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Linda Nochlin: Right now I am teaching a seminar that I call for short "Misere," and it's about the radical change in the representation of misery, poverty, and deprivation after the Industrial Revolution. It's not just one long continuous flow of representations of beggars from the fifteenth century but I use, quite arbitrarily in some ways, Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 as a point of focus. This is a remarkably detailed and objective account of the terrible conditions of the workers of Manchester at the time. In approaching Engels's work, I followed Steven Marcus's extremely interesting and fruitful analysis of the difficulties involved in finding or constructing a language to deal with the new phenomenon that was Manchester in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. (2) Poverty took a quite different cast here, which had to do with the destruction of traditions and privileges. People like Alexis de Tocqueville came to Manchester, which seemed to be the most modern city of the world with its mills and its slums and its lack of traditional coherence. Visitors couldn't find a proper language to evoke what they were experiencing, and the same was true with the visual arts.
Last term 1 taught a class on aspects of the representation of misery in the visual arts in the nineteenth centurv, and this term we're doing what we call Misery 2 [laughs] --it's awful really. This has more to do with the evolution of documentary photography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, the FSA photographers, Depression photography, and, later on, the so-called global poverty photography. The later course also includes a section that might be called "misery strikes back." This would include the organization of the poor to create pageants and protests--the pictorial journals like L'WssieUe an Beiirre in France or the Masses in the United States that took up the causes of the downtrodden. The focus in the earlier course, though, was by no means on painting, but on the graphic arts, popular illustration, photography, caricature, etcetera.
Karlholm: This seems very well grounded in your previous work, of course. Have vou also started writing about it?
Nochlin: Well, I have written parts of it. I gave a lecture at the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, on certain aspects of the representation of misery in the nineteenth centurv, and 1 have published a chapter in the catalog of a show curated by Klaus Herding in Frankfurt called Courbet:.4 Dream of Modern Art. (3) I offered an analysis of the Irish beggar woman with her baby in Gustave Courbefs Studio showing that Courbet is the original modern painter of misere. He was very conscious of it as a subject in a whole series of paintings, including The Stone Breakers, which of course he himself identified as a painting of misere.
Karlholm: Is there perhaps something in the twenty-first century that inspires you to conduct this kind of work?
Nochlin: Of course. The recent economic disaster that continues in the United States and most of the Western world; the fact that such a large percentage of the population is out of work; statistics revealing that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer--I could go on. It's not that such economic injustice hasn't existed all along, but we're in a period, I think, when there is at least some consciousness of the fact that people are living on the edge, that people have lost their jobs, etcetera. The Industrial Revolution involved the uprooting of whole populations. The Irish potato famine was just a startling example of a specific economic, and human, disaster in 1848, when a whole population was decimated. They set sail for the New World, and a lot of people came to this country, partly because of the revolution in the 1840s, but partly because they were kicked off their land and there was no employment for them. And, you know, we have so-called safety nets and so on, but I don't know how people are really doing now. Soup kitchens are operating and various charitable organizations, but things don't look good around the world economically, so that is part of what got me interested.
The other stimulus for the investigation of misery as a topic was, in part, writing the piece on Courbet's beggar woman for Klaus's catalog, but there was a third impulse, and that was a very interesting show that took place in Paris two summers ago about an artist called Fernand Pclez, who was a specialist in the representation of misery and an extraordinary painter; Bob Rosenblurri had spotted him years ago, when he wrote about one of Pelcz's paintings as a source for Georges Seurat's much better known La parade. Pelez. created a whole series, work after work, featuring different levels and different types of poverty and disaffection, different activities of the down-and-out. Of course, there is a considerable difference between displaying the respectable working poor and the kind of misere that I am interested in, the representation of which involves the abjection and alienation of the people involved, who are looked on often as another species, the Other, in short. The hopelessly poor were often confined in poor farms under dreadful circumstances. At the furthest extreme, laws were passed in certain parts of this country-forbidding the down-and-out from exhibiting their disabilities in public: they had to hide their rags or scabs or stumps outside of town, because it was too upsetting to solid citizens and dragged down the town's reputation. Susan Schweik discusses this in a recent book called The Ugly Laws. (4) li is interesting and difficult: When does a photograph become sentimental? 1 am talking yen much about pictorial structures, audience viewpoints, and so on. That's what 1 am mainly working on right now, where my passion is and this will probably be niv last book. And in the meantime, next Year, 1 will be teaching a course on dance and art. which 1 have done before--dance is one of my major passions--and a class on Edouard Manet, another passion.
Karlholm: I would like lo switch now to something more personal, concerning vour own background. Yesterday, my cab driver informed me that people from Brooklyn are very self-confident., very assertive. They say what they like, even lo live poinl of being rude. That's how honest they are.
Nochlin: Oh, yes, there is the old Brooklyn cliche about being rude and assertive, but ol course it depends on what class von come from and when. I came from the comfortable Jewish upper middle class. I was born in Brooklyn in 1931. at the beginning of the Depression, and 1 lived in drown Heights, which is quire near the Brooklyn Museum, and I went there a lot. My parents, grandparents, and immediate family were c]nile prosperous during the Depression, though left-wing politically. I went to private school and summer camp. Mv grandparents had a place in Florida, thev had a boat and a country house, and we always had maids, vou know, but I knew other people who did not do as well during the 1930s. A lot of the photographs of the Depression are rural because the FSA sponsored representations of rural poverrv, but poverty engulfed the citv as well. It was a time of tension, not to peak of the fact that the Brooklyn that I came from was almost entirely Jewish, and the Nazis were already creating turmoil. Almost everyone I knew was politically left; the1 furthest rieht you could be was a Roosevelt liberal. There were Stalinists. Trotskvites, left-wing deviatioihsls, and a lot oI political discussion, and. of course, the Spanish Civil War was among the first events that 1 was aware of as a child, in 1936-37. I think the first headlines I managed to read had to do with the fall of Madrid. My relatives were active in organizing concerts for Spanish relief and the war effort (I still know all the Spanish Civil War songs). Mv uncle, who was at Harvard at the time, was veiy radical, and he was also an art history major at the Fogg. I still have his undergraduate thesis on the social history of art.
I was interested in art as long as I can remember. In our world, for mv family and a lot of mv friends, the arts and literature and culture in general were it, that's what life was really about. My grandparents had been immigrants, although mv grandmother was born here. Thev were immigrants in the 890s, and one grandfather was a doctor, the other was a ven prosperous businessman, and I was ven close to them.
Karlholm: Do you recall your first experience of art, or a first impression of something aesthetic?
Nochlin: Well, I can't, remember a time when I wasn't experiencing art. I went to the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School, which was a verv art-centered school. I was in a ----lass for talented children, and 1 drew and painted a lot. I remember I had a Picasso reproduc tion over my bed, a little girl from the Blue Period, a wonderful picture. And my grandfather was a friend of manv artists, so we had painters and sculptors visiting frequently.
Karlholm: So you had art and politics from the verv beginning; you didn't know much else of the world ...
Nochlin: I did know plenty. I read comic books, I listened to the radio, and I went to movies. There was populat ( ulture available all the lime. Music was very important to me. 1 liked Bach from the4 very beginning, and I still take piano lessons and plav Bach. Folk music was another passion: 1 collected Library of Congress records and spent hours learning them by heart.
Karlholm: Oh, do you still paint or draw, too?
Nochlin: No, I dabble some ... but I write poetrv. I always liked poetry.
Karlholm: Will you publish anything more in terms of poetry, do your think?
Nochlin: Well, I don't know, maybe.
Karlholm: In your dissertation you acknowledge Agnes Claflin as your first mentor. Could vou say something more …