magical wonders like Notre Dame Cathedral. Art historical knowledge is never free of expectations; the American love affair with Paris is inescapable. Albeit at a more popular level, Y&R illustrates this fantasy. And frankly, if popular culture did not continue to relish the Parisian fantasy, nobody would major in Art History. At the bottom of the cultural spectrum we have Y&R in Paris, while at the top, we have the Metropolitan Museum's Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, a blockbuster exhibition.

In my art history survey, I've been continuously connecting the art of the past with the expectations of the present and I will certainly share clips when we visit Notre Dame Cathedral, where Ashley Abbott experiences a revelation. She stands in the West portal while the camera pans across the monument, and later she walks around the back and prays to a statue of Saint Raymond Nonnatus, "patron saint of infants who were never born." The camera zooms back and forth between her radiant blond face (soft focus) and a detail of the medieval statue. It's reassuring to know that medieval scultpure still retains its popular appeal. Her prayers come to life when Victor (whom everyone is searching for) appears in front of the same statue.

For the full episode of this most up-to-date version of Americans in Paris, you can see a short promo here. For a closer reading of this cultural text, the entire episode (38:29 mins) can be watched here. I have put together a little minute-by-minute guide to the relevant parts of the show

(00:50-03:01) Nick and Sharon have a telephone conversation; they realize that they both happen to be in the Left Bank
(03:01-03:22) Ashley visits Notre Dame Cathedral; camera details portal
(21:32-21:34) General shots of Notre Dame
(21:34-23:10) Noah (Nick's and Sharon's son) and Eden, who are in Paris on a school trip, have a conversation. Eden tells Noah that she wants "to feel the city," wants to visit Père Lachaise Cemetery to visit the graves of "Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Jim Morrison)
(23:11-23:42) Ashley talks to a nun on the side of Notre Dame and is directed to the statue of Saint Raymond
(26:30-26:50) More on Saint Raymond, "patron saint of infants who never were born"
(31:59-32:30) Phyllis (Nick's wife) arrives at the Park Hyatt Hotel. View of exterior (exuding with status). Walks into Nick's room (studio set) but does not find him there
(32:30-33:42) Nick and Sharon meet up at Bistro La Maison to have a coffee; there's lots of flirtation and Sharon holds Nick's hand.
(33:42-35:25) Climax of episode. Ashley stands in the gardens behind Notre Dame and prays to the statue of Saint Raymond. Soft focus close-ups of Ashley's face are broken by zooms on the medieval statue (33:53, 34:19, 34:35, 34:47, 35:11). Victor appears magically behind Ashley.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Teaching Thursday: Classroom Modernism

It has dawned on me that most of my teaching experiences have transpired in spectacular modernist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s. This makes a lot of sense considering the heroic role that art played in American education of the mid-century. Colleges and universities throughout the country commissioned grand art centers and design schools to capitalize on America's rising global prominence. Abstract Expressionism was exported abroad and Pax Americana high modernism was preached nationally. Thanks to World War II, the European avant-garde migrated en masse to the U.S. For the first time in history, the U.S. called the shots. The Cold War, moreover, necessitated the aggressive sponsorship of American culture. Art history flourished during this period as a necessary prerequisite to cultural dominance; every period and region of artistic production suddenly received new academic positions, research, funding, grad students, exhibitions. This artificial postwar boom came to end with the fall of Communism. Art history was left to its own resources, seeking the guidance of other forces like the market (Chinese art boom) or ideology (the discovery of Islam in a post 9/11 landscape).
At Clemson, where I had taught for the last few years, the School of Architecture functioned as a vessel for the state's modernization. Harlan E. McClure was brought in from Minnesota to create a Bauhaus in the upstate of South Carolina. In 1958, he designed Lee Hall (left). Although Lee Hall is now overcrowded, for me, it remains a masterpiece of modernist design. My frequent commutes out of Clemson had me pass through Greenville's airport. Designed by Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill in 1962, the Greenville airport was the brainchild of upstate industrialist Roger Milliken who used modernism in his own textile plants to create a new ideal of the pastoral South. Milliken realized the significance of hiring the New York firm of S.O.M. to upgrade South Carolina's reputation, strip away the old-boy cronyism, promise progress, research, reason and encourage international investment. The strategy worked. Michelin, BMW, Yamaha and other multinationals moved into the upstate; cheap labor and the absence of labor unions made this additionally attractive. Strategically, the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport magnetized the newcomers and facilitated the economic shift. Clemson's architecture and engineering schools were the public vehicles for South Carolina's new corporate identity. The teaching of art (nonexistent in the upstate till Clemson's architecture school) could not be separated from the greater progressive industrial mission. Modernism necessitated cultural investment. As a public university and a land grant school, Clemson had made a commitment to the economic betterment of the state. As a professor at Clemson, my contract was with the people. Modernism was part of the implicit equation that got me there to begin with.

While teaching at Connecticut College this semester, I found myself in another modernist building. Cummings Hall, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of S.O.M. in 1969, the year that the College went co-ed. The building houses art, architectural studies and music; it reminds me very much of the high modernist campus of Purchase College, another spectacular example of mid-century American cultural idealism. Purchase was founded in 1967 and was designed as a school to combine visual arts, music and the humanities. It was Governor Rockefeller's dream of a modernist utopia . Edward Larrabee Barnes was hired to draw the masterplan; Philip Johnson designed the Neuberger Museum. More than any other college I have ever visited, SUNY Purchase speaks loudly of the liberal arts in a heroic setting.

The art center of Connecticut College is organized around an exterior sunken courtyard, an interior central courtyard, a large auditorium (section left) and studio spaces at the top, dramatically light by skylights. Some Connecticut College faculty members dislike Cummings, but they would dislike anything modernist. What most fail to appreciate is that buildings such as Cummings are historical relics, unbuildable today both conceptually and technologically. Conceptually, they belong to a heroic age of growth, confidence and experimentation. Materially, they embody an industrial quality that has disappeared (along with the industrial jobs that have gone off shore). In my thinking, such modernist behemoths are an extinct species and must be preserved. Any contemporary alternative would never embody the level of quality and cultural commitment of these buildings. Universities throughout the U.S. are seeking star-system commissions to help their public image and endowment. But even the best of Frank Gehry will be the product of cynical and pessimistic times, prefabricated with plastics, glued with adhesives.

As an art historian, my encounters with Cummings occur almost entirely within Room 308, where I teach two sections of the Art History survey (left). Room 307, next door, is slightly smaller but it has one key difference: it was renovated. The Art History Department is quite proud of this renovation. I have not seen what was there before, but now it looks like a generic 1990s corporate seminar room with even gray tones and clean upholstery. But now, there is talk of also renovating Room 308. As Roger Fry pointed out in 1907, art historians study the art of the past because they dislike the art of the present. In my experience, this has been true. Some art historians are greater enemies of modernism than the general public. The American public has always been uncomfortable with modernism, struggling with abstractions that cannot capture populist sentiments. Although I have not polled the department, it seems that a restoration is seen in a positive light.

Whatever happens to Cummings 308 is up to the department and the College (I'm only a temporary art historian). However, there are compelling arguments to celebrate the historical originality of the room and to reassure that it does not get destroyed.Cummings 308 retains all its original features, most notably a complete set of fixed seats designed by David Rowland, a contemporary of Eames, Bertoia, Knoll, etc.. Rowland (born in 1924) studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art; he trained with Laslo Moholy-Nagy (director of the Bauhaus) and Norman Bell Geddes (American stream-line designer). He created the 40/4 chair in 1962 and won the 1963 Milan Triennale. The 40/4 chairs are stackable (40 chairs fit in 4 feet). Historically, the chairs are design landmarks and are collected by major museums, such as the MoMA. Design Within Reach has rediscovered them and produces them for $175. Destroying Room 308 would be the equivalent of destroying an Eames interior. Art historians, especially, should be the custodians of historical meaning and in this case, should let the heroic setting teach itself. The popularity of Mad Men, the AMC television series, shows that the time has come to reflect on 1961 American society.

Walking through Cummings, one encounters a whole bunch of 40/4 chairs in offices, in hallways, in studios. But Room 308 is unique in that it has a fixed set bolted onto iron beams.
The color scheme is radical, bright orange. Undeniably, the installation is a treasure of mid-modern design that should not be removed under any circumstance. It gives me great pleasure to have a job as an art historian, symbolically housed within a temple for modernist art and art education. Rowland's original 4/40 installation in an original Skidmore, Owing and Merrill building (designed by Gordon Bunshaft) roots me in a tradition that needs to be remembered if not revived. Next semester, I'm teaching a history of architecture class in this very room. I hope that I can convince my small group of students that modernism is worth preserving.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Colonial Modernisms: Greece and India

In his introduction to Singular Antiquity and in Greek Archaeology and the Post-Colonial Blues, Dimitris Plantzos makes a connection between the artistic avant-garde of the Greek 30s Generation and the Bengalese School. This summer, I saw an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that supports the cross-cultural comparison. Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandale Bose (1882-1996) explores the intersection between traditional Indian visual traditions and modernity. In similar ways the Greek 30s Generation (Photis Kontoglou, Konstantinos Parthenis, Yannis Tsarouchis, Nikos Engonopoulos, etc.) attempted to integrate indigenous non-western visual traditions (Byzantium, vernacular, etc.) with modernism. For an operative description of the 30s Generation, see catalog by National Gallery of Greece here. The Bose exhibition was organized by the San Diego Museum of Art and New Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art. For further information, see catalog by Sonya Rhie Quintanilla et al. (San Diego, 2008). Another recent book, Partha Mitter's The Triumph of Modernism: India's Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947 (London, 2007) explores these connections fully.

Michael Herzfeld has observed that Greek intellectual dislike comparisons with the "Third World," seeing themselves superior to places like Sri Lanka or India (Singular Antiquity). But as Plantzos argues, we cannot escape the Lacanian gaze of colonialism: "National identity had to be formed and propagated against a backdrop of (occidental) modernity and the crucial dilemma between modernization (which everybody craved, if surreptitiously) and westernization (feared to be the kiss of death to any non-Western society)."
The 30a Generation found a way to walk a tight rope between the two, although it was itself mired by racism and its own national colonialism.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States