Sunday, October 6, 2013

NECBS 2013

On Friday I headed up to the University of Connecticut in Storrs for the 2013 Northeast Conference on British Studies. I had never been there before, but I had heard that it was in the middle of nowhere and a rather charming campus. Both are true, and if you like being in the middle of nowhere in a small university town, then UConn is a place to consider. Not for me, however, but it was good to see a new place anyway, even if I had to take a 2-hour train to New Haven, then rent a car and drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic for nearly 2 more hours. Alas, because I had to return the car in New Haven before the agency closed, I wasn't able to stay for much of the conference, so I really can assess just what I experienced, which wasn't much.

I was there to read a queer-interpretation paper on the sculpture you see here, John Gibson's Mars Restrained by Cupid, 1819-25, a commission he received from the 6th Duke of Devonshire for his planned sculpture gallery at Chatsworth. I had given a less-organized (in retrospect) version of a paper on this same sculpture back in 2010 in Montreal at the British Queer History Conference (which I first blogged about here and talked more about the conference here). This current talk was an opportunity to polish up my presentation with a few new ideas. I was part of a panel session with 2 other NYers, our panel focusing on the role of British aristocratic patronage in the visual arts. Randolph Trumbach (Baruch Coll.) spoke first about the use (or dismissal) of images of Jesus with St. John in Last Supper scenes, as they moved from Italy to England during the period of the Reformation. Note that his paper was intended to be provocative in its homoerotic, iconographic approach; indeed, there has been scholarship on the so-called "queer Christ" image that includes him embracing on his lap the young St. John, to sensualized Crucifixion scenes (see also the great art historian Leo Steinberg's infamous book The Sexuality of Christ, which I mentioned here when Steinberg died). Although Trumbach is a well-respected scholar on the history of homosexuality, this was his admitted first foray into art history, needs work. I have a great deal of respect for his past scholarship and publications. But this situation is not uncommon, when someone outside of art history chooses to explore so-called Visual Culture. Without art historical training, the "image" becomes merely a representation that, without proper contextualization in the making of art or its social historical construction, can easily be misread. His paper has future merit in his exploration of a changing iconographic theme, once he has a better grasp of exploring the background context for how the iconographic image was created and why it evolved over time.

And before it seems as if I am being hypercritical and not self-reflective, allow me to also say that I'm discovering more and more (frustratingly so) that my own explorations into queer-themed scholarship are often met with a lack of support and high levels of criticism. You would think one's (gay male) peers would encourage scholarship of any kind, but the essentialist/existentialist divide in gay studies/queer theory still creates an incredible sense of alienation. The essentialists want historical facts that "he" was gay and couldn't care less about theory; the existentialists dismiss anything as "gay" before the late 19th-century, when they argue homosexual identities came to exist for the first time. How then does one explore the middle-ground, which is how I work? It's a challenge, I must say, and I've found myself having to defend my work more often than not, and most often to other gay male scholars. (AA kindly stated they were jealous of what I had done. I appreciate the sentiment, but that isn't it. I do think some gay male scholars are simply catty bitches, but I would never claim my work is that good. I know it needs work. However, I also recognize that because it is in the in-between place, a moderate take that draws both on essentialism and existentialism, the extremists on either end just can't buy into this position because it doesn't satisfy their beliefs, practices, or perspectives.)  OK, that was a long-winded diatribe off-topic. Moving on with the conference...

Ching-Jung Chen's (City College) paper on 2 "conversation piece" paintings from 1732, commissioned by competing branches of the Wentworth family, was interesting. I like how she "read" so much iconography in these often understudied types of paintings and how they could tell the viewer so much about the families represented. The other panel session I attended also addressed of sexuality in 19th/20th-century British cultural history. Ruby Daily (Univ VT) gave a rather fun talk about the image of the governess as both a victim and a dominatrix (flagellation!) in Victorian literature and popular press illustrations. Brian Lewis (McGill) gave an excellent presentation about George Ives and his secret society, the Order of the Chaeronea, arguably one of the earliest gay-rights movements. Finally Paul Deslandes (Univ VT) spoke about the role of beauty and physique magazines in the 1950s/60s Britain. After a quick lunch, I had to head back to the City. It would have been good to hear more presentations, but alas it wasn't meant to be.

UPDATE 10/8/13: Ever since I published this post, I've been meaning to come back and do some editing. I've since decided not to edit what I've written, but add a follow-up comment. The feedback that I have received about this post has been both supportive and critical. Allow me to first say that in jumping from my discussion of Trumbach's paper to my diatribe on my personal reception of gay/queer interpretation was not related, so I didn't mean to suggest that it was. I'm still not exactly sure what led me to do proselytize about gay/queer studies, but clearly it was a personal sentiment I was feeling the need to express. I realize some might see what I've said as being defensive; but I'm also being honest about how I've felt working in this area of discourse, so I'm not going to sugar-coat that. (That said, to quote TM, one of my more sympathetic Facebook friends and colleagues, "Alas, it's not advisable to stand between two barricades when there is still some shooting.") As for Trumbach's paper, I don't mean to suggest that his paper and thesis were bad or not interesting. He has a solid working thesis that is worth pursuing and I look forward to seeing how he continues to work on this topic. One of his more interesting points was not only how or why the change in St. John occurred, but also how it manifested itself in English Reformation culture, in contrast to Counter-Reformation continental representations. My concern written here was more with how his images did not successfully communicate his thesis. If the image selection were fine-tuned and more time spent looking at a smaller number of images as exemplars of the thesis, then the overall presentation would have been--and would be--even stronger. I stand by what I said about numerous scholars in Visual Culture who have used images as merely illustrations of a thesis without understanding the making of the art object, which is critical to the understanding of how images are part of a culture's development.

No comments: