What’s at stake when rewriting the History of Art? A Panel Discussion

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

The Art of Mechanical ReproductionTamara Trodd’s new book The Art of Mechanical Reproduction (2015) was the point of focus in a discussion between Dr Briony Fer (UCL), Dr Tamara Trodd (University of Edinburgh), Dr Ed Krcma (University of East Anglia) and Dr Klara Kemp-Welch (Courtauld Institute) at the Sackler Research Forum on 2 December 2015. To begin with, Trodd introduced the main points of her publication, focusing on the central role of the artist’s studio, the dismantling of structures of succession by problematizing the term ‘medium’, and the replacing of a focus on trauma in art historical analysis with notions of play. Paul Klee’s oil transfers (developed in 1919) and Hans Bellmer’s studio photographs for his Doll series (1935-1937), were particularly relevant examples in this context. One of the main arguments was that artists are driven not necessarily by national traumas but by their interest in innovation to make their works economically and culturally viable. In effect, Trodd suggested a reinterpretation of Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ with a focus on ‘hermetic’ studio spaces, relating them to greater economic and social structures.

The ensuing discussion emphasised the author’s use of Donald Winnicott’s ideas of play as a means of understanding the links between conscious and unconscious state (following from Freudian psychoanalysis). It became clear that, as Krcma remarked, Freud’s significance has been renewed for art historical analysis. Another point of discussion was the issue of ‘Neomania’ and the longstanding contradiction that nothing is really new anymore (in art as elsewhere), yet we are seduced by proclaimed novelty time and again. In a way, Trodd’s book even exemplified this notion, considering her aim to ‘rewrite modern art history’: her reintroduction of the figure of the artist into art historical discussions suggested a change from current analyses, as did her focus on the studio space, defined by Fer as ‘critical romanticism’.

However, as Kemp-Welch poignantly highlighted, questions of politics and historical narratives were placed on side-lines in Trodd’s publication – as well as in the discussion panel. This problematized the book in relation to one of author’s main focuses: notions of trauma. As Trodd argued, these have become an ‘easy way’ into art historical analysis and, in an attempt to move away from this practice, she suggested a focus on play as a substitute. Yet, it seems hard to conceive of a history of European modernism without the traumatic historical narratives running alongside it, and Trodd’s response to the question whether collective traumas like the Holocaust could really be left aside seemed to disregard the issue, arguing that every artist could be viewed through the lens of trauma, collective or personal.

panel discussionOverall, these somewhat controversial aspects of The Art of Mechanical Reproduction provided thought-provoking material for discussion, and emphasised the book’s new contributions to the history of art of the twentieth century. The discussion at the Sackler Research Forum also highlighted the book’s potential shortcomings by questioning whether renewed approaches to art-historical analysis and methodology could leave out seemingly unavoidable topics like trauma and conflict. As such, The Art of Mechanical Reproduction certainly showed validity as a challenging publication to respond to – agreeing with its points of focus or not.