The Starbucks Experiment

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Framing academic whatsits?

The writers block on what to post is steaming full speed ahead, so to fulfil my self-induced weekly obligation to add new material to ye ole blog, i'm posting the personal statement that i've spent this past week writing for USC. I've already sent it to a couple of friends but have received absolutely no response from said friends (shame on you Karin and Adithi). of course i was v. polite and said they didn't have to respond until this weekend, and then they were v. rude and actually took me at my word! obviously, what i really meant was "respond right now or i will go crazy!" since they didn't, and i am now going crazy, i'll go ahead and post the damn thing and then maybe some other friend of mine will respond. so, here goes:

Framing academic interests: a personal statement

During this process of applying to graduate school, I have had to continually summarize my scholarly pursuits, and invariably I describe myself as a student of the history and theory of fashion and the decorative arts. But this one-sentence description hardly does justice to my diverse academic interests, and even listing all the particular disciplines or mediums that interest me—architecture, interior design, photography, graphic arts, museums, criticism, feminism, modernism, post-modernism, social history, etc.—is insufficient. This list, however expanded, is insignificant unless it can be made part of a meaningful framework, and so I will try in this text to provide such a context. This reminds me of a quotation from Bal and Bryson’s “Semiotics and Art History:”

Context, in other words, is a text itself, and it thus consists of signs that require interpretation. What we take to be positive knowledge is the product of interpretative choices. The art historian is always present in the construction she or he produces. […] by examining the social factors that frame the signs, it is possible to analyze simultaneously the practices of the past and our own interaction with them, an interaction that is otherwise in danger of passing unnoticed.

I include this quotation here because it articulates the reason I was drawn to the discipline of art history during my college career. Some of my interests—in history, fashion, and architecture—are much more longstanding. I was always designing clothes for myself or my dolls, drawing floor plans for dream houses, and trying to find out about the people of the past, their clothes and the homes in which they lived. By the time I started college I was aware that these interests came under the heading of social history, but I was not sure which humanities discipline would allow me to best study them. I considered various majors, and I finally chose art history not because I feel it to be inherently better suited to the study of these subjects, but rather because I simply fell in love with the discipline itself. No other courses, readings, or instructors had such a frank and full understanding of the importance of subjectivity, for their goals were to understand not only the subjects of works of art, but also the subjects who produced them, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, the subjects who view them. Consequently, the best writing of art history reveals the subjectivity of the art historian, and in this way it engaged me as no other writing could. It was amusing, exciting, and fascinating to be able to feel the art historian in his text. To read such a text, as to look at a great work of art, is to be part of a dialogue without saying a word.

Once I made the decision to major in art history, I committed myself to spending my junior year abroad and decided to study in Vienna and Paris to improve my German and French. Being in Vienna was an invaluable experience because it placed me literally and figuratively on the other side of the continent. Whether I was studying the fall of Communism or the rise of the Habsburgs (and where else could one take “The Hapsburg Empire 101”?), or even standing for three hours at the back of the Opera while watching an imperial version of The Nutcracker, I gained access to a perspective that was entirely new. One of the most important new perspectives that I acquired was a deep respect for angewandte kunst, or applied arts, which includes not only the “decorative” arts but any practice that applies aesthetics to everyday life. I learned about such applied-art movements as the Weiner Werkstatte and Biedermeier, but mainly by osmosis, and in retrospect I regret that I did not undertake more formal studies of these practices. Yet whereas in Vienna I seemed to learn just by being there, in Paris I concentrated on doing, on navigating the French library system in order to research the history of nineteenth-century haute couture. This research became the historical underpinning of my senior thesis, which explored the relationship between fashion, femininity, and Art by using representations of the work of Charles Frederick Worth, the so-called “founder” of haute couture, as a case study.

My senior project was immeasurably influenced by my senior coursework in the methodology of art history and theories of the avant-garde, post-modernism, and feminism. These studies deepened my engagement with the subjectivity of art historians by further encouraging me to look at their texts with critical inquiry. I am particularly engaged by the discourse of modernism and its critiques, for modern aestheticism from Kant through Greenberg to today sets a standard in the art of framing by framing the fine arts as the cream of the crop, while everything else is mere milk. Not only does modern aestheticism degrade that which lies outside Art’s frame, but it also degrades the frame itself. As Bal and Bryson write, in modernist discourse “the frame is conceptually disavowed and repressed, becoming an ornamental supplement, an unnecessary and optional accompaniment to the work of art.” This quotation clarifies how modernism’s conceptual framework—like a physical frame—is trivialized as decorative, but I believe that what frames the modernist notion of high art is in fact the decorative, the various applied-arts practices that have been marginalized throughout the period of modern art. These trivialized arts lie in the space between the fine arts and everyday life, and act as the frame against which high art is defined. I hope to increase our understanding of Art by examining the frames, or lack thereof, that surround these marginalized artistic practices. And I hope to be part of a reframing, a re-presentation of these practices, by creating texts that will provide their new contexts. I believe that USC stands at the head of this reframing of Art History.

The Department of Art History at USC is an exciting one specifically because its programs and faculty are devoted to encouraging fresh perspectives. Malcolm Baker, Thomas Crow, Richard Meyer, and Nancy Troy stand out in my mind as art historians who have transformed our understanding by reframing once familiar artistic practices. The USC-Getty Program in the History of Collecting and Display shifts our attention from the production of works of art to their consumption and distribution, while the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute swings our focus from post-war art and the end of modernism to its beginning. Furthermore, these programs, along with the Literary, Visual, and Material Culture Initiative, demonstrate a commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship and a hearing of multiple perspectives. I hope to be able to develop my own perspective within this stimulating environment.


At 1:17 PM, Anonymous annie said...

K, this essay sounds really good, like you belong in grad school, although, I'll admit i dont really know what youre talking about. so i have a question, the applied arts that youre talking about - is that like weddings and shit like that, is it related to that book you wanted to write? can you give some examples of applied arts? also, i just finished my 4th shift at starbucks and im becoming a pro on the register - havent learned how to do hot drinks yet though, but im getting there!

At 1:38 PM, Blogger Katharine (K) Lina said...

i hadn't thought of weddings as an applied art but i think you might be on to something there. examples of applied arts would be furniture, fashion, tableware, small-scale sculpture, graphic arts (printed stuff, like advertising, etc.), comics, movies, photography, etc. and i think i like weddings because they combine so many of these elements. about starbucks, if your experience is anything like mine was, your bar training will be v. haphazard compared to that interminably detailed computer training thing about how to use the register. they don't train people in how to train people to make the drinks, but somehow everyone learns how to do it. you'll be great :-)

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous annie said...

can you be my wedding planner? ...that is, if i ever get married. theres a new hot guy at work, and we might be getting married this year, i'll keep you posted.


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