Wednesday, February 5, 2020

CFP: Failure: Understanding Art as Process, 1150-1750 (Florence, 15-17 Oct 20)
by Tim Urban
Call for Papers

*Failure: Understanding Art as Process, 1150-1750*

Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, 15-17 October 2020

/Organized by: Ariella Minden, Alessandro Nova, and Luca Palozzi/

This conference proposes to bring failure into focus as a crucial component
of artistic production. Understanding failure as a generative force rather
than the antagonist to success offers an opportunity for a paradigmatic shift
away from the overpowering rhetoric of accomplishment and artistic progress
which is still so predominant in art history –instead re-evaluating trial
and error. This may lead, in turn, to a more nuanced understanding of art in
its making, that is, as process, with an emphasis on the latter, rather than
on the finished object.

This conference’s chronological span encompasses the years 1150 to 1750 and
the emergence of new methods of scientific and artistic inquiry rooted in
practices of empirical observation and sustained experimentation. In so
doing, it aims to provide a wider critical framework within which to probe
making at the intersections of art, science, and technology. Artists would
not have experienced these realms as separate, since their everyday workshop
practice showed them as contiguous and porous. They experimented with
different materials, forged their own tools, and, in their quest for new and
expressive means, bridged and breached boundaries between media and
techniques. Very often, they failed. Although failure is usually neglected
and often stigmatised in art history, the historical record is not erased.

Evidence of past failure –one’s own, or in the form of transmitted
knowledge– abounds in artistic and artisanal treatises, and in the
surviving documentation, not to mention the objects themselves. Mural
painting, for instance, was an exacting medium. In his 'Libro dell’arte' of
the late-fourteenth century, Cennino Cennini admonished fellow painters that
winter is the best season for painting in fresco, since in frescoing a wall
on a hot summer’s day the plaster would dry too quickly. Experimentation
gone awry runs rampant in practice, as with Cimabue’s blackened monumental
'Crucifixion' at Assisi, which would have cautioned others on the hazards of
expanding the use of a lead white pigment from panel to wall painting. And it
was Leonardo da Vinci’s technical audacity, after all, that led him to
explore the possibility of using an oil binder in the making of his 'Last
Supper' in Milan, much to the detriment of this work’s durability.

Not only did artists toy and flirt with failure, but sometimes they harnessed
it as an expressive means in its own right. Donatello decided not to amend a
defect in the wax model for the veil of his Judith, resting on the figure’s
head, realizing that it would give viewers the impression of worn-out
fabric– well suited to the persona of the Biblical heroine. Indeed, the
whole history of bronze casting, and of casting in general, could be
rewritten from the viewpoint of failure.

Experiments failed 'in toto' or in part are integral to understanding the
history of the so-called applied arts, as well. Maiolica, glass making, and
metalwork, for example, relied on the transfer of artisanal knowledge to
ensure the multi-generational survival of workshops. Reappraising failure
thus also challenges the canonical distinction between 'arti maggiori' and
'arti minori'. Furthermore, as one begins to consider the development and
movement of technologies across time and space, a broader geographical
perspective is inherent. Particular techniques and classes of objects, such
as lusterware from Egypt and Spain, in all its brilliance, easily
transgressed cultural and political boundaries, holding appeal to wider
audiences all over Europe, and beyond. This prompted local artists and
artisans to try and penetrate their technical secrets, a process in which
failure was endemic and on occasions even commercially disastrous.

A history of art that is not exclusively result oriented takes the
experiments that went wrong as primary historical evidence for the vast array
of activities that constitute art making.

We welcome papers that consider the broader geography of failure from 1150 to
1750 including, but not limited to the following contexts:

- archival documents that record or litigate instances of artistic failure;

- artisanal epistemologies; the creation and transmission of workshop
knowledge through, for instance, the assemblage and handing down of recipe

- drawing practices, the compilation of model books, and their circulation,
e.g. through copies and prints; the making of three-dimensional models and
casts; issues of dissemination, replication and indexicality;

- the significance of experimentation in painting and sculpture, and across
the applied arts (glass, ceramics, metalwork, textile, leatherwork);

- how artists came to terms with failure philosophically, for example, in
their inscriptions and retrospectively in their writings;

- artistic treatises, their creation and readership, with an emphasis on the
discussion of trial and error in artistic practice;

- how modern tools of technical analysis, i.e. carried out by museum
conservators and technicians, can help detect, prove or else disprove
historical cases of artistic failure on material and technical levels.

*We solicit 25-minute papers from both early career researchers and senior
scholars to be given in English. Please send a 300-word paper proposal and a
one-page bio to the conference organizers at: [1] by 15
March 2020.*

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