Restoring ‘Human’ To Art History

Panel from left to right: Joanna Fiduccia, Anne Wagner, and Jordan Troeller. (photo by Sarah Hamill)

Restoring ‘Human’ To Art History

October 21, 2022

What is the relevance of the human and humanism in 20th-century sculpture?

Scholars from around the world grappled with that question at Surrogates: Embodied Histories of Sculpture in the Short Twentieth Century,” an international symposium organized by Joanna Fiduccia (Assistant Professor at Yale University) and Jordan Troeller (Postdoctoral Researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin), and hosted by Yale Universitys Department of the History of Art from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.

The event brought together 18 art historians from around the U.S. as well as Canada, Thailand, Germany, and the Netherlands.

As the co-organizers write on the symposiums website: In the decades between 1914 and 1989 (Eric Hobsbawms short century), competing definitions of humanity emerged from global warfare, feminist activism and theory, postcolonial nationalisms, the Civil Rights movement, and post-Bandung internationalism.

During this same period, sculpture, which had long served as the repository for idealized representations of humankind, began to remake the contours of the body: not as copy or exemplar, but as functioning model, prosthesis, and surrogate. Reclaimed for projects of political representation by some artists and disavowed by others, the human figure served as a staging-ground for upheavals in the category of the human itself.”

“Our symposium had a different structure than most conferences,” says Fiduccia. On the first day of the symposium, participants gathered in the study rooms at Yales West Campus and the Yale University Art Gallery for free-form discussions of nearly 50 artworks. The study day created a set of shared terms and a sense of community,” says Fiduccia.

Pictured, left to right: Sanjukta Sunderason, Anne Wagner, Jordan Troeller, Kajri Jain, David Getsy, discussing Kyoko Tonegawa’s Primeval Breath, c. 1988. Photo by Kevin Hong. 

The symposium, which was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, was also atypical in its presentations of shorter papers followed by longer discussions with those in attendance.

Another aspect to the symposium was the wide range of scholarship from speakers coming from different areas of art history, as well as some from outside of the field.

“We wanted to have a group of people over three very intensive days, thinking together about sculpture,” says Fiduccia, a medium that, for a certain amount of time, was not considered to be central to the study of art history in the 20th century.”

The idea for the conference started in a question Fiduccia and Troeller had as they were researching two sculptors who are the subjects of their upcoming books: on Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti for Fiduccia and American modernist Ruth Asawa for Troeller.

“Art history, at least for a few decades, has tended to avoid the term human’, in part because human continues to seem like a falsely universalizing term that overlooks all the salient differences between people, and in part because of the ideological work it did to mask a history of domination and exploitation,” says Fiduccia. But the category of the human was also a site of real political contestation and artistic experimentation during the 20th century. We were interested in returning to this term to think about how sculpture might help us see more clearly these political fights about what humans might be.”

Troeller explains that the conference was asking the question: “What does art tell us about our commonalities in an era where were very focused on our differences?”

Keynotes and Conversation

The symposium featured two keynote speakers: Megan R. Luke, from the University of Southern California, speaking on Mother Right: Carola Giedion-Welcker and the Prehistory of Modern Sculpture” and David J. Getsy, from the University of Virginia, speaking on Scott Burtons Embrace.”

“The two keynote lectures highlighted figures that had long been marginalized in sculpture,” says Troeller. One is a German woman art historian and the other is an openly gay American artist making public artworks about the queer experience in the 1980s. They would probably not cross at any other university-level conference.”

Fiduccia adds: These keynote speakers are two terrific scholars who are pushing our field in exciting new directions, and we both felt that presenting their recent research would add a great deal of intellectual energy to our discussions.”

Another high point of the symposium was a conversation with Anne M. Wagner, Professor Emerita of the University of California, Berkeley who received her BA in History of Art at Yale, about her forthcoming book, Sculpture and the Making of the Human.

“Without Anne Wagners work, the scholarship we are doing now would be unthinkable,” says Fiduccia. Anne laid a foundation for reimagining modern sculpture through the lenses of gender, race and class.

We wanted to understand what was at stake for her in using the word human’ in her current project,” says Fiduccia, One of her answers was that humans are creatures who make sculptures, and the fact that we make sculptures tells us something about what it is to be human in the first place.”

Can we return to the human’ in all of its faults in the discourse to think about finding some basis for collective life or action or agency?” asks Troeller. This was the central question that got raised in the course of the symposium. One of our goals had been to help ferment discussion among people who work on sculpture at this moment and to make us feel a sense of common terms and excitement behind our research.”

By Frank Rizzo for the History of Art Department

Presentations at the Surrogates: Embodied Histories of Sculpture in the Short Twentieth Century”  Symposium at Yale:

“Embodiment:” Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center), Christa Noel Robbins (University of Virginia), Robert Slifkin ( New York University) and moderated by Kevin Hong (Yale University).

Interiority and Figuration:” Elise Archais (University of Illinois, Chicago), Namiko Kunimoto, (Ohio State University) and moderated by Joanna Fiduccia (Yale University).

Infrastructure:” Patricia Ekpo (Yale University), Kajri Jain (University of Toronto) and Irene V. Small (Princeton University) and moderated by Faraz Olfat (Yale University).

The Body Politic:” Caitlin Meehye Beach (Fordham University), Aglaya Glebova (University of California, Berkeley) and Sanjukta Sunderason (University of Amsterdam) and moderated by Alexandra M. Thomas (Yale University).

The Curatorial Panel:” Patrizia Dander (Museum Brandhorst) and Keely Orgeman, (Yale University Art Gallery) and moderated by Alex Fialho (Yale University).

Enlivenment/Everyday Objects:” Paisid Aramphongphan (independent scholar) and Sarah Hamill (Sarah Lawrence College) and moderated by Michelle Donnelly (Yale University).