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No Longer the Pits: Birthday in the ‘Burgh July 31, 2009

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Primanti Bros. Sandwich Pittsburgh Style (Photo credit: seriouseats.com)

Primanti Bros. Sandwich "Pittsburgh Style" (Photo credit: seriouseats.com)

Pittsburgh, land of steel and smoggy skies. Wrong. Welcome to the land of fries, robots, and birthday dreams come true.

No matter how much you hate birthdays, no matter how hard you fight them, you’re no match for the ingenuity of close friends. The night of my 27th birthday, I get a phone call from….let’s call him Drago per his request. Distance has separated us, but Drago and I go way back, having played violin together in orchestra through middle and high school. We used to eat lunch together and read Calvin and Hobbes on the lawn as though we were the spiky-haired kid and his best tiger themselves; one Halloween, Drago even dyed his hair orange. He invites me to Pittsburgh, offering to pay for airfare provided I fly out the next day. I hem and haw, being the unspontaneous person that I am, but the offer is sweetened by the fact that….let’s call her Satsuki, another violinist from orchestra, is already there visiting. The moment is as exhilarating and terrifying as a frat house initiation. The only difference is that there’s no sack over my head. Twenty hours later, and it’s a middle school reunion at baggage claim. (more…)


Return to Greenberg May 31, 2009

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Time Out (1959)

Jackson Pollock: White Light (1954)

Andrei writes in response to “Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 2”:

Anyway, a fascinating discussion of Greenberg and music, but I’d like to mildly point out that Greenberg couldn’t have had in mind the ad hominem hope for artists being literal revolutionaries that you attribute to him. To take just the example of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which precedes the “Crisis” essay by some years, Greenberg goes on at length about the essentially apolitical and potential right-wing use of avant-garde art, citing the Italians, Gottfried Benn, etc. And Ezra Pound was a particular bête noire of Greenberg’s, who wrote a letter protesting his winning a poetry prize.

It seems to me you are right in smelling a kind of smuggled analogy, not between the artist and revolutionary, but between canvas and society. If the canvas is “egalitarian” then there are no oppressed and dominant parts. It’s a sophism that appeals to musicians, too: does not Schönberg say something about freeing the notes from a tonal center? And then there’s ‘free’ jazz. Interestingly Coleman’s “Free Jazz” album has a Pollock painting on the inside cover. An unlikely Greenberg reader?

You raise some valid points, and I should have been more careful in framing my remarks. However, you are citing Greenberg in the subjunctive: In Part IV of “A&K,” G hypothesizes what might have happened had the German and Italian masses asked the avant-garde for their entertainment. But the fact is, they didn’t. Benn and Goebbels had tried recommending [German] modernism to Hitler, but as G writes, “it was more practical to accede to the wishes of the masses in matters of culture than to those of their paymasters [i.e. Benn, Goebbels].” Similarly, “Marinetti, Chirico, et. al. are sent into the outer darkness [by Mussolini], and the new railroad station in Rome will not be modernistic.” That should tell you what Greenberg thought of the “right wing use of avant-garde art.” By contrast, he argues in the “The Plight of Culture” that the centrist use of avant-garde art can restore the gap between labor and culture.

As for your second point, the “ad hominem hope [or fear] for artists being literal revolutionaries” was quite common among American intellectuals in the thirties, when modernism and radical politics were seen go hand in hand. The best American example is John Dos Passos; the best European one, the Surrrealists. It’s around the start of the Second World War, that we begin to see what Serge Guilbaut describes as the “demarxization of the intelligentsia,” the disabusing of most leftist intellectuals. The exception to the rule, which Guilbaut does not mention, were African-American intellectuals, many of whom remained loyal to the Communist Party. Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright defected, but others stayed on at least until Garveyism, Negritude, and the Civil Rights Movement came along. In any case, I said that Pound was an exception to Greenberg’s rule that vanguard artists were revolutionaries. I should have also mentioned Wyndham Lewis, who speaks of a “rearguard action.”

Greenberg’s response to Pound is complicated. Yes, Greenberg is offended by Pound’s anti-Semitism. But if you think about it, they would have shared many of the same aesthetic views. Both believed that high standards of taste were necessary and that good criticism had ameliorative effects. And note that while Greenberg doesn’t support patronage, he doesn’t frown either on T.S. Eliot’s notion in a caste system that preserves those high standards of taste. When Greenberg wrote “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” he still looked favorably on Pound, as his VIP list of modernists testifies: “Rimbaud, Mallarme, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens.” The change of heart only comes when The Pisan Cantos are published. Yet despite any objections to The Cantos on personal grounds, he says doesn’t believe in censorship. He can’t claim aesthetic grounds because the judging panel happens to consist of poets whose taste he happens to admire, (T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden). He blames the panel not for their choice of Pound, but for their refusal to reveal their criteria for the making the award.

I think you put in better than I did in clarifying the analogy G makes between canvas and society. I believe the phrase that Schönberg used was the “emancipation of dissonance.” I only used Webern because he makes the specific analogy between serialism and cubism. He also clarifies the difference between (Schoenberg’s) serialism, which eliminates the entire notion of key areas, from (Debussy’s) impressionism, which only collapses the distinction between major and minor.

As for Coleman, Coleman was like Charlie Parker, well read. It’s likely that he knew of Greenberg’s work. The painting he used for the Free Jazz album cover was Jackson Pollock’s White Light, though you can see how the image was cropped. The cover art for earlier albums, such as Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, draw a similar connection between avant-garde painting and avant-garde jazz. Cover art and the commodification of jazz, however, is a post for another time.

Free Jazz

Free Jazz (1961)

Time Out (1959)

Time Out (1959)

Next Week: The Poems of Frank Bidart

B.A. in Broadway: Musicking the English Major May 14, 2009

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A stack of student papers awaits my patient pen, which means I am putting off work on Ashbery and any new substantive post for a while. Instead, some fluff on the changing reputation of the English major as told through…Broadway.

There’s a whole literature on the “academic” or “campus novel,” but what about the “academic musical”? I’ve never seen Bye Bye Birdie (before YouTube), but judging from the song, an English professor wasn’t so ignominious a thing to be in the Fifties.

Bye Bye Birdie (Strouse/Adams), 1960

“An English Teacher” (2:59-6:39)

In this opening scene, Albert, a struggling music agent, has just lost his star singer Conrad Birdie (modeled on The King) to the draft. His lover and secretary Rosie convinces Albert to go back to school to become…an English teacher. Below, a production by Houston High School in Germantown, PA.

You were going to college and get ahead
Instead of being a music business bum
You were going to NYU
And become an English teacher

And furthermore, he wrote poetry. And in the NYU yearbook for 1952 under Albert Peterson’s favorite piece of literature do you know what it says? Little Women!

An English teacher, an English teacher.
If only you’d been an English teacher
We’d have a little apartment in Queens
You’d get a summer vacation
And we would know what life means
A man who’s got his masters
Is really someone
How proud I’d be if you had become one
It could have been such a wonderful life
I could have been Mrs. Peterson
Mrs. Albert Peterson,
Mrs. Phi Beta Kappa Peterson,
The English teacher’s wife!

And we would know what life means. That’s certainly why I signed up.

Rose sings about the glory of university life, but is there perhaps some irony in her words? Two years later, Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to Broadway. It’s main characters are George, another hen-pecked intellectual, and his wife Martha. Between Albert the English major wasting his talents in business and George the jaded, tenured, history professor, we have something that looks like Clark Kerr’s diagnoses of “the knowledge industry” in The Uses of the University (1963).

Avenue Q (Marx/Lopez), 2003

“What do you do with a B.A. in English” (0:00-1:17)

Another number from an opening scene. Fresh out of college, Princeton moves to New York in search for his purpose in life–and an affordable place to live. The number, as presented by the UNLV Theater Class.

What do you do with a B.A. in English,
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree.

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.

But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.

Avenue Q is chock with musical allusions to the Sesame Street songbook. Princeton’s solo, I’m convinced, is a quiet homage to Kermit’s “Rainbow Connection.” Listen to the intro and the 3/4 (“waltz”) meter. Here’s Kermit’s duet version with Debbie Harry.

If you happen to know another musical that features an academic role, don’t keep me in the dark.

“Ashes”: The Endurance of John Ashbery May 5, 2009

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[This piece is raw around the edges. It lacks tautness and forward movement. Revisions are necessary. I post it, as I am trying to keep to a schedule. The entry will expand and morph over the next few days. Not that anyone but I will mind.]

John Ashbery

"Ashes" at 35, in 1962

John Ashbery had the worst nickname ever:

Down the dark stairs drifts the streaming cha-
cha-cha- Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide

— Frank O’Hara, “At the Old Place”

It’s rather ironic, given that Ashes has outlasted not just O’Hara but every original member of the gang of poets typically referred to as the New York School. Frank, Jimmy, Kenny, and Barb have all kicked the bucket: O’Hara, in 1966; James Schuyler, in 1991; Kenneth Koch (pronounced “COKE”), in 2002; and Barbara Guest in 2006.

But at the soon-to-be age of 82, Ashbery still endures in mind, legacy, and body. He has graced Boston with his presence at least twice this school year. I saw him last October give a reading at M.I.T., the occasion being the publication of his Collected Poems 1957-1986. And this past Saturday, Ashbery returned to his alma mater to accept the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal at the annual ARTS FIRST Festival.

In the small world of poetry, Ashbery is one of the true few celebrities. Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the mild-mannered Ashbery has gathered all the awards and honors possible for a poet, which makes it all the more difficult to fathom the fact that he was ever considered to be a fringe poet. How then did Ashbery become the gentle giant he is today? (more…)

Swan’s Way: Part 1 April 27, 2009

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Figura serpentinata

Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan (as it survives through copies)

I. Submission

How does one get it on with a god? That is the question entertained by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee in his lecture series cum novel, Elizabeth Costello:

What intrigues her is less the metaphysics than the mechanics, the practicalities of congress across a gap in being. Bad enough to have a full-grown male swan jabbing webbed feet into your backside while he has his way, or a one-ton bull leaning his moaning weight on you; how, when the god does not care to change shape but remains his awesome self, does the human body accommodate itself to the blast of his desire?


Music is International: The YouTube Symphony Orchestra April 16, 2009

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More videos of the YTSO’s road to Carnegie Hall

Orchestras have so long been speaking
This universal language that the Greek
And the Barbarian have both mastered
Its enigmatic grammar which at last
Says all things well. But who is worthy?

— W.H. Auden, from “Music is International”

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra, that’s who. “Music is International,” as W.H. Auden declared in his 1947 poem, and the YTSO is confirmation. Cutting across age and nation, language and location, the internet has fostered the creation of global communities around common interests from video-sharing to extreme sports to contemporary poetry. The YTSO, which makes its debut at Carnegie Hall this April 15, 2009, comes together through its members’ shared passion for classical music. (more…)

The Beaten Plath April 12, 2009

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Sylvia Plath, 1961

Sylvia Plath, 1961

Is Plath a major poet? That’s the question Annie Finch asks over at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog. While I’m still in the groove of the fifties and sixties, I thought I would offer a response (along with a snippet of a song setting by Ned Rorem).

In a nutshell: Not really. She lacks the range which defines a major contemporary poet. Unlike Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Plath never quite escaped the grip of New England necessary to transcending her given identity as Regional or Confessional poet. Yet Lowell became a staunch defender of Plath’s “controlled hallucinations,” while Bishop found her junior to be wanting in discipline. Plath does have her charms—her images have an indelible sear, and she compresses a mansion’s worth of material in verse as sly and slight as a hermitess’ shell. It’s when she packs too much sensational matter within these small spaces, that the poems, like an overstuffed suitcase, explode in our face. [The longer answer, after the jump] (more…)

Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 5 April 7, 2009

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L-R: Yve-Alain Bois, Stephen Melville, Jeff Nguyen, Darby English

Session 2 (Interpretation): Yve-Alain Bois, Stephen Melville, Jeff Nguyen, Darby English. Benjamin Buchloh is siting in the front row, left. The man to his right is Serge Guilbaut. (Photo Credit: Gaku Kondo, another panelist).

The Greenberg Conference. She is over. I will fill in the blanks on Day 2’s speaker in another post (Part 4). Prue and Miguel, the two organizers, did a fantastic job putting this event together and making all the guests feel special. I met so many wonderful people and made some new friends. Sigh, it’s too late to switch departments.

Random thoughts.

Slapping together two pictures with captions seems simple enough, but art historians take the art of PowerPoint to the next level. Sleek typography, pictures with borders, minimalist layout, comparisons, zooms. I’ve much to learn. Only one presentation—besides my own—made me cringe. No need to name names, but the slides looked as if they came from The Enquirer. And the pictures were Monets and Pollocks!

The soft-spoken Belgian, Thierry de Duve, had this excellent story about meeting Greenberg for the first and only time in New York. Thierry enters the apartment where he sees Clem drinking vodka at 2pm. Clem invites Thierry to a glass. Thierry politely declines. Clem throws the opening gambit, asking Thierry who his favorite artist is. The young Thierry confesses to finding Warhol interesting. Greenberg (De Duve now gets up from his seat to mimic Greenberg) exclaims in horror: “YOU JUST DISQUALIFIED YOURSELF AS AN ART CRITIC!”

Yve-Alain Bois is the respondent for my panel on “Interpretation.” He asks me a difficult question on slippage in O’Hara’s writing. He is followed by an audience member who prods me to say more about O’Hara’s double life. The audience member is taken aback by some of the inferences I draw from discrepancies between O’Hara’s poetry and art writing. I preface my remarks by citing Serge Guilbaut. The audience bursts in uproarious laughter. “Oh, no. What did I do? Did I say his name wrong?” I’m thinking to myself. Someone then kindly points out that the person asking the question is frickin’ SERGE GUILBAUT!!

I blush in embarrassment, before quickly pulling myself together. I suggest that writing for a distinguished institution like the Museum demands using a filter, and that O’Hara cultivated a countercultural art history in his poetry beyond the museum. I had been reading Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art and Be-bomb! before the conference, but not being an art historian, I never bothered to look up his picture. But I should have known what Guilbaut looked like anyway, because he spoke at the roundtable, but from a distance, he looks just like Yves-Alain without the beret and wooden pipe. At the Faculty Club dinner later that night, I manage to get, with the help of Yve-Alain Bois, Serge Guilbaut to sign my copy of How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. I’m going to send him a poem by O’Hara in return.

While Yve-Alain and Serge make intimidating respondents (they are actually quite affable in person), they don’t come close to Ben Buchloh, who in another panel almost came to blows with Thierry de Duve (sitting in the audience!). As the respondent, he thoroughly grilled all of his panelists, freely taking issue with each. He makes a formidable intellectual. I did not realize just how polemical art historians can be–they will tell you who and what they like or hate. It may just be the caliber of the speakers at this conference, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything so lively yet at an English conference.

Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 4 April 6, 2009

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Greenberg: Part 4

I\’m having trouble remembering all the arguments. My apologies to any of the panelists who stumble across this page.

Saturday, April 4
Session I: Material (9:45 – 12:15)

Patricia Hills (Boston U.), Respondent
Eric Rosenberg (Tufts), on Greenberg’s Diebenkorn: Abstract Expressionism’s ‘Development’ and the Medium as Meme
Harry Cooper (National Gallery), on Greenberg and Stieglitz: An Imaginary Dialogue
Robin Kelsey (Harvard), on Greenberg’s Problem with Photography
Gaku Kondo (Harvard), on “The Danger that Besets Painting”: The Decorative in Greenberg’s Art Criticism Revisited, 1941-60.

Pat Hills. Professor of African-American art at Boston University, she is currently working on a book on the African American painter Jacob Lawrence. She would have made another great respondent for my panel, as I met her during lunch, and she knows quite a bit about American literature.

Eric Rosenberg. Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Tufts University.

Harry Cooper. Former curator at the Fogg Art Museum, here at Harvard. Now, Head of the Department of Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Robin Kelsey In “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Greenberg argues that it was the behemoth of literature that chased painting into abstraction. But wasn’t the real enemy photography? Why, asks Kelsey, does Greenberg step around photography in his early essays? It may have something to do with its central role in promoting American art.

Gaku Kondo is finishing his dissertation on late Matisse. Defending Abstract Expressionism meant clarifying the difference between it and design. Gaku teases out the ambivalence behind Greenberg’s concept of decoration, exploring how Greenberg justified the aesthetic value of abstract art against a limit it seemed to be fast approaching.

Session Two: Envisioning (1:30 – 4:00pm)

Benjamin Buchloh (Harvard), respondent
Christine Mehring (UChicago), German Abstraction on Greenberg
Caroline Jones (MIT), Minimally Dead Greenberg
Mark Godfrey (Tate Modern), Tangle: Fred Sandback and the Meeting of Mediums
Alexander Bacon (Princeton), on Optical Illusion Circa 1966. Brice Marden.

Christine Mehring: Associate Professor of Art and Art History. Although Greenberg\’s writings largely failed to penetrate the German art scene, there were a couple of artists who did take note just to make sure they were disobeying them. Mehring’s paper on the postwar German avant-garde examined the cultural-industrial context for Blinky Palermo’s (Can a name get anymore awesome?) cloth paintings, fabric stretched over hardboard and two-by-fours, the very materials of which postwar Germany had a surplus.

Caroline Jones. Professor of Art History at MIT. Author of Clement Greenberg and the Bureacratization of the Senses, a book I’m going to have to contend with sooner or later. Jones argues that modernism was a technology of the self and infers from psychotherapeutic records the subject formation of Greenberg as the product of social, cultural, and technological discourses that he unwittingly recirculates in his theories. She sees in Greenberg’s “hallucination of uniformity” the modernist reordering of a matrix of chaotic sound and noise generated by modernity to which minimalism is the neutralizing solution. It’s a very abstract argument, but it’s the same reflexive move that Jonathan Crary makes, after Foucault, Suspensions of Perception. Though she adds Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, because its appropriateness to discussions of seriality. The determinism of the argument is off-putting, and I probably have grossly misrepresented her argument, but the book represents the latest and cutting-edge in Greenberg criticism.

Mark Godfrey. How does one studio practice (such as drawing) awaken the potential latent within another (such as sculpture)? The genesis and aftermath of Fred Sandback\’s string sculptures reveal a complex tangle and tango between string, drawing, and canvas, in which sculpture is made ephemeral and drawing made enduring. Sandback abandons the idea of medium specificity in favor of a practice in which the artist uses the devices of one medium to advance another.

Alexander Bacon: Color was the one thing that minimalism could not reject, or could it? Holding color to be the chief determinant of plastic form, Marsden sought to surmount this obstacle through monochrome canvases. Slathered in black encaustic (pigment and wax), these richly tactile and monumental canvases, are irresistible to the touch. Alex is a second year Ph.D. candidate at Princeton.

Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 3 March 30, 2009

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One conference out of the way. On to Greenberg. [Read CG at 100: Part 2]

I’m looking at the symposium schedule. I want to learn a little more about each of the participants and what kind of work they do so I don’t look stupid. The symposium kicks off with a roundtable discussion featuring experts on Greenberg’s art criticism: Yve-Alain Bois (heavyweight in 20th century European and American art), Thierry de Duve (specialist in the metaphysics of art, made Duchamp difficult), Serge Guilbaut (specialist in Franco-American art and politics during the Cold War), Rosalind Krauss (foremost champion of Greenberg, turned defector), John O’Brian (editor of the Collected Essays and Criticism). Benjamin Buchloch is the moderator. Holy Critics! How many more rock stars can you cram into a room? The only person missing from this esteemed company is Michael Fried. The University of British Columbia (John O’Brian and Serge Guilbaut) appears to be a happening place for art history.

Here’s the first panel:

Louis Menand (Harvard), on “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” Re-Revisited
Ann Reynolds (UT-Austin), on The Rhetoric of the Framing Edge: Clement Greenberg and Critic Parker Tyler
Michael Lobel (Purchase College, SUNY), on John Sloan According to Greenberg
Daniel Haxall (Penn. State U.), on Clement Greenberg’s Pastoral Mood: The New York School and the Bucolic Tradition

Louis Menand writes book reviews and Cold War related pieces for the New Yorker. He is also a Professor of English here at Harvard and specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His book The Metaphysical Club won a Pulitzer Prize. I have heard Luke speak on Greenberg in his undergraduate course on the Art and Thought of the Cold War. He’s a great lecturer, and  always manages to deliver with something nuanced and thought-provoking while being accessible and entertaining.

Ann Reynolds adds to her expertise in art history a specialty in gender and sexuality studies. Latest books are on Robert Smithson and Feminist Publics in the 1970s. Wikipedia tells me Parker Tyler was an American film critic who wrote extensively about the experimental and underground scene. That explains his relevance to the panel theme. Influences include Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein. First book length study of homosexuality in film (Screening the Sexes); co-edited the Surrealist magazine View. Tyler’s probably someone I need to learn more about for my own purposes.

Michael Lobel, Yale Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Purchase College, SUNY. He does postwar and contemporary art and theory with a specialty in the politics of Pop art and the Pictures Generation. Has a book out on Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art. Articles on Warhol. John Sloan? Is an Ashcan School artist. Who has nothing to do with Pop and whose urban realism Greenberg might label kitsch. Unless we are talking about another John Sloan. A paper on Sloan could be very interesting, especially in a panel on the avant-garde.

Daniel Haxall is, like me, another grad student fortunate enough to have his paper abstract approved. He was awarded a predoctoral fellowship from the Smithsonian and is completing a dissertation on collage during the era of Abstract Expressionism. That sounds fascinating and dovetails with my own efforts to read around the primacy of the movement.  His paper is on the “Bucolic Tradition.” I hope cows are involved. Jackson Pollock did paint a bull (Pasiphae). I’m sure his paper will be excellent.

The second panel:

Darby English (U. Chicago), on Greenberg, The DeLuxe Edition
Stephen Melville (OSU), on Greenberg In Our Time
Jeff Nguyen (Harvard), on Frank O’Hara and the American Surreal

To Google we go. Darby English is an associate professor of art history at the University of Chicago. Two books in his corner along with a number of articles. Major work: How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. Holy crap. He’s black, and an art historian. That is too awesome, more awesome than being Asian and pursuing a Ph.D. in English, anyway. He does work on Romare Bearden. We can talk about Ralph Ellison. I imagine his paper has to do with limited edition prints. Perhaps he will speak on the topic of collaboration and the market (making the collaboration between artists/poets the selling point of a limited edition book). It would challenge Greenberg’s insistence on the singularity of authorship and his notions of aesthetic autonomy.

As for Stephen Melville, he’s a professor of the History of Art at OSU. Serves on the Editorial Board of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. A bigshot. OSU needs to update their pages “(he is curating a major exhibition of contemporary painting to open at the Wexner Center for the Arts in May, 2001)”. To JSTOR. He has reviewed works by two of the roundtable participants (The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. by John O’Brian; Kant after Duchamp and Clement Greenberg between the Lines, both by Thierry de Duve), which explains both his topic and his invitation. He has also reviewed a book on Salome and ekphrases, so he probably knows a lot about comparative art theory.  Conversation starters.

Read CG at 100: Part 4