Canons & Contingence: Art Histories of the Book in England and America (RBS-Mellon Symposium)

Date: 4 March 2017
Time: 8:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
Location: Integrative Learning Center, Room S240, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Presented by: The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School; UMass Amherst Graduate School; UMass Amherst History of Art and Architecture Department; UMass Amherst College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Faculty Support Conference Grant; Mount Holyoke College Art History Department; Smith College, Office of the Provost and the Art Department; Amherst College Archives & Special Collections; Five College Lecture Fund

Recent scholarship in bibliography and the history of the book has attended to the ways in which bibliographic media resist, defy, and elude uniformity, even under the greatest technological pressures to conform. Whether through variables in the production process or through the vagaries of transmission and consumption, each manuscript or printed book carries with it the traces of a unique history. Yet bibliographers and historians of the book have long neglected the role of the visual in these histories, perceiving the pictorial as supplemental to the book, an import from some other medium. At the same time, the book itself has never featured in art history’s triumvirate of media: painting, sculpture, and architecture. In the belief that the book itself is an important medium in the history of art, this symposium brings together scholars who explore how the visual and pictorial features of bibliographic media behave (and can be made to behave) in defiant ways.

As a spur to consider the visual activation of books’ elusive behavior, this symposium convenes under the title, “Canons and Contingence.” The term “canon” evokes thoughts of rigid standards, ideals of perfection, criteria for authenticity, and it seems to prioritize regulatory structures. Yet, within the study of the book, the “canon” allows for more difference than is generally realized, a difference encoded in its history. Since the fourth century invention of the Eusebian Canon Tables, which cross-reference and compare each of the four Gospels, the technology of the book has been one that physically facilitates the contingence of disparate materials. Far from flattening difference, the Canon Table was designed to foster comparison and bring difference to the fore. While canons, particularly literary canons, loom large over the history of the book, this event will showcase speakers whose work on the visual features of bibliographic media challenges the hegemonic nature of the canon. Whether it is through the dispersal of authorial agency, encouragement to reconsider notions and narratives expressed in word, revision of content for new audiences, the visual features and pictorial contents of bibliographic media are integral to the book’s identity as a site that generates contingence.

Just as this event forges links between the fields of history, literature, and art history, its geographical focus unites transatlantic cultures by globalizing the study of medieval English and early modern North American materials. It brings together six scholars who work on a range of subjects within the transatlantic world in order to encourage discussion across disciplines and challenge the idea of canons.

See the event website for full schedule and registration information. The symposium is free and open to all.