2014 MSA Book Prize
The Modernist Studies Association awards its 2014 Book Prize to Linda Leavell's Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore (Farrar)
Built upon a solid foundation of archival materials and interviews, Holding On Upside Down is a rare delight and a groundbreaker, combining scholarly depth with vertical or upside-down pleasure. Written in a empathetic and entertaining style, it opens new avenues for reading and interpreting Moore’s poems. For decades, Moore has been off limits, cryptic, impersonal, hardly possible to make palpable. We were supposed to read this difficult modernist without a proper companion, a biography that might help make sense of her idiosyncratic poetics. It is as if the lenses had never been adjusted to see Moore and her poems. With Moore’s own concision, risks, manners and humor, Leavell distills her immense research into its essence, unveiling one of the most private poets in history. After Leavell’s book, the Moore poems you knew yesterday will never be the same.
Donna Krolik Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov (U of California P)
This is an authoritative, thoroughly researched, and moving biography of a major poet’s life and work. Donna Hollenberg traces several strands of Levertov’s career: her poetry’s development and formative influences, her lifelong political activism, her intimate relationships, and her late religious conversion. Levertov’s life and career are deftly contextualized within the twentieth-century political and cultural milieu. Simultaneously, Hollenberg vividly details important events in Levertov’s personal life, including her childhood in England as the daughter of a Russian Hasidic father and a Welsh mother; her friendship (and falling out) with modern poet Robert Duncan; and her deep love for her troubled, charismatic sister Olga Levertoff. A Poet’s Revolution is a comprehensive, complex biography that offers a rich foundation for future study of Levertov’s life and work.
Saikat Majumdar, Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire (Columbia)
Prose of the World deftly reveals the oppressive stratagems of boredom engendered by colonialists in order to aggrandize their own glamorous yearnings. With another turn of the screw, it reveals how the colonists themselves become “infected” by a deadly boredom. The book sparkles, though its central subject is the cultivation of “a form of negative aesthetic” in Anglophone fiction produced in the colonies. In essence, the book deftly undercuts our impulses to collapse modernisms of the metropolis and the periphery. Banality, almost anti-intuitively, becomes the impetus for narrative, a tactic deployed variously by Mansfield (New Zealand), Joyce (Ireland), Zoe Wicomb (South Africa) and Amit Chaudhuri (India). While Prose of the World focuses on these four figures, it calls forth an array of other writers, critics and theorists, making the book a spectacular adventure in literary criticism.
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture (Stanford)
Slow Print offers a rich, meticulously researched, clear, and thought-provoking trajectory of “long-modernism” in late-Victorian radical print culture. Victorian radicals seeking an alternative to the speed, scale, and capitalist commercialism of print found an alternative in “slow” print: small Victorian presses and private publications advocating revolutionary ideas. Gesturing diversely toward the “living” language of oral forms, socialist utopias, and the materiality of the book, Slow Print is at once lively, ambitious, wide-ranging, and tightly argued.Among Miller’s well-documented examples are William Morris’s publications in the Kelmscott Press and Commonweal; Shaw’s socialist dramas; socialist theosophist presses associated with Annie Besant and Edward Carpenter; and small presses offering “free print” on sex radicalism. A must-read for modernists and Victorians, this path-breaking study valuably elucidates a “constitutive moment” in late Victorianism behind the 20th-century little magazines, small presses, and publically censored novels.
2014 MSA Prize Committee:
Susan McCabe, USC (chair)
Cassandra Laity, Drew University
Marie Smart, Baylor University
2013 MSA Book Prize
The MSA is pleased to announce Jeremy Braddock's Collecting as Modernist Practice (Johns Hopkins University Press) as the winner of the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize.
Collecting as Modernist Practice is an elegantly written, thoughtfully argued, and captivating book. It places collecting at the center of modernist practice so convincingly that, as its account unfolds, it seems virtually self-evident that collectors such as Albert Barnes, editors such as Alfred Kreymborg, and patrons including John Quinn were crucial architects of modernism in all of its complexities.
The research for the book is admirably rigorous; one can sense throughout that Braddock carefully and thoroughly parsed the archives, collections, and anthologies about which he theorizes to generate his claims. He lays out his argument with such lucidity that the book serves as an enviable example of compellingly readable academic scholarship.
The book sheds valuable light onto issues related to transnationalism, materialism, race, and sexuality, demonstrating how these concepts inform the collecting practices that shaped modernism. Collecting as Modernist Practice is the first book published in the new Hopkins Studies in Modernism Series, and it signals a series off to an exceptional start.
The committee determined a short list from which to choose the winner, and those titles – any of which were worthy of the distinction conferred by the prize – were:
- Jeremy Braddock, Collecting as Modernist Practice (Johns Hopkins University Press)
- David Kurnick, Empty House: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton University Press)
- Lisa Siraganian, Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (Oxford University Press)
- Mark Wolleager with Matt Eatough (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (Oxford University Press)
MSA Prize Committee:
Mark Morrisson, Penn State University (Chair)
Thadious Davis, University of Pennsylvania
Paige Reynolds, College of the Holy Cross
2012 MSA Book Prize
The Modernist Studies Association awards its 2012 Book Prize to Christopher GoGwilt's The Passage of Literature: Genealogies of Modernism in Conrad, Rhys, and Pramoedya (Oxford UP).
The Passage of Literature is a brilliant, erudite analysis of the linguistic emergence of a socio-cultural modernism in a transoceanic context, with exemplary instances drawn from Joseph Conrad, Jean Rhys, and Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. We were as astonished to see how important this reconsideration is for Conrad and Rhys as we were persuaded of the crucial positioning of Pramoedya in and for this comparative context. Whereas other equally fascinating books considered for this award introduced us to more numerous arrays of less familiar writers and literary cultures, GoGwilt digs deeply into these three in order to enact a paradigm shift in modernist studies, turning attention from particular transatlantic or transpacific socio-cultural associations to a still broader and more carefully textured map of linguistically-based as well as cultural and literary affiliations around the globe. For GoGwilt, moreover, "literary and artistic modernism properly belongs within a history of decolonization." Rethinking the philological principles of such scholars as Erich Auerbach, Edward Said, and Raymond Williams, GoGwilt details a "post-colonial philology" that can better describe the imperatives shaping literary studies in the aftermath of decolonization. His extensive attention to language and text gives real heft to prior, more abstract efforts to see modernism in a "planetary" configuration. The book is an exemplary model for both classic and transnational modernist studies.
Anne Cheng's Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (Oxford UP)
The book is impeccably blurbed by such notable scholars as Brent Edwards, Kobena Mercer, and Kaja Silverman, who collectively suggest that Cheng is the new Fanon with her highly original account of race. With its iconic image of Baker overlaid with the emblematic skyscraper, that cover is indisputably modernist. And Cheng's prose is as seductive as its cover. Discussing painting, architecture, burlesque, striptease, and film, Cheng demonstrates how common understandings of certain aesthetic principles transferred themselves across disparate sites of aesthetic production, from Adolf Loos' architectural focus on surfaces to the much broader focus on Josephine Baker's skin itself. In Cheng's analysis, the phenomenon of Baker is modernism, with its "entwined crises of race, style, and subjecthood" (4). The fascination with surfaces and the generalized atmosphere of formalist aesthetics to which it testifies finds a fertile critical imagination here and expands not only what we know about modernism but how we can now think about it as well.
Ruth Hoberman's Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism (U of Virginia Press)
Hoberman develops a fascinating rereading of the emergence of Anglo-American modernism in the complex, yet deeply embedded context of its relations to museum knowledge and culture. Hoberman provides an excellent cultural historical approach to the contexts for modernist aesthetic production by anchoring arguments about taste and the relationship between aesthetic appreciation and morality in a demonstrable institutional history. The potential for this book to enhance current approaches to modernist material culture, directly through objects themselves, is remarkable and points towards an area of scholarship that has yet to achieve its full impact in modernist studies.
Andrew Jones's Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture (Harvard U P)
This book is a pathbreaking discussion of the emergence of Chinese modernism from Anglo-turn-of-the-century models of social development. As thoroughly in command of the current, most compelling thinking on modernism as it is on late Victorian texts, this book is likely to become one of the leading studies of modernism as a global phenomenon. Developmental Fairy Tales accomplishes several difficult tasks at once: it introduces new readers to Chinese modernist writing, establishes the intellectual context in which it emerged, and makes a strong critical argument about the role played by theories of childhood and the didactic text in the advent of modernist aesthetics. This book is sure to become an important point of reference for scholars interested in the trans-cultural movement of modernist ideas and in particular the development of modernism in non-Western contexts.
Annalisa Zox-Weaver. Zox-Weaver's Women Modernists and Fascism (Cambridge UP)
Women Modernists is a sophisticated, eye-opening, and unique work dealing with a number of currently highly visible issues in modernist studies. This excellent interdisciplinary study recovers the fascinating and critical role played by public women intellectuals and artists in imagining and documenting Hitler, from Gertrude Stein and documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and to journalist Janet Flanner and photographer Lee Miller, while simultaneously tracking the Nazi leader's rise and fall. Forging an unexpected link between apparently disparate constituencies -- women writers and fascism – and disparate genres, Zox-Weaver contributes to the reassessment of fascism's truly central place in Anglo-American modernism. Her readings, drawing on substantial archival materials, are illuminating, and her overall approach a refreshing re-take on the relationship between modernism and fascism that has, at times, threatened to become a caricature, bringing the caricature back into the realm of life, and restores much of its complexity and ambiguity.
MSA Prize Committee:
Pamela Caughie, Loyola University, Chicago (Chair)
Holly Laird, The University of Tulsa
Stephen Ross, The University of Victoria
2011 MSA Book Prize
The Modernist Studies Association awards its 2011 Book Prize to Michael Rubenstein's, Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial (Notre Dame)
According to Michael Rubenstein, “Irish modernism was largely a literary engagement with the problem of how to forge an Irish modernity after colonialism.” How he goes about supporting this claim—by uncovering Irish modernism’s obsession with public utilities—is as audacious, stunning, and ultimately convincing as the claim itself. In Public Works, Rubenstein comes at this infrastructural unconscious from two directions: elegant close readings of key works by Joyce, Flann O’Brien, and Denis Johnston; and meticulous material history that turns lampposts, sewers, and other quotidian furniture of modernization into exemplars of a colonial process of modernization—a process about which the Irish had every right to be skeptical. This skepticism plays out within each author’s works, and across them, too. While O’Brien’s The Third Policeman pits tradition and Celtic revivalism against the “new dependencies” that electrification exacts from the unsuspecting populace, Joyce’s Ulysses, which Rubenstein recasts, brilliantly, as a “postcolonial comedy of development,” envisions waterworks and other utilities of circulation as harbingers of an independent Ireland: an Ireland possessing the ability to engineer itself via infrastructural control, thus solving “the problem of the Irish underdeveloped identity.” What makes this book especially remarkable is Rubenstein’s recuperation of infrastructure as a technology of citizenship in general—a mechanism for post-colonial self-definition well beyond Ireland and its era of development—and as an everyday vehicle of utopian thought.
Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (Columbia)
“The romantic,” wrote Henry James of his early novel The American, stands for “the things that reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire.” For Mark Goble, in turn, the “beautiful circuit” stands for mediation, in its incarnation as a central concern of modernist literature and art. Living (and writing) in and through this beautiful circuit means reveling in the materiality of a medium, refusing the illusion of immediacy its conventional uses may offer, and confronting the new media of the electrical age as technologies that, like fiction and poetry before them, transform desire as much as they communicate it. Goble’s magisterial book traces an alternative history of American modernism in which its aesthetic goal, anticipating the critical goals of an Adorno or a Greenberg, is to explore the circuitous and pariphrastic natures of technological media in order to articulate desire in its thoroughly modern, mediatized forms. These brilliant readings of James, Gertrude Stein, James Weldon Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ralph Ellison, and James Agee—among others—reinvigorate our sense of American modernism as an unfinished project, one that has even now only begun to express how “technology itself gives shape and character to experiences of sexuality, racial identity, class, and history, each of which in turn expresses something of what it means to love the media of modernity…and even, at times, to wonder if they love us back.”
Short List (in alphabetical order):
Maud Ellmann, The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud (Cambridge)
Rubén Gallo, Freud's Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis (MIT)
Matthew Hart, Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing (Oxford)
Alison Syme, A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-Siecle Art (Penn State)
MSA Prize Committee:
Paul Young, Vanderbilt University (Chair)
Enda Duffy, University of California, Santa Barbara
Justus Nieland, Michigan State University
2010 MSA Book Prize
The Modernist Studies Association co-awards its 2010 Book Prize to Enda Duffy's The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism and Eric Hayot's The Hypothetical Mandarin.
Enda Duffy's daring and inventive work matches exquisite readings of literature, film, and advertisements to a sophisticated theory of space that seeks to redraw the limits of modernist studies. Modernism, Duffy brilliantly argues, emerges when the globe itself becomes fully mapped and thus space itself made suddenly finite and exhaustible. In this historical moment, exploration gives way to speed and thus arrives a new array of pleasures ranging from the adrenaline rush through the blurred landscape to the catastrophic crash. From these intense experiences, The Speed Handbook extracts a radically expanded concept of modernism oriented less around space as such than around our movement through it. Speed thus "is not only a pleasure that has a politics; speed, it turns out, is politics: the expression of a new order of the organization of global space." This insight opens unexpected yet compelling connections between James Joyce, J.G. Ballard, Ralph Nader, and Henry Ford, all of whom are woven together in this broad-reaching study. The MSA Book Prize Committee commends this book for its critical acumen, its daring sweep, and its insistence on the continuing urgency of modernism as a cultural, political, and aesthetic project.
"What is the relative worth to you of harm done to a Chinese stranger?" Eric Hayot's brilliant and wide-ranging monograph The Hypothetical Mandarin sees Adam Smith's thought experiment about conscience as the starting point for "a crucial figure of European thought over the last two centuries"--a telling point of historical and ideological condensation for the discourse of sympathy, and a constitutive element of a Western modernity that defines the concept of the human in relation to the seemingly arbitrary Chinese example. By tracing the history of this relation, weaving together a remarkable array of textual and visual materials, Hayot remaps modernity--not by reversing center and periphery, but by abandoning those models for one that is reciprocal and relational. In the process, self-reflexively examining the use of the example as an explanatory tool, he mounts a wry and bracing intervention into historical/critical discourse. With inventiveness, daring, rigor and brio, The Hypothetical Mandarin expands our very notion of the purview of modernist studies. For this reason, we are delighted to name this book the winner of the 2010 Modernist Studies Association Book Prize.
Short List (in alphabetical order):
Giorgio Bertellini’s Italy in Early American Cinema is remarkable for the range of its materials, the scope of its ambition, and the fluency with which it moves between film and photographic images, aesthetic histories, and cultural contexts.
Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity undertakes a remarkable project: a history of black dandyism in the Atlantic diaspora that accounts for the ways and effects with which Black subjects employed elements of style to define collective identity in varied and changing contexts.
MSA Prize Committee:
Sean Latham, The University of Tulsa (Chair)
Sara Blair, University of Michigan
Debra Rae Cohen, University of South Carolina
2009 MSA Book Prize
William Chapman Sharpe, New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography (Princeton University Press)
William Sharpe states that the “first dark glimmer” inspiring his book came while looking at one of James McNeill Whistlers’ “Nocturnes.” But to paraphrase Djuna Barnes, who provides the epigraph to the book, “The nights of one city are not the nights of another.” Sharpe’s New York Nocturne is a masterful story of this most extravagantly glittering of night-time cityscapes as portrayed by writers and artists across the late 19th and 20th centuries, a city that appears less and less like one of Whistler’s “moonlights,” but instead, as Le Corbusier described it, “a Milky Way
come down to earth.” We have long been accustomed to thinking of art as bringing
light to the world: considering that proposition from the other side, this book offers
a stimulating account of the dynamic relations among technology and painting, photography and literature.
Ron Schuchard, The Last Minstrel: Yeats & The Revival of the Bardic Arts (Oxford UP)
Short List (in alphabetical order):
Dianne Sachko MacLeod, Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects: American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture 1800-1940 (Univ. of Cal Press)
Dana Seitler, Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity (Minnesota Univ. Press)
Lesley Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell Univ. Press)
MSA Prize Committee:
Michael Coyle, Colgate University (Chair)
John Xiros Cooper, University of British Columbia
Deborah Longworth, University of Birmingham
2008 MSA Book Prize
The 2008 MSA book prize was awarded to volumes 1 and 2 of modernism(John Benjamins Publishing Co, 2007), edited by Astradur Eysteinsson and Vivian Liska, a project first set in motion in the 1980s. The editors explain in their introduction that, between the time the book was first proposed to the International Comparative Literature Association and the time they undertook the work again, the developments in modernist studies required them to reconceptualise the intent and scope of the volumes. One of those developments, as they point out, was the founding 10 years ago of the Modernist Studies Association, the first conference of which was titled-daringly-the New Modernisms. It is a happy coincidence, though not an accident, that MSA’s 10th anniversary and the appearance of these volumes should dovetail in this way.
The ambition of the editors is to capture, in their words, “the ways modernism is viewed at the beginning of the twentieth-century.” Thus the essays collected in Volume 1 range over approaches via critical theory, technology and science, time and space, mind and body, and literature and the other arts. Volume 2 considers social and political parameters (such as racial politics and ecological criticism) and concepts of the sacred, of popular culture, and of diaspora and exile. The volume concludes with a section entitled ‘case studies’ that considers the modernisms of Brazil, Australia, Catalonia, France, Spain, Russia, Italy, Greece, and the Nordic countries.
This monumental project is, in significant and heartening ways, a physical manifestation of the aspirations of the MSA-to consider modernisms as an international and interdisciplinary phenomenon.
MSA Prize Committee:
Gail McDonald (Chair)
2007 MSA Book Prize
The winner of the 2007 MSA Book Prize is, among other things, the volume that out of our fifty entrants was the most innovative in its own form. At base, this book is a collection of essays; but it’s a collection taking an unusual shape, having unusually high ambitions, and succeeding unusually well in achieving its goals. Crowds (Stanford University Press, 2006), edited by Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Tiews, aims to survey the idea of the crowd across history and geography, not with the goal of being exhaustive, precisely, but with the idea of being as wide-ranging as possible. Thus we have essays on the myth of the “Populus Romanus,” on the crowd during the French Revolution, on masses and number in China, on modernist-era magazine representations of crowds, on mid-century sociology and the lonely crowd, on mentalities of the market, and on many other topics.
But there’s much more to Crowds than breadth. For one thing, the contributions are of an exceptionally high caliber–subtle, penetrating, sometimes funny, always informative. And the contributions don’t only take the form of long essays on historical subjects; at the margins (literally) we get etymologies of crowd-related terms in English, French, Hungarian, Chinese, Sanskrit, and many other languages; and we get personal recollections of being part of certain crowds, including the crowd at Altamont Speedway on 6 December 1969, the crowd at a Dyke March, the crowd at a Barney’s Warehouse Sale. The volume is also replete with illustrations, sometimes happily given double-page spreads; and its part of a larger project that also includes art exhibits and an extraordinarily rich and fascinating web site. For its innovation, for its information, for its excitement–but above all for its sheer quality as a literary-historical inquiry into one of the great themes, one of the propelling subjects and formative conditions, of many modernisms–we on the committee are proud to award this year’s prize to the contributors to and editors of Crowds.MSA Prize Committee:
Doug Mao (Chair)
2006 MSA Book Prize
The Book Prize Committee is delighted to speak publicly of the virtues of Victoria Rosner's Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (Columbia University Press, 2004), even as the book aligns itself with the scaffolding of privacy. Addressing scholarly exchanges within Bloomsbury studies and modernism, as well as the recent move to phenomenology and space studies that has complicated the dialectic between public and private, the urban street and the domestic interior, Rosner gets a lot done in this carefully crafted book.
It is a rare thing to be seduced by a table of contents, but the orchestration of chapters beginning with "Kitchen Table Modernism," and on through "Frames," "Thresholds," "Studies," and "Interiors" gives some sense of Rosner's critical imagination. Exquisitely balanced between the particular and the general, and written throughout with critical grace and acuity, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life speaks with equal aplomb of dirty laundry and domestic libraries. In one chapter, for instance, she moves with agility from a fifteen-century account of European interiors dedicated to reading and writing to the important shift in the eighteenth century from the figure of the reader qua solitary male to that of the “secular and gregarious woman”-and on through Arthur Conan Doyle, Radclyff Hall, and A Room of One's Own: from, as Rosner memorably puts it, the closet to the study.
Most stunning is the connection Rosner forges between interiority as a space and interiority as a concept, or the intertwining of psychological and architectural tropes of selfhood. Exploring modernism in this way as both a spatial and temporal phenomenon, she intervenes in long-running conversations, with architecture providing the most accurate lens by which to read not only earlier debates in, say, Lessing and Wilhelm Worringer, but current ones in the work of Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Grosz. Rosner's book will change modernists, even as it speaks to other voices in other rooms.
Michael North's Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word is a sweeping, powerful study that shows how new technologies of representation, especially photography, changed fundamentally the production of visual and verbal art in the early twentieth century. Grounding his analysis in material histories of photography and film, North has produced a transformative account of relations between the word and the image in twentieth-century literature and the definitive account to date of the influence of new media on modernism. Lucidly and with commanding detail, his book provides a compelling account of European and American responses to mechanical recording and offers fresh readings of several American novelists, whose encounters with mechanical reproduction become vivid, and in some cases visible for the first time, thanks to North's exhaustive archival work.
The rich mix of materials in Camera Works is extraordinary. Not only does it uncover the significance of photography to the work of a stunning range of familiar artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso; it also brings attention to under-read figures such as John Dos Passos and forgotten makers such as Robert Carlton Brown - one-time hack writer and author of The Complete Book of Cheese and Let There Be Beer - whose "readies" in the early thirties in effect try to invent the e-book by putting words into motion through a spool-driven machine. Equally compelling is North's chapter on international modernism's struggle with sound, which shows how the arrival of sound in cinema disrupted film's avant-garde aspiration to provide "a universal language of visual forms"; the resulting crisis provoked controversy about the nature of "new sign systems and their relation to the modern audience." Ultimately, North corrects longstanding misconceptions about modernism's supposed resistance to technological modernity by demonstrating the breadth and depth of its interest in new media of all kinds, and how this interest inspired literature and art to become modern in their turn.
Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, And The Modern Nation, 1929-1939 (Refiguring Modernism) by Jordana Mendelson
Subterranean Cities: The World Beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945, by David L. Pike.
Mark Wollaeger (Chair)
2005 MSA Book Prize
At the 2005 MSA Conference in Chicago, the first annual MSA Book Prize was awarded to Michael Leja for Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (University of California Press, 2004). In awarding the prize, the prize committee wrote:
Looking Askance opens up new territory in modernist studies by shifting the focus from artists to audiences and relocating modernism in everyday practices in and about early twentieth-century New York. Challenging assumptions that separate high art from the populace, Michael Leja forges connections from the ground up: as ordinary life itself becomes modernist, so ordinary people start to see art as relevant to the challenges of modern life.
This brilliantly pluralistic study will resonate with a broad spectrum of multidisciplinary interests. Tracking the way questions about the nature of seeing inform self-constructions of the modern subject, Leja moves flexibly through a wide range of surprisingly diverse materials, linking spirit photography, world fairs, circuses, automatic drawing, realist painting, and Marcel Duchamp. In true skeptical fashion, Leja trains his eye on the ambiguities of his materials, refusing to let them settle into either a celebratory or a cynical narrative. Opposites are revealed as similar (P. T. Barnum’s humbug and George Washington’s truth-telling both play on the motif of deception), while humbugs manifest difference (a radical fear of dishonesty versus a source of delight). The final illuminating shift in this complex study is thus from the modern need to negotiate multiple and layered realities to the manifold optical lenses of Leja’s own kaleidoscopic approach.MSA Prize Committee:
Kevin Dettmar (Chair)