May 1, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 15

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    Conference will explore history of the notion of creative genius with a look into 15th century

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Christofle de Savigny presents his schematization of knowledge (Paris, 1587) to Louis de Gonzague, Duke of Nevers, in this early print.
    When did it become possible to be original? It is generally thought among scholars that plagiarism–and with it the idea of an original artist or author who “owns” valuable ideas that could be sold–is a relatively recent invention and connected to such industries as printing and bookselling.

    Scholars such as Michel Foucault made a major impact when they showed ways in which the ideas of originality and intellectual property can be the byproducts of copyright law. But if visionary genius is a modern fantasy, human creativity is obviously more than that, which makes tracking its history an interesting problem, indeed.

    Offering a pre-history to the theories of authorship espoused by Foucault and other influential thinkers, Rebecca Zorach and Nicole Lassahn will bring together a group of scholars for a conference, titled “Negotiated Aesthetics: Work, Art, and Identity in the Long Fifteenth Century,” to explore artists’ self-awareness before the modern notion of it arose. In the period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, what did artists and writers think of themselves and what they were doing? Zorach and Lassahn believe the answer is to be found in history, in taking a close, specific look at how craftspeople and their patrons worked out their roles, redefining the very idea of art and the artist in the process.

    Zorach, a Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Division of the Humanities, and Lassahn, Assistant Director of the Writing Program and a recent Comparative Literature Ph.D., organized the conference, sponsored by the Art History Department and the Franke Institute for the Humanities, which will take place Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3.

    The conference, Zorach explained, will take a hard look at artistic identity in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, at the dawn of what people now call the modern world.

    “Did artists think of themselves as artists or as workers?” she asks. “Did they think of themselves as making creative contributions to the work at hand or as just fulfilling their patron’s intentions? We’re reconsidering art and literature in relation to labor.

    “We think we’ve dispelled the old Romantic notion of the Renaissance artist as inspired creative genius, but we can’t seem to shake the idea of a major break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance–the supposed rise of the self-conscious creative genius. But the two periods were really not as different as they seem. It turns out that notions of inspired genius, on the one hand, and of art as plain old work–paid, skilled, artistic production–existed on both sides of the divide.”

    But explicit evidence on what artists thought they were doing is hard to find. “You don’t find all that many writings on art by artists–there are more by writers. So you look at what they were actually doing. You do have artists who created these beautiful fresco rooms for palaces, and we fit this into the idea of major, monumental works of art, but at the same time, the very same person might have been painting a flag or a chair, doing ‘craft’ work that we don’t think of as traditional art at all,” said Zorach.

    “Furthermore an artist might also have been acting as an ambassador or a messenger – and creative writers also were secretaries or bureaucrats. So you have to think of them three-dimensionally, in terms of all the different kinds of work they did, not just the idea of the artistic genius.”

    This is not to say there was no creativity involved, just that creativity can take a lot of different forms. “We’re thinking about bureaucratic culture and court culture as the background of this creativity: were courts ‘courtly’ or more like nascent bureaucracies? There’s an interplay, a place where people were struggling to get their own artistic work done while fitting the needs of the courts.”

    The conference is supported by the Medieval Studies, the Renaissance and the History of Christianity workshops, the Society of Fellows, and the Comparative Literature and English Language & Literature departments.

    All events will be held at the Cochrane-Woods Art Center, 5540 S. Greenwood Ave. and the Franke Institute for the Humanities in the Joseph Regenstein Library. More information is with Lassahn at (773) 702-2658 or Zorach at (773) 702-3299.