goto Appendx main menu "So much is there . . .
and so much . . .
is lacking" : Eric Rosenberg
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Van Rensselaer can see herself implicated in the directions of the field of architectural history and the directions of the field implicated in her engagement with it. She only arrives at such a point of comprehension, however, through confused and circuitous modes of asserting power and recognizing its denigration by institutional controls and systems of dominance to which she has access only by writing and in that form only as theory, or perhaps, if not that, fantasy. Unfortunately, she admits, it is not enough. Beyond this terrain is the world of material engagement with the object of writing (what is being written), bodily traversal of the spaces of history. That is only available to the gaze and the gait of the male 

It is symptomatic of the moment that one of the most ambitious practitioners of a particular historical and critical discourse should have to clothe her ambitions in a language of either failure or identity sublimation, both conceived a priori.6  Inability to bring to fruition well-articulated aspirations and assumptions about one's practice suggests that belief in the adequacy of a woman's discourse on the arts at this time must be countered by a self-reflexive claim for that belief as hedged and incomplete; born of resistance, recalcitrance, and expectation of failure. 

As a result, the guise van Rensselaer describes as necessary to the practice of architectural history is the very 

    point of view of 'detached sympathy,' I have more than once heard it
    said . . . characteristic of the intelligent American when on his foreign travels, and this is just the point of view desirable for the task in question. 
    Appendx 3 page break 107 | 108
It is "detached sympathy" that van Rensselaer dons when throwing "seed into what I cannot but believe is good ground." After all, she is forced to admit that the concept itself is found in the space of her "other": she has "more than once heard it said"; it is not an idea that originated with her. Short of becoming a man, or being allowed by the social customs and institutions that bound her work to perform a man's labor, "detached sympathy"—a term that today might sound hopeful, but in 1886 must have been an insidious form of utopianism making necessary, and made necessary by, the subjugation of identity—will have to do. The sense of forlorn, unrequited ambition that fuels the description of such conditions of critical practice provides the account with an underlying temper of frustration and resignation. It is as if the writer understands that a moment will pass and with it her own material opportunity to fulfill the demands of her profession. 

Van Rensselaer understands, however, that her frustration is not simply the product of seeing others grab the opportunities denied her by the parameters of class and gender.7  Whether opportunistically or not, she would have the reader, that agent imagined as privileged, understand that personal and social reorganization of the ideological beliefs that bar her progress are the difficult tasks necessary to the exposure of the inadequacies of the traditional, dominant modes of historical inquiry and the prerequisites for the writer's retrieval of power. 

Furthermore, doing the arduous work of identity reconfiguration and reformation required of proper critical history is determined by the failings of the accounts that result when such manipulations are avoided: 

    How innumerable are the cases where partisanship becomes more pronounced, where special pleading almost or quite degenerates into willful shutting of the eyes and "cooking" of the statement. 
To signify the failure of representation in her own field, van Rensselaer rehearses terminology common in her moment to the criticism of innovative painting in America, painting that smacked of the illegible or the impossible, the irrational, the inchoate. For example, Turner's Slave Ship, in America since 1872, was often seen as having been the result of shutting one's eyes to reality: the painter ignored the reality of the life on the sea that he purported to represent, and in turn the viewer had to close his eyes to the painting, which was "viewable" only if one was able to see it in the imagination, as something other than itself.8   Moreover, these same painters were frequently accused by American critics of cooking their paintings to gain the antirepresentational Appendx 3 page break 108 | 109 quality of surface that was their signature. If in fact van Rensselaer's usage seems closer to the notion of "cooking the books" (that is, distorting the records to achieve desired results), this is not so far from what critics had in mind when referring to cooked paintings, objects that required a type of doctoring to resist their access to illusionism or perhaps realism. Finally, the argument for "innumerable. . .cases [of] partisanship" sounds like the condemnation of iteration, of monotony of method, in the painting of a George Fuller or a J. Frank Currier or an Albert Pinkham Ryder, all figures very close to van Rensselaer's interests at this time. She was after all a critic and historian of painting and etching before architecture and had occasion to write about all of these figures.9 

Van Rensselaer recognizes quite rightly the polemical character of such painting, noting affinities between the quality of its critical language and the practice that presently engages and vexes her. But her sympathies are also apparent and the necessity and unavoidability of polemic and partisan interpretation are by no means lost on her: 

    Of course prejudice and partiality—I use the words in no invidious sense, but merely as expressing natural traits which from one point of view are respectable, even laudable—are to be found and must be allowed for in historical writings of every kind. But it seems to me that only in theological kinds and perhaps in those which deal with music, are they so sure to appear to be so pronounced in accent. Nowhere may we more truly say:  

    "History is never written;—at the best  
    A fragmentary truth is half-confessed,  
    And quick denial follows."  
    [van Rensselaer's format]  

    Political histories on the one hand and histories of painting and of sculpture on the other, have often been so written that we may put our trust in them without the risk of finding our beliefs radically modified or wholly overset by the next treatise we may read in some other tongue. But such a history covering the whole field of the builder's art yet remains unpenned. 

Van Rensselaer's expectations, her profession of experience transmitted by knowledge of the world's historical texts, lead her to a moment of virtual faith in a deconstructive, Appendx 3 page break 109 | 110 historicist vantage point that cannot help but be understood as in part the result of her comprehension of the limitations she faces in practicing her craft. She tries to make a case for the avoidance of such fragmentation and the incompleteness of what passes for truth in certain histories—ironically, painting and politics. Thus perhaps the previous access of the language of painting criticism, worthy of transfer from a unified narrative to an imperfect one. 

In the end, however, overriding belief in the lack of a totalizing and essentialist historical character stands out and is made indelible by the subsequent assertion for the job of architectural history: 

    That great art in which the practical and the aesthetic meet and blend together, in which so much of a nation's outer and inner history is expressed, and excellence in which implies the existence of so many varied qualities in high development. 
To fail to offer an adequate unified history of so important a cultural practice and sign of nation and person as architectural history is to virtually declare the failure of the endeavor to yield anything resembling the complete or essential and the failure of the writer to attain, short of complete persona disfiguration, any level of identity through writing resembling the essential. Van Rensselaer describes a chasm, in other words, between her notion of historical truth and that upon which the profession has been dependent for unity and direction, ideological security. 

With so much at stake—the health of a nation—van Rensselaer's instinct for a revised notion of historical practice is expansive and inclusive rather than reductive and dogmatic. Her concern is for: 

    The scheme . . . the right scheme which a book of the kind should be built upon, the scheme which so seldom is found even when the conditions of production seem to have been much more favorable to its existence. I mean by this a scheme which bases itself on general history and not on mere visible facts of stone and mortar—a scheme which makes nations of men and not merely guilds of architects the creators of the architecture of the world. 
The author's terms denote a specific theory or philosophy of history, one resembling what we might today call social history, even perhaps Marxism, and thus its availbility  Appendx 3 page break 110 | 111 in the late nineteenth century. Terms like conditions of production or general history or nations of men or architecture of the world as opposed to "mere visible facts of stone and mortar" suggest an interest in complex networks of association contextualized beyond the mere boundaries of professional specialization or, more important, purely formal considerations. Van Rensselaer is clearly cognizant of, or on the lookout for, signs of struggle, contingency, subjugation, and contradiction, as well as unity, harmony, and dominance. next page 
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