February 21, 2005

More on Museum Ekphrasis

In the introduction to her dissertation, Barbara Fisher describes what she sees as two ways ekphrasis has been understood in it’s theorization and critical treatment. In the first place, ekphrasis has been treated as an acting out of the “sister art” tradition. By focusing on the “ut pictura poesis” similarities, the theorizations focus on the generative, fruitful relationship that the arts share. The second theoretical treatment has focused more particularly on the struggle between the two art forms for aesthetic and social dominance. This approach, championed by W.J.T. Mitchell and James A.W. Heffernan focus on the competition (given the term paragoni by da Vinci) between the arts as playing out the social, gender, and economic struggles between those in power and those perceived as threatening to that power. Fisher’s own work charts another path for ekphrasis in the 20th century. By situating contemporary ekphrasis as taking place in the setting of the museum, her case studies attempt to reposition ekphrasis as a means of engaging with the physical, economic, and social constructions of how we come to view and to respond to art.

Fisher’s approach is new, inventive, and, frankly, quite fresh. I’ve only had a chance to read through the first part of it, because that’s all I could get for free on the electronic dissertation site. But I’d like to consider the way that she sets up the critical history of ekphrasis as generative tradition versus competitive. This is different than how I’ve been imagining theories of ekphrasis. Not radically so, but different enough to help me clarify what I’ve seen happening. Basically, I have seen the history of ekphrasis in practice as charted on one trajectory and the history of theorizations and critical engagements with ekphrasis on another trajectory. I think those who tend to celebrate ekphrasis for its productive and fruitful relationship between the arts tend to be those who are either a.) poets who are engaged in the process and therefore championing the arts collaborations or b.) Joseph Frank and Murray Kreiger who come from the New Critical School of thought and see ekphrasis as a formal opportunity. (Heffernan writes that it “elevates ekphrasis from a particular mode of literature to a literary principle.) It’s the critical approach that is revised by, essentially, Marxist critics: Heffernan and Mitchell. Their theorizations of ekphrasis are determined by the struggle for social, economic, ontological, and gendered dominance of one art by another. In other words, they replace the “sister arts” analogy with another trope of the genre: paragoni struggle. To my mind, what we end up with in the end is this: Poets see the arts as sisters and are attempting to use their similarities and differences to fruitful and creative ends. Critics use the conventions of the genre to explore formal and social phenomena that happen as a result of its practice. These seem, at least, to be the end results.

Fisher’s scholarship explores poets’ use of the museum space in order to do both: explore the sibling affinities and tensions between the two arts while simultaneously critiquing the social mores, tropes, institutions, etc. of art’s display and reception. I’m not clear, however, on how Fisher is “reading” the poems? It is unclear from these first few pages if she reads them as part of the history of ekphrasis. Clearly, her study is more interested in their treatment of the museum-space; however, I’m left wondering how these poems use the museum space (if they do) to cope with the conventions of the genre and its tradition. Does she assert that the competition between the arts simply doesn’t exist because the poem’s concern lies in its “peripheral vision” (her term) focusing on the museum and the setting more than the direct object of the poets’ gaze?

Posted by c_jane at February 21, 2005 9:13 AM | TrackBack