Skip to content or skip to global navigation.

Symposium 2009


TOPIC:  Art and Catastrophe

When the Art History Society convened for its first meeting of the academic year in the autumn of 2008, we discussed the feasibility of organizing a symposium with the department so decentralized and scattered after the flood which, in addition to the terrible devastation elsewhere, wiped out the entire arts campus that June. We also discovered that most of the materials used to organize previous symposia had been lost. We decided to send out a call for papers and see what kind of response we would get. Deciding on the topic, "Art and Catastrophe", was easy.

Circumstances being what they were, we chose to organize the symposium electronically. With the exception of posters, programs, and a single copy of each submission received, we generated no excessive amounts of paper clutter. All communication between Art History Society members, symposium applicants, faculty and staff was via e-mail. In surveys completed by those selected to present their work, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive on this point. We man-aged to devise an almost entirely paperless solution to the challenges presented to our department due to the flood, which ultimately resulted in a successful symposium.

The topic proved to be very popular, and we were inundated with proposals from graduate students across the country examining a wide array of art produced over the centuries dealing with catastrophe in one sense or another. Members of the selection committee gathered together one Saturday afternoon and spent several hours wading through all of the submissions, reading, discussing, debating, and consuming large quantities of caffeinated beverages (as graduate stu-dents are wont to do). In the end, we managed to narrow our choices to the eight scholars whose papers are published herein. We believe their work represents the best of the submissions, and that they provide a broad and excellent sampling of the kinds of art made in response to many types of catastrophe, ranging from acts of nature such as Hurricane Katrina to the human-derived catastrophes of holocaust and war.

On Saturday, April 4, presenters and guests came together for the symposium proper. Guest speakers shared their research on such artists as Gustave Courbet, Takashi Murakami, and Kara Walker. The University of Iowa's own Karissa Bushman closed the symposium with the presentation of her Iowa Prize-winning paper, "The Traumatic Memory of the Inquisition in Goya's Los Capricho". [Ms. Bushman's paper is not reproduced here.]

On Friday, April 3, key note speaker David Houston, Chief Curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, gave his address, "Why Art? The Cultural Response to Hurricane Katrina." Like our own Art Building West, which was damaged in the June 2008 flood, the Ogden Museum was just two years old when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The Ogden Museum had been built with the potential for flooding in mind, however, and it received little damage during Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed. As a result, it was one of the first public spaces to reopen its doors. Its first post-Katrina exhibit was attended by an un-precedented crowd of more than 600 people, hungry for a taste of New Orleans culture and a feeling of normalcy. At a time when little more than questions as to the future of one of America's finest cities remained, New Orleans residents found a place to gather together and see art made by local artists and listen to music by local musicians. The Ogden Museum shifted its original goal of attracting an out-of town audience and has since dedicated itself to rebuilding and restoring the New Orleans community.

Though we in the School of Art and Art History had lost our buildings - not only Art Building West, but the Studio Arts Building and the University of Iowa Art Museum other departments all over campus squeezed over and made room for us, providing classrooms and office space. In addition to the university community, Iowa City and other towns responded to our needs as well, and space was found for the Studio Arts department to create and display student work. Finally, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, working in conjunction with curator Kathleen Edwards and Director Pam White of the University of Iowa Art Museum, generously agreed to provide a temporary home for the majority of our collection of about 12,000 pieces, which will remain on display there for at least the next three years. The absence of the art mu-seum on campus has been felt by everyone in the community, but especially by the studio art and art history faculty and students. Having access to such treasures as Jackson Pollock's Mural, now located just an hour away, has been heartening for the School of Art and Art History as we continue to rebuild our own community. Our determination to maintain the vibrancy of our department despite so many challenges resulted in a successful symposium, and we are grateful to the eight excellent scholars whose work we now present.

—Wendy Bellew, Associate Editor