Douglas RosenbergEarlier today I spoke to my class about context, and how important it is to critique or engage a work of art in-situ, within the context of its own time and space and within the political framework of its era, as well as the expressed desires of its makers.

I saw an extraordinary exhibition in New York this last weekend at the Museum of Modern Art. For me, walking into Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done was a bit like walking into a familiar room in my own home, (if memory and a sense of belonging signify home). As familiar as I am with the history of the Judson Dance Theater, the group’s name has always been somewhat misleading. While it was indeed a group full of artists who self-identified as dancers, it was also full of others, like Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Carolee Schneeman, who identified as visual artists and jazz artist Cecil Taylor as well as the poet Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Filmmakers came and went during the group’s fertile period including Stan VanDerBeek and Elaine Summers. They were a decidedly democratic group of collaborative artists whose manifesto (written by Yvonne Rainer who left dance to become an important filmmaker) laid out a working methodology which eschewed many of the things we associate with dance, including virtuosity and style. The Judson Dance Group, whose name derived from the church basement space they rehearsed in near NYU in New York, was an early adopter of post-modern tactics and the principles of egalitarian collaboration found in the writings of Allan Kaprow and earlier in the Black Mountain College experiments. I stumbled on their work while still in high school in the 1970’s in California, though filtered through teachers who had been actively involved in the protean days of the 1960’s art world.

I brought up context to my students today to help them understand the changes in culture that occurred at the fin de siècle; as the industrial revolution took hold and art was liberated from its relationship to reproduction and functionality. We discussed Walter Benjamin and in particular his idea from 1935, that noted:

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art.
-The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Freed from the constraints of manual reproduction and the service of ritual, artists were able to apply their skill sets and their imagination to works of art untethered by tradition, to begin to re-think the very nature of art and to create a modern idea of what art could be. As art evolved through mid-century in the context of revolutions, wars, manifestos, social upheaval, and new technologies, it absorbed such changes and incorporated the new and the radical into its own transformative histories.

Walking through the exhibition at MOMA, I realized again how much photographic representation of works of art had meant to me. Earlier in my life, I had seen much of the art I knew about through pictures and images in books. I would not see much of in person for many years to come. And though I have seen some version of the work in Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done before, there were versions that I had never come across.

The beauty of art for me, and art in-situ especially, is that I am still able to feel that sense of exhilaration when confronting a painting from mid-century or the vestiges of a performance, or an exquisite scene in a film; I can be swept away as if for the first time. I am lucky enough to have such experiences on a seemingly regular basis. A case in point is the recent film, First Reformed by Paul Schrader. Watching Ethan Hawk’s portrayal of a deeply wounded father and Protestant minister wrestling with his own questions of faith as the pastor of a small-town historical church is mesmerizing. The film begins almost glacially and, as directed by Schrader, the stillness, framing, and lighting echo 17th century Dutch painters such as Vermeer and the transcendent film style of Bergman or Bresson. We are pulled into it not simply as viewers but implicated in its morality and transfixed by its visuality.

And isn’t that what we want for students of art? To be open and available to the very experience of art, and to be able to have such an experience in the context of their own time, in the world and in the landscape of their own present.

Douglas Rosenberg
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department