a talk with Prof. Catherine Whalen...

posted on 06 Dec 2012 21:18 by Elena Pinto Simon
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EPS: Hello, Prof. Whalen. You were on leave last year and you’ve been working on a book project, yes?
Can you tell us a little about it?

CW: I’d love to. My current book project is Refined Materials for a Modern Nation: Francis P. Garvan, the Chemical Industry and the Politics of Collecting American Antiques in the Interwar United States. The overarching objective is to show how human agents deploy objects to perform what I call “material politics;” that is, enact political agendas and operate as a significant form of cultural power. I do so through a case study of Francis P. Garvan, who gave his outstanding collection of American decorative arts to Yale University with an explicit ideological aim: to instill patriotism as a bulwark against socialism and communism. Informing this imperative were his public service in WWI; participation in the Red Scare after WWI, which targeted alleged anarchists and “Bolsheviks;” and championship of the US chemical industry, which he saw as the best defense against the “menace” of Germany’s resurgent industrial expansion and future chemical warfare capabilities. Elucidating how he interconnected his political and collecting agendas, and analyzing the result, forms the crux of this project. By doing so, I offer a new perspective on the promotion of object-centered cultural nationalism in the interwar US.

Refined Materials for a Modern Nation also offers a new methodology for studying collectors and collections. I interpret collections as material narratives: meaningful sequences of objects created by selecting and placing things in particular relationships to one another, whether spatial, textual, or indexical. I position collectors as narrative agents of artifactual autobiographies, which I interpret in relation to other forms of self-representation, such as portraits, photographs, speeches, letters, publications, scrapbooks, genealogies, wills, and commissioned replicas of especially meaningful artifacts. I conceptualize collecting via the metaphor of alchemy, a transformative process through which individual subjects marshal groups of things to tangibly render abstract constructs including history, posterity, and morality as well as personal identity vis-à-vis race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, and nation. I demonstrate how individual subjects attach immaterial values to material culture, and how, in turn, objects accrue, enact, and retain or shed cultural meanings.

This project concludes with an examination of how the professionalization of new scholarship that undergird collections like Garvan’s contributed to the formation of American material culture studies. I discuss how, as a result of shifting academic discourses, objects preserved in institutional collections become especially powerful actors in changing interpretive dramas throughout their prolonged lifetimes. Ultimately, the key to the longstanding influence of Garvan’s collection—as well as many other collections of early American decorative arts—has been its ideological malleability within a framework of cultural nationalism far broader than that of its originator, while still bearing the imprint of his material politics.

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EPS: You are teaching a new course this term, with Prof. Glass, on Photography as Material Culture. What about this topic interests you?
CW: Photography, like material culture, has been studied from so many different perspectives, which makes it especially though-provoking to explore in one’s own research and with students. Aaron’s work with photography as an anthropologist has been a very productive counterpoint to mine as a cultural historian specializing in material culture. We have organized the course chronologically and thematically, spanning from the daguerreotypes of the 1840s to the digitized images of the present, with a focus on the materiality of photography throughout. We have a wonderful group of students from the masters and PhD programs who bring a variety of backgrounds and interests to the course, encompassing art history, conservation and sociology as well as fashion, dance and architecture. What we have found in our field studies with curators, conservators, dealers, and photographers is that the seminar’s approach to photography as material culture is not something that they have encountered before, and is as engaging to them as it is to us, which is very exciting.

My own scholarship in this area has focused on vernacular photography, considering its material qualities as well as its role in identity formation and social communication. I have been especially interested in analyzing photo albums as composite visual narratives, in which selection, arrangement, and sequence are crucial to understanding and interpreting this widespread form of cultural production, analogous to my conceptualization of collections of material narratives. In either case, their creation entails artifactual self-articulation, whether for oneself or a larger audience, often complemented by textual explanation, whether oral or written, lest their intended meanings be lost.

EPS: You’ve also been working for a while now on a Digital Archive Project related to your work, and your students’ work on documenting American Craft, Design and Folk Art. Tell us a little about this Archive.

CW:Yes, it’s the Bard Graduate Center Craft and Design Oral History Project, an online archive of oral history interviews of contemporary craftspeople and designers. The goal of the project is to document, preserve, and make available the voices of contemporary makers for the purpose of research. It responds to the growing interest in the fields of craft and design history, in which oral histories have become a key resource for important scholarship. The primary form of the interviews are transcripts, accompanied by photographs of interviewees and their work. The interviewees come from many fields: studio craft in wood, ceramics, fiber, jewelry, and metalwork; architectural, industrial, graphic, fashion, and costume design; and sculpture and installation art. They range from renown figures in their respective fields to mid-career professionals to emerging makers, providing a basis for in-depth and comparative research. The topics addressed in the interviews include family background, education, career choices, social networks, patronage, and the marketplace.

The interviews have been conducted by masters and Ph.D. students in the seminar I regularly teach on postwar US craft and design. They have done outstanding work on this project. An important component of this project is to help graduate students develop professional and ethical oral history research skills. Another is to share pedagogical strategies for teaching the subject of contemporary craft and design.

EPS: Your own background includes a degree from Winterthur, and then a PhD from Yale in American Studies, so you blend both work in the decorative arts with work in history. How does that fit in with what goes on here at the BGC?

CW:I see myself as a cultural historian of the US specializing in material culture studies. My graduate education at Winterthur and Yale provided me with an important foundation for pursuing this kind of scholarship. Both programs are multidisciplinary, encompassing the study of history, art history, and English literature. In order to engage in meaningful dialogue with those in such well-established disciplines, one must make one’s own scholarship intelligible to them. Thus, one becomes adept at explicitly conveying what material culture studies entails. In my own work, that means using objects as a primary source of evidence for analyzing and interpreting culture, past and present. That experience of articulating one’s own approach to scholarship has proved invaluable at the BGC, where the faculty and students come from different disciplinary backgrounds. At the same time, I have found the BGC to be a wonderfully supportive environment for pursuing object-based study from many vantage points. My colleagues’ expertise in wide range of fields is not only intellectually engaging, but also has broadened my perspective as an Americanist. For students, I believe it is crucial to be able to recognize the disciplinary orientations of the scholarship that they encounter, and to be able to explain what it means to study decorative arts, design history and material culture.

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