Art History Methodological Statement:
I consider art to be the human behavior of expressing meaning through materials, an expanded definition that addresses the vast spectrum of human creativity occurring beyond the the traditional canon of art history. According to this conception, the success of an artwork depends upon the appropriate fit between the intended message and the materials, technique, and genre used to express it, rather than some absolute standard of artistic quality. All material creations, including everyday and utilitarian objects, ornamentation, and environmental manipulations, are potential sites for the expression of a range of meanings from the high minded to quotidian. Furthermore, an artwork’s significance is not exhausted in the intentions of its makers, but is constantly expanded through reception and consumption. Once made, an artwork circulates in a world of ideas, images, and signs, accruing new meanings and significance. Traces of artistic behavior suffuse the material world of things that people make and use, and a broad art history moves beyond the limitations of any particular canon in an open-ended process of interpreting of human expression.
Art history, as I practice it, is the narration of the past through its varied material expressions principally through the forms of published research, curated exhibitions, and classroom teaching. It provides a balance compensating for the biases of primary documents, which furnish detailed information but filtered through the perceptions of their literate, usually elite authors. Regardless of social status, all people engage their physical environments, and the resulting material record facilitates the pursuit of a more accurate comprehension of the past. The discipline of art history is well-situated to advance this project of historical recuperation as an established practice of grappling with material expressions. In addition to traditional art history, my personal toolbox of methodologies also draws on the complimentary fields of archaeology, anthropology, material culture studies, and linguistics.
The art historian has an obligation to artworks themselves as traces of the past living into the present, and every interpretation must be based in a careful analysis of what this material record can reasonably support. One also has an obligation to the interested parties of the present and future for whom these objects take on personal significance. Whenever possible, it is critical to work with artmakers and their descendants rather than presuming to speak for them. In the case of my research exploring the complex expressions arising from cultural encounters between Native American populations and European colonizers, it is particularly important to seek the input of the descendant tribes and communities, for whom the past is often inextricable from a present sense of identity and ongoing political concerns. These two occasionally divergent obligations to artworks and descendants generate a dynamic, interactive process of interpretation, rooted in the material evidence of the past but also relevant to the social concerns of the present.
One of my primary interests is architecture, which comprises the permanent and ephemeral means by which people impress social structures and cultural ideas on their surrounding environment. Following from this definition, architecture is a primary artistic form, providing the contextual clues for the interpretation of the objects that it encompasses. Whether painting or plumbing, whether mission church, art gallery, private bedroom, or trash heap, people change the meanings of objects by incorporating them into different architectural situations. I therefore consider art and architectural history as closely compatible practices in the broadest sense, including within them all that the built environment frames and makes meaningful.
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