Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Poster: Art, Advertising. Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Poster: Art, Advertising. Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s

Article excerpt

The poster as modernist progenitor

Review of:

Ruth E. Iskin, The Poster: Art, Advertising. Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s, Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2014, 408 pp., 48 col. plates, 140 b & w illus., $50.00 pbk, ISBN 9781611686166

Katherine Hauser

Ruth E. Iskin's new cultural history of the poster, The Poster: Art, Advertising. Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s, seeks to dramatically shift an art historical conception of modernism, in short, by positioning nineteenth-century advertising posters as worthy of sustained attention; posters - created through the chromolithographic process - not photography or film, signal the advent of modernist visual production. The book is part of the series Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture, from Dartmouth College Press, that publishes new approaches to visual culture, due to its increasing importance in daily life, broadly defined. Other texts in the series examine a wide and varied range of objects and forms, including the iconic Brillo box, photography, film noir, and advertising in Japan.

Iskin's argument challenges head on the conventional and extremely influential history of modernism dependent on key theories by Walter Benjamin and Clement Greenberg, articulated in their pivotal texts, including Benjamin's 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' (1936), and Greenberg's 'Avant-garde and kitsch' (1939), in addition to other works by Benjamin from the 1930s and Greenberg from the 1960s. Benjamin's writings make a claim for the dissolution of an 'aura' due to the reproductive abilities afforded by the photographic medium; Benjamin famously argues that a reproduced image lacks authenticity - a meaning that could only be derived from a specific context occupied by an original or singular, work - and thus an aura. According to Greenberg, mid-century modernism found its most successful manifestation through originality and medium specificity wherein 'What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.'1 Widely reproduced and distributed, posters would seem to lack an aura, originality or medium specificity, yet, according to Iskin, the consumer of a nineteenth-century poster valued it on par with high art, finding ways to 're-auratize' it, while the artists took advantage of what she characterizes as the medium-specific aspects of chromolithography.

Iskin relies on a host of, loosely-defined, post-structuralist theorists to support her argument, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Homi Bhabha, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Rancière. Thinkers more specific to art history include W.J.T. Mitchell, Rosalind Krauss, and Martin Jay, to name some of the most prominent. All scholars are marshalled, along with painstaking primary research, to forge a fully inter-disciplinary inquiry that she argues surpasses conventional art history by integrating a history of design as well as advertising and the history of reproduction. Given that art history is by its nature interdisciplinary, Iskin's claim is puzzling, and seems unnecessary.

Since Benjamin and Greenberg's theories have become thoroughly canonized in art-historical theories and histories of modernism, Iskin's argument flies in the face of a doctrinal and disciplinary-wide belief system. For example, one of the most recent textbooks in modern art, Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, perpetuates, and thus trains future art historians in, an understanding of modernism dependent on these thinkers. The authors reinforce Benjamin's conception of the dissolution of aura dependent on photographic practice and Greenberg's notion of a twentieth-century medium specificity.2 Furthermore, as clearly unworthy of academic attention, turn-of-the-century posters fail to appear in the textbook. …

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