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Block journal

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REVIEWING BLOCK, 1979-1989 A New Approach to the Study of Art History by Yisoon Kim

Block: an Introduction

The purpose of this essay is to explore the objectives of Block through a critical examination of selected articles in the magazine. Published by the Art History Department at Middlesex Polytechnic in England from 1979 to 1989, Block was one of the journals contributing to new methods of study in art history. The journal's editors, who were teachers of art, art history, or theory, acknowledged a crisis in the principles and methods of traditional art history. Furthermore, they intended "to stimulate debate around specific issues including Art and Design Historiography and Education; Visual Propaganda; Women and Art; Film and Television." (Block 1, p. 1) This concern with a variety of subjects encouraged an understanding of art as a cultural practice and as a social, economic, and ideological production. What was the problem in traditional art history? Since Alois Riegl (1858-1905) and Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945) grounded art history during the first two decades of this century in the formal analysis of art, art history has been isolated from the other social and historical sciences. The main concern of art history has been to provide an evolutionary narrative of individual creators grouped together in styles and schools. That approach championed the notion that the work of art is a direct expression of the artist's personality and the conviction that art is somehow `above' society and out of its reach. The formalist approach dominated the teaching of art history and persisted as the main method of the study of art history. Block indirectly resisted the practices of authoritative institutes such as the Warburg Institute or the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The Courtauld was virtually the only institution where methodologies of art history were taught until 1960s and was devoted to a conception of art history which was formalist and `value-free.' As late as 1976, Mark Roskill in his book, What is Art History?, studied art history in terms of style, attributions, dating, authenticity, the rediscovery of forgotten artists and the meanings of pictures, using as examples only paintings because, according to Roskill, painting represents the dominant area of art history.

Block on High and Low Art

Block also introduced theories of cultural studies and urged exchanges between art history and other disciplines. Contributors frequently investigated the ideas of Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, and Jean Baudrillard, citing these scholars to criticize existing epistemological frameworks of art-historical discourse, to challenge its institutional status and authority, and to question hegemonic relations of dominance and subordination. Block's writers also continuously reread and redefine complex theories such as Marxism, structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis in relation to art historical discourse. In this way, art history no longer overlooked the theoretical concerns influencing film and literary studies and thus was able to align itself with major intellectual movements.

Influenced by cultural studies, the magazine attempted to break down the conventional divisions between "high" and "low" art, emphasizing design arts and mass media such as film, TV programs, posters, and advertisements - works never considered seriously by art historians as objects of study. As the editors of Block explained, it is difficult to bring theories of "low" and "fine" arts into any relationship because the two areas have been institutionally separated in theory as well as practice. Design arts in particular have been considered craft, or "applied" or "low" art. Design's main function has been regarded as "decoration" or "beautification," and considered only in its relationship to "fine" art. Furthermore, design history has been published separately from art historical study. However, Block considered design history a major concern of the magazine from the third issue, which Tim Putnam, an expert of design history, joined as an editor. As well, the magazine was involved actively in developing design history as an intellectual discipline. For example, John Heskett's article, "Modernism and Archaism in Design in the Third Reich," examined the whole question of the representation of Nazi political and social ideology. Heskett argued that design history should be based on form, but it is also necessary in the study of design arts to include the social and political conditions of production and consumption. In the Appendix, I briefly introduce the ideas of essays on design history to explain further the objectives of Block with respect to design history.

Block increasingly turned to a wider range of cultural phenomena and critical theory drawn from mass media studies. The magazine's early intention to stimulate debate on various subjects was becoming fulfilled through the study of mass media. In Block 6 (1982), Bob Ferguson on "Television and History" and Garry Whannel on "It's a Knockout" were incursions into mass media studies; finally, in 1988 Block 14 was published as a special issue for mass media, -- Yisoon Kim accessed at http://www.sculpture.pe.kr/block.html

"The Work of Art in the Electronic Age."

Jean Baudrillard, Stuart Hall, Paul Virilio, "The Work of Art in the Electronic Age", Block, No.14, 1988, pp.3-14

"Question: Benjamin's argument still has a force, it still has a power to it?
I think in a deep way, yes. I don't mean that I would go to Benjamin now for the details, for detailed description of what it is like at the end of the twentieth century. But I think it was a really profound historical statement. I think that the shift that he is trying to pin-point which comes, which arises with the development of the modern means of visual production is really a very profound one and we are living after the break, so to speak, and Benjamin is the person who locates the break. And what he says about that, the disappearance of the uniqueness of the work of art, the disappearance of that sense of value and originality and even our image of what creativity is like which hovered around the unique picture. That is an entire epoch which will never come back in human history. And I think he put his finger on that and that is the real turning point. A number of important movements has happened since then. That first break was located in some areas of art, some areas of cultural representation and very much associated with an avant-garde. I think now at the end of the 20th century we see those processes really penetrating mass discourse, we now really live them. It's not the revolution in the museum, the revolution on everybody's walls, the revolution on everybody's television sets, in that sense we are a long way on, but in the same trough of revolutionary change that Benjamin identified for us."
(Stuart Hall, The Work of Art in the Electronic Age, p.14) via http://www.obsolete.com/artwork/reproducibility.html [Oct 2004]

"...one can question indefinitely the degree, the rate of reality of which continues to be shown. It's something else which is taking place: circuits are functioning. They can nourish themselves with anything, they can devour anything and, as Benjamin said of the work of art, you can never really go back to the source, you can never interrogate an event, a character, a discourse about its degree of original reality. That's what I call hyperreality. Fundamentally, it's a domain where you can no longer interrogate the reality or unreality, the truth or falsity of something. We walk around in a sphere, a megasphere where things no longer have a reality principle. Rather a communication principle, a mediatising principle."
(Jean Baudrillard, The Work of Art in the Electronic Age, p.8)

"The work of art in the age of digital reproduction is physically and formally chameleon. There is no clear conceptual distinction now between original and reproduction in virtually any medium based in film, electronics, or telecommunications. As for the fine arts, the distinction is eroding, if not finally collapsed. The fictions of 'master' and 'copy' are now so entwined with each other that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. In one sense, Walter Benjamin's proclamation of doom for the aura of originality, authored early in this century, is finally confirmed by these events. In another sense, the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin's prophecy into the rich realm of production itself. Here in this realm, often mislabelled 'virtual' (it is actually a realer reality, or RR), both originality and traditional truth (symbolized by the unadorned photographic 'fact') are being enhanced, not betrayed. But the work of art is not only changing its form and means of delivery. By far its most provocative extension is into the intimate bowels of our body, mind, and spirit. Besides this, all changes, even the Internet, even our recent evolution into the World Wide Web, pale. No single element of the messaging now going on disturbs the guardians of traditional modernity more than this single fact."
(Douglas Davis, The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction) via http://www.obsolete.com/artwork/reproducibility.html


  1. The Block Reader in Visual Culture (1996) - George Robertson, Melinda Mash, Lisa Tickner [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    "Block" was a hugely influential journal in the developing fields of visual and cultural studies. The journal's editors and contributors sought to further the critical tradition in art history, respond to the work of contemporary artists, and bring the concerns of cultural and critical theory, particularly feminist and post-colonial theory, to the study of art and design history. This volume brings together writings by leading cultural theorists and artists which were first published in the journal, to provide a resource for the teaching and study of art and design history, and theory and cultural studies.

    Between 1979 and 1989, BLOCK initiated and responded to key debates in visual and cultural studies, publishing writings by artists, art and design historians and cultural theorists. The journal's editors and contributors furthered the critical tradition in art history, responded to the work of contemporary artists, and brought the concerns of new cultural and critical theory to the study of art and design history. The BLOCK Reader in Visual Culture collects previously unavailable classic writings by leading cultural theorists and artists first published in this seminal journal, providing an invaluable resource for the teaching and study of art and design as well as theory and cultural studies. Contributors include Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Philippa Goodall, Frank Hannah, Dick Hebdige, Lucy Lippard, Kathy Myers, Fred Orton, Claire Pajaczkowska, Griselda Pollock, Tim Putnam, Lisa Tickner, and Judith Williamson. --amazon.com

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