Other Side of Meaning

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Richard Cándida Smith
Department of History
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

The Other Side of Meaning:
George Kubler on the Object as Historical Source

forthcoming in Intellectual History Newsletter, vol. 23, 2001

The objects that men and women have made provide the most enduring trace of human activity extending back tens of thousands of years in every part of the globe. In a handful of locations, as in Europe or East Asia, traditions of collecting and connoisseurship developed around the preservation of particularly valued objects, creating in the process a document trail that helps tell the story of what was selected for preservation and why. Things provide a record of human action but for much of art history, documentation had come to substitute for the things themselves. This was a state of affairs that had long bothered George Kubler (1912-1996), a scholar of ancient American, colonial Latin American, and Iberian art and architecture. In 1959, while recovering in a rest home from tuberculosis and separated from his books, notes, and reference system, Kubler drafted a short conceptual piece exploring the role of objects as historical evidence. His manuscript appeared in 1962 under the title The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. 1 Four decades later, the book remains in print, and it has been widely translated. It provides a foundational text for the cultural history of objects, to some extent because Kubler’s perspective stood aloof from the main trends in

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the art history of his generation.
Notwithstanding, many art historians responded to the book with enthusiasm. James Ackerman, a prominent historian of Italian Renaissance architecture, has likened the influence of The Shape of Time to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, also published in 1962. Kubler did not have the wide influence outside his field that Kuhn’s work enjoyed, but the response within art history and related fields indicates that scholars and students were hungry for a radical reconceptualization of the work they did. 2 Kubler’s work was part of a larger critical trend in North American intellectual life rejecting a quest for nomothetic absolutes by focusing on the complexities of human behavior and expression. Kubler rejected functionalist explanations of both social organization and aesthetic activity as well as Kantian assumptions about the disinterested nature of knowledge. He was part of a growing movement that understood the production of knowledge as a historically situated activity intrinsic to the production of social organization. 3 Kubler challenged emphases within art history on masterpieces, style, and the genius of individual artists in part because the presumed universal standards embodied in these concepts were indefinable and obscured the specific historical relations that allowed aesthetic objects to appear and endure. The Shape of Time proposed three alternative concepts that required viewing art as the end result of repetitive organized activity: the prime object, replicatory sequences, and artist entrances. In the brief remarks that follow, I will sketch an intellectual context for Kubler’s book, examine how the concepts Kubler proposed directed discussion of aesthetic objects towards production as a social process, and conclude with some observations on the book’s continuing relevance for the study of visual and material culture.

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Kubler entered Yale University as a freshman in 1930. After earning his B.A., Kubler worked briefly as a merchant marine, but then returned to Yale to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. He joined the faculty in 1940, teaching there the rest of his life. His most important teacher at Yale was Henri Focillon (1881-1943), a French cultural historian whose most famous book, L’An mil (“The Year One Thousand”), reconstructed everyday life and culture in France at the turn of the last millenium. Focillon wrote on a wide variety of topics, ranging...
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