19th-20th century art and cultural change: shared scholarship

26 September 2021

Baird Jarman (Art History) and Susan Jaret McKinstry (English) both research the visual culture of the Anglo-American world during the long nineteenth century, approaching art as matter — whether material, visual, auditory, or embodied — and mattering, as a force that shapes, performs, and often radically alters human behavior and culture. We also built upon discussions during the Humanities Center 2020-2021 Faculty Research Seminar, “Art Matters.” The chance to continue those interdisciplinary conversations and connections by reconsidering broad questions about art, as well as examining and critiquing precise details of our writing, argumentation, evidence, and interpretation, was helpful and refreshing.

Baird is working to complete his monograph, tentatively titled Political Theater: Thomas Nast, Joseph Keppler, and Gilded-Age Caricature, which offers a new examination and historical interpretation of the sudden proliferation of political caricature in the mass media of the United States during the late 19th century. In particular, the book seeks to bring the lens of performance studies to this visual material, following a methodological approach pioneered by scholars of literature who adapted period modes of theatrical performance genres to the analysis of novels and other non-theatrical texts.

Susan drafted an interdisciplinary article on the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s collective vison of art and work, centering on Ford Madox Brown’s painting “Work,” painter/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem and hand-drawn illustration “Sonnet,” and varied products of designer/writer William Morris; focused between 1854 and 1865, the essay links their collaborative founding of Morris and Company, teaching at the Working Men’s College, and aesthetic and social visions.

During the summer, we commented copiously on one another’s drafts, and met to debate issues both large and microscopic. The comments and ensuing conversations were so helpful because of our overlapping interests and our differing perspectives. Baird, as art historian, asked precise questions that deepened Susan’s research into her claims about art pedagogy and the history of Brown’s painting , leading her to a discovery about Rossetti’s drawing and, really, a reframing of the essay to see space — material, metaphoric — as central to their transformative art; she is deep in revisions. Susan read Baird’s far more finished essays, making connections and raising questions from the perspective of a reader outside the discipline, noting where more information or interpretation might be useful, and plans to continue reading his project. An informed reader is invaluable; having it be a colleague, with the potential for evolving cross-disciplinary conversations, is intellectually and personally rewarding. We are grateful for the support, and look forward to our next steps.