Thursday, August 14, 2014

Free Sketching the Geographical Unconsciousness

What happens when you start reading the introduction of a new book and you like it so much, you want to start telling everyone about it? You can play it all academic and start composing a formal review (a genre that you've become fond of) or you can start shouting. Blogging for me is either a form of shouting or a form of whispering, a paradox that has cursed the medium. So, I would like to shout-out that ARGYRO LOUKAKI's new book, The GEOGRAPHICAL UNCONSCIOUS seems absolutely fabulous. The book is not for the meek, a tour-de-force of 400-Ashage-pages, nor for the disciplinary square. It's a collection of SNAPSHOTS that cuts through geography, art history, philosophy, and cultural studies. What makes ME particularly excited is its art-historical ambitions, a field generally weak in the hyper-textual field of Modern Greek Studies. It's a book not limited to the ideological critique of ancient art history but spans from Piero della Francesco to Gustave Eiffel and from Peter Behrens to El Greco. I became aware of Loukaki's work through her last book, Living Ruins, Value Conflicts (2008), and I immediately placed her in a company of what might be called "the new Hellenist historiography" that has revised many of the tired notions about Greek visual and material culture (Yannis Hamilakis, Dimitris Plantzos, etc.) Thanks to scholars like Loukaki, anyone interested in the relationship between archaeology, art, and modernity more broadly must pay serious attention to Greek scholarship. Their breadth and sophistication takes modern Greek studies outside of its "area studies" box.

Since I have only skimmed the book and only read the introduction, I'll hold off for more substantive posts yet to come. But let me say one thing. The author uses a great visual strategy of "free sketches." Compared to the ambitions of the whole book, this will seem rather minor, but I think its important. Loukaki's free sketches are scattered through the book to make visual arguments. In bridges the subjective and the analytical, the visual and textual in a way that "academic writing" that has neglected. Free sketches (engravings, perspectives, etc.) were part of visual discourse before photographic reproduction created the illusion of objectivity -- what  Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison's have called the second "epistemic ideal," see  Objectivity (2010). Loukaki's first free sketch of Piero's Flagellation of Christ (above) immediately captured me. This is the painting that I use in my introduction to Renaissance architecture. Unlike Masachio's Trinity, most commonly used for its simplicity and setting in S Maria Novella (see Trachtenberg textbook, etc.), the Flaggelation better communicates to students the weirdness of perspective. It's the best painting to show how perspective is an epistemic construction and very far from the real (and hence a good entry point for a socio-contextual Renaissance, via Michael Baxandall, etc.) So, I ask my students to sketch for themselves a caricature of the painting. Loukaki has redeemed me classroom tricks.

As Loukaki points out, the Marxist intellectual tradition had been traditionally weary of art (as either too bourgeoisie--which it is--or to be used only as a canvas for social messaging--which sometimes makes for bad art). Visual note-taking in whatever form it takes has been generally distrusted as a critical practice. Archaeologists and art historians have grown to distrust their visual notes, as the "objective" options of CAD drawings or photography gained legitimacy. The "free sketches" encourage a general re-entry into visual thinking through the hand. OK. Still a minor point, but these are the kind of things that matter.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States