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Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Knitting Lesson, c. 1860. Oil on panel, 41.5 x 32 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1955.533)

Art History & Materiality

March 15 - 16, 2013

In the "Art History and Materiality" Clark Colloquium, convened by Jennifer Jane Marshall, assistant professor of art history, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, and Kate Mondloch, associate professor of contemporary art, University of Oregon, our aim was twofold.

First, we wanted to demonstrate the crucial relevance of art history to what’s broadly been conceived as “Thing Theory” in the wider humanities. Although talk about things, objects, and materiality increasingly permeates the academy, this conversation has proceeded for the most part without sufficient attention to art historical texts. Art history and criticism has a long and well-considered commitment to theorizing things. In fact, doing so has generated some of the most eloquent writing in the discipline’s canon, from Riegl’s “Late Roman Art Industry,” to Judd’s “Specific Objects”; from Freud’s “The Moses of Michelangelo,” to Fried’s “Art and Objecthood.” However, work carried out under the banner of Thing Theory—named and led by Bill Brown (a scholar of modern American literature) and in the intellectual tradition of Arjun Appadurai (an anthropologist and social critic)—has been insufficiently conversant with this rich history of art history’s object-based inquiry.

Second, we wanted to make the multidisciplinary insights of so-called Thing Theory relevant to art historical practice. It was our sense that framing art history around the material conditions of art’s production and reception allowed for a much more capacious rewriting of the discipline’s inheritance. Attention to materiality emboldens art history to recognize a diverse array of theories (attending, for example, to ideas of ritual, process, craft, experience, and embodiment) that are already extant in the intellectual history of aesthetics (Western and non-Western; modern and pre-modern), yet arguably have not adequately informed the discipline’s portrait of itself.


Bill Brown, University of Chicago; Susan Dackerman, Harvard Art Museums; Carolyn Dean, University of California Santa Cruz; Jae Emerling, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Michelle Kuo, Artforum International Magazine; Gregory Levine, University of California Berkeley; Jennifer Marshall, University of Minnesota; Kate Mondloch, University of Oregon; Bissera Pentcheva, Stanford University; Christopher Steiner, Connecticut College