NIRVCNottingham Institute for Research in Visual Culture

Representing the Everyday in American Visual Culture

Representing the Everyday in American Visual Culture

Jeff Brouws: Diner: Croton-on-Hudson, New York, 1991

A Two-Day Conference hosted by NIRVC (Nottingham Institute for Research In Visual Culture) and funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art

12th and 13th September 2008

To claim that a work of art represents the everyday is to make a powerful assertion about what constitutes normative experience. The structures and rituals of everyday life are thus common points of reference in attempts to construct and define coherent national narratives. Calling such constructions into question, various artistic and cultural practices have privileged accounts and images of everyday life that seek, simultaneously, to amplify what is invested in securing representations of everydayness and to puncture and resist discourses of power. Pointing to the way that particular aesthetic and formal approaches produce different versions of the everyday, critical theorists -- Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau, for instance -- have made the question of ethics central to that of representation: whose everyday is being represented and how are such representations circulated and consumed?
Across diverse moments and media, the antebellum genre painters William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham and Lily Martin Spencer; the magazine illustrators Alice Barber Stephens and Norman Rockwell; and the "American Scene" painters John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton produced images of the American everyday that were by turns ambiguous, sentimental, celebratory and nationalistic. Ashcan School paintings of urban poverty, the African-American domestic sphere delineated by Harlem Renaissance artists and documentary photographs of the dustbowl challenged and expanded this discourse.

While many of these works pursue a smooth assimilation of the everyday, the act of representation also distances us from the everyday, marking it off and making it strange. Artists like Robert Frank, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Dan Graham have exploited this process of estrangement, producing ambivalent or critical images of everyday American life. Others, including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, have sought to minimise or negate this division, in sculpture and collage that incorporate everyday materials or performances that enact everyday practices. Bringing the mundane into visibility through its material representation reveals, paradoxically, the extraordinariness of what is often considered, dismissed, or celebrated as everyday. 

Convenors: John Fagg (American Studies, Nottingham) Mark Rawlinson (Art History, Nottingham), Anna Lovatt (Art History, Nottingham), Tracey Potts (Cultural Studies, Nottingham)



Guest speakers

Michele Bogart

Michele H. Bogart is Professor of Art History at Stony Brook University, in the USA. She is author of The Politics of Urban Beauty: New York and Its Art Commission (2006); Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (1995); and Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890‑1930 (1989/1997), recipient of the 1991 Charles C. Eldredge Prize. She has been a talking head for several public television documentaries airing in the US and Europe. From 1999 through 2003 she was Vice President of the Art Commission of the City of New York, the City's design review agency. For details of The Politics of Urban Beauty:

Jeff Brouws

As a self-taught photographer, Jeff Brouws has spent over twenty years exploring and documenting the American cultural landscape, often driving over 30,000 miles a year. He approaches photography like a visual anthropologist, analyzing the material culture of the United States with an outsider's clarity of vision. Making elegiac images—which often combine formal beauty with cultural commentary—his work eschews romanticism and searches instead for a deeper meaning behind the cycle of construction and decay in American society.

The artist's work is among the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Cambridge; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Publications include Approaching Nowhere (W.W. Norton 2006), Readymades: American Roadside Artifacts (Chronicle Books, 2003), Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of the Carnival Midway (Chronicle Books, 2001), Highway: America's Endless Dream (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997), and Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (Gas-N-Go Publications, 1992). To see more of Jeff’s work:

Anna Dezeuze

Anna Dezeuze is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. She received her Ph.D. in 2003 from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London with a thesis on 'The "Do-it-yourself Artwork": Spectator Participation and the Dematerialisation of the Art Object, New York and Rio de Janeiro, 1958-1967.' She came to the University of Manchester as Research Fellow at the AHRC Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies. Her research and teaching interests focus on 1960s North and South American art, in particular Minimalism, Fluxus, kinetic art and conceptual art, and the work of Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica.

She is currently preparing two edited books (The 'Do-it-yourself Artwork': Spectator Participation in Contemporary Art, with Jessica Morgan and Catherine Wood; and Involuntary Sculpture: Process, Photography and the Ephemeral Object, with Julia Kelly). Her own book project, entitled The 'Almost Nothing': Dematerialisation and the Politics of Precariousness, will focus on the theme of precariousness in artistic practices from the 1960s to the 1990s.

She is also interested in contemporary art and has published several reviews and feature articles in Art Monthly and Papers of Surrealism.

Michael Leja

Michael Leja (Ph.D., Harvard) studies the visual arts in various media (painting, sculpture, film, photography, prints, illustrations) in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily in the United States. His work is interdisciplinary and strives to understand visual artifacts in relation to contemporary cultural, social, political, and intellectual developments. He is especially interested in examining the interactions between works of art and particular audiences. His book Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (2004) traces the interactions between the visual arts and the skeptical forms of seeing engendered in modern life in northeastern American cities between 1869 and 1917. It won the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize in 2005.

An earlier book, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (1993) situates the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and others in a culture-wide initiative to re-imagine the self in the midst of a traumatic history. It won the Charles Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He is currently at work on a book exploring changes in pictorial forms and in social relations associated with the industrialization of picture production and the development of a mass market for images in the mid-nineteenth century. For description and excerpt from Looking Askance:

Alexander Nemerov

Alexander Nemerov is professor of the History of Art at Yale University, where he teaches courses on American art. He is the author most recently of Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures (2005). His articles include "The Flight of Form: Auden, Bruegel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s," published in Critical Inquiry in 2005; and "Whitman's
Moment," published in PN Review in 2007.

John Roberts

John Roberts is a Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of Philosophizing the Everyday: Revolutionary Praxis and the Fate of Cultural Theory (Pluto Press, 2006), The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday (Manchester University Press, 1997) and The Philistine Controversy (Verso, with Dave Beech, 2002), plus other books and numerous articles, in Radical Philosophy and elsewhere.


Nottingham Institute for Research in Visual Culture

University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0)115 951 3318
fax: +44 (0)115 846 7778