ARTH 592
Chance and Design: Ideas and Iconographies of Causality in Europe before 1900 Fall 2021
Division I

Class Details

The idea of the work of art has a long history in Western philosophy and religious thought as the model for the idea of intentionality at the broadest scale; the relation of the artist to their artifact mirrored, in microcosm, the relation of an “intelligent designer” to a designed universe. The collapse of such models for thinking about both art and the natural and social world are characterized, typically, as intrinsic to the epoch of modernity. Within art history of the past half century, a significant amount of attention has been devoted to theorizing how many now-canonical artists (eg. the proto-conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham) harnessed chance procedures with the aim of vacating their agency from the process of creation and with the “purpose to remove purposes.” This course attempts to look before and beyond these well-trodden histories. Probing the visual dimension inherent in the concept of design and its absence (a visuality epitomized by blindfolded allegorical figure of Fortuna), we will seek to trace a more capacious genealogy for the efflorescence of chance, accident, and randomness as aestheticized objects of fascination in the twentieth century. We will trace the prehistory of these concepts in relation to both the abstraction of numbers and the concreteness of organisms, situating ideas of chance in relation to both the rise of a globalization and racial capitalism grounded in risk, financial speculation, and probability, as well as the eventual emergence in the nineteenth century, of an evolutionary theory capable of producing statements such as, “what a chance it has been… that has made a man,” and recognizing “blind chance” as the originary driver of change in the organic world. The class will include presentations by invited guest scholars and focus on a number of case studies spanning the early modern period through the late nineteenth century, including topics such as: the concept of disegno and art as a model of intentionality, the iconography of fortune, gambling, and accidents, the association of chance and seafaring, the iconography of falling and gravity, the incorporation of chance into the material processes of image-making (for instance, in the invention of photography), and the visual culture and visual metaphors of Darwin’s evolution. In association with our historical inquiries, the course will also meditate methodologically upon models of causality in art-historical explanation, as well on broader questions of how chance and ideas of chance and causality mediated modern Europe’s relation to other parts of the world.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 16
Expected: 10
Class#: 1751
Grading: no pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: class presentation, research paper of approximately 20 pages
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: grad students, then art history major undergrads
Distributions: Division I

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