Call for papers "Workshop: Backstage of Modern Art: market, industry and propaganda that shaped the art and literature in 1890-1960s"

Workshop "Backstage of Modern Art: market, industry and propaganda that shaped the art and literature in 1890-1960s" - 10 and 11 February 2025, Université libre de Bruxelles

An interdisciplinary workshop focusing on the behind the scenes of art and literature in the age of modernity, organised by Petra James (ULB) and Barbora Svobodová (ULB) in the framework of the ARC project “The Artist, The Scientist, The Industrialist”

Modernity and the modern representation and self-presentation of the artist are in many ways related to the romantic myth of self-created independent genius. This narrative has been supported through criticism and history of literature and art, which have often adopted this “mythicizing” perspective. The sociology of art and literature, whose founding father is considered Pierre Bourdieu, focuses on the investigation of artistic networks, connections, power influences, financial dependencies, and relationships within the artistic field. Sociological approaches have been further developed by the insightful research of Pascale Casanova, Aaron Jaffe, Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, Gisèle Sapiro, Francesca Sawaya, and many others. And now they can also be re-examined from other perspectives thanks to the development of digital humanities tools and new technologies.

It is hard to imagine the success of Cubism, Picasso, and Braque without their art dealer and gallerist, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler or supporters Gertrude Stein and Sergei Shchukin; Joyce's Ulysses probably would not have achieved such notoriety if it were not for the consistent support of his publisher, Sylvia Beach, and the subsequent work of his (mostly female) translators. And the patronage or collecting activities of modern businessmen and industrialists such as Henry Ford, Ernest Solvay, or the Czech shoe-producing magnates Tomáš and Jan Antonín Baťa have significantly contributed to the creation of numerous works of art and the realization of architectural structures. Moreover, these economic elites frequently thought of their involvement in the artistic field as an integral part of their social role as a modern entrepreneur. This understanding of their own role was profoundly reshaped during the Industrial Revolution. In the age of modernity, technological advances were also bringing new modes of artistic expression, such as photography and cinema, which offered new possibilities for artistic creation and new ways of collaboration between artists from different sectors who, among other things, were seeking strategies to capitalise on these works – in the Belgian context, we can mention the collaboration between Georges Rodenbach and Fernand Khnopff and between Khnopff and the photographer Albert Edouard Alexandre. At the same time, the development of film and photography went hand in hand with its practical use in the context of the propaganda needs of both private and state actors, who used art for self-presentation and to communicate their own values and topics. It is to be noted that the first films were closely connected to colonial propaganda, such as in the Belgian case, whose first film, from 1897, was shot by the aforementioned photographer Alexandre at the Colonial Exhibition in Tervuren.

Modernity is thus linked not only to new radical aesthetics, but also to European colonialism, the emergence and development of authoritarian political movements and subsequent totalitarian state regimes that systematically employed art, literature or film and photography as part of their propaganda and cultural politics. Modernist projects were also related to the efforts of these regimes to establish clear rules for institutional subsidies and funding of artistic production within the artistic sector.

The question of the economic background of the emergence of modern art and the importance of capital and power relations in its distribution and circulation will be at the centre of our upcoming workshop Backstage of Modern Art: market, industry and propaganda that shaped the art and literature in 1890-1960s, which will take place on 10 and 11 February 2025 in Brussels. In this interdisciplinary meeting, we will focus on the themes outlined above, while also trying to highlight the state of the art and literary research and cutting-edge research perspectives across disciplines. Whereas within art history or architectural history, studies of patronage and the art market have been better and more systematically mapped and represent a relatively established part of the discipline, within literary studies, the economic circumstances of literary production have received less attention. Therefore, we want to focus on the specific circumstances within various territories and regions, since the material situation of art and artists in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or the Stalinist Soviet Union was very different from the art market in France, the United States, or the former Czechoslovakia. The consideration of a gender perspective may also be revealing, since within the masculine-dominated modernism and modernity it was often female actors who stood in the background of the artistic operation and took care of its practicalities, including the financial ones, as can be seen in the operation of many publishing houses, magazines and art salons.

This direction develops the issues of the complex theory of symbolic exchange, which Goux calls “concept of exchange”, familiar to us since Marcel Mauss’s classic study of the gift (1925). This problematics in turn complements the theoretical works of Jean Baudrillard, already well known since the 1970s, united in the valuable book L’échange symbolique et la mort (1976). In this context, the theoretical contribution of Jean-Joseph Goux, a French philosopher and aesthete, a member of the avant-garde group Tel Quel, is very important. In his writings of the 1970s, Goux rethinks the ‘structural homology’ of the symbolic relationship between the conceptology of money and the various languages of human discourse, reusing many monetary metaphors in describing the world of artistic practices and representations. Goux’s significant contribution to the field of aesthetic knowledge is usually labelled in criticism as ‘interdisciplinary studies of the semiotics of value’. Parallel moments are considered in different historical programmes of comprehension of diverse forms of social and creative exchange: starting from the second half of the 19th century with George Herbert Mead and then with George Caspar Homans - meaning ‘symbolic interactionism’, developed also by Herbert Blumer and Charles Horton Cooley (‘mirror symbolic communication’). The general scope of these pioneering studies is directly related to a separate branch of theoretical sociology known as “social exchange theory”. Our discussion of the politics and economics of culture can be further guided by the work of Marc Shell and Martha Woodmansee, collectively known as The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the interface of literature and economics, which has largely shaped the perspective and direction of research on the economic institutions of the arts and culture in the last few decades. Much of interest on the theme of the relationship between art and economy is presented in Paul Delany’s work on the problems of modernist economics, which are examined on the example of the ‘monetary survival’ of canonical British authors.

We believe that by opening these and many other topics on the platform of interdisciplinary discussion, we will reach new and as yet unsuspected connections and contexts that will allow us to better understand the functioning of art in the era of modernity and to develop further research collaboration in the future.

At the workshop, we welcome contributions that address topics such as:

  1. Patronage and collecting art and literature, relationships between commissioners and artists, different facets of the art market
  2. Gender aspects of economic relations in the production and distribution of modern art and literature
  3. Art and literary prizes and foundations supporting the work of modern artists and writers, institutions as catalysts for artistic and literary developments, interventions of private sector in the in the world of art and literature
  4. State support for modern art and literature and the institutions associated with it, propagandistic aspects of official state art, cultural politics of different states and regimes
  5. Publishing houses, magazines, and translation activities
  6. Development of new art media and forms, particularly film and photography, and the economic dimensions of their functioning
  7. Collaboration of artists from different sectors, collective artworks, and their capitalization
  8. Theoretical and methodological approaches to exploring the social and economic aspects of literature and the arts

Application :
Proposals for papers (including an abstract of maximum 200 words/about 1500 characters, author's name, institutional affiliation and e-mail) mapping these areas and other thematic areas related to economic and power aspects of modern art production should be sent to and by 30 October 2024.

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