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  • Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture
  • Jan Baetens
Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture edited by Patricia Johnston. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A., 2006. 317 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 0-520-24187-8; ISBN: 0-520-24188-6.

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on the career of Edward Steichen, Seeing High and Low opens new ground for the study of a subject that seems slightly out of date given the innumerable discussions in the 1970s and 1980s on what was seen as one of the major characteristics of postmodern culture. Yet what Seeing High and 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 a capital A and of identifying it with the more or less contemporary rejection of High Modernism, the essays gathered in this volume take a completely different stance.

In a wonderful introductory essay, 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 and 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 also makes 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 rather 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). Thirdly, Johnston comes back to 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 into 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 art) are denied their own specific logic and mechanisms. In Johnston's approach, art is never reduced to an illustration of historical processes; both 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 an 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...


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