CFP: ‘Decentering Realisms, 1750–Now’, Virtual Conference (The Courtauld Institute of Art), with a related online reading group (details below)

Conference date: Friday 12 and Saturday 13 March 2021

Proposals due: 16 November 2020

This conference will explore realism in art across the world, from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day. Seeking to decentre conventional art histories of realism which anchor the concept in nineteenth-century Europe and to open it up to redefinition, this conference will gather together scholars and artists working on all modern periods and all geographies: from 1750 to the present; from Asia, Africa, South America, North America, Australasia and Europe. The conference will ask how far and in what ways can art from across the world be comprehended under the expanded term ‘realism’? 

Realism is a notoriously slippery but pervasive and persistent concept that transcends style and medium, and which encompasses many forms of representation. It is a keyword of established art historical methodologies but it is also much more than this, it has proved to be a highly flexible term that is embedded in the terminologies of many distinct traditions and avant-gardes around the world. We are curious about how realism intersects with different forms of naturalism and how it can also extend to abstraction. At its core realism is often about capturing and intervening in something of the artist’s contemporary social reality through a set of aesthetic conventions. We are calling this the ‘realist effect’. Our expertise in realism within a European context has made us aware of tensions, ambiguities and paradoxes underpinning the term. We want to explore whether comparable and different ambiguities lie behind the term’s enduring, widespread appeal. Our aim is to bring art histories of realism in line with the geocultural expansion of the discipline, while at the same time seeking alternative understandings of this phenomenon to those offered by the politics and epistemologies of globalisation.

Questions asked by this conference include: how does art from different geographies and time periods purport to represent reality? What does the realist effect look like in different geographies, traditions and avant-gardes? We seek to explore the ways realism is receptive to a variety of progressive politics and what happens when different pictorial conventions of the real interact, dominate and subvert one another. For example, how did photography respond to and alter realist conventions as the technology was adapted across the world? In addressing the ‘here and now’, how does realist art negotiate the past and the future? What versions of reality are being imagined by realist art? What are the politics, philosophies and mythologies behind this reification, this making real?

By bringing together scholarship on art from across the world and spanning over two centuries this conference aims to widen the lens through which realism is currently understood and to conceptualise planetary realisms. We are also interested in receiving proposals for papers which disrupt or challenge the period parameters of this project as we have indicated them, recognising that realisms pre-existed and cut across (and even outlast) western chronologies.

Papers might address works of art of any medium, as well as theories and philosophies of art. Please send a title and abstract of your proposed paper (around 300 words) to Rachel Stratton (Rachel.Esther.Stratton@gmail.com) and Thomas Hughes (Thomas.Hughes@courtauld.ac.uk) by 16th November, 2020.

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We are assembling an online reading group in conjunction with this conference.  While the global pandemic has physically grounded many of us it has opened up opportunities for online conversations across international boundaries, which will prove essential for the mission of this project. We warmly extend invitations to join and would ask you to recommend readings considering the above and related topics. If you are interested please email Rachel and Thomas.

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