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Seeing High & Low. Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture

by Patricia Johnston, Editor
University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2006
317 pp., illus. 120 b/w. Trade, $65.00; paper, $29.95
ISBN: 0-520-24187-8; ISBN: 0-520-24188-6.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven, Faculty of Arts
Leuven, Belgium


This collection of essays is great reading. Carefully edited by Patricia Johnston, author of a seminal and much praised and prized work on the career of Edward Steichen, Seeing High & Low opens new ground for the study of a subject that seems slightly out of date given the innumerable discussions of the seventies and eighties on what was seen as one of the major characteristics of postmodern culture. Yet what Seeing High & Low achieves is nothing less than a challenging redefinition of the scope of this topic. Instead of linking it with discussions on the status of Art with capital A and of identifying it with the more or less contemporary refusal of High Modernism, the essays gathered in this volume take a completely different stance.

In a wonderful introductory essay, Patricia Johnston accomplishes a triple break with much current scholarship on the high and low topic in art. First of all, she proposes very usefully to enlarge the scope of the study to the whole of "visual studies" (a multilayered term whose meaning is in fact much broader than just the merger of art history and cultural studies and that implies for the contributors to this volume a strong emphasis on history as well as on the interaction between the social and the technological). The advantage of this shift is to withdraw the discussion on high & low from the mere field of art and to tackle it as a basic feature of any modern, i.e. technologically mediated society. Second, she makes also very illuminating suggestions for a more precise definition of what "high" and "low" actually are, for the meaning of these terms does not depend on a certain type of object or a certain type of practice but on a wide range of accompanying features that determine the artistic, cultural, and social scale we use to qualify them: subject matter, the choice of a specific medium, quality judgments by various groups of people (connoisseurs, amateurs, consumers, etc.), audience groups (publics and patrons), and finally use or functions. Certainly in the case of the "low", this approach is extremely refreshing, for it enables us to analyze the relationships of high and low not from the viewpoint of the high as it is contested, challenged, renewed, transformed, or revolutionized by its clash with the low, but from the viewpoint of the mutual shaping and the inevitable overlap of both categories (in other words: high and low cannot be analyzed separately, it is on the contrary the larger context in which they always intermingle). Third, Johnston comes back on what is or should be at stake when we study this interaction of the high and the low. The aim of such a study is not to produce a better insight in the evolution of art-historical categories or shifts in taste and manners but to get a sharper understanding of the historical conditions in which art is being produced. Here too, the focus is put on the historical context, but not to such an extent that artistic practices (commissioning, making, disseminating, selling, reviewing, rejecting, ignoring, etc. art) are denied their own specific logic and mechanisms. In Johnston’s approach, art is never reduced to an illustration of historical processes, both are brought together are, at a different level, high and low.

The 15 essays gathered in the book cover a wide range of genres and artists. However, the overall unity of the collection is exceptional, thanks to the well-balanced historical line that has been followed and that brings us from the early Republic to the Reagan Era. Each of the essays, in which we feel the strong editorial hand of the editor who has managed to impose a unity of tone and structure to the texts without deleting the personal tone of the various contributors (all specialists in the field of American studies and American cultural history), foregrounds a specific period and the sum of these periods as well as the sum of the chosen media and works give a more than excellent survey of the high & low issue in America. It is a great pleasure to say that there are no flaws or minor contributions in this collection, even if some are more astounding and innovative than others. Given the fact that high and low have been heavily (and harshly!) discussed in the case of 20th Century art, it will not come as a surprise that the studies on older material are sometimes more pioneering than those on more recent material. An exemplary study in this regard is Patricia N. Burham’s essay on F. Otto Becker’s "Custer’s Last Fight", a lithograph commissioned by the Anheuser Busch Brewing Company to be used as a nationwide decoration for Budweiser bars. Burham scrutinizes the form and content of this engraving, comparing it with the oil that it "copied" and the many other variations of the theme that circulated till the sixties when television ads took over this type advertisements and the Vietnam war prepared a critical rereading of the Custer myth, as she examines the critical and uncritical reception by all types of audiences (ranging from sophisticated art critics to uneducated tourists leaving the bus to take a refreshment) and the native representation of the same historical event in Sioux and Cheyenne art (often but wrongly discarded as folk art).

Yet in a certain sense, all the essays of this book (some of them on "high art" like O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, others on vernacular "non-art" like home decorations and popular journal cartoons) achieve the same accomplishment. All of them manage to link in a fluent, intelligent, and innovative way the creative tension between high and low, following the various criteria and perspectives sketched in Johnston’s introduction. In short, a must-read for all those interested in the breaking-down of the boundaries between art, culture, history, and technology, in a way that maintains and even heightens all the scientific standards of art-historical research.



Updated 1st February 2007

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