March 28, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 12

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    The Courtesan’s Arts: A look at courtesan cultures’ connections to societal shifts

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    The phenomenon of courtesanship stretches from ancient Greece to modern India and continues to haunt the U.S. popular imagination through stars like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and bestsellers like Memoirs of a Geisha. But throughout the 20th century, real-life courtesans were vanishing in places they had existed for centuries. Timeless images, courtesans appear to be both signs and casualties of historical change.

    These issues will be addressed together for the first time in a combination of talks and performances titled “The Courtesan’s Arts” and co-organized by the University’s Martha Feldman and the Newberry Library. The event will be held from Friday, April 5 to Sunday, April 7, at the University’s Franke Institute for the Humanities and Chicago’s Newberry Library.

    Feldman, Associate Professor in Music and the College and head of Graduate Studies in Music, teamed up with Bonnie Gordon, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and a 2001-2002 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “We wanted to create a forum for evaluating the conditions that have produced courtesans and their artistic practices in different cultures,” said Feldman.

    She and Gordon characterize courtesanship roughly as “the social phenomenon whereby women are engaged in relatively exclusive exchanges of sexual favors, artistic graces and elevated conversation with male patrons.” She noted that courtesan cultures have resisted serious study by most scholarly disciplines. Yet, while far from universal, she said, they have emerged recurrently and powerfully in various times and places, often under similar conditions––highly stratified societies marked by social oppression but undergoing modernization; new forms of mercantilism; new, if limited, forms of social mobility; and accelerated forms of cultural production and circulation.

    Another connection is that cultures that have given rise to courtesans also have emphasized art. And in addition to hearing talks at the conference, audiences will be able to experience that art firsthand. “The Courtesan’s Voice in the Time of Machiavelli,” a one-time-only performance of courtesans’ music from Renaissance Italy by the Newberry Consort, will be held at 8 p.m. Friday, April 5, at the Newberry Library. Directed by Mary Springfels, the performance will incorporate music from Machiavelli’s plays, Verdelot’s madrigals and other items from the Newberry Collections and beyond.

    The second performance, set for 6 p.m. Saturday, April 6, will be a lecture and demonstration on the “nautch” dance of the North Indian courtesans (known as baijis) by the Chitresh Das Dance Company, in Fulton Recital Hall. Chitresh’s renowned guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, taught many baijis, some of whom became renowned courtesans. Many of Chitreshji’s guru sisters are the last bearers of the baiji tradition. A full schedule is available at http://music.uchicago.edu/courtesan.

    The conference will represent a cross-cultural collaboration between scholars of Ancient Greece, modern Korea, South Asia, modern Japan, and Renaissance Italy from such disciplines as musicology, art history, classics, anthropology, history, Italian studies and Asian studies. Taken together, the talks will bring out some striking patterns and differences in the way courtesanships arise and decay. In both modern Korea and modern India, age-old courtesan roles were eroded by imported versions of womanhood. In India, this happened under the British Empire, when a Victorian ideal of female respectability pushed courtesans’ sexuality into a denigrated low-class activity.

    Similarly, a paper by Joshua Pilzer, a graduate student in Music, shows how the Korean kisaeng was divided in the 20th century into a new class of desexualized, state-supported performers and a world of modern prostitutes and escort-entertainers. This split, which took the sex out of courtesanship, was driven by a backlash against the abuse of Korean women by the Japanese colonial system and the “comfort women” system of the Second World War, Japanese sex tourism of the 1960s and 1970s, and the sex trade surrounding the postwar Korean and American militaries.

    The conference performances and presentations will evoke the vanished or vanishing worlds of courtesans. Taken together, the papers argue that the changes the courtesans went through provide clues to larger changes their societies underwent. “This is why our conference aims to explore how courtesans’ artistic vitality interfaces with particular sorts of change,” Feldman said.

    “We will explore how courtesan cultures hold keys to understanding larger cultural shifts––from pre-modern to modern conditions, from cultures of gift exchange to cultures of commodity exchange, from cultures based on arranged marriages driven by the interests of dynasties and clans to those based on the modern bourgeois family.”

    The Courtesan’s Arts conference will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday, April 5, at the Newberry Library; from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, April 6, at the Franke Institute for the Humanities; and from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 7, also at the Franke Institute. A full program and pre-registration materials are available at the conference Web site at: http://music.uchicago.edu/courtesan.

    This conference has been made possible through major funding by the Women’s Board of the University. Additional funding has been provided by the following co-sponsors: the Adelyn Russell Bogert Fund of the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the Committee on South Asian Studies, the Department of Music, the Humanities Division, and the Weiss-Brown Fund, all at the University; and the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies, through the University’s consortium funding.