Monday, January 19, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Islamic Aniconism


As a wanna-be Parisian and a professor of Islamic art, I've been following the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris with interest.  I've been spending a month at a time in Paris every few years since 2006 (I will be there for the month of April this year) and have been teaching courses on Islamic art regularly since 2002.  The latter was my response to 9/11: although a medievalist by training, I've become a self-taught Islamicist in order to teach that material because I believe that Americans need to know more about Islam and because teaching Islam through art history has the advantage of presenting it as part of a sophisticated high culture.

In following reactions to recent events, I've been most interested in two topics: reactions against the "Je suis Charlie" slogan and discussions of Islamic attitudes towards - or against - images and specifically images of Muhammad.  The most recent Charlie Hedbo cover, which I've chosen to include above, brings these two issues together by showing an image of Muhammad holding the now-ubiquitous "Je suis Charlie" sign.  I want to explore that combination here, because I see the two as having in common a tendency to over-simply complex issues and in so doing to collapse the world into a binary of us-vs-them, and because this is a tendency that I want to disrupt. 

The case against the "Je suis Charlie" response is well stated in this piece by Roxane Gay from The Guardian.  If only way to express my opposition to the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is by identifying with them - by proclaiming that I AM them (je SUIS Charlie) - then I loose all ability to be critical of their work, and being critical of it becomes identifying instead with their murders.  And in this way the world becomes divided into us and them, victims and terrorists; you are either with us – indeed ARE us - or you are against us, there is no space in-between.     

Likewise, in this piece also from The Guardian, two spokespeople for contemporary Muslim groups in the U.K. state that Islam forbids images in general and images of Muhammad in particular, and one asserts that this has always been the case - despite recognizing the existence of images of Muhammad made by Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries.   Their position seems to be that Islam is now/has always been what they/the groups they represent say that it is.  What get’s lost when they assert that position is complexity and diversity within Islam, both historically and in the present day.   Image use and its rejection thus become a wedge issue dividing us from them: “we” Muslims don’t use images where “you” westerners/Christians do; or “you” Muslims have this issue with images that “we” westerners don’t share and don’t really understand.

And yet, as Christiane Gruber has pointed out, repeatedly, in the piece I linked to above and in an article in Newsweek and in a piece for The World on NPR and elsewhere, the Koran does not in fact prohibit images in general or images of Muhammad in particular.  As Oleg Grabar discusses in his classic “Islamic Attitudes toward the Arts” from his The Formation of Islamic Art, the Koran doesn’t really say much about art or images and what it does say is oblique: the jinn make statues for Solomon as signs of his prophetic status, but then they also make him water troughs and cooking pots - what are we supposed to make of that?  Grabar goes on to argue that a largely anti-image position did develop within Islamic tradition, historically, over time, in reaction against the Roman/Byzantine/Christian context in which it developed; note that his title here is “Islamic AttitudeS towards the Arts,” not THE Islamic attitude towards the arts, so that he explicitly allows room for multiplicity and for change.

As both Gruber and Grabar state, furthermore, the Koran’s real concern is with idolatry: not with the existence of images, but with their (improper) use in (pre- and so non-Islamic) forms of worship.  And this is a concern that the Koran shares with the Jewish and Christian texts.  It is most clearly stated in the Jewish scriptures/the Old Testament in the 10 Commandments, where God warns first against worshipping other Gods and then against making idols/images of things that appear in the world and finally against bowing down to or worshipping those idols.  The concern in this sequence of ideas seems to be that making images will lead to worshipping them and so to worshipping things other than the one God who is to be worshipped.  The story of how Christianity in particular went on despite these warnings to develop a rich artistic tradition and to incorporate images into its forms of worship is a long and complicated one.  And it is marked at several junctures by rejections of images and image use: specifically in the Byzantine Empire in 700’s and 800’s and in northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.  These anti-image episodes were frequently marked by violence, furthermore, although typically violence against the images or artworks themselves rather than against their makers.   This period in Byzantine history is known as Iconoclasm, that is, the breaking or destruction of images.  And in Basel in 1529 a crucifix was dragged out of a church by a horse, hung as if it were being executed, and then buried in the horse’s stall (See Amy Powell's Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum). Thus rather than standing in between Islam and Christianity/the west as defining the difference between us and them, these concerns about images and image use, and the tendency of these issues to spill over into violence, are something that the two religions and their histories share.

Finally, to return to Charlie Hebdo, the real problem with the cartoonists’ work – because I do find it problematic - is not the fact that they depicted Muhammad, but the way in which they did so.  Because unlike the cover I included above, many of their images of Muhammad are highly offensive – and offensive in much the same way as many of their images of Jews and of the Pope.  Thus being offended by Charlie Hebdo is also something that Muslims, Jews, and Catholics, and many many others, have in common.  And this is because those cartoons were meant to be offensive to broad range of different types of people.  But that, of course, does not excuse or justify the murder of the cartoonists.  Nothing could.

Monday, January 12, 2015

My mother and my book

I've not written here for a while - again - despite my decision over the summer to use this as a place to post portions of my book-in-progress and so to "write in public."  Thinking about why this might be, I've come to recognize it as the result of a couple of crises in my confidence in the project that were both the result - unfortunately - of conversations with my mother.

Now, I love my mother, that goes without saying.  And my parents have, in general, been very supportive of me in my academic career.  But.  Both my parents were high school teachers and so we mostly talk about teaching when we talk about my work as an academic.  And my mother went on from teaching to being an administrator (first in a staff position at a college and then for a Quaker organization) so she and I can talk about my interest in administration too.  But.  The scholarship part of my work, the reading and research and writing, is not something that either of them of really understand and so its not typically something that we talk about.  But.  Since I'm on sabbatical this year and so am not teaching or doing anything administrative, my work on the book has become a topic of conversation.

And my mother's comments - unfortunately - tend to have a negative edge to them.  So when I say that work on it is going slowly, her response is that I may need to work harder (as if I am some sort of lazy slacker).  Or if I mention that in my latest interaction with the press I'm working with I extended my projected completion date by a few months, she responds with OOOoooo (as if a few months is some big deal).  And then asks if I "even have a contract with the press yet" (as if she's sure there is no way they will publish it).  These comments are hurtful because what I hear in them is that mother doesn't have confidence in my ability to do this work and that saps my own confidence: after all, who knows me better than my mother?

But.  I've recently come to realize that my mother doesn't mean the negativity that comes out in many of her comments.  In fact, I don't think she even realizes that it's there.  I had this realization when I was visiting my family over Christmas and my mother made some comments about my brother.  I pointed out that she was being rather judgmental towards him, she denied that, and we pointed out to her where her neutral comment passed over into judgment.  Likewise, in the same phone conversation as the OOOooo and "even have a contract with the press" comments, I told my mother that she doesn't need to get anxious about my book and she responded that she wasn't anxious but only curious.  Again, I don't think she hears or means the negativity in her own remarks.

And I do think that what is behind her remarks to me, at least, is anxiety.  Its the same structure I talked about in my last post (when I was already starting to deal with her comments):  that she is so focused on the end product - will it get finished? when? will it get published? what if I don't make my deadline?  What if the press says no? - that the slow process of me actually doing the work of writing is unacceptable to her.  And of course, when she expresses that anxiety, she triggers it in me as well, making it difficult for me to do the work and making me not want to share it here.  For myself, the one way I see out of this situation is focusing on the process of writing rather than worrying about the end product (I want to write about that more in a next post).  That and not listening to my mother.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Babel Beachcombing

Last week I was at the Babel Working Group meeting in Santa Barbara where I participated in an experimental "Beachcombing" panel organized by Lara Farina.  This is Lara's description of the project:
Participants in this panel have a scattered assortment of fragments of the medieval past to sort through. The tide has washed some of this flotsam and jetsam in to the site at Omeka, where shell collectors, treasure-hunters, and those just out for a stroll will find it littering the beach. They might pick some things up, sort them into displays, use them in making sandcastles or words scratched out with a stick, take them home, or throw them back. They might leave some of the things they brought with them behind--as a present to the sea or as unwanted junk. 
Participants in the panel worked (mostly) with the "flotsam and jetsam" collection of objects that Lara had assembled in the Omeka site cited above to create online exhibits.  Because of some technical difficulties, though, most of our work ended up at a second Omeka site provided by Hyperrhiz.  My exhibit is the one entitled "Sand, Sea, Sky" and the underlying collections are primarily Lara's original "Low Tide" and the additional items I added in "Shells and Badges."  Below is the text thaat I presented as part of the conference panel.

In creating my final, finished, exhibit for this project I decided to begin by taking Lara’s metaphor of beachcombing as seriously as possible and this meant working rather intuitively; because in my experience of beachcombing I typically collect things without a clear intention or motivation or outcome in mind.  Instead I pick up whatever appeals to me, for whatever reason, and without much reflection on those reasons.  And so I picked one item from our collective “shore” collection each day over six days, picking whatever appealed to me on that particular day, and creating a page in the exhibit for it.  However, in this case I did take a next step of reflecting in writing on why I picked that particular item, on what specific appeal it had for me: this writing forms the first paragraph on each page in the exhibit itself.   And the title of each page names its item’s specific appeal: Making, Difficulty, In/Complete, Wearing/Being, Intimacy, and Energy.
To stay as close as possible to the beachcombing metaphor, I then chose to pair the items that I had selected for the exhibit with a number of actual beachcombed objects, stones and shells that I had gathered on a trip to the Oregon coast several years ago.   I picked a stone or shell to pair with each item in the exhibit by trying to match the specific appeal that I had identified for that item with a similar quality in the beachcombed object: my reflections on that match form the second paragraph on each exhibit page.  Then I pressed the metaphor of beachcombing in the direction that Lara had set for us as a way of thinking about our relationships to the past.  I considered how the specific appeal I had identified for each exhibit item, the quality that I had then identified for the shell or stone, might also appear in relationships to the past; sometimes thinking specifically about my own work on medieval art and sometimes more broadly.   This work forms the third and last paragraph on each exhibit page.
Finally, for some reason, after that trip to the Oregon coast, I had assembled my beachcombed stones and shells into a landscape and photographed it: this is the image that appears on the Introduction page for the exhibit.  I decided to allow this image to dictate the structure of the final exhibit, taking the location of each beachcombed shell or stone in the landscape as determining its page’s place in the exhibit as a whole.   And this also then established the sections for the exhibit and their order, moving from foreground to background as Sand, Sea, and Sky.
Rather than talking through the exhibit further at this point, because you can of course look at it for yourselves – and I hope that you will – I instead want to take some time to reflect on my process of putting it together.  I will admit that this was a difficult project for me to work on: I put off getting started on it and I had several false starts before I finally came up with what I have here.  The issue was that I initially wanted to have a clear idea of what the outcome of my work, the final exhibit, was going to look like before I started to do any work on it.  And I didn’t have an idea so I didn’t get started.  And then I had a couple of ideas, but I wasn’t satisfied with any of them, and so I would get started on something sort of half-heartedly and then would give up on it and delete what I had done.  This has a lot to do with my tendencies towards anxiety and depression.  The uncertainty of not-knowing what the final outcome of something is going to be can make me very anxious and then can get in the way of me doing it at all.  Especially since I tend to try to jump ahead and imagine an outcome, but I often imagine negative outcomes, and that further discourages me from doing the work.  I don’t imagine that these are unique feelings, my understanding is that they are actually pretty typical of structures of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure I’m not the only person here who struggles with those issues.   
The key for me in finally getting past all of that for this project was shifting my attention from the end product to the process that I was engaged in.  And this is where I really found Lara’s beachcombing metaphor to be helpful; because when I think of beachcombing it’s typically a process that doesn’t have an end product.   On this trip to the Oregon coast, for example, my sister-in-law was also picking things up on the beach but I believe she left all of hers behind because she didn’t really know what she would do with them.  I brought my objects back to Cleveland with me and made this photograph with them, but then they ended up in this container of rocks that I use for drainage for potted plants, and I had to dig them out for this project.  The experience of working on the project, then, has me thinking about the tension between product and process; about our tendency to over-value product and devalue process, which has to do with these mental structures, but I think is also exacerbated by our current working environment and the pressure we all feel to be productive in order to prove our worth to our institutions as well as ourselves; and finally it has me thinking about ways of resisting that tendency and coming to value process itself.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Virgins Chapter: Intro

I've moved on to revising what will be the last chapter of the book, on fourteenth and fifteenth-century Virgin and Child sculptures.  I'm working on a couple of issues here: first, giving the reader a stronger sense of the sculptures themselves as objects and works of art; and second, strengthening the sense of argument throughout.  This is the first, intro section for the chapter and so crucial for both of those points: let me know what you think!

Like the fourteenth-century sculpture featured in the Introduction, this fifteenth-century Virgin stands with her weight shifted to her left, to where she holds the child on her hip with her hand.  The comparison of these two sculptures, however, points to the latter’s exaggeration of the mother’s body’s twists and sways.  Here, the draperies on Mary’s lower body form thick folds that move on strong angles over to the child and the top of her body repeats that action as her head bends over and down towards him.   These exaggerated curves extend this Virgin’s body out sideways and create a breadth to her form. This breadth is further extended as she holds her right hand out and away from her center and uses it to hold her draperies likewise out and away.  These draperies fall from her hand to fill the space that would otherwise have been emptied by her shift to the side and so accentuate her body’s breadth and bulk.  As they fall, furthermore, these draperies form broad folds that zig-zag from side to side, emphasizing the horizontal expanse of her form.
As discussed in the Introduction,the earlier sculpture simultaneously presses the mother and child together within its narrow vertical format, links the two through the child’s reach for her veil and the inside-out twisting of her mantle’s top fold, splits the two apart by contrasting her looping folds to his tight vertical pleats.  The later sculpture uses some similar drapery forms, but to different ends.  Here too long curving folds cross over Mary’s body, however, they now become horizontal lines that lead into the child’s body.  One line in particular runs from her extended arm in a deep fold across her body, into the scroll he holds in his hand, and finally into his legs and her supporting hand.  Below this major line, two other folds cross her body and lead into his legs, and above it, a fold crosses her chest to run into his lower arm.  This sculpture thus uses its draperies to integrate the child into Mary’s ample form.
These are just two of hundreds of sculptural representations of the Virgin and Child that survive, from France alone, from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  These artworks come in a variety of materials – including limestone, marble, alabaster, wood, ivory, and precious metals – in a range of dimensions – from a few inches high for an ivory up to over five feet (69 inches) for the fourteenth century example discussed above – and would have had a variety of original locations – from church interiors and exteriors, to the interiors of private chapels and domestic spaces, to the exteriors of other structures, and to crossroads and other outdoor locations.   The existing scholarship on these sculptures has typically passed over these differences and focused on others; on differences in drapery folds, facial types, other stylistic features, and iconographic attributes.  For the fourteenth-century sculptures, these differences have been used to identify patterns of both change over time and variation over space, with an emphasis on the latter.  Scholars have established regional groupings of the sculptures, considered the relationship between Parisian and provincial sculptural production, and sought to identify individual workshops and hands. The dominating issue in the scholarship on the fifteenth-century sculptures is their relationship to the work of the Burgundian sculptor Claus de Werve: can individual sculptures be identified as his own work, that of his followers, or of other sculptors influenced by him?  
The existing scholarship on these sculptures has thus focused on their production; on understanding who made what, when, and where.  My interest here is instead in their reception by medieval women and in women’s responses to them.   To approach these issues, I first need to focus on the differences noted above in the sculptures’ materials and dimensions, because of what these differences suggest about their original locations and audiences.   The majority of these sculptures are now in museums, after having passed through the hands of private collectors, and so their original situations are frequently unknown.  I have chosen to focus in this chapter on sculptures made in less-precious materials – primarily limestone and wood – and on a larger scale – three feet and above in height – because these are more likely to have been situated in public spaces – church interiors and exteriors and other outdoor situations – where they would have had a broad range of beholders, like the architectural sculptures studied in the first three chapters of this book.   Thus the fourteenth century example from the Introduction is made of limestone, is sixty-nine inches in height, and there is no documentation of its original location.   And the fifteenth-century sculpture introduced above is made of stone, is thirty-eight inches in height, and in this case the sculpture’s original location is recorded; it comes from the portal of the Sainte-Apollinaire castle, near Dijon.
Like the previous scholars who have written about these sculptures, I too an interested in differences in the forms of their draperies, as is demonstrated in the comparison above.  However, instead of using these differences to determine the sculptures’ dates, locations, or makers, I treat them as potentially meaningful aspects of the sculptures for the women among their original beholders and focus on the different relationships the draperies establish between the body of the mother and the figure of the child.   Given the large number of these sculptures that have survived into the present day, there must originally have been many more of them, making them a common experience for medieval beholders.   Medieval women would likely have seen several such sculptures during their lifetimes, which would have given them the opportunity to recognize the differences in the sculptures’ depictions of the mother-child relationship, and so allowed them to use the sculptures to consider the complex and ever-changing relationships they had with their own children.  The comparison above suggests some of the dynamics of those relationships in the contrast between the complete absorption between the mother and child in the later sculpture and the subtle tension between the two in the earlier example.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Intro Part 3: Lit Review and Overview

I'm very happy to say that I'm on schedule for my writing this summer: I've got a draft of this new Intro to the book finished just in time to leave town for my cousin Seth's wedding.  The last part of it, which I am posting here, is the review of the literature (edited down a bit for this forum) and thee overview of the book as a whole.  Let me know what you think.



Scholarship on motherhood in general has been shaped by a split between motherhood understood as an “experience” and as an “institution” since the publication of Adrienne Rich’s foundational work in 1976.  The experience that concerns Rich and those who have followed in her wake is that of the mother herself, as distinct from that of the child.  Indeed another set of terms for this distinction is between “maternal subjectivity” - that is, the mother considered as a thinking and feeling subject in her own right –and the “ideology of motherhood.” Institution and ideology alike refer to cultural myths and stereotypes of mothers and motherhood, and to the prescriptions and demands placed on women as mothers by society at large, and so to motherhood as both a culturally defined ideal and a socially constructed role.  By contrast, Rich’s maternal experience is primarily physical or bodily, although she and others argue against it being dismissed as mere biology.

This distinction has likewise shaped scholarship on medieval motherhood beginning with Clarissa Atkinson’s 1991 The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Atkinson places emphasis on motherhood as institution or ideology, explaining that is she writing a history of ideas about motherhood as presented in various texts. And subsequent scholarship, in particular the essay collections Medieval Mothering and Maternal Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modern Period, has likewise focused on motherhood as a socially constructed role, in particular that of caregiver or nurturer, while downplaying motherhood as a bodily experience as biological and so a-historical.

By contrast, my interest is in motherhood as an experience as defined by Rich; as a bodily experience that is also a meaningful experience as it becomes part of a woman’s subjectivity.  Where previous scholars on medieval motherhood have frequently dismissed physical motherhood as natural and a-historical, I seek to historicize it by considering the meanings it held for women in the medieval past. Finally my work shows motherhood to have been a much more complex, contradictory and ambivalent, experience than can be summarized as a single term such as caregiving.

To attempt to capture the complexities of motherhood as an experience for medieval women, this book is structured as something of a narrative of that experience.  It is divided into two parts: the first (Chapters One and Two) focuses on the woman’s process of becoming a mother, on pregnancy and childbirth, and the second (Chapters Three and Four) focuses on relationships between mothers and their children during the first few years of a child’s life.  The two parts are joined by a focus on the tension between life and death, the potential death of the mother in bringing new life into the world (Chapter Two) and the potential death of that new life – the death of the child (Chapter Three). The organization of the book is thus not dictated by the dates of thee sculptures themselves, indeed the chapters move from the thirteenth century (the Reims sculptures in Chapter One), back to the twelfth century (the Moissac and Autun sculptures in Chapters Two and Three) with a gesture towards the sixteenth (the transi tomb off Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome in Chapter Two), and then forward again to the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries (the Virgin and Child sculptures in Chapter 4).  Likewise I am not attempting to use the chronology of the sculptures to track changes in motherhood as an experience over time: my evidence does not support doing so. I also cross over the boundary between the art-historical categories of Romanesque (the Moissac and Autun sculptures) and Gothic (the Reims sculptures, the transi, and the Virgin and Child sculptures), simply because those categories are not relevant to my work here.  

Chapter One takes as its topic the Annunciation and Visitation scenes from thee west front of Reims cathedral.  I focus on the differences between their images of the Virgin Mary and argue for seeing these changes as the product of her impending motherhood – and so for seeing these sculptures as representing motherhood to the women of medieval Reims as a transformative experience.  Chapter Two focuses on a specific transformation wrought by motherhood, that of a living woman into a corpse.  The monstrous forms of both the Moissac femme aux serpents and the transi of Jeanne de Bourgogne-Vendome are understood to represent the dead mother who, in dying, gives birth to her own dissolution and decay.  Chapter Three continues to address issues of life and death, focusing on the life and death of the child.  The central sculpture for the chapter is the Eve from the church of St-Lazare at Autun, which is understood in combination with the shrine to St. Lazarus that stood inside of the church.  I imagine medieval women coming as pilgrims to this shrine on behalf of a sick, dying, or miraculously healed or even resurrected child, and argue that the emotionality of the Eve image would have provided a model for these women’s own emotions.  Chapter Four follows from the previous in focusing on the relationship between the mother and child as represented in multiple sculpted versions of the Virgin and Child.  The chapter’s primary focus is on the sculptures’ clothing, which structure the mother-child relationship differently in each sculpture.  I argue that these sculptures cumulatively created a discourse on the combination of merger and separation, love and hate, that characterizes parturition as an experience.  Finally the book’s Conclusion looks to representations of motherhood in contemporary (late twentieth and early twenty-first century) art made by women artists and looks for both continuities and changes in motherhood as an experience over time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Scholarship and Self-Exposure

While my last post hasn't gotten comments on the blog itself, I've received several responses to it privately.  A common word in these responses is "brave:" I'm assuming this is in response to the final paragraph where I identify the abortion I had in graduate school as one motivation for my turn towards writing about motherhood in my scholarship. I've gone back and forth over whether or not to include that information in the book.  I've decided (for now at least) to do it.  And I want to talk here a little bit about why.

First and most broadly, I have long accepted the fact that there is always some connection between a person's scholarship and his or her life and experiences.  "Objective" or "disinterested" scholarship is a myth: why would someone spend years of their life working on something that s/he wasn't "interested" in for some reason?  That connection, that reason, may not be obvious or clear, even to the person him or herself, but it is there.  If it's not clear, then fine, leave it be.  But if it is clear, as it is to me in this case - years later and after considerable reflection - then why not acknowledge it?  After all, the point of writing is to communicate to other people and acknowledging your self-investment in the work should help that process of communication.

That is particularly true, I think, in this case.   Because I'm concerned that if I don't make my personal circumstances clear, readers will make some incorrect assumptions about me and so about the book: that they will assume that I am a mother myself and am bringing that experience to the writing of the book.  I'm concerned that that could even become a way of dismissing the book: something along the lines of, "well she obviously has kids and so is just projecting her own experience as a mother on to the sculptures instead of doing real scholarship."  Well, no and no.

Of course I could take care of that simply by saying that I don't have children.  I don't have to mention the abortion.  But then I would feel like I was lying or at least being disingenuous.  If I am going to discuss my own experiences in my scholarship, then I am going to be honest about them.

And finally, this is where the scholarly and the personal meet the political.  Women who have had abortions need to acknowledge that fact when the opportunity arises.  I understand not wanting to do so.   It is a controversial topic and so a difficult one to bring up; you can't be sure how other people are going to react.  The legal right to make the choice to terminate a pregnancy rests on the right to privacy, which then defines that choice as a very private matter; something "between a woman and her doctor" and so something not to be discussed outside of that closed context.  But to not talk about it also treats it as something that you are/ought to be ashamed of - as a dirty little secret.  And for women who have exercised their right to chose to not talk about it allows the people who would take away that right to define the terms on which the issue is discussed.  If women who have exercised this right are going to help ensure that other women have the same right to chose, then we need to talk about it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The (Dreaded) Theory Section

The next part of the Introduction is the dreaded theory section.  Dreaded because it is absolutely crucial to everything that follows, because the concepts aren't easy to explain, because it contains some self-revelations, and because it is probably going to turn some people off to the book as a whole.  I've cut it down a bit for this forum and taken out the footnotes.  Let me know what you think.


The relationship between the beholder and the work of art has been a major topic of interest in art history as a discipline over approximately the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I find that the most useful conceptual tools for understanding this relationship come from the work of literary theorists writing about the relationship between the reader and the text; specifically Hans Robert Jauss’s work on reception in combination with Wolfgang Iser’s on response.  
Jauss focuses on the reader or beholder’s share in this relationship, introducing the term “horizon of expectations” to refer to the store of experiences, ideas, and concerns that readers bring to texts or beholders to works of art.  According to Jauss, this "horizon" forms the background to the text or artwork as foreground, the question to which the work is an answer - or to which it is made to answer as it is virtually re-made in the minds of its readers/beholders in order to fit within their horizons, match their backgrounds, or respond to their concerns. This horizon is variable and multi-layered.  It changes over time as later readers/beholders bring different sets of experiences and interests to surviving texts and artworks, so that the work of the historian of literature or art is in part the reconstruction of past horizons.   It begins with the reader/beholders’ prior experiences and expectations about texts or works of art themselves and from this innermost horizon extends a much broader one formed from the reader/beholder’s life experiences.  This broader horizon stretches in different directions for different readers and beholders, responding to the differences in their social roles and experiences.
Thus medieval men and women, members of the clergy and lay people, would have had differing horizons for the sculptures that are the focus of the book and so would have remade them through reception in different ways.  A central premise for this book is that motherhood would have formed an important part of medieval lay women’s horizons for these sculptures; that motherhood would have formed a background of experiences against which these women would have understood the works of art, and that the meanings of their maternal experiences would have been a question that they looked to the sculptures to answer.  
While Jauss’s work explicates the reader/beholder’s contribution to the making of meaning, Iser’s focuses instead on the role of the text or, by extension, the work of art. His interest is how the form of the text or artwork shapes the reader or beholder’s experience of it.   Both perspectives are of equal importance.  For as much as the beholder comes to the work of art with specific experiences and interests, so the work of art presents her with specific forms and figures to consider in the light of those experiences and interests.  Thus neither the beholder nor the work of art is a blank slate for the other’s inscription of meaning.   Instead both are active agents in the process of meaning-making and its outcome is a creative synthesis of their contributions.  However, the two perspectives differ as they enter into historical work.  Jauss’s work on reception stakes out of historical difference and distance as the horizon of expectations shifts over time, whereas Iser’s work on response emphasizes instead the possibility of continuity and contact over time.  According to Iser, the historian-as-reader or beholder’s response will be scripted by the text or work of art itself in much the same way as the historical reader/beholder's was and that will allow the later reader/beholder to experience a previous historical situation – at least to some degree.
Iser’s work thus encourages me to take my own responses to medieval artworks seriously as avenues towards historical understanding.  This book is shaped by my responses to medieval sculptures in two ways.  First, I chose the specific sculptures to be considered here based on my responses to them: these were works of art that stood out to me as being potentially productive to consider in relationship to medieval women’s experiences of motherhood.  And so I can speculate, at least, that they would have likewise appealed to the lay women who were among their original beholders as potentially productive sites for thinking about their own maternal experiences.
Even as I trust my own responses to the sculptures, however, I also need to acknowledge my own horizon of expectations, the experiences and interests that I bring to these works of art and so to this book as my act of meaning-making.   I began writing about motherhood as a context for understanding images of female bodies in medieval art in my doctoral dissertation and this book is a continuation of that work.  In turning to motherhood, I was looking for a way of writing about these artworks that was not shaped by the medieval church’s highly misogynistic teachings about sexuality and sin.   In the light of Howard Bloch’s work on medieval misogyny as a discourse of citation and repetition, I was concerned that continuing to write about this discourse, even in a critical light, only served to perpetuate it.
My horizon for this project, furthermore, is personal as well as scholarly.  I am not a mother and so motherhood is not an experience that I bring to these sculptures, nor to this book.  However, during work on my dissertation, I was briefly pregnant and I chose to terminate that pregnancy.  As that happened at approximately the same time as my turn to motherhood in my writing, it is clear to me that there is a relationship between the two.  While I do not regret the choice that I made, it seems clear that my turn to writing about motherhood in my scholarship is also my effort to understand this experience that I chose not to have in my own life.