Reading List Thoughts: Art and Classification

The last time I visited New York, I spent an afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History. While probably most famous for its naturalistic, taxidermied dioramas, the museum also has an extensive section on the classification system used to organize biological organisms: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. This system is rendered visually through elegant displays of preserved animals, with lines of crabs or lobsters illustrating shared relations and differences. I took a picture of the display because I liked it so much.

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I’ve been looking at this picture more often recently. When I’m looking at the arrangements in this image and the affinities they share with natural history illustrations, I think about the work they were doing as installations. Yes, they’re teaching you about different biological taxonomies, but they’re also making that taxonomy appear normal, as the default means of understanding the world. Using preserved specimens as their primary medium, they elegantly naturalize what is, in actuality, a framework that humans devised in an attempt to better understand the world around them. Yet for every placement the museum made to establish a relationship between specimens, another connection was omitted.

What insights would an alternative means of organization tell us, and what would be left out through that conversation?

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been thinking about recently, thanks to my first reading list for comprehensive exams. This list is all about infrastructure and other systems that don’t get a lot of attention but play a critical role in our daily lives. The first book I read, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, tackles questions like the ones above by asking why phone books, medical forms, and other technical, arguably boring texts present information the way they do.

What particularly intrigues scholars focused on classification and infrastructure are the examples that don’t fit into so-called standard systems. To take one relatively benign example, consider the medical form you’re asked to fill out when you visit a new doctor. They usually ask for your home address, your phone number, and your relationship status, among other things. Questions like these treat having a permanent home, and by extension sedentarism, as the norm, but what if you don’t have a permanent phone number or address? In a society such as ours, not having a home is considered aberrant. Such a distinction may seem harmless enough on a medical form, but imagine how such an attitude plays out in public policy, with cities criminalizing homelessness, for instance. Regardless of how you personally feel about homelessness or other issues, my point here is that classification shapes how we perceive the world. If you don’t fit into the established taxonomic framework, life can be more complicated.

But what does classification have to do with art? Everything, because not all objects receive the art label, and when they do, their status changes in the public sphere. Some works, like paintings and sculpture, have been regarded as art for at least a few centuries, but what especially interests me are objects that have only recently been reclassified as art objects. Some books on my reading list, like Jennifer Marshall’s Machine Art, 1934 or Christopher Steiner’s African Art in Transit, examine how objects get redesignated as art, whether it’s through a literal and economic relocation to an art market, as Steiner argues in his book, or as Marshall explores, through an exhibition installation that separates industrial objects from their original function and re-presents them as aesthetic ideals. In both instances, the objects undergo a transformative reclassification that manifests through exhibition practices, markets, and consumerism revolving around aesthetics and a sense of rootedness to a specific cultural tradition.

So what does this have to do with my research? It connects to my interest in the Community Art Center Project’s exhibition program. One of the underpinning questions for my dissertation is what kinds of objects were included in the exhibition program, and what kinds of works were left out. Since this initiative’s goal was to educate audiences in art appreciation, determining what they classified as art is an important step in illuminating this program’s significance on the American cultural landscape.

Looking into the main gallery at the Roswell Museum, 1938. The exhibition on view here included a selection of plates from the Index of American Design.

The answer to that question will likely be complicated. As the archive at the Roswell Museum indicates, the traveling exhibits included a lot of what would conventionally be considered art, such as paintings or prints, but it also included examples of what we would call vernacular or folk art, such as the objects rendered in the Index of American Design. But as scholars have rightly pointed out, the Index had a primarily Eurocentric focus in its selection of vernacular traditions. While the Index staff argued that indigenous traditions were already being documented in ethnography-based projects, that distinction in label is a crucial one whose repercussions continue to be experienced today. Where, for example, should indigenous objects be housed? Do they belong in natural history museums (that name alone deserves its own post) or art museums? Should they even be in museums at all, given their colonialist affiliations and histories?

These are the kinds of questions that reading about classification can raise, and why I thought it was important to consider them for my reading lists. When you take your infrastructure for granted, it’s easy to perceive the world order as we know it as the norm. But as Sorting Things Out and other books argue, it doesn’t have to be.

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