Object Lessons in American Art

Image of Object Lessons in American Art
Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
Princeton University Press
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“The message is that there is room for everyone on the wall (or in the display case), and all of humanity needs to be represented in our venerable institutions.”

Art history is full of interpretations. It could feasibly be called the history of the art of interpretation. In every piece that is created there are a minimum of five aspects to consider: the object of the artwork (what is being created), the creator of the artwork (who is creating it), the materials used to create the artwork (the medium), the intent/motivation/inspiration/patron behind the artwork (the “why” question), and not to be overlooked, the viewer of the artwork. The viewers are the wild card in the mix because they may or may not have complete information of the previous four aspects and will of course have their own lens of context for what they are looking at.

Object Lessons reinforces these aspects of art interpretation and exposits new perspectives. Using the Princeton University Art Museum collections as a basis, each of the six contributors takes a close look at a subset of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts. Their articles challenge the status quo of the patriarchal colonial model of art history around these objects and explain what was really happening behind the scenes. The goal, it seems, is to rewrite the past, to offer an alternative story, to acknowledge that there were/are more than just rich white men that mattered in the world.

Art history is an excellent way to learn about that great wide world of diversity and variety. Art is uniquely positioned to communicate that which is not told. The style of pedagogy employed at Princeton University is known as the “object lesson.” By taking a group of objects, one can explore an array of analysis techniques to learn about locations, thoughts, politics, technologies, geopolitics, etc. of any given era. Each essay in Object Lessons does just that for American art: juxtaposes a set of artworks and reconsiders their aspects in relation to each other and their contexts. It’s profound and heady stuff, but incredibly insightful if one can parse through it.

While navigating the collections of the Princeton University Art Museum, the authors succeed in providing a history of all four of the words in its title. There is a bit of context around Princeton, the town. There is some history of the origins of Princeton, the university. There is a discussion over the term “art,” what is and what is not art and how it is collected and by whom. And museum, which appears to be quite controversial; art, artifact, archeologic, who decides which is which, and how should it all be categorized? In the beginning it was all about that ever-dominant patriarchal colonial rich white man. Princeton. University. Art. Museum. All of it. The point of teaching through object lessons, is to reframe this dominance and level out the hierarchy.

By creating this Object Lessons catalog, which is accompanying an exhibition of the same name that is set to travel from Princeton, NJ, to Georgia, Connecticut, and Kentucky throughout 2023, the faculty and staff of Princeton University are offering up new perspectives to the intellectuals. One wonders if they realize that they themselves represent an elite class presenting exclusively to the upper echelons of academia. Instead of marching, rioting with the masses, protesting violently in the streets over the variety of injustices in the world, they are using the mighty tongue, pen, and brain to further their agendas. Much of what is written in Object Lessons is over the head of the average reader, written by academics for academics.

Which is too bad. We as a society need to know what these folks are saying. They are clever and curious thinkers ready to point out the places where different races, different genders, and nature itself have all been treated unfairly, raped and polluted. One stand-out article in Object Lessons, by Kirsten Pai Buick, is worth the cost of the book all on its own. It is well written, easy to follow, eye opening, and the heart and soul of a good art history lecture. It is an excellent example of what an object lesson is and how to use it.

Buick selected three “American” objects: a stoneware gallon jar from 1850s, a Cochiti Pueblo clay figurine from 1880s, and a John Singleton Copley painting of Elkanah Watson from 1782. At first one might say, what on earth do these three objects have in common? Two of them don’t even fit the traditional definition of art! But Buick sets off to explain her thinking and by the end of the essay, one is dumbstruck on her capacity to tie all of the disparate strings together and wrap up her point.

Ellery Foutch does a similarly eloquent job in her essay about women’s rights in art history, in academia, in politics, and in prestige. She launches with a pensive painting At the Window (1872) by Winslow Homer, connects it to John Singer Sargent’s scandalous Madame X (1883), and rounds it out with an 1887 photo of the young lady students from Evelyn College—the original women’s college at Princeton.

Foutch weaves the discussion further, entering into the masculine roles of the wild west and ends with 1900s sculpture by Frederic Remington, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s bronze Rhapsody from 1925, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting From a New Jersey Weekend II (1942). Hers is a brilliant example of wind-around analysis, reframing, rethinking, reformatting, reinterpreting. This essay might even be a contender on a required reading list for Art History 101 students wondering what this discipline is all about.

Object Lessons starts to fill in some deep and gaping holes for underrepresented voices in American art history. It provides several examples for how others can go about doing this as well, either through education or through collection curation. The message is that there is room for everyone on the wall (or in the display case), and all of humanity needs to be represented in our venerable institutions.