Andrew Hemingway
Lecture, Precisionist Painting and Critical Art History's Dilemma:
Aesthetics and the Limits of Historical Meaning"
April 18, 2008

Art historian Andrew Hemingway (University College, London) visited the Center on April 18 to present a lecture entitled “Precisionist Painting and Critical Art History’s Dilemma: Aesthetics and the Limits of Historical Meaning.” The author of several books on British and American art and most recently editor of Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left (Michigan 2006), Hemingway in his lecture sought to approach the artistic work of American precisionist painter Stefan Hirsch (born in Germany to American parents in 1899) through Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory. According to Hemingway, Adorno considered philosophy a necessary medium for the interpretation of art, but also believed that the creative process has its own force or dynamic. For Adorno, art remains something mimetic, yet critical of society, and form does have cognitive import. Modernism’s emancipation of meaning from form, Adorno believed, was good for all arts.

Center Director Daniel J. Sherman delivers his introduction

With the aid of numerous images, Hemingway argued that viewed through the lens of Adorno’s theory, the work Stefan Hirsch began to produce after arriving in the United States, such as Mill Town and New York, Lower Manhattan, might be seen as representative of “temperate modernism.” Hirsch himself at the time discussed his work in terms of a purist emphasis on mood and concept. What has been missing from critiques of Hirsch’s work, Hemingway argued, is the element of genre, because Hirsch’s paintings showing a new urban, industrialized world also referenced landscape painting. “Hirsch,” according to Hemingway, “shows a human-created second nature that keeps humans on the outside,” in a disenchanted view of the industrial maze. This friction in Hirsch’s work, the melding of the modern human experience with older traditions of landscape painting, Hemingway argued, represents Hirsch’s attempt to find a pictorial and aesthetic form that would salvage images of industrializing societies.

Andrew Hemingway

The multi-disciplinary audience of about thirty Center fellows, UWM faculty, and graduate and undergraduate students eagerly engaged Professor Hemingway during the question-and-answer period following the formal presentation. Many also participated in the reception the Center hosted at its conference room on the 9th floor of Curtin Hall.

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